Strand, often called the Strand, is a major thoroughfare in the City ofWestminster in central London that forms part of the A4 road. It is just over three-quarters of a mile in length from its western origin at Trafalgar Square to its eastern end at Temple Bar, where it continues into Fleet Street, marking Westminster’s boundary with the City of London. Its historical length has, however, been longer than this.
At the east end of the street are two historic churches: St Mary le Strand and St Clement Danes, which are both now situated on islands in the middle of the road, owing to widening of the Strand over the years. The length of road from St Mary’s eastwards up to St Clement’s was widened in 1900 and subsumes the former Holywell Street which forked from the Strand and ran parallel with it to the north. Traffic travelling eastbound past the churches follows a short crescent called Aldwych, connected at both ends to the Strand. The Strand marks the southern boundary of the Covent Garden district.
The name was first recorded in 1002 as strondway, later in 1185 as Stronde and in 1220 as la Stranda. It is formed from the Old English word ‘strand,’ meaning shore. Initially it referred to the shallow bank of the once much wider River Thames, before the construction of the Victoria Embankment. The name was later applied to the road itself. Part of its length was known in the 13th century as ‘Densemanestret’ or ‘street of the Danes,’ referring to the community of Danes in the area.
The route of the Strand was used during the Roman period as part of a route to Silchester, known as “Iter VIII” on the Antonine Itinerary, and which later became known by the name Akeman Street. It was briefly part of a trading town called Lundenwic that developed around 600 AD, and stretched from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych. Alfred the Great gradually moved the settlement into the old Roman town of Londinium from around 886 AD onwards, leaving no mark of the old town, and the area returned to fields.
In the Middle Ages it became the principal route between the separate settlements of the City of London (the civil and commercial centre) and the royal Palace of Westminster (the national political centre). In the archaeological record, there is considerable evidence of occupation to the north of Aldwych, but much along the former foreshore has been covered by rubble from the demolition of the Tudor Somerset Place, a former royal residence, to create a large platform for the building of the first Somerset House, in the 17th century.
The western part of the Strand was located in the parish of St Martin in the Fields and in the east it extended into the parishes of St Clement Danes and St Mary le Strand. Most of its length was in the Liberty of Westminster, although part of the eastern section in St Clement Danes was in the Ossulstone hundred of Middlesex. The precinct of the Savoy, located approximately where the approach to Waterloo Bridge is now, had the Strand as its northern boundary. All of these parishes and places became part of the Strand District in 1855, except St Martin in the Fields which was governed by a vestry. The Strand District Board of Works was based at No. 22, Tavistock Street. Strand District was abolished in 1900 and became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Westminster. The area had parliamentary representation through the Strand constituency from 1885 to 1918.
From the 12th century onwards, large mansions lined the Strand including several palaces and townhouses inhabited by bishops and royal courtiers, mainly located on the south side, with their own ‘river gates’ and landings directly on the Thames.
Those on the south side of the street were, from east to west:
**Essex House, built around 1575 for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and originally called Leicester House. It was renamed Essex House after being inherited by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in 1588. It was demolished some time between 1674 and 1679 and Essex Street, leading up to the Strand, was built on the location by property speculator Nicholas Barbon.
**Arundel House, originally the town house of the Bishops of Bath and Wells, later in the possession of the Earls of Arundel. It was demolished in 1678 and Arundel Street, adjoining the Strand, was built on the site. The supposed Roman baths at Strand Lane are in the former grounds of the house and are probably associated with it.
**Somerset House built by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, regent of England from 1547 to 1549, and rebuilt in the 18th century.
**Savoy Palace, the London residence of John of Gaunt, King Richard II’s uncle and the nation’s power broker. In the 14th century the Savoy was the most magnificent nobleman’s mansion in England. However, during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rebels, led by Wat Tyler, inflamed by opposition to the poll tax promoted by John of Gaunt, systematically demolished the Savoy and everything in it. In 1512 it was rebuilt as the Savoy Hospital for the poor. However it gradually fell into dereliction and was divided into multiple tenancies, eventually being demolished in the 19th century. The Savoy Hotel now occupies the site.
**Worcester House, formerly the Inn, or residence, of the Bishop of Carlisle.
**Salisbury House, the site of which is now occupied by Shell Mex House.
**Durham House, the historic London residence of the Bishop of Durham, built circa 1345 and demolished in the mid-17th century, it was once the home of Anne Boleyn. Durham Street and the Adelphi Buildings were built on its site.
