The conservation of an exceptional Regency shopping street – Part V


This section aims to re-assess the significance of Woburn Walk, in terms of its architectural value and historical significance.


Extent of surviving material – exterior
Of what falls upon the eyes at street level, little can be described as original. The work of the restoration of the south terrace in 1956-8 and the repairs to the north terrace at the time of the conversion of the rear for hotel use in 1961 have had significant impact on the external fabric. However it is pertinent to state that much of this fabric was already lost to the passage of time and poor attention to maintenance.

The render and decorative detailing is all replacement, as are the shop windows (possibly bar no. 4) as are those of the residences above. No. 18 suffered its shop window and door to be swapped over, although this was reversed in the works of 1956-8.

The roofs are largely replacement although serviceable covering materials have been retained, and only the rear elevation of the south terrace and parts of Duke’s Road maintain their original perspective.

Of the shop fronts, a number of the doors, fascias and the wooden frameworks are original, although all have undergone substantial repair.
It is of great significance that Woburn Walk, and to some extent, Duke’s Road, survive with much of their original external appearance – both shop and residence above – whilst virtually all other examples of Regency shopping streets have been altered beyond recognition as their shop fronts are updated with replacements in later eras (examples are cited in the next section). It is possible that such a strength of design of the elevations – a vertical architectural unity over all the floors and lateral uniformity along the terrace – helped prevent later alterations, which would have so clearly negatively impacted on the appearance of the whole. A sort of strength in numbers. There are also likely practical reasons for its survival. For many years, the strict terms of the lease would have preserved the fabric of the buildings. After that, a lack of financial interest and investment precluded any great change. More recently, interest in conservation has reversed some of the changes and controlled any further alteration as the buildings regain their financial viability.
Extent of surviving material – interior
This report is limited in its extent of investigation of the current interiors. I have been able to view the whole of no. 6 on the south terrace, the shops throughout, and the whole of nos. 1 to 7, incorporating the shop floors, basements and the offices above.

There is nothing of historical interest in nos. 1 to 7. Only the main party walls exist, in part, from basement to the second floor, and no original partitions or decorative detailing survives within. No. 9 retains the basic layout, partition walls, staircases and some of the joinery, but water penetration from poor roof maintenance destroyed the plasterwork that has previously been renewed.

The shops and residences of the south terrace do have a significant retention of original plan form and architectural detailing. The residence of no. 6, despite the works of 1950’s and 1980’s, has much original plasterwork, doors and architrave. As they are council-owned, I would expect that others on the south side have a similar amount of original fabric.
Extent of surviving use
Woburn Walk has found a way to remain relevant to the needs of modern life, securing for the greater part its significance in terms of use. Only the upper floors of 1 to 7 have drastically altered in their use.
















Historically, London’s trade and retail spaces were an ad-hoc development and ramshackle mix of street markets and streets of houses converted to shops on the ground floor. In medieval London a great many houses contained ‘shops’ at ground floor, which could also be workshops, counting houses, or any other form of business. (See image 35.)

In addition were the more impressive commercial exchanges, and the later purpose-built bazaars and shopping arcades for the wealthy to browse under the cover of a roof.

The ever-increasing array of goods brought in from the colonies to sell to an increasing number of Londoner’s with disposable income, eager to dress themselves and their houses in the latest fashions, was responsible for the vast majority of shops and shopping streets created from the existing residential terraces of Georgian London.

A typology of C18-19th residential shop building
A general typology of shops converted from houses and the less common (those designed to incorporate shops) can be described as follows:

1) A house converted for shop use with minimal structural alteration, such as a reformed or slightly enlarged window. (See image 36.)

2) A house converted to shop with complete alteration to the ground floor elevation, often including internal alterations to allow the upper floors to be reached by a separate door. (See image 39.) Intricate classical details were introduced to break up what was otherwise a large plain opening where a bressummur was inserted to hold up the front facade above ground floor, allowing a shop front to be built underneath. (See images 37 & 40.) Classical columns, pediments and scrolled corbel brackets were standard features of architectural detail design books such as Decorative Details by W & Pain. (See image 38.) These examples are of great interest to conservationists as there are few surviving in anything like their original condition.

3) A house or houses built, or re-developed to include a very basic shop front at ground floor with no specific architectural styling, including large parts of Covent Garden and St Giles.

4) A house built to accommodate a shop at ground floor with detailed architectural design (including Woburn Walk, and others covered below). The architecturally inspired, uniform, purpose-built shopping street was a relatively uncommon feature before the Regency era.
Rose ornament

Cornice above shop windows

Guilloche moulding from underneath shop windows

Capital at side elevations

Architectural detailing of Woburn Walk
Of the fourth type of residential shop, Woburn Walk appears to be the most considered architectural composition, and I have not found another of similar architectural detail recorded in any of the texts included in this bibliography, nor has any come to light during the research of this work. (See 41-45. for images of description below.)

