Victorian London - Districts - Streets - Holywell Street

HOLYWELL STREET was once noted only as a mart for second-hand clothing, and booksellers' shops [-319-] dealing in indecent prints and volumes. The reputation it thus acquired was not a very creditable one.
    Time has, however, included Holywell Street in the clauses of its Reform Bill. Several highly respectable booksellers and publishers have located themselves in the place that once deserved no better denomination than Rag Fair. The unprincipled venders of demoralizing books and pictures have, with few exceptions, migrated into Wych Street or Drury Lane; and even the two or three that pertinaciously cling to their old temples of infamy in Holywell Street, seem to be aware of the incursions of respectability into that once notorious thoroughfare, and cease to outrage decency by the display of vile obscenities in their windows.
    The reputation of Holywell Street has now ceased to be a by-word: it is respectable ; and, as a mart for the sale of literary wares, threatens to rival Paternoster Row.
    It is curious to observe that, while butchers, tailors, linen-drapers, tallow-manufacturers, and toy-venders, are gradually dislodging the booksellers of Paternoster Row, and thus changing the once exclusive nature of this famous street into one of general features, the booksellers, on the other hand, are gradually ousting the old clothes dealers of Holywell Street.
    As the progress of the American colonist towards the far-west drives before it the aboriginal inhabitants, so do the inroads of the bibliopoles menace the Israelites of Holywell Street with total extinction.
    Paternoster Row and Holywell Street are both toeing their primitive features: the former is becoming a mart of miscellaneous trades ; the latter is rising into a bazaar of booksellers.
    Already has Holywell Street progressed far towards this consummation. On the southern side of the thoroughfare scarcely a clothes shop remains; and those on the opposite side wear a dirty and miserably dilapidated appearance. The huge masks, which denote the warehouse where masquerading and fancy-attire may be procured on sale or hire, seem to "grin horribly a ghastly smile," as if they knew that their occupation was all but gone. The red-haired ladies who stand at their doors beneath a canopy of grey trousers with black seats, and blue coats with brown elbows - a distant imitation of Joseph's garment of many colours - seem dispirited and care-worn, and no longer watch, with the delighted eyes of maternal affection, their promising offspring playing in the gutters. Their glances are turned towards the east - a sure sign that they meditate an early migration to the pleasant regions which touch upon the Minories.
    Holywell Street is now a thoroughfare which no one can decry on the score of reputation: it is, however, impossible to deny that, were the southern range of houses pulled down, the Strand would reap an immense advantage, and a fine road would be opened from the New Church to Saint Clement Danes.

George Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1844-46

see also James Grant in Light and Shadows of London Life - click here


Sir, - I was much gratified by seeing an account in the police report of The Times of this morning of the suppression of at least one of the many shops which now exist in the metropolis for the sale of obscene works and pictures. How is it that so many more are left unmolested has long been a matter of wonder to me.
    I would direct your attention more especially to Holywell-street and Wych-street, in which are shops the windows of which display books and pictures of the most disgusting and obscene character, and which are alike loathsome to the eye and offensive to the morals of any person of well-regulated mind. The mischief, however, does not exist merely in the outward display alone - that is perhaps the least part of the danger; but, alas! that is nothing to the effect which such works are calculated to produce on the minds of those persons whose morbid desires induce them eagerly to peruse them, oftentimes to the destruction of their health, and, what is infinitely worse, to their souls' danger. . . . . 

letter in The Times, September 15, 1849

HOLYWELL STREET, STRAND. A narrow dirty lane, extending parallel with the Strand, from St. Clement's Danes to St. Mary-le-Strand, occupied chiefly by old clothesmen and the vendors of low publications. Here still swing over some of the shop-doors a few old signs.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850


At about a quarter to twelve last night, an earthquake swallowed those two lines of ancient, picturesque buildings, lying due east from the New Church, Strand, known as Holywell Street. Since the great earthquake at Lisbon, no shock has been so sudden, no devastation so complete. What, however, is the most. surprising, as the most gratifying part of the catastrophe, is the fact, that no lives have been sacrificed. Several cradles have been swallowed, but not even one baby is missing.
    At about eleven o'clock the house of MR. SHADRACK (Mr. S. was supping in the bosom of his family), underwent a slight shaking which the philosophical dealer in cast raiments attributed to the vibration caused by cabs and carriages. He, therefore, went on with his supper, and, in his own memorable words, "thought nothing about it."
    MR. ABEDNEGO distinctly saw several objects oscillate upon his shop walls; and MR. MESHACK declares, that he, heard a loud subterranean sound, as though all Houndsditch and the Minories put together were crying "Old Clo!" Ere these respectable tradesmen could give the alarm - had they intended to do so - the catastrophe took place; and what was, a few minutes before, Holywell Street, in all its picturesque and ancient beauty had sunk to the centre. That not a single soul was sacrificed may be considered as truly miraculous.
    Of course, the greatest consternation prevailed throughout the neighbourhood. The houseless Holywellites, when they could he discovered from amidst the clouds of suffocating dust that arose on all sides, were received by the most respectable shopkeepers in the Strand, and, for the nonce, clothed and comforted. One venerable person seemed perfectly bewildered by the offer of clean linen; and another, a dealer in the light pictorial literature that once coquettishly peeped from the Holywell Street window, made a most vigorous resistance (his brain, no doubt, overwrought by the calamity) when an attempt was made to wash him. A third, in the aberration of the moment, ate the piece of yellow soap offered him, in the belief that it was gingerbread. Much, however, is to be allowed for the consternation of the time. Too high praise cannot be given to many of the inhabitants of the southern side of the Strand; they all vied with one another in proffers of assistance, and in the expression of sympathy for the houseless and destitute.
    Collections are to he made next Saturday at all the synagogues.

