A maze of Medieval streets was razed in 1901 to build the modern thoroughfares of Kingsway and Aldwych in London. Australia House now stands on the footprint of Holywell and Wych Streets and the many tiny lanes that connected them. The ancient buildings along these streets had survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. By the time they were torn down they had been allowed to deteriorate into a sort of picturesque shambles.
Holywell and Wych Streets ran parallel to the Strand between St Clement Dane’s and Drury Lane. Victorian photographs of Wych Street show a narrow road—made more narrow when the sidewalks were widened around the turn of the century—lined with half-timbered buildings, three to five stories in height, which appear to lean across the street toward each other. (Builders maximized square footage on crowded streets with narrow foundations and upper floors that extended out over the street.) In his 1878 book, Old and New London, Walter Thornbury wrote of the “curious old wooden-fronted and gabled houses” on Wych Street “which are equally picturesque and inconvenient.”
The image is perfectly Dickensian—and Dickens certainly knew the street. While travelling in Italy in 1844, he wrote “a very pretty description of the vineyards between Piacenza and Parma” in a letter to his friend John Forster. He qualified the charming picture as follows: “If you want an antidote to this, I may observe that I got up, this moment, to fasten the window; and the street looked like some byeway in Whitechapel—or—I look again—like Wych Street, down by the little barber’s shop on the same side of the way as Holywell Street.” Dickens located his fictional slum, Tom-All-Alone’s, in Bleak House, somewhere in the network of streets around Wych and Holywell. He described it as “a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people.”
The real area was not a slum, per se. But it did have a reputation for indecency. Beginning in the eighteenth century both Holywell and Wych Streets became tenanted by booksellers. In the nineteenth century many of them were dealing in radical and pornographic literature. Holywell Street in particular was associated with the distribution of pornography. The decision to destroy the streets was likely encouraged by the prospect of clearing out those vile businesses. If so it was a pyrrhic victory. The evil of pornography is still with us, hundreds of priceless historic buildings are not.
At a Livery dinner in London not long ago I dined with a gentleman who works for the Australian High Commission to the United Kingdom. I brought up the subject of the lost streets near the embassy where he works and he told me that in the basement of Australia House they discovered the ancient holy well that gave the old street its name. The well is nearly a thousand years old, fed by water from the same aquifers that feed the River Fleet. The water was tested and found to be pure. He showed me a photograph and told me that at least one of his colleagues had drunk from it.
Dickens, Charles. (1853) Bleak House. London: Bradbury & Evans.
Forster, John. (1872-4) The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman & Hall.
Howse, Christopher. (March 8, 2010) “Give us streets that are narrow and crooked,” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherhowse/7400098/Give-us-streets-that-are-narrow-and-crooked.html
Shlicke, Paul (ed). (2011) The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.