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Holborn Viaduct: The history of London’s first flyover with a royal seal of approval

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Holborn Viaduct links Holborn to the City of London

One of the upper entrances to the step buildings

Linking the City of London and Holborn is a rather ornate road bridge. While other bridges in the capital attract a lot more attention due to their location and viewpoints, the Holborn Viaduct isn’t such a familiar sight to many Londoners. The bridge dates back to the Victorian era when London’s road and sewage system were given a massive overhaul. Built between 1867-69, it spans the valley of the River Fleet, which now exists underground and flows out into the River Thames by Blackfriars Bridge, a short distance south. It connects the steep hill of Holborn (the actual road) and Newgate Street, crossing Farringdon Street below, which follows the trail of the Fleet. It was designed by architect and engineer William Haywood (1821–1894) to improve access to nearby Smithfield Market and the City in general. Haywood had worked closely with Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1818-1891) on improving London’s sewer works in the 1860s, including the creation of pumping stations, like Crossness. Before construction began, city authorities agreed to demolish a series of old streets and buildings by the Fleet Valley, with the owners being financially compensated for the loss of their homes. The plans also meant destruction of St Andrew Holborn’s north churchyard, leading to an estimated 11,000-12,000 remains being reinterred elsewhere.

Holborn Viaduct is 1,400ft long, 80ft wide and made of cast iron. It covers three spans and is supported on granite piers. When it was completed, it became the first flyover in central London. Along the bridge are bronze statues, winged lions and replica Victorian-style globe lamps. The female statues represent Agriculture, Commerce, the Fine Arts and Science. Henry Bursill (1833-1871) sculpted Commerce and Agriculture on the south side, while Science and Fine Art on the north side are by the sculpture firm Farmer & Brindley.

Holborn Viaduct © Illustrated London News. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The royal procession under the Holborn Viaduct in 1869 from the Illustrated London News

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The Holborn Viaduct was designed to span the valley of the River Fleet, which is now covered over by Farringdon Road

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The Viaduct was opened by Queen Victoria in 1869

Two step buildings were erected either end of the viaduct, with steps on both north and south sides allowing pedestrians to move between the upper and lower street levels. The upper storeys now contain offices and have ornate details, including more Bursill sculptures and wrought iron balconies. Each of the four buildings feature a statue of famous Medieval Londoners on the façade: merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579); engineer Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631); and London mayors Sir William Walworth (d.1385) and Henry Fitz Ailwin (1135-1212). Gresham founded the Royal Exchange in the City, while Sir Hugh headed the construction of the New River to bring clean water into London. Meanwhile, Alwin was the first ever Mayor of London and Sir William is particularly notorious for killing Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt. Read the rest of this entry

A bit of bling amongst the green: The glistening Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens

The history of this glittering gold monument opposite the Royal Albert Hall.

Albert Memorial © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

The Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens stands as a monument to a prince by his devastated queen

Albert Memorial © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

A gilt bronze statue of Prince Albert seated while holding a catalogue of the Great Exhibition

Of all our monarchs over the past 1,000 years, Queen Victoria is one of Britain’s most famous and iconic. During her reign of 63 years, the country was in the middle of a great change due to the Industrial Revolution. Although she was only 18 when she became Queen following the death of her uncle William IV, many of us picture her as an elderly widow dressed in black. Of course, the reason for her black clothes was her decades of deep mourning for her late consort, Prince Albert, who died at the age of 42.

Following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, his grieving wife ordered his legacy to be enshrined both in Britain and across the Empire. The novelist Charles Dickens actually commented to his friend John Leech in a letter: ‘If you should meet an accessible cave anywhere in the neighbourhood, to which a hermit could retire from the memory of Prince Albert and testimonials to the same, pray let me know it.’ This is where we come to the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall – a Taj Mahal of sorts from the Queen. Us Brits aren’t known for flashy, gold monuments, so tourists may well find it a surprise to see the glimmering Albert Memorial standing in Kensington Gardens.

Ahead of the Royal Albert Hall’s existence, Albert had proposed an entertainment venue on the site following the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. However, he died before work began, with the Queen deciding the venue should be titled the Royal Albert Hall, instead of the earlier, rather boring title Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, after laying the foundation stone.

Albert Memorial close up © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Golden canopy: A mosaic of an allegorical figure representing the art of architecture

Albert Memorial © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

The allegorical sculptures of the Americas (right) – on a bison – and Africa (left) – on a camel

Albert Memorial © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Costly: The Albert Memorial finally opened in 1872 at an estimated cost of £120,000

However, the Albert Memorial was always part of the plan following the Prince’s death. In 1862, the Lord Mayor at the time headed a committee to find a suitable design for a public lasting memorial, which had to include a statue of the Prince, under the Queen’s orders. Eventually, noted Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott submitted the winning design – which demonstrated the Prince’s passions for the arts and sciences.

After much delays – some due to the rising public costs – the 176 foot tall Albert Memorial was officially opened by the Queen in 1872, although Albert’s statue wasn’t ‘seated’ until three years later. Construction cost around £120,000, equivalent to £10million in today’s money.

Rather unusually for the period, the statue of Prince Albert – made of gilt bronze – was seated, rather than standing. In one of his hands is a catalogue of the Great Exhibition, which had been organised by the Prince. Above the statue, is a Gothic canopy featuring mosaics depicting allegorical figures of the arts – painting, poetry, sculpture and architecture. Also adorned on the sides are eight statues representing Christian virtues, including faith, hope and charity.

At the base of the canopy are four white sculptures depicting Victorian industries and sciences, including agriculture, commerce, engineering and manufacturing. Situated further from the statue are four more sculpture sets depicting four continents Europe, Asia, Americas and Africa. A group of people and products associated with the continent sit on four different animals – a cow, camel, bison and bull.

Albert Memorial © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Wildlife: The allegorical sculpture of Asia (left) with an elephant and Europe (right) with a bull

Over the years, the memorial saw some decline, and spent many decades black instead of gold. Prior to its restoration and re-gilding in the early 2000s, English Heritage discovered the black coating on Albert’s statue pre-dated the war and believe it may have been painted as such following pollution damage to the gold, not in an attempt to hide the landmark from the enemy during the two World Wars as had been previously thought.

  • The Albert Memorial is located in Kensington Gardens, directly across Kensington Road from the Royal Albert Hall. It is open and free to visit during park hours. Nearest stations: High Street Kensington, Hyde Park Corner, South Kensington or Gloucester Road.
© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

The memorial stands opposite the Royal Albert Hall


For a post on another Sir George Gilbert Scott’s creation in London, read REVIEW: Afternoon tea at The Gilbert Scott at St Pancras.

Or to read about his grandson Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s creations, click A look inside Battersea Power Station or the story behind the red phone box.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

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