Within a week, I am being 'migrated' from Bush House - my workplace for most of the past thirty years - to the splendid new extension to Broadcasting House at Portland Place. My hinterland switches from Covent Garden to the equally enticing Fitzrovia and Marylebone. But among all the haunts I will miss when I move, one that has given me much innocent pleasure is the vestigial presence of Holywell Street.
My office on the third floor of Bush House, on the north side of the Strand, lies exactly where Holywell Street once stood. I'll explain why that's important. But first - where was Holywell Street?
Take a glance at this enlarged section of Edward Weller's 1868 Map of London. Holywell Street lies just to the north of the Strand, between the churches of St Mary-le-Strand and St Clement Danes.
It was an Elizabethan Street demolished about 1900 to make this part of the Strand altogether grander. I reckon my office is somewhere very close - if three floors up - to the H of 'Holywell'.
And what was Holywell Street? A narrow, jumbled thoroughfare which - for much of its nineteenth century incarnation - was utterly disreputable. I owe my knowledge of this 'street of shame' (a precursor to Private Eye's similarly named street just yards away) to two wonderfully researched books - Lynda Nead's Victorian Babylon (Yale UP, 2000), from which I have taken the following painting with the spire of St Mary-le-Stand looming over the street scene, and Iain McCalman's effervescent Radical Underworld (Cambridge UP, 1988).
The place became the haunt, in the early years of the nineteenth century, of radical and ultra-radical pamphleteers and print makers. The radical tradition persisted, but over time some of these enterprises turned to smut and pornography. If you wanted stuff that would shock - politically, erotically - Holywell Street was the place to go. 'For Victorian London,' Lynda Nead writes, 'Holywell Street and obscenity were synonymous'.
'The obscenities of Holywell Street' (Nead says) 'grew out of a radical past. In the first decades of the nineteenth century the street was occupied by radical pressmen: freethinkers, who published tracts on politics, religion and sexuality and who, in the decades following the Revolution in France, were spied on by police informers and prosecuted for sedition, blasphemy and obscenity. This was the home of the literature of radicailsm and of a type of bawdy publishing dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy and immorality of the ruling classes. Holywell Street bore the traces of this political radicalism through the nineteenth century, as its activities shifted from freethinking to pornography.'
It's the radical and freethinking aspect of Holywell Street which engages me. I love political pamphlets of all hues, the more ephemeral the better. Among my haphazard collection are dispiritingly few from Holywell Street. But there is this very nice pamphlet from about 1872, by the then notorious republican George Odger who lived nearby in St Giles, from a Holywell Street address.
Of course, the media work I have been engaged in over the past three decades has little in common with old Holywell Street. But there is a thread of sorts. I am pleased to be in the same space that these rebellious, uncouth pamphleteers once occupied. And in my remaining days in Bush House, I will pay homage to the spirit of Holywell Street.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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