Sherlock Holmes and the real-life mystery of London’s forgotten Australian wooden roads
London. Late evening of July 16th, 1898.
“We’re nearing Millbank Penitentiary, at last,” said Sherlock Holmes.
Dr Watson, familiar with his friend’s powers of deduction nevertheless expressed his surprise. “How the deuce do you know that?” he said. “I can’t even see the hand in front of my face!”
Holmes and Dr Watson were in a Hansom cab, hurrying to the Palace of Westminster. The streets were blanketed with a “peasouper” fog and, through the gloom, not even the gas street lights could be discerned.
“It’s elementary, my dear Watson” the great detective replied. “I have studied the different road surfaces of this great metropolis of ours and, from the sound of the wheels on the road, I can tell which streets are covered in granite setts; which are made from compressed asphalte; those which are covered in timber blocks; and those made from cork or indiarubber. Right now we’re on a macadam road, as you can clearly hear from the distinctive crunching from beneath our wheels. A few moments ago we were on a road covered with, if I am not mistaken, Jarrah wooden blocks from our antipodean colonies. Jarrah is an Aboriginal name for Eucalyptus marginata. This hardwood has a density ten times that of the Swedish deal that covers some of our other streets. The sound of a cab’s wheels on a Jarrah road makes a particular sound and, by estimating the speed of our horse, the number of turns it takes and the sound from the road, I can work out our approximate location even in total darkness, give or take five yards.”
Watson sat back, impressed.
“Come now, Watson” ejaculated Holmes. “We are here. Make ready your revolver and let us hurry in, a great crime is due to be committed here tonight and, if we tarry, I fear we will be too late to prevent it.”
If you think most of London’s roads were cobbled when Holmes and Watson solved tricky cases in the 1890s, that’s just as fictional as Holmes and Watson themselves. In the 1890s, not all of London’s main roads were “cobbled”, covered in oblong granite setts; many were surfaced with wood. There are plenty of setts poking through asphalt but they survive because they’re made of granite; wood burns and when the roads were surfaced with tarmac the majority of London’s wooden blocks were ripped out for fire-wood.
As Holmes could tell you, there were different kinds of wood on the roads of London. The posh streets were covered in creosote-soaked blocks of expensive Jarrah, an Australian hardwood. Workaday wooden streets would have been paved with blocks of Swedish yellow deal, a softwood that detractors said absorbed horse urine and manure and, when pressed, would spray it back out.
This is vividly described in an 1898 newspaper report by an Australian proponent of hardwoods:
“No streets in the metropolis get harder wear than do those in the district governed by the Strand Board of Works, and anyone who has occasion to pass along the Strand itself on a wet day cannot fall to notice the difference in the state of the road where hardwood is laid. Whenever there is rain the Strand (laid with deal) is muddy, sloppy, greasy, and altogether unbearable. The walls of the houses and the shop windows are splashed with mud to a height of 15ft from the ground, and the glass of the windows has to be cleaned once every two days in wet weather. In contrast to this let one take the Waterloo Road, where the carriage-way is paved with hardwood. On the wettest day it is possible to pass down the street without being in need of a new suit of clothes, a fresh collar, and a newly ironed hat…”
During the journey to Parliament from their shared digs, Holmes and Watson would have travelled on wood-block roads (Baker Street, Oxford Street, Drury Lane and the Strand), macadamised crushed-stone roads (Constitution Hill and Millbank); and, via a detour thanks to a blockage on Birdcage Walk, a short stretch of sheet asphalt road (Victoria Street). At no stage during this journey would the detective and his sidekick have travelled on ‘cobbled’ granite setts.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a great lover of cycling, didn’t include any of the road surfacing detail in his Sherlock Holmes novels, I made it up. That roads were surfaced with timber would have been unremarkable to Victorians but, today, it’s highly surprising to discover that London’s roads were once not just a fire risk, but an Australian fire risk.
In the wet, London’s timber roads were oily, smelly and could be slippery for two wheeled vehicles (cyclists preferred sheet asphalt or well-laid macadam and lobbied for such roads, long before motorists did).
In the dry, London’s wooden roads could make for good riding. The Times of London, in 1884, said:
The cyclist…is everywhere to be seen…He comes in to his work down Oxford-street and Holborn; the long stretch of wood pavement that goes from Piccadilly Circus to Kensington is his delight.
