The Adams family and a lost London treasure

The Adelphi
The Adelphi once graced the riverfront

No – not the Addams family!!  But four Scottish brothers – John, Robert, James and William – with the surname Adams who created a vast structure next to the Thames that only a fraction remains. The Adelphi was an ambitious residential complex of buildings in the classical style built on a steep bank from the Strand to the river. It was thrown up between 1766 and 1780 at a time when the City of Westminster was expanding rapidly and the rich had moved their town residences westwards from the old City of London. This process of mad speculative construction is well described in Jerry White’s book on London in the eighteenth century – click HERE to

The arches underneath the Adelphi formed a warren of dark streets
The arches underneath the Adelphi formed a warren of dark streets

find out more.

If you leave Embankment tube station today and walk up Villiers Street, then look away from the Charing Cross station on your right and you’ll be glancing at where the Adelphi once began. Its classical facade graced the river towards the Savoy and Waterloo Bridge with Somerset House beyond. The posh houses were elevated above the river bank on a series of brick arches that created a subterranean network of streets and alleys. So for the gentry in their new classical houses, underneath their feet were a warren of increasingly seedy pathways frequented by London’s low life. The rich were literally standing over the poor!

The Adelphi was built on the site of a palace owned by the Bishops Palatine of Durham. In the Middle Ages, the most powerful clerics in England had town houses along what is now the Strand – so they could be close to royal power in Westminster.  By the time the Adams

Arches under the RSA converted into a restaurant
Arches under the RSA converted into a restaurant

brothers, freshly arrived from Scotland, came on the scene – medieval Durham House was a bit of a wreck. It was hard to believe that Sir Walter Raleigh had once lived at this address. There is still a street called Durham House Street behind the Strand which gives a ghostly reminder of what was there once. Ditto the other streets in the vicinity pointing to the Adams brothers presence: Adam Street, John Adam Street, Adelphi Terrace and Robert Street.

The name “Adelphi” means brothers in Greek and referred to the intrepid Scottish foursome. Their project ran into financial difficulties during construction and they ended up having to pull political strings to organise a lottery to fund completion. A total of 4,370 tickets were sold at £50 each (a year’s salary for a workman) with a first prize of £25,000. With the money, the Adams boys finished off their classical creation. The Georgian super-rich didn’t warm to it but literary figures like Garrick moved in and it became a bohemian quarter of sorts.

In the early 1930s, the centre of the complex was demolished and replaced with what I think is an absolutely hideous thirties hulk – and I like art deco. But this is a Stalinist, characterless heap of bricks. Around this monstrosity are the remaining

Remaining Adelphi buildings
Remaining Adelphi buildings

Adams buildings, no longer fronting the Thames. They include the headquarters of the Royal Society of Arts. I visited the other day – some photos included here – and the restaurant is down in the arches, now bricked off from public access.

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