Mere moments away from the very centre of London there lies a quiet, almost secret little road called Lower Robert Street.
Sandwiched between the Strand and Victoria Embankment and running through a twisting tunnel, Lower Robert Street is a covert cut-through we cabbies sometimes like to use if in the area and wishing to make a quick exit down to Victoria Embankment.
Apart from the echo of the odd Taxi or bike courier, the archaic lane is pretty much devoid of any other traffic or people…
In recent years, Lower Robert Street’s grotto like appearance has gained it a nickname: the ‘Bat Cave‘!
Lower Robert Street dates back to the late 18th century, created as a by-product of ‘The Adelphi’; a large housing development consisting of 24 grand, terraced houses.
The project was developed by four Scottish brothers; John, Robert, James and William Adam, whose fraternal bond blessed the scheme with its name- ‘Adelphi’ being the Greek word for brothers.
Construction began in 1772, with many of the labourers who worked on the project also being Scottish.
Nowadays of course you’ll often hear battered radios crackling away on building sites, but when the Adelphi was being built, music for the toiling workers was provided by a group of specially employed bagpipers!
Because it was so close to the river Thames, the Adelphi was located on a slope.
The main building – the row of ornate houses- remained level with the Strand, jutting out over the incline.
To fill in the large void below, a complex of vaulted arches and subterranean streets were created- of which Lower Robert Street is now the only remaining example in practical, public use.
One other vault does exist it can be found in the rather more protected environment of the Royal Society of Arts on nearby Durham House Street:
Many famous people lived in the grand apartments above including the actor David Garrick, Richard D’Oyly Carte (founder of the nearby Savoy hotel), Charles Booth (the great, Victorian social reformer) and a number of notable literary figures including George Bernard Shaw, Sir J.M Barrie and Thomas Hardy.
The Adelphi- and in particular the subterranean lair which lurked beneath- was also mentioned in Charles Dickens’ 1850 masterpiece, David Copperfield;
“I was fond of wandering about the Adelphi, because it was a mysterious place, with those dark arches. I see myself emerging one evening from some of these arches, on a little public-house close to the river, with an open space before it, where some coal-heavers were dancing; to look at whom I sat down upon a bench. I wonder what they thought of me!”
In the late 1860s much of the Thames in central London was reclaimed as part of a vast engineering program to improve the city’s sanitation, the waters pushed back as the wide Victoria Embankment was built.
This major road (which to do this day still conceals a vital sewer) was built right in front of the Adelphi’s lower vaults and roads, robbing them of their tranquil riverside location.
Once cut off from the Thames, the area beneath the Adelphi sank into decline, rapidly becoming a gloomy, foreboding place.
In line with much of Victorian London, the twisting underground roads became a haven for beggars and criminals. As one historian noted; “the most abandoned characters have often passed the night” beneath the Adelphi, “nestling upon foul straw.”
Unsettlingly (and, perhaps unsurprisingly), Lower Robert Street, which was once an ingrained part of this depressing area, has its own resident ghost….
The phantom is known as ‘Poor Jenny’; a prostitute who lived and worked in the depths of Lower Robert Street, the bed upon which she languished being no more than a grotty pile of rags.
It is said that late one night, Jenny was throttled by one of her clients… today, her screams and gasps can be heard echoing through Lower Robert Street, the awful noise accompanied by a rhythmic tapping; the sound of Jenny kicking the floor as she fights against the strangulation…
Perhaps that’s why the powers that be choose to close the road every night between midnight and 7am…