American cycle tourist George Mitchell, writing in Bicycling World, 24th January 1890 reported that London’s “wood block pavement is smooth enough to ride on.”
Mitchell didn’t comment on the smell, but others did. Major Lewis Isaacs, the surveyor to the Board of Works for Holborn, wrote in 1894 about the “most sickening odour” given off by wooden roads:
“Wood pavement has one most serious disadvantage — it offends more than any other against public hygiene. If time would permit, I could quote the opinions given by authorities both at home and abroad in proof of this assertion. But I will content myself by asking you to rely on the evidence afforded by your own sense of smell as to this. Let anyone dwell, say, for twenty-four hours by the seaside or in the pure air of a rural district, and travel to town, alighting, for example, at the Victoria Station, the roadways of which, as you know, are paved with wood. What greets him on arrival? The most sickening odour given off by the pavement in question…” [note: pavement here means the road surface, not the sidewalk]
W. H. Delano, general manager for the Compagnie Générale des Asphaltes de France, which supplied Paris with its asphalt, wrote in his 1893 asphalt-plugging book that wood pavements were not “hygienic” because they were porous:
“As animals have not yet been trained to use water-closets and urinals the public highways are defiled with their dung and their urine; these, as well as other filth, a absorbed by the wood, and ferment in its fibres. Under a hot sun, morbid germs are drawn up into the atmosphere and inhaled by the inhabitants, stunting the growth of children and debilitating adults. The surface of wood pavement becomes, after one, two, or three years, according to traffic, like a worn-out tooth-brush. The fibres from this disintegrated surface, mixed with horse-dung and filth, are pounded and ground up by the traffic, and in this form, on a dry day, are swallowed by the citizens, or carried home in their hair and garments…dust from decayed wood pavement is poisonous.”
Delano – sticking the knife in to his road surfacing rival – added that wooden block pavements had other disadvantages, too:
“There is another danger, viz. that in case of riots the wood blocks smeared with petroleum and set alight, might aid the criminal design of incendiaries, as in the case of the Paris Commune in 1871.”
Further, “On wood pavements the sound of the horses’ hoof is not heard – a danger for deaf or careless crossers. It has been said indeed, that wood pavement cures deafness by killing off the deaf.”
The use of wooden blocks to cover the streets of London had started in the 1840s, with the importation of Swedish softwoods, leading to a trade deficit with the Baltic region. But untreated yellow deal rotted and was quickly rutted by carriage wheels. Many of the wooden pavements laid in the 1840s were grubbed up within just a few years and often not replaced. Wooden pavements made their first comeback in the 1870s. In 1867, American ordnance engineer Benjamin Berkley Hotchkiss patented an improved way of laying wooden pavements. (He packed the wooden blocks on to a preserving composition above a gravel layer). He later went on to design a hand-cranked machine-gun but also made money from installing wooden pavements. He moved to Paris after the U.S. Government showed no interest in his gun designs and he set up an armaments firm in the suburb of St. Denis. He also created the Paris Wood Paving Company and the London Wood Paving Company. Both cities contracted the Hotchkiss companies to instal improved wooden pavements on certain roads, including Bartholomew Lane, London EC2.
In 1872, Messrs. Mowlem and Company – founded in 1822 and still in existence today – took over the business and contracts of the London Wood Paving Company and created the Improved Wood Pavement Company Ltd. This company was still advertising its wooden road blocks in the 1920s.
The Mowlem offshoot was one of the companies which popularised the use of Australian hardwoods on roads. Hardwoods such as Jarrah and Karri Eucalyptus woods. These started to be used in London from 1888 and were more long-lasting than previously used woods.
An Australian newspaper, in 1897, said:
“Just seven years ago St. Martin’s Lane was blocked with [jarrah], and a year later the street in front of the London Hospital was put down also with jarrah. Both these roads are subject to a great deal of regular traffic; and to the
fact that the wood seems in as good condition as when laid is due the statement by some people that jarrah is the coming paving material. This may or may not be the case, but the fact that Regent Street is being blocked with jarrah is a good indication that the authorities consider it to be at least as good as any wood paving yet tried…[Jarrah] is an ideal wood. That it is coming to be recognised as such is evident from the fact that Pall Mall was laid with it just before the jubilee, and as soon as Regent Street is completed Shaftesbury avenue will be begun, and afterwards Duke Street will be paved. Besides this, a number of streets in a less fashionable quarter — I mean Whitechapel — are being paved with jarrah.”
