The recent underground conflagration under Kingsway has brought into focus just how busy this road has become as the dozens of buses diverted away from the dual carriageway were forced into Fetter Lane causing gridlock in the surrounding area.
The Kingsway thoroughfare was built at the turn of the last century, and as efficient as it is (when in use), it came at the price of a loss of London’s last Elizabethan street.
[T]he Great Fire of London ended its westerly progression approximately at Twinings Tea shop. The adjacent building a survivor of the fire still has the characteristics of Elizabethan buildings for number 229 dates from about 1625 and for a time was home to the Temple gatekeeper.
Just west from this point was Wych Street an ancient mediaeval street of 16th and 17th century houses. The Edwardians swept away all this when Aldwych and Kingsway were constructed.
Wych Street stood roughly where Australia House now stands running from the church of St. Clement Danes to the southern end of Drury Lane. At the time of its demolition many thought this picturesque narrow street with its projecting jetties and gables should be saved. The street being narrow with poor sanitation were ample reasons for Edwardian ’redevelopment’ destroying over 600 buildings in the process, replacing them with the bland office block we see today.
Another redeveloped nearby street was Holywell Street which didn’t live up to its ecclesiastical name, selling ’of second-hand clothing, booksellers peddling indecent prints and volumes’ gave the area a reputation the virtuous Edwardians were only too happy to remove from their midst.
Wych Street had in its time some famous – and infamous – connections: in 1780 brothers George and John Jacob Astor who later became America’s first multi-millionaires ran an instrument shop at number 26 Wych Street; thief Jack Sheppard was apprenticed to an ironically named Mr. Wood a carpenter whose workshop was in Wych Street; in 1892 musical performer Arthur Lloyd lived at number 39; and long before he was to lose his head, Sir Thomas More received his early legal education at Lyon’s Inn, an old Inn of Chancery; and speaking of inns The White Lion Tavern beloved of Jack Sheppard and his cronies stood on Wych Street.
Main picture: Original watercolour of Wych Street, 1860 from a presentation copy of The Life of Dickens, 1872-74. Although this watercolour painting depicts Wych Street as a clean and respectable shopping street, contemporary reports provide a different story. In the 19th century the narrow Wych Street contained poor quality housing and was regarded as an unrespectable area due to its shops selling erotic prints; it is believed that Charles Dickens drew inspiration from the location, notably for Tom-all-Alone in Bleak House. See more at The British Library.