Holborn Viaduct (built 1863-69) is taken for granted now by the many who pass over it every day, or work in the offices along its approach. The viaduct was a massive project at the time, the most ambitious and costly improvement scheme of its time and it involved some outstanding feats of Victorian engineering.
Built to span the valley of the old River Fleet, which was covered in and channelled underground during the eighteenth century, it was part of a development entailing much demolition and litigation as well as new construction. The plan included not only Farringdon Street over the Fleet, but also Holborn Circus, Charterhouse Street and St Andrew Street.
The intention was both to give better access to the City and Smithfield Market at the north-west approach, and to counterpoint Bazalgette’s Thames Embankment scheme. With its iron girder skew bridge, borne on granite pillars, the new arrangement was seen as the City’s showpiece contribution to the Victorian modernisation of the capital. The name of the engineer, given in the inscription on one of the base pillars, was William Haywood who served ably for 49 years as the Chief Engineer to the City Commissioners of Sewers. Note that after the River Fleet was covered over, it was used as a sewer, a purpose it still serves today.
Originally, two structures were built at each end of the main part of the viaduct, to house steps from Farringdon Street to the thoroughfare above. Two of the four were badly damaged in World War II; one of these has since been rebuilt as part of the redevelopment of the large office block here, completed in 2001.
They have matching ironwork picked out in red, and architectural sculpture by Henry Bursill, including Atlantes holding up the balconies, on their front elevations. Bursill was also responsible for two of the bronze statues on the viaduct itself.
The figures on the front of the step-buildings are representations of important Londoners:-
north-west corner – Sir William Walworth
south-west corner – Henry Fitz Aylwin
south-east corner – Sir Thomas Gresham
north-east corner – Sir Hugh Middleton
The four winged lions at the ends of the viaduct, each with its left paw resting on a small globe, were by Farmer & Brindley, as were the two female figures on the north side, representing Science and Fine Arts. Bursill’s figures on the south side, shown here, are rather finer. These are female too, and represent Commerce and Agriculture. Commerce wears a mural crown which suggests the status and fortune of the city. She holds coins and gold in one hand, while the other hand is stretched out in welcome. At her feet are the keys of the city and a parchment offering the freedom of the city Agriculture’s crown is fashioned of olive leaves, and her robe is fringed with oak leaves. Beside her grows corn mixed with poppies.
The opening of the viaduct by Queen Victoria, which took place on the same day as the opening of the new Blackfriars Bridge, (she was booed on route) was a splendid occasion. First, the combined royal and civic processions passed up Farringdon Street amidst an immense assemblage of people, the roadway in the middle being kept clear by soldiers and policemen.
More recently, and perhaps still without due recognition of all that was involved in its construction, Holborn Viaduct has been dubbed the world’s first flyover