Other British cities also paved some streets with Jarrah. This was mainly due to the success of a year-long lecture tour by Richard Watkins Richards, the city surveyor of Sydney. Richards, who later became mayor of Sydney and was knighted just before his death in 1920, toured Europe from December 1896 to September 1897 and extolled the use of Australian hardwoods for paving streets. He had covered the streets of Sydney with local hardwoods in the late 1880s.
In a paper written in 1904, Richards claimed that Australian hardwoods – such as Blackbutt, Tallowwood, bluegum, red gum, turpentine, and mahogany – were the “nearest to the perfection of an ideal carriageway pavement for all conditions, as traffic, climatic, meteorological, and constructional, that are met with in cities of all countries.”
“The results demonstrated by the use of New South Wales hardwoods for street-paving naturally attracted the attention of authorities in cities of Europe and America, and, it is safe to say, of the whole world, for from time to time the author has replied to inquiries from officers and others interested of Shanghai and Eastern cities, the chief cities of Europe, America, and the United Kingdom, and in numerous instances resulted in the introductions of New South Wales timbers in the paving of streets in cities of the countries named. During 1897 it was the author’s privilege when in England to read a paper on ‘Wood Pavements in Sydney’ before, the members of the Incorporated Association of Municipal and Sanitary Engineers, in the Hall of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Westminster. This paper evoked much discussion, the points of inquiry by the engineers present, representing the chief cities and vestries of the United Kingdom, being replied to by the author. As a consequence, all the available hardwood then in the market was purchased and used by cities at that time engaged in works of street-paving, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Edinburgh manifesting interest by further pursuing inquiries, and it was my pleasure to fully advise Mr George Laws, M.Inst. C.E., city engineer: and Councillor Winter, of the Works Committee of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as also a deputation of the Works Committee of the City Council of Edinburgh. Then, too, the city engineers of Paris and Copenhagen were similarly treated in response to inquiries.”
Richards estimated that Australian hardwoods, used on roads, would last for 50 years.
A large number of companies thrived on the importation and installation of wooden blocks for road paving; companies such as the Asphaltic Wood Pavement Company; Croske’s Wood Pavement; Lloyd’s Patent Keyed Wood Pavement and the Patent Ligno-Mineral Paving Company.
Many of London’s most famous thoroughfares were still covered with wooden blocks through until the 1920s. This can be seen on a little-known map held by the National Library of Scotland, the Bartholomew’s Road Surface Map of London from 1922 (it was first published in 1906). It shows that most of London’s roads, even into the 1930s probably, weren’t covered in setts but surfaced with wooden blocks. Writing in 1926, motoring pioneer H.O. Duncan (who had been a high-wheel cycling champion in his youth) said: “In England…wood paving is largely used.”
Bartholomew maps were noted for their on-the-ground, up-to-the-month accuracy thanks to the tireless work of cyclists.
Most histories say just a few of London’s roads were surfaced with wood, such as outside hospitals, where a quiet running surface was vital. The road surface map shows that a great many of London’s inner city roads were surfaced with wood. W.H. Delano, writing in his book Twenty Years’ ̓practical Experience of Natural Asphalt and Mineral Bitumen, 1893, listed the following roads as being surfaced with natural asphalt: King William Street; Gracechurch Street; Queen Victoria Street; Cheapside; Aldgate; Holborn Viaduct; Newgate Street; Moorgate Street and Cornhill. These roads are shown on the Bartholomew map as being surfaced with asphalt.
There’s further confirmation of accuracy for the map from vestry reports. The 1884 Report of the Medical Officer of Health for St. Martin-in-the-Fields confirms that a number of London’s most important thoroughfares were paved with wood, often freshly laid or re-laid. The Strand, Northumberland Avenue, Charing Cross, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall were all surfaced with wood.
In an 1897 report of a Special Committee of the Paddington Vestry it was said:
“Your committee are unanimously agreed as to the imperative importance of hardwood for public thoroughfares and they entirely endorse the words of the surveyor of Lambeth (J.P. Norrington, C.E) “that it is a wicked waste of public money to pave a line of heavy traffic with soft wood.
