23 October 2022

Savoy Court has its own
rules. But is it really the
shortest street in London?

Savoy Court, where the taxis drive on the right, claims to be London’s shortest street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Savoy Court off the Strand is sometimes said to be the shortest street in London, if not in England. It also said to be the only street in Britain where cars must legally drive on the right side of the street.

For more than 100 years, vehicles, from horse-drawn carriages to taxis, have entered and left Savoy Court on the right-hand side of the road.

Savoy Court is privately owned property. It is not a public thoroughfare as it leads only to the Savoy Theatre and the Savoy Hotel.

Nevertheless, the peculiar detail of driving on the right is provided for in a special act of parliament and seems to date back to the days of old hackney cabs, or even to the era of horse-drawn carriage.

When being chauffeured in a horse-drawn carriage, a woman or a dignitary would traditionally sit behind the driver. By approaching the hotel on the right-hand side of the road, either the chauffeur or the hotel’s doorman could open the door without walking around the car. This would allow the passenger to alight from the carriage and walk straight into the hotel.

Some sources say the that by driving on the right, the drivers of hackney cabs could open the backdoor without leaving the cab, allowing the passengers to step out onto the footpath. The passenger’s door in a hackney carriage opened backwards and had the handle at the front. The cab driver could reach his arm out of the driver’s door window to open without having to get out of the cab himself.

Other sources say this peculiar tradition is due primarily to the construction of Savoy Court. When approaching and leaving the hotel, it is easier to do so while driving on the right-hand side of the street.

Another explanation says a special Act of Parliament gave traffic the privilege of driving on the right when entering Savoy Court from the Strand because the Savoy Theatre is on the right-hand side. Taxis can drop their fares directly outside the theatre without turning round in front of the Savoy Hotel, and when leaving they are then free to pick a new fare from the hotel as they turn around.

The small roundabout at the main entrance of the hotel meant that vehicles needed a turning circle of 25 ft (7.6 metres) to navigate it. To this day, this is the legally required turning circle of all London taxis.

But Savoy Court is not the only place where one must drive on the right: there are similar rules at Hammersmith Bus Station and at Victoria Station’s Eccleston Bridge entrance, which functions as a drop off point and car park and has its driving directions reversed.

The success of the Savoy operas enabled D’Oyly Carte to commission building the Savoy Hotel on the site of the former Savoy Palace. Its first manager was César Ritz, who went on to found the Ritz Hotel. The first chef was Auguste Escoffier, who created the Peach Melba in honour of Dame Nellie Melba’s visit in 1892.

In 1898, the Savoy acquired Simpson’s in-the-Strand, which had evolved from a chess club and coffee house into one of the best-known restaurants in London. The original restaurant buildings were demolished when the Strand was widened in 1903 and Simpson’s was rebuilt as part of the complex linked to the hotel.

A consortium headed by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a Saudi billionaire and investor, bought the Savoy Hotel in 2005 for an estimated £250 million. The hotel closed in December 2007 for a lavish restoration that took almost three years to complete.

When Savoy Court was reopened by the Mayor of Westminster in 2000, it was described as ‘London’s shortest street.’

Savoy Court off the Strand is about 38 metres long. But is this the shortest street in London?

Kirk Street, at 15 metres (50 ft) is London’s shortest street with an address: the Dickens, a former pub. But it is a paved, pedestrian-only thoroughfare.

It seems London’s shortest thoroughfare is Leigh Hunt Street in Southwark, which is named after Leigh Hunt, a write and contemporary of Keats and Shelley. The street is a mere 11 metres (36 ft) in length since it was cut short by the creation of a park, and there is nothing on Leigh Hunt Street now apart from the street nameplate itself.

Savoy Court is privately owned and leads only to the Savoy Theatre and the Savoy Hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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