    WE stop the press to announce, that the above-supplied by hitherto a most trustworthy correspondent and guinea-and-a-half-a-liner-is an unprincipled fabrication.
    As yet Holywell Street has not been swallowed up by an earthquake. No: Holywell Street still stands, a proud monument of the vested rights of every sort of physical and moral filth and foulness. There the Fine Arts still flourish in their pruriency, defiant of the police; and there dirt and darkness meet and make mortal compact. Holywell Street still exists and festers. The ulcer stilt remains at the back of the Strand; with its fine shop-fronts. The abomination still reeks; yet, it is said SIR BENJAMIN HALL has a nose! However, let us hope, that the imagined earthquake of our reporter, may be prophetic; let us hope that the underground rumblings of his fancy are but as prefatory sounds issuing from the Metropolitan Board of Works.

Punch, January 19, 1856

A FEW poor wretches - they have at any time for the past twenty years been in gaol for the offence - have been seized and carried from their pestilential holes in Holywell-street. Evidently these poor creatures must be mad. Thus, we would not shut them up for a few months in Coldbath-fields, but for their natural lives in Bedlam. In default of prints, we would exercise them with oakum.

Punch, April 5, 1856

Holywell Street, named from a well, said to have been situated under the Old Dog Tavern, is still one of the most picturesque of the streets of London, - a few of the old lofty gabled houses even yet remaining. It has long been noted for its old book-stalls, and for questionable literature; but its chief business of late seems to be in new cheap books, at a 25 per cent. discount off the published prices. Holywell Street has, by one or two of its bookselling tenants, been dignified as Booksellers' Row, Strand; but the old name is better known.

Herbert Fry, London, 1889

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - The Strand, with St. Mary's Church, looking East

The Strand, with St. Mary's Church, looking East - photograph


The church of St. Mary-le-Strand was designed by Gibbs, and though it has been censured as tawdry by medievalists in architecture, it has won no small admiration from critics with a more catholic taste. The first of fifty churches built by order in the reign of Queen Anne, it dates from the year 1717. In the distance may be seen the spire of St. Clement Danes' and the tower of the Royal Palace of Justice. The narrow street beginning at the north-east corner of St. Mary's (on the left) is Holywell Street, which it is proposed to demolish in order to effect a much-needed widening of the Strand. To the right of our view is the Strand fašade of Somerset House, and beyond it the entrance to King's College.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - St. Clement Danes'

St. Clement Danes' -  photograph


St. Clement Danes' (where the Danes come in nobody knows for certain) occupies a commanding position near the eastern end of the Strand. It was built in 1682, under the superintendence of Wren, the tower, however, being added in 1719; and it was restored in 1839. The tower is 115 feet high, and consists of Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite tiers. Our view, taken from the front of the Royal Palace of Justice, shows the east end of the building. The main street of the Strand is to the left of the picture, and the road to the right leads to Holywell Street and Wych Street. It was at St. Clement Danes' that Dr. Johnson regularly attended divine service, and his pew in the gallery is distinguished by a brass plate. The organ, by Father Smith, was restored in 1893.


There is a good opportunity for police interference in Holywell Street, that dingy old Elizabethan thoroughfare with its overhanging fronts, which runs from St. Clement Danes at the Law Courts, with Wych Street, into the slum district of the Bill Sikes country. I came through there to-day as far as the old Globe Theatre at Newcastle Street, and its shop windows were besieged by a crowd of clerks in their mid-day rest hour. These windows and front shelves are packed with vicious and gaudy literature, and other material, whose sort is hardly to be matched in the lowest quarters of Paris. If it were not for the further advertisement which this noxious old street were to receive, and thus increase its clientele, I should expose it in print. There are also one or two shops with good old books. Colonel Howard Vincent, who was head of the C.I.D. at Scotland Yard, says they once tried to clean out the vicious stands, but never succeeded, and now they have given it up because they hope that when the County Council gets to work on its improvements between the Strand and Holborn, Holywell Street and Wych Street must necessarily be included. Norman Shaw, the architect, told me the other day that he had been consulted on the scheme. He wants to make a great boulevard and base it on an ornamental circle opposite Somerset House, but he does not think it will ever come to pass.

R.D.Blumenfeld's Diary, October 23, 1900

I have an idea it had not the furtive air cultivated by Holywell Street that went east from the foot of Drury Lane to St. Clement's Danes. (A fellow clerk was lured by an engaging and rollicking title to purchase a book in Holywell Street. Finding the contents did not reach the stage of impropriety indicated, he took the volume back and appealed, without any success, for a return of his money.) Holywell Street was a grubby place, and most of the shops were in the charge of Jewish ladies, who wore an expression of inclusive contempt. More to my taste was Newcastle Street, for there one discovered an entrance to the Globe Theatre; the gallery entrance was in Wych Street, with the doors of the Opera Comique not far off.

W. Pett Ridge, A Story Teller : Forty Years in London, 1923