The construction of Farringdon Road, which took almost 20 years between the 1840s and the 1860s, is considered one of the greatest urban engineering achievements of the 19th century. Not only was it one of the first engineered multi-lane roads, but it also buried the River Fleet in a system of underground tunnels, solving one of London’s most daunting sanitary problems.
Its construction also included the building of the world’s first stretch of underground railway, a branch of the Metropolitan Railway that later became part of the London Underground running beneath Farringdon Road from King’s Cross St Pancras into the City at Farringdon.
Like Clerkenwell Road and Rosebery Avenue, it had an enormous impact on the terrain, not just as a new route and topographical boundary across a tortuously laid out district, but also in bringing about wholesale redevelopment of the building fabric. With the making of the road some of the worst social and sanitary blots were erased from the local map, and opportunities provided for the erection of commercial premises on a large scale, transforming the economic and architectural character of the western fringe of Clerkenwell.
This transformation was neither smooth nor speedy. There were several contributory factors, the most important being the lack of a single executive body to carry out the project, widely recognised as a thoroughly desirable one. The creation of the southern half of the road, from Farringdon Street in the City to Clerkenwell Green, took from 1841 to 1856, and this after years of proposals and preparations. The other half, not strictly a new road but a reconstruction of most of Coppice Row and part of Bagnigge Wells Road, was built in the 1860s in conjunction with the cut-and-cover work for the Metropolitan Railway. The underground railway, and additional mainline tracks from King’s Cross, continued southwards in a cutting alongside Farringdon Road, necessitating a series of bridges for the side streets and one crossing of the railway lines.
For years, Farringdon Road was characterised by the wasteland of cleared sites and shored-up houses through which it passed. Building development, mostly for manufacturing and warehousing, but with some block dwellings, terrace-houses and pubs, did not begin until the mid-1860s and continued into the late 1880s. Essentially utilitarian, the big new mercantile buildings were, if seldom individually adventurous in style, imposing en masse. Despite considerable reconstruction since the Second World War, Farringdon Road retains much of this first-generation commercial development.
The construction of Farringdon Road necessitated the removal of the Fleet Market that had been built in 1736 above the course of the River Fleet. North of the market was Hockley-in-the-Hole (around Ray Street Bridge), an area notorious for bear-baiting and similar activities.
Amongst the notable buildings on Farringdon Road are the former headquarters of The Guardian newspaper at No. 119, the so-called Zeppelin Building at No. 61 built in 1917 after a Zeppelin raid during the First World War, and the western side of Smithfield Market.
A notorious building on the street was the Farringdon Road Buildings, a five-tenement block of dwellings built for the working classes during the Victorian era. Lacking bathrooms and with poor sanitary conditions this building, one of the last slum dwellings existing in central London, was still occupied until the early 1970s. Common features were poor lighting, overcrowding, with rat- and cockroach-infested living conditions, and people trapped by their own poverty. The residents were re-housed by Islington Borough Council and the buildings, close to Exmouth Market and the Royal Mail Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, were pulled down in the mid-1970s to be replaced by a multi-storey car park.