The conservation of an exceptional Regency shopping street – Part III


4. (top) Cary’s Map of 1818 showing Duke’s Row (above Tavistock Square, bottom left) which became Duke’s Road, and a roadway running at 90 degrees which later became Woburn Buildings, later Woburn Walk.

(Cary’s Map online at


5. (bottom) Map of the Bedford Estate showing Woburn Buildings (top right, under St Pancras Church) and the gates, or ‘bars’ protecting the estate from noisy traffic and other undesirables. (Olsen, D. 1964 fig. 34)






 “From the east side of Woburn Place, Thomas Cubitt erected a little street of shops which turned at right angles northwards to Euston Road, skirting the churchyard of New St. Pancras Church. Both sections of this street were formerly known as Woburn Buildings, but the northern is shown as Duke’s Row on Cary’s Map (1818) and has since been named Duke’s Road. The southern part is now called Woburn Walk.” [1] (see image 4.)


The original Woburn Buildings marked the boundary between the estates of the Duke of Bedford, whose land lay to the south of the centre of the street, and the estate of the Earl of Southampton, who owned the north side and the adjacent western terrace along Duke’s Row.  The south terrace was originally numbered 1–8 (from west to east) and the north terrace began with no. 9 at the northern end of Duke’s Row, numbering back round toward Woburn Place, finishing at no. 20 [2]. Its name is derived from the Duke of Bedford’s country seat at Woburn Abbey.


London’s prolific Georgian developer, Thomas Cubitt, was responsible for the design and construction of the terraces. The building leases for Woburn Buildings are dated 1822, however his interests in Bloomsbury begun in 1821 with an agreement with the Duke of Bedford to build the south side of Tavistock Square. The Bedford Estate was developed slowly – the first major northern expansion (after the 17th century developments of Covent Garden and St Giles) took place 46 years earlier with the erection of Bedford Square, built by William Scott & Robert Grews in 1776.


This new form of speculative development required marketing in order to fill the new properties and thus arrived the estate agent. The Bedford Estate ‘Steward’ knew how to advertise the benefits of the houses, most importantly the privacy afforded by the Estate bars: “a most valuable protection…against cattle, carts and the stunning noise of omnibuses”.[3]


Beyond the provision of the bars (see image 5), the Duke of Bedford, together with Estate Surveyor Christopher Heady, played a significant role in defining the character of Bloomsbury with the respectable gentleman and his family in mind. Trades and retailing were prohibited within the gates of the estate for fear of reducing the desirability of the area. Unsurprisingly, the shops lay just outside this exclusive enclave, thereby creating a system of ‘zoning’ within the Estate. Cubitt promoted and encouraged this zoning approach as he was committed to developing the Estate for a period of years and the rates at which he would be able to lease his new buildings would be governed by their desirability.


Like the houses they were built to serve, the shops at Woburn Walk were an early development in speculative building, as they were built without an owner or leaseholder waiting to fill them. This meant the Estate could control who would take them and begin trading in the area. Building and repairing leases alike typically contained a form of words prohibiting their material alteration or use for commercial purpose, as found in this building agreement between Thomas Cubitt and the neighbouring Lord Calthorpe in 1815:


“ …restraining from making any alterations to the houses or buildings … and for restraining from letting such Houses for a Shop or Shops of any kind to the intent that such Houses may be occupied as private Dwelling Houses and that no appearance or show of Business be permitted.” [4]


Even where shops were to be permitted, extensive lists of ‘offensive trades’ were prohibited by covenant in every building and repairing lease, and typically included some of the following familiar trades: brewer, baker, distiller, smith, carpenter, innkeeper, brothel keeper, butcher, slaughter man, fishmonger, farrier, dyer, tanner. And others that may be less obvious to the modern reader: tripe boiler, scavenger, melter of tallow, soap boiler, fflayer of horses.


An example of the outrage caused by a butcher’s opening on nearby Hunter Street in 1816 is recorded in this complaint to the neighbouring Foundling Hospital Estate:


“The value of our situation as private residences…will be greatly depreciated by your admission of a nuisance which is not suffered in many of the most inferior streets in the metropolis, and is consequently incompatible with a respectable neighbourhood.” [5]


This early form of town planning not only established the separation of residents from potentially hazardous trades, but also contributed to the segregation of residents according to class and wealth. Hermione Hobhouse points out in her book Thomas Cubitt – Master Builder, that although this sounds rather like snobbery, the reasons were far more basic than the accusation of breeding elitism would suggest: with no police force and sanitary provisions still in their infancy, protecting the developed areas of the Estate from degradation was of paramount importance.[6]


An area’s suitability for habitation by the respectable classes was often judged by the ‘quality of the air’, which equally suggests how the air was regarded in the old neighbourhoods, with foul trades jostling alongside dwelling houses. The character of Isabella Knightley in Jane Austin’s Emma is of precisely the respectable middling sort drawn to the area at the time:


“No indeed – we are not at all in bad air. Our part of London is so very superior to most others! You must not confound us with London in general, my dear sir. The neighbourhood of Brunswick Square is very different from almost all the rest. We are so very airy! … Mr Wingfield thinks the vicinity of Brunswick Square decidedly the most favourable as to air.”