“Your Committee has formed a strong opinion of repaving Praed Street with hard wood, and that it should be paved throughout its entire length as a whole for reasons of durability, cleanliness and sanitation, the Vestry have now abandoned the use of soft deal in favour of hard wood, and have accepted a tender for the supply of 850,000 West Australian wood blocks…”
Henry Percy Boulnois, city surveyor of Exeter and later Liverpool, and author of Dirty dustbins and sloppy streets of 1881, wrote a number of 1890s books on road construction, including the Municipal and Sanitary Engineer’s Handbook of 1892. He remarked that “the increased use of wood as a paving material, especially in London and the suburbs, has been remarkable during the last few years, the reason, no doubt, being its near approach to noiselessness without that slipperiness attributed to asphalte.”
He also recommended continuity of road surfaces, a bugbear of both cyclists and those in charge of horses: “experience has shown that horses and drivers become more used to and confident upon continuous streets of the same paving. It is found that where a horse has to travel for a few yards upon macadam, then upon stone setts, then upon wood, and, lastly, upon asphalte, or any combinations of these pavements, that accidents by falls are more likely to occur.”
Boulnois recommended wooden roads for shopping streets:
“The class of property which abuts on a street should also to some extent guide the selection of the paving material. Stone setts may be very suitable for streets of warehouses, but would be inexpedient for residential streets, especially where there might be hospitals, schools, or places of worship. The fact of the greater part of the streets in the West-end of London being verged with shops has been the cause of so much wood pavement having been laid down.”
As London had a wide variety of road administrations, organised via vestries, there were a wide variety of road surfaces. According to the 1895 Construction of Carriageways & Footways by Boulnois, Fulham had 100 yards of granite setts in the 1890s, and four and a half miles of wooden roads (deal, mostly). Westminster had three quarters of a mile of setts and three and a half miles of wood (deal, Jarrah and Karri). Yet Islington had 12 miles of setts and just half a mile of wooden roads (mostly Jarrah and Karri). Chelsea had no granite setts but more than four miles of wooden roads, mostly deal, with some stretches of Karri.
London wasn’t the only city to have wooden roads, most British cities also installed wooden road surfaces, especially on their premier thoroughfares (Edinburgh’s Princes Street was surfaced with creosoted beech). However, the northern cities had to contend with heavier road vehicles so were mainly surfaced with granite setts.
Many of Britain’s wooden roads weren’t ripped out until the 1950s. The creosoted blocks burnt well and were much in demand for home heating, as shown by Lord Alan Sugar in his autobiography, ‘What You See Is What You Get’. The entrepreneur got one of his first tastes of business by chopping up and selling the discarded wooden blocks for use as fire-lighters: “In the late fifties the roads in [Hackney] were being resurfaced…The removal of the old road surface uncovered a base layer of wooden blocks set into the ground in a herringbone pattern…It occurred to me that these discarded wooden blocks could be made into fire lighting sticks.”
In America, many of the richer cities also had wooden road surfaces (the wooden roads in Chicago burnt vigourously in the Great Fire of 1871). American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe was a big fan of wooden road surfaces, and urged American cities to adopt the English practice.
Writing to a US newspaper in 1845, Poe complained that America had “fallen culpably behind” England in its lack of adoption of wooden pavements, i.e. road surfaces:
“One would naturally suppose that the immense advantage which London has derived from adopting wood pavement, had been previously felt in this country, where the invention was first introduced from Russia; but it seems that the system has been badly applied both in Boston and New York; for surely there is no reason in the difference of climate, soil, or timber, to render the result so different from what it has been in London, where the experiments are considered as entirely successful.
“Wooden pavement…laid in all the great thoroughfares, such as Regent street, Whitehall, Oxford street, Holborn, Strand, Cheapside, the New Road, and a large proportion of the city and West End. It is calculated that it will be universal over London in four or five years more.”
In fact, these wooden roads lasted five years or less, before rotting. The timber blocks were ripped up and replaced with granite setts. In turn the granite setts were ripped up (and recycled for use elsewhere) from 1888 and replaced with Australian hardwoods.
