Before there was a Marble Arch

Lonnie Donegan seems to have sung about it with his 1957 hit, Cumberland Gap, it’s also a Hotel, Gate, Street, Place and even a Lodge.

So why is this large roundabout with its inverted green horse, used by locals as a respite from Primark called Marble Arch?

After all, that large piece of Romanesque pomp, designed by John Nash isn’t even marble, just clad in the stuff.

[T]his soon lost its pristine sparkle in polluted Victorian London as was described in 1847 by Sharpe’s London Magazine as:

discoloured by smoke and damp, and in appearance resembling a huge sugar erection in a confectioner’s shop window

It wasn’t much use where it originally stood, at the entrance to Buckingham Palace. Buckingham House was being remodelled with its famous balcony, and there was a school of thought that the larger carriages would not fit through its arches (probably erroneously since the Royal Family infrequently travel through the gap just to prove they are the only ones allowed to do so).

The offending arch was moved in 1851 and Thomas Cubitt, taking time away from knocking up ‘jerry-built’ houses in Belgravia, added rooms, one of which was a police station. An irony since they had been hanging felons by the dozen there without police assistance for centuries.

So Tyburnia or Tyburn Turnpike, named after the nearby river was renamed, but not at first. The 1878 edition of Old and New London, vol 8 talked up Tyburnia as:

Tyburnia . . . of late years has become almost, if not quite, as fashionable and aristocratic as Belgravia

When the Underground arrived in 1900 they needed a name for the station. Edgware Road had been used a mile north at the intersection with Harrow Road, Bayswater located perversely in Queensway while Queensway was to be found in Bayswater. Oxford Street already had Oxford Circus.

So that left Tyburn (not a good moniker since the early railway system wasn’t without its deaths); Cumberland Gate (would that be the gateway to Notting Hill Gate?); or Marble Arch.

So we have a polluted ‘triumphant arch’ which only the Royal family may pass through facing one of the busiest turnpikes in London.

Image: Horse’s head at Marble Arch. This giant sculpture by Nic Fiddian-Smith is part of the revamp of Marble Arch. It measures 27 feet high and weighs 6 tonnes. Not everyone approves. By ceridwen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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