**York House, built as the London residence for the Bishop of Norwich not later than 1237. At the time of the Reformation it was acquired by King Henry VIII and came to be known as York House when he granted it to the Archbishop of York in 1556. In the 1620s it was acquired by the royal favourite George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and after an interlude during the English Civil War it was returned to George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who sold it to developers in 1672. It was then demolished and new streets and buildings built on the site, including Villiers Street.
**Hungerford House, which was demolished and replaced, in turn, by Hungerford Market and Charing Cross station.
**Northumberland House, a large Jacobean mansion, the historic London residence of the Dukes of Northumberland; built in 1605 and demolished in 1874. Northumberland Avenue now occupies the site.
On the north side of the Strand were…
**Cecil House, also called Exeter House or Burghley House, built in the 16th century by Lord Burghley as an expansion of an existing Tudor house. Exeter House was demolished in 1676 and Exeter Exchange built on the site. It was most famous for the menagerie that occupied its upper floors for over 50 years, from 1773 until 1829, when Exeter Exchange was demolished. It was replaced by Exeter Hall, noted for its Evangelical meetings. This was demolished in 1907 and the site is now occupied by the Strand Palace Hotel.
Apart from the rebuilt Somerset House, all of these grand buildings are now gone, and are overlaid by later streets lined by humbler tenements. These were built by property developers on the sites of the old mansions, from the 17th century onwards. A New Exchange was built on part of the gardens of Durham House, in 1608-9, facing the Strand. This high-class shopping centre enjoyed considerable popularity but was eventually destroyed in 1737.
After the demolition of most of the grand mansions and departure of their aristocratic residents for the West End the area acquired a dissolute but lively reputation and became notable for its coffee houses, low taverns and cheap women. The Dog and Duck tavern on Strand was famed as a venue for the conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot. In the time of the English Civil War, the Nag’s Head tavern was the venue of a meeting between Henry Ireton and some of the Levellers which resulted in the production of a document called the Remonstrance of the Army which demanded the abolition of the monarchy and the trial of King Charles I. In the 19th century the Coal Hole tavern, under the management of Renton Nicholson, was notable for song-and-supper evenings, tableaux vivants of scantily clad women in poses plastiques, and a ribald “Judge and Jury” show.
The church of St Clement Danes is believed to date from the 9th century, but the present building is a restoration of a 17th-century work by Christopher Wren that was gutted in the Blitz. Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035–40, one of England’s lesser known kings) is buried here. Since 1958 it has served as the central church of the Royal Air Force.
St Mary-le-Strand was designed by James Gibbs and completed in 1717, to replace a previous church demolished by Protector Somerset for building material for his adjacent Somerset House. Essex Street Chapel, the birthplace of British Unitarianism (1774), abuts onto the Strand; the post-Blitz building serves as the denominational headquarters.
The Strand was the hub of Victorian theatre and nightlife. However, redevelopment of the East Strand and the construction of the Aldwych and Kingsway roads in the 1890s and early years of the 20th century led to the loss of the Opera Comique, the Globe, the Royal Strand Theatre and the nearby Olympic Theatre. Other lost theatres include the Gaiety (closed 1939, demolished 1957), Terry’s (converted into a cinema 1910, demolished 1923), and the Tivoli (closed 1914 and later demolished; in 1923 the Tivoli Cinema opened on the site but was closed and demolished in 1957 to make way for Peter Robinson’s store).
Surviving theatres include the Adelphi, the Savoy and Vaudeville, and closely adjacent in Wellington Street the Lyceum.
In the 19th century much of the Strand was rebuilt and the houses to the south no longer backed onto the Thames, separated from the river by the Victoria Embankment constructed in 1865–70. This moved the river some 50 metres (160 ft) further away. The Strand became a newly fashionable address and many avant-garde writers and thinkers gathered here, among them Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley. No. 142 was the home of radical publisher and physician John Chapman, who not only published many of his contemporaries from this house during the 1850s, but also edited the Westminster Review for 42 years. The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was also a house guest. A lower grade of publishing was promoted at the east end of the Strand where Holywell Street was the hub of the Victorian pornography trade, until the street was physically eliminated by widening of the Strand in 1900. Virginia Woolf also writes about Strand in several of her essays, including “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” and her novel, Mrs. Dalloway. T.S. Eliot alludes to the Strand in his 1905 poem “At Graduation” and in his 1922 poem “The Waste Land” (part III, The Fire Sermon, v. 258: “and along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street”). John Masefield also refers to a “jostling in the Strand” in his well-known poem “On Growing Old.”