Sitting in the midst of one of the busiest traffic junctions in London, Marble Arch marks the far western side of the Oxford Street shopping district. Sitting on the site of a notorious execution locale, Marble Arch appears a relatively simple landmark, but is actually a curious, interesting, and important piece of London History.
History and Design
Marble Arch initially had much grander designs than sitting in the centre of a busy roundabout. The arch was designed by architect John Nash in 1827 and was intended to be the official state entrance to Buckingham Palace. If Nash’s original plan had come to final fruition, Marble Arch would today be situated in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace, just in front of the famous Palace balcony.
King George IV had requested the construction of the arch and chose John Nash to design the structure itself which was based on the models of both the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Originally, a bronze equestrian statue of the King was intended to sit atop the arch however, King George IV died in 1830, before the statue was completed. The new king, George’s brother, King William IV, refused to continue paying for the creation of the statue. He disliked both the arch and the idea of spending money and time to update Buckingham Palace, a building he had no interest in using himself. So much was his dislike that he actually attempted to gift the arch (along with the entirety of Buckingham Palace!) to Parliament, after the destruction of the Palace of Westminster.
Buckingham Palace remained in King William’s possession and it was agreed that the completion of the arch could take place, but with the omission of the statue of George IV. That statue would eventually be completed and come to rest on top of one of the plinths in Trafalgar Square. In 1833 the arch was completed - sans any decoration on top - and stood just in front of Buckingham Palace. Originally the arch was a beautiful gleaming white but the pollution of the London atmosphere meant that the marble quickly began to fade and in 1847 London Magazine described the Arch as “discoloured by smoke and damp, and in appearance resembling a huge sugar erection in a confectioner’s shop window.”
Because King William IV was not a huge lover of Buckingham Palace, the Palace itself remained unoccupied during his reign. On Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, Buckingham Palace became a hub of royal activity and life. The Queen’s expanding family (9 children!) required that the Palace be extended and the Arch was moved out of the way so a new wing to the Palace could be added.
Dismantled, the Arch was moved in 1847 and was rebuilt by Thomas Cubitt to act as a ceremonial entrance to Hyde Park. Now in a central location, the Arch was utilised and was actually transformed into a police station in 1851 - and was used until 1968!
Today the Arch remains at Cumberland Gate in the northeast corner of Hyde Park. It is only rarely used - for example, the golden state coach passed through the arch during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, and inside the arch is essentially now empty storage. It is often speculated that the Arch may be moved again - this time to sit actually inside the boundaries of Hyde Park instead of outside - so that it would be more accessible to the public. However, as of now, there are no concrete plans for this to take place.
Just adjacent to the Marble Arch sits a small bronze plaque that commemorates the location of the famous Tyburn Gallows. The gallows here were host to thousands of executions throughout the centuries. Named after the River Tyburn (still flowing underneath the road here), the first usage of this site for executions dates back to 1196. Eventually the ‘Tyburn Tree’ (a three sided wooden structure that could simultaneously hang as many as 24 prisoners) was erected here - gallows that would stand for centuries until the last execution that took place here on the 3rd of November 1783.
Visiting the Arch
The interior of the Arch is not open to the public, however, visitors can walk alongside the Arch throughout the day and are free to sit nearby to enjoy the fountains and small grassy areas that have been built around it.
Nearest Underground Station: Marble Arch, of course!