Reproduced from Survey of London Volume 21:
“The houses were of three storeys with stucco fronts, each being emphasised by recessing the walls where the houses joined. A plain coping over a projecting band was used as the finish to the parapet with scroll cresting at special points, and each of the upper storeys had a single broad window with slightly arched head, within an unmolded architrave studded with paterae. The original form of the windows seems to have been a broad sash window, three panes wide with a single light on each side. The first floor window had an ornamental balcony of cast iron with curved ends.
The shop fronts were designed with great skill. The window stood in the centre, flanked by doorways, and was the same shape in plan as the balcony over, projecting over the pavement to the level of the sill, beneath which were two shaped brackets. Each window was divided by very delicate glazing bars into twenty-four panes, four panes high, and curved at each side. Over the whole ran an unbroken entablature, which followed the window curves, with twin pilasters between each house. A single-moulded cornice, frieze (functioning as a lettered fascia) and an architrave with continuous anthemion ornament made up this most effective shop design. The doors were of four panels with rectangular fanlight above. The curved sill of each window was enriched with guilloche ornament. Between each pair of doors was a wrought-iron scraper. The rainwater downpipes, with moulded heads, were neatly arranged in alternate recesses between the houses.”


Woburn Walk is not only exceptional as a relatively unaltered survival of a purpose-built Regency shopping street. It was also very unusual for its time in its detailed architectural design, as described above. Terraces including groups of shops (often two to six buildings) were constructed across London and the UK, but rarely to such an intricate design that incorporates the entire elevation. I will give examples of all other purpose built shopping streets I have discovered in research, which will illustrate the differences between them and Woburn Walk. The possible reasons for these differences will be proposed below in an examination of the likely influences on Cubitt at the time.

One example of a comparable purpose-built shopping street with strong architectural composition of the same era is Nash’s Colonnades at Regent Street, though obviously on a much grander scale for much grander occupants. (See image 46.) The colonnades themselves enjoyed a relatively brief existence and were pulled down that the behest of the leaseholders in 1848. Image 47 shows that the colonnades actually veil differing shop front elevations behind (as evidenced in the newly revealed frontages after the demolition of the colonnades, see below), so technically this was not a strictly uniform architectural composition. Nor is the terrace still in existence. Throughout many years beginning in 1922 the terraces of Regent Street were demolished and re-developed in Portland stone.













More in keeping with the size, scale and purpose of Woburn Walk, a similarly designed row of shops exists in the Marketplace at Cheadle, Staffordshire (1819), with doorways contained in the large bay-fronted shops. (See image 48 & 49.) Above the ground floor there is nothing in the architecture that links them to the shop front design or differentiates them from another terrace of houses. These were restored by their owner in 2005 and are rented to shopkeepers and tenants above.

1 to 8 Goodwin’s Court near Covent Garden in London is another simple example of a purpose built row of shops with bow-fronted shop windows, also much less architecturally considered. (See image 50.) This street was redeveloped, possibly in the late 18th century, from an earlier row dating from 1690.

William Street in Edinburgh has a flat-fronted example with a stone façade, by Robert Brown (1824-5), also recently restored. (See image 51.) Montpellier Walk in Cheltenham (1836) is another stone fronted parade of shops with the unusual caryatids between the shop fronts. It is much altered at ground floor level. The continued cornice over the shops is very like Woburn Walk, although again there is nothing about the upper floors that distinguishes them from residential architecture or ties them to the shop front design. (See image 52.)
Two more uniform, single-sided groups of development at d’Olier Street, Dublin (c1800) and Reform Street, Dundee (1824) are two more flat-fronted examples not unlike Williams Street in Edinburgh, however do not have the degree of architectural detailing of those mentioned above, and according to James Stevens Curl “…frightful mayhem has replaced the order intended by the original designers.”

Other examples of groupings of purpose-built shops / houses of uniform design can be traced in Arlington Street and Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell, and can reasonably be assumed to have also existed in other Georgian towns and cities in the UK, although as those in Dublin and Dundee, very little of the original elevations can still be found.

The significance of Woburn Walk’s architectural design
There is no firm evidence for the inspiration behind the design of the facades, but it is possible to hold Woburn Walk up against alternative shopping architectures of the day and examine the contemporary developments that Cubitt would have been influenced by. I believe that the design of Woburn Walk can be traced to the evolution of the shopping arcade in London shortly before it was designed.

Claude Mignot describes a trend towards “co-ordinated rows of shops” in the late 18th century in Paris. In 1784-6 the Galaries de Bois was constructed in the form of timber arcades, lit from above with fanlights built between the courtyard and garden of Palais Royal. This example, and others built in Paris over the following decade, is held to be the model for the shopping arcades of England in which emerged in London from 1816 onwards. The Royal Opera Arcade, Pall Mall (John Nash, 1818, with shops on only one side of the arcade. See images 53 a & b) and the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly (Samuel Ware, 1819, this time with shops on both sides. See images 54a & b and 55) have strong architectural similarities in terms of the uniform, continuous bay formation as is found at Woburn Walk.