I wonder if Mr Wingfield had been speaking with the Estate Steward?!


Despite the general attitude towards commercial activity within the Estate, Cubitt was sufficiently astute to realise that the area required even the most modest provision of shops. Although the area was designed to the quiet and residential, having no local facilities would be inconvenient and unpopular with residents.





The cost of building the houses would have fallen entirely to Cubitt under the terms of a 99-year building lease. A ‘peppercorn rent’ was payable to the Estate for the land, but when finished, Cubitt would benefit from the proceeds of leasing the buildings on to occupiers. Lease agreements for the south terrace of Woburn Walk were signed before the work was completed.


The shops of the south side were completed by ‘Lady Day’ in 1825, and the first shopkeepers and their families moved in shortly after. Records of their insurance contracts with the Sun Fire Company are still held for the majority of the residents at the Guildhall Library in the City, and a number of the original leases can be found at the Metropolitan Archives in Holborn. Of the eight buildings, seven were intended to be leased as shops and a further one as an artist’s studio, replacing the original gatekeeper’s house protecting the Duke’s Road, which led to the Duke’s private estate. In the event, all eight were leased as shops. The north terrace, and adjoining street of identical design, then named Duke’s Row, were constructed by Cubitt shortly after leasing the south terrace using an identical plan form and elevations, and was also let quickly. The shops on Duke’s Row and the last shop on Woburn Buildings, adjoining Duke’s Row were all ‘rack rented’ by Cubitt for a period of three years. Hermione Hobhouse’s research of Cubitt’s financial ledger shows that things did not always go according to plan. Heavily underlined against the records for no. 13 is the statement “Mr Butler has absconded”.[7]


Post Office directories available for the area from 1841 onwards show that these shops were reliably leased throughout the 19th century, initially, for basic food and household provisions, as was surely intended. By the 1850’s, the street was filling with carpenters, plumbers, upholsterers and furniture sellers (as was nearby Tottenham Court Road, as it remains, in part, today), no doubt to satisfy the needs of those buying into the newest parts of the Bedford Estate who required the latest fashions to dress their homes. This trend abates in the later years of the century, and whilst a number of general provisions and furniture shops remain, a dressmakers, bookbinders, statue cleaners, basket makers and other more artisan trades begin to enter the street.[8]


By the 1840’s the surveyor for the Bedford Estate bowed to pressure for further shops as he did not want the area to be seen as old fashioned. It is likely that in certain streets permission to use existing houses as shops was granted. This was realised by converting the ground floor elevation with a bressummer to carry the upper floors allowing an enlarged window, or complete shop front, to be inserted at ground floor. Shops were also permitted in the building leases granted for Werrington and Stibbington Streets in the last of the Duke of Bedford’s Estates to be developed – Figs Mead, which had been designated for smaller houses than those of the Bedford Estate. Whilst the aforementioned ‘foul trades’ were still reviled, provisions shops were permitted.





The area suffered a slow decline from an early stage. It was never to be as fashionable as Cubitt’s next major development of Belgravia, with its close proximity to the new Palace in Green Park.  George III bought Buckingham House in 1762 and with him, society migrated west, away from Covent Garden and Bloomsbury to Mayfair, and later to Belgravia. It soon became apparent that the original plan to provide a gated community of large houses for wealthy residents was fundamentally flawed as it transpired that these families were not sufficient in number to satisfy the oversupply that Cubitt had created.


In 1840 Cubitt wrote to Haedy:


“The great struggle not infrequently is between men in business and their wives and daughters. Their convenience would keep them here within easy reach of their places of business, but their wives and daughters would give their preference to a more fashionable address at the western or north-western end of this town.” [9]


The lack of consumer research undertaken by The Duke’s advisors and Cubitt prior to embarking on their new neighbourhood was all too apparent, and the area became reliant for respectability upon middling professional classes, for whom somewhat smaller houses would have proved more viable.  The vacuum created by the departure of their ideal tenants also brought landlords and landladies using the large houses as guesthouses and lodgings, ideal for housing young men working in the City and lawyers at the Inns of Court. The opening of Euston Station on July 20, 1837, as the terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway, was another setback for the overall cachet of the area. The presence of University College London and other academic institutions helped consolidate the diminished character of the area as further rooms were leased for student accommodation.


Even the bow-fronted shop windows of Woburn Walk with their small glass panes were becoming old-fashioned as early as the late 1820’s, as the increased use of cast-iron pillars and the availability of larger plate glass enabled the smart retailers of the West End to transform their shop fronts.