Other road surfaces were used in London in the 1890s. Boulnois said one inch thick indiarubber “meets nearly all the requirements of a perfect roadway” and that “a small sample of this description of pavement has been laid for many years at the entrance to Euston Station.”
This rubber road had sheets “held down at their sides upon a concrete foundation by strips of iron which clasp the edges tight on each side. It seems to be exceedingly durable, perfectly safe, and absolutely noiseless and impervious.”
No doubt it also prevented the “breaking of fragile articles falling upon it”, an attribute of the cork road covering developed by the Cork Pavement Company of London. According to Boulnois, this was made up of “ground cork pressed into a bituminous mixture…It is claimed for it that it gives absolutely secure foothold for horses or pedestrians in any weather, and is durable, perfectly noiseless, and non-absorbent, and can be made of any size or thickness to suit all purposes, and that as it is elastic, it prevents the breaking of fragile articles falling upon it.”However, according to Boulnois, one of the top road experts of his day (he was a member of the the Government’s Roads Board, founded in 1909), nothing surpassed wood as a road surface. Even when recipes for asphalt and tarmac had been largely perfected, Boulnois was effusive about wood-block roads in his 1919 textbook, in Modern Roads, of 1919:
“Wood blocks are now proving to be one of the most popular materials for street paving, not only in London, but all over the civilised world…In wood paving we seem to have reached the ne plus ultra of road construction. I have seen cobble stones give way to water-bound macadam, which in turn was displaced for the old fashioned granite setts, and this was finally removed to make place for wood paving. Whether in the evolution of road making this description of paving will disappear in favour of more better material remains to be seen, but so far, there appears to be every indication that wood paving will hold its own for some years to come, as the most suitable pavement for streets in the cities and towns of this country.”
Boulnois, incidentally, was a friend of Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “[We] often used often to go to Doyle’s house after dinner, and, in his smoking-room, discuss all sorts of subjects, from metaphysics to more mundane matters. How well can I remember those enjoyable evenings when we settled mighty problems to our own satisfaction.”
Doyle, of course, was a great cyclist. In Scientific American of January 18, 1896, Doyle was quoted as saying: “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”
In the 1920s, Boulnois was chairman of the council of the Roads Improvement Association. This was the first ever organised body to push for the improvement of roads. The highly influential RIA had been founded by cycling organisations, the Cyclists’ Touring Club and the National Cyclists’ Union.
In Modern Roads, Boulnois wrote:
When we see the very large preponderance of wood paving in London and other cities and towns in this country, it is evident that this description of construction is exceedingly popular, and that as a modern pavement it has many advantages, the following being some which are claimed for it:
(i) That it meets all the requirements of modern traffic.
(2) That it is less slippery, under all conditions of weather, than most other descriptions of paving.
(3) That it is noiseless.
(4) That it is easily cleansed.
(5) That it offers a good foothold for horses, and at the same time is popular with motorists.
(6) That by reason of the antiseptic qualities in the creosote oil, with which it is impregnated, it is a sanitary pavement.
(7) That it can be laid on fairly steep gradients.
(8) That owing to its absorption of the shocks of the traffic it is able to withstand heavy and concentrated traffic.
(9) That it is resilient and slightly elastic, which is favourable to the vehicles passing over it.
(10) That if properly constructed it does not become either corrugated or wavy.
Cyclists of the closing years of the 19th Century liked smooth macadam and asphalt, detested granite setts but seemed OK with wooden roads. An unnamed author in weekly cycling magazine The Rambler, wrote (on 26th June 1897):
“From the Mansion House northward to Islington, the course of the Great North Road is, for the adventurous cyclist who launches himself thereon, beset with with the many cares begotten of riding through heavy traffic, streams of ‘buses, trams, and heavy wagons of all descriptions, whose menaces are aggravated by the tousled and lumpy character of the granite setts of the City Road, all combine to render his course anything but a path of roses.
“Notwithstanding the improved conditions of the wood-paved highway that leads us to the Archway Tavern at Holloway, it is with a feeling of relief that we clear the terminus of the tram-lines and the densest of the bus traffic, and, taking the right-hand fork of the road, ascend the rough macadam slope that leads to Highgate Archway…”
Above: Chequer Street in London, on the outskirts of the City, has a short stretch of wooden block paving. Very short.
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