The Adelphi Story

By Londonist Last edited 87 months ago
The Adelphi Story
The modern Adelphi, by M@.

Its borders comprise some of London’s most famous streets, its peripheries are trodden by millions and its name is hardly ever spoken. Between Strand and Embankment, Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Station lies Adelphi, an architectural gem sifted from medieval mansions and river mud.

The area as we know it today is the legacy of the 18th century’s most renowned architect-siblings: the Adam brothers, Robert, William and James. Famed for their elegant, classically inspired constructions (the interior of Syon House is a notable surviving example), their work defined the area. Its name, derived from the Greek for ‘brothers,’ was a clever piece of self-promotion.


Upon the site that would be the siblings’ canvas once stood two great medieval residences, York House and Durham House. A fragment of the former still survives in the form of Inigo Jones’ Water Gate, of 1626. Formerly a platform to the river, it now stands as a beautifully eroded folly, impotent amidst the green of Embankment Gardens. York House, to which it belonged, became the property of the Dukes of Buckingham. The second duke, George Villiers, inherited the stately pile along with a taste for political and financial risk, and was eventually forced to sell. In doing so, however, he ensured that his pedigree was commemorated in the urban footprint – to this day, Villiers Street and Buckingham Street reflect the area’s noble origins.

The York Watergate, which still exists in Embankment Gardens, painted around 1850. The Adelphi can be seen in the background.

After the demolition of York House in the 17th century, the district fell into decline. With the construction of the York Building Waterworks, sitting incongruously next to the Water Gate, the place became run-down and insalubrious. But the following century the Adams would cast their eyes upon the dilapidation and perceive opportunity.

Embanked, Embellished and Expensive

The brothers did not think small. Or boring. Under their grand design the river would be embanked, its cloying tidal muds kept at bay by a vast subterranean network of tiered warehouses. These would support rows of palatial residences above, whose facades and interiors would collectively embody the Adam signature style. Fortunately for those with vaunting ambition, the brothers’ heightened aesthetic sense was matched by their elevated list of contacts. After all, there were not many who could mobilise Parliament to grant permission to develop a new district.

The original Adelphi by the Adam brothers.

And so, between 1768 and 1774, the work was carried out. The houses were lavish, and constructed at ruinous expense, with teams of workmen labouring on the project (most of whom have been irretrievably forgotten, though one, Charles Rogers, was memorialised in public record after being sentenced to death for highway robbery). Gradually delicate floral moldings crept across classical pediments, and as pillars rose, costs soared. Indeed, such was the expense of the brothers’ grand, self-promoting scheme that the family firm was driven to the edge of bankruptcy. In an act of self-preservation, strings were pulled once again, connections leveraged once more and Parliament was roused to action, granting permission for the houses to be disposed by lottery. Each ticket (of which there were 4,370) cost £50, with winners handed the keys to drawing rooms fit for London’s most fashionable, including Dr Johnson, the actor David Garrick and Lady Hamilton, the famously ravishing mistress of Lord Nelson (she was said to have modelled as a Roman goddess in the so-called Temple of Health at Adelphi Terrace).

Victorian interference

The area continued to host prestigious residents in the 19th century, including the philanthropist Charles Booth (who famously mapped London’s poverty) as well as Charles Dickens and his creation, David Copperfield, who both resided at 15 Buckingham Street. But the Victorians, whose architectural ambitions dwarfed even those of the Adam brothers, would not be kind to Adelphi. They interfered with the 18th century facades of the town houses, and gradually the schematic unity of the streets diminished. In the 1860s the west side of Villiers Street was replaced by the hulking mass of Charing Cross Station. Under Joseph Bazelgette, the river was embanked and in 1865 Embankment Gardens were opened. An area for quiet repose (or, in recent years, a rousing game of ping-pong) they became a grassy pedestal for the brass effigies of public figures. Indeed, the leafy borders that define the Gardens obscure Adelphi, lying to the north, with the polar forces of Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Station drawing pedestrians eastwards and westwards.

More interference

But if the 19th century’s legacy to Adelphi was to hem the district in, the 20th century’s was the removal of the jewel in its crown. In 1933 Parliament debated the Adelphi Estate Bill, which would enable the height of the area’s buildings to be increased and two new roads to be built, one of which would run along Adelphi Terrace. Inoffensive sounding, the Bill was nonetheless seized upon by an outraged press as evidence of plans to pull the Terrace down (despite defensive peers in the House of Lords pointing out that the owner was perfectly free to do so without Parliament’s permission). The cultural memories of Adelphi luminaries were marshalled in support of the area’s preservation, with the Archbishop of Canterbury even making a saucy joke about Lady Hamilton herself:

I am bound to say that if I could think of the shade of that engaging lady still moving about the Adelphi I should welcome it on, I need scarcely say, strictly historical grounds.

In fact the Terrace’s houses did not long survive. They were demolished to make way for a new ‘Adelphi’ building, constructed between 1936 and 1938. A vast, art deco hulk, flanked by figural sculptures, it still stands today, and has even been targeted for renewal. A £30 million modernisation programme has seen the reinstatement of internal light wells and the creation of a landscaped roof terrace. A few Adam-era tunnels run beneath, and can be seen in the Royal Society of Art's basement. Meanwhile, Lower Robert Street survives as a public right of way beneath the terrace.

And so the gradual evolution of the urban environment continues. Adelphi remains a glorious district, where enough of the Adam brothers’ creations survive to evoke a sense of its former grandeur. Tiny, free from tidal mud and medieval palaces, and untroubled by the ghost of Lady Hamilton, it remains quietly monumental.

By Robert Clear

Last Updated 13 January 2017