6. (top left)  The north terrace in 1922 showing extent of alteration of bay windows, loss of detail and general dilapidation. (Woburn Abbey Archives)


7. (top right) Woburn Walk during WW2  (Camden Council Local History Centre Archives)


8. (Bottom) Record of the leaseholds of 4-18 Woburn Walk at the point of sale to the London Borough of St Pancras. Note the lease of no. 4 is the only annual term. This house is still under different leasehold agreements to the remainder of the terrace. No. 8 must have been rather crowded. (Woburn Abbey Archives)


Shops were still sparse in the area and all this bad fortune may not have had such a negative impact upon Woburn Walk. However, whilst its existence was secure, its state of repair was less so. Early photographs of the street, dating from the 1920’s, show a very dilapidated northern elevation. (See image 6.)


By now the shops were largely ‘lock ups’ and the upper floors were leased separately to residential tenants. Shortly after, at some point between the two World Wars, the London branch of the Co-Operative Society bought the northern terrace and carried out basic repairs to the exterior, including re-rendering the elevations and replacing some of the aged bow fronted shop windows, unfortunately with canted bays with heavy glazing bars.


As the larger houses in the area were divided into separate lodging rooms it appears that Woburn Buildings were similarly divided. The accommodation above the shops was let as multiple dwellings, with two or even three units above each shop, as details of occupation show. This would have resulted in very cramped accommodation with little privacy. (See image 8.)

The street continued to deteriorate up to WW2, at which point photographs record missing bay windows boarded up, others replaced with canted bays and full panes of glass; whole elevations missing their external render and much ornamentation lost. (See image 7.)


Nevertheless, it is surprising to learn that in 1939 St Pancras Borough Council received – and granted – an application from the leaseholder and developer Percy Hill to demolish the south terrace of Woburn Walk and replace it with a new seven-storey development of retail and residential units.[10] Without further information on why the development did not begin we can only surmise that the arrival of the war put such plans on hold, and the immediate post-war years offered little possibility of commercial development.


The demolition of much of London’s residential heritage rendered beyond repair by German bombing raids soon awoke general interest in saving important sites from destruction. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 was passed to help preserve important architecture which were feared might otherwise be lost in sweeping away areas of war-damaged urban landscape.


As a result of the Bill then passed in 1952, St Pancras Council served a Preservation Order on the south elevation, the first ever to be served by a Metropolitan Borough Council. This presumably overruled their earlier decision to allow demolition, and it was decided the leaseholder, together with the council, and with the aid of the Georgian Group’s Architect (and celebrated conservationist of his time) John MacGregor, would repair the buildings.


However in 1954, Percy Hill surrendered his lease and the Bedford Estate re-applied for permission to redevelop the site. The street was listed on 10th June that year, thereby securing its immediate future. Continuing this run of timely good fortune, the Ancient Buildings and Historic Monuments Act of 1953 gave St Pancras Council the opportunity to purchase the terrace, and a grant was made by the Minister of Works covering approximately half the purchase cost and also part of the cost of the restoration.[11]


Plans and specifications were drawn up by MacGregor and the Borough Surveyor, C. S. Bainbridge, and work was begun by the Council’s own building department in 1956. The details of this work are contained in the next chapter.[12]


































[1] Howard Roberts, J. & Godfrey, W. (1949) p.106

[2] See Appendix X for map of old and new numbers.

[3] Draper, M. (1984) p2. A deposit of one guinea was demanded for a numbered silver disc that gained the residents and their staff access between 7am (8am in winter) and 10pm each day.

[4] Hobhouse, H. (1971) p479

[5] Ibid. p107

[6] Ibid. p.60. To appreciate the attitude of the time towards mixing trade with residential areas it is helpful to understand the conditions common throughout London before these estates were built. At this time the Bedford Estate was also undertaking a programme of re-building the older and less well planned areas of Covent Garden and St Giles, which had grown up around the earlier Royal Palace at St James and the seat of Government at Westminster.  The pace of early, organic development of these areas gradually increased, and with major developments such as the Covent Garden Piazza in the 1630s (as with the City before that) the terms of the lease did not forbid the alteration of houses to shops or workshops, or did not adequately enforce such terms, thereby mixing residents and trades of all description within the residential neighbourhood. Partly as a result of the industrial revolution population numbers grew rapidly in these areas, but with insufficient sanitary provision to cope, and combined with the ‘foul’ trades that were undertaken there, this inevitably resulted in the spread of disease. London’s population expansion also created a burgeoning professional class, who were only too pleased to relocate their families into a smart new residential area, leaving those without the requisite means to remain, the worst of which in the area became slums such as St Giles and Severn Dials.





[7] Hobhouse, H. (1971) p66

[8] As do two rather Victorian sounding charities: The Invalid’s Dinner Table (at no. 2, now 16) run by a Pricilla Bishop, and the implausibly titled “Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendacity” (at no. 17, now no 7). See Appendix XI for Post Office directory entries for Woburn Buildings at ten-year intervals from 1841 to 1891.


[9] Halliday, S. (2003) p.65


[10] Plans by Hawes and Jeckman Architects in Appendix XII

[11] Bainbridge, C. (1960) p.3

[12]  See Appendix V for selected plans and specifications for the work