Woburn Walk was designed around the time these arcades were constructed – just at the time of the Burlington arcade, which is its closest comparison, suggesting Cubit was following the current trends in retail architecture to promote the Bedford Estate as a fashionable district. The parallels are quite striking, as can be seen from the photographs of each, only Woburn Walk is without a roof and doors closing off each end from the adjacent streets. Symmetrical frontage with flattened bows and quadrant-shaped corners in the Grecian style was the pattern-book plan for the arcade shop front, and the style is continued over the first floor windows, contrary to the typical street design where the upper floors look just as a house with no shop would appear.

It was not just the architectural styling of the arcade, but also the stringent controls the proprietor upheld over traders in order to maintain respectability that was likely to inspire Cubit when he conceived of Woburn Walk. The Burlington Arcade has been patrolled by beadles in top hats and tails since its opening, providing a sense of control which one can imagine Cubitt, with his strong desire for securing respectability, being thoroughly impressed by.

If the architectural influence is conceivable, it raises the interesting question of why there appears to be no proposal to cover Woburn Walk with a glazed arcaded roof? Certainly no plans or correspondence available suggests this.

Reasons for excluding the roof might be due to practical and financial considerations. The division in landownership in the centre of the street may have presented insurmountable problems with its division between the curtledge of each estate. Also, the building and repairing lease system that Cubitt and the landowners favoured would likely preclude the possibility of building an arcade which would be entirely tenanted rather than leased to its occupants. The repairing lease was firm on the occupants’ responsibility to maintain the fabric of their building. An arcade would require a landlord to maintain the building, possibly something Cubitt was not keen to trial for himself.

It is likely that some combination of these factors induced Cubitt to marry the aesthetic and architectural style of the arcade with the tried, tested and profitable leasehold system.

I have found no other uniform parade of shops of this era in an ‘arcade’ architectural style, having researched numerous books on shop architecture and spoken with many conservation officers of local authorities that contain Georgian and Regency architecture, including: Edinburgh; York; Cheltenham; Harrogate; Brighton; Bath; Dublin and Leamington Spa.

The significance of Woburn Walk within the body of Cubitt’s work
Cubitt is not known for designing shops or shop fronts. He is generally associated with the design and development of residential terraces. He rarely constructed shops and none are known of this level of design. In his later developments of Belgravia many building leases were sub-let to smaller developers. Shops (although restricted to minor streets crossing the major parallel terraces such as Elizabeth Street and Lower Belgrave Street), were conceived simply within the terrace with no special architectural detailing. Their uniformity was not insisted upon and alterations occurred throughout their lifetime.
According to Hobhouse, at least three designs were separately proposed for the terrace, the first, of a single storey with round-headed windows was discarded as the plot had been incorrectly measured, and the second was passed over for a more intricately designed elevation, as built.

Hobhouse discusses the possibility that his brother, Lewis Cubitt, who trained in architecture under Henry Kendall, was responsible for the detailed designs. (See image 57.) It seems likely that Cubitt felt that shops designed by him for this smart estate should take on the appearance of a fashionable shopping destination to preserve the respectability of the estate. Whatever the exact reasons for the design may have been, the obvious degree of care taken over the design of such a small street sets it apart. The ornate Greek revival style of Woburn Walk is also not in keeping with Cubitt’s general style although, again, it was a fashionable style for shopping arcades of the day.

A record of how building effected social change
Beyond its exceptional aesthetic, Woburn Walk is valuable for the uniqueness of conception and as an early 19th century example of zoning of residential and commercial areas; as a physical record of the social moirés of the time it was built. It is the work of two major developers and original town planners of London: Cubitt and the Duke of Bedford. The shops were designed and built as part of a planned estate; intentionally situated just outside the gates of the estate to protect the residents from any unpleasant noise or inconvenience associated with trade. There were no other shops permitted in within the estate.

















57. A popular literary tourists’ site, marked by a plaque over ‘Wot the Dickens!’ café at no.5.



Famous Residents
W B Yeats, poet, lived at no 5 (formally no. 18) from 1895 to 1919. (See image 57.)
Dorothy Richardson, novelist, lived at no 6 (formally no. 2) around the same time.
George Jacob Holyoake, ‘father of the Co-operative Movement’ lived at no. 4 (formally no. 1) from 1858 and erected the porch over the balcony, reputedly, to give addresses to crowds stood below. The London branch of the Co-Operative Movement bought the north terrace between the wars, which is likely to be connected with Holyoake’s move to the street.


The highs and lows of Woburn Walk’s existence in the second half of its life to date have contributed towards the history of urban conservation. The south terrace was the subject of the first Preservation Order of its kind to be made by a Metropolitan Borough Council in 1951. It is thought to be the first case of compulsory purchase and conservation scheme grant-aided by the Historic Buildings section of the Ministry of Works.
With the creation of legislation protecting historic buildings and bodies such as English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund helping to organise and fund restoration, we rather take for granted the support structure for conservation of our built heritage today. Just fifty years ago Woburn Walk was a pioneer site of many of these innovations; a legacy which is likely to become more valuable with the passage of time.