Holywell Street and Wych Street, London in 1901
Four theatres were demolished when London's Aldwych, named after the Old Wych Street, was constructed. This vast operation began in the last years of the nineteenth century and was not finally completed until after the First World War. The Olympic Theatre in Wych Street and the Opera Comique in the Strand were closed in 1899, the Globe Theatre in Newcastle Street shut its doors in 1902. This was followed by the closure of the Gaiety Theatre in the Strand in June of the same year.
Right - For more images of London's lost Streets see the Disappearing London page here.
Above - Wych Street in 1901, shortly before being demolished - From a postcard.
Wych Street - our pathway as we walk from Pickett Street towards Drury Lane-derives its name from the Via de Aldwych, whereof it originally formed a part, a lane leading from the north side of the Strand to Broad Street, St. Giles's. It still contains, especially on the south side, some of those curious old wooden-fronted and gabled houses which are equally picturesque and inconvenient. Like Holywell Street, of late years this thoroughfare has gained a notoriety for the sale of books and prints of an immoral class, and at present the sale of them is only partially suppressed. In bygone days, however, it was tenanted by a very different class of persons; although in 1734, according to a statement quoted by Mr. Diprose, this street was "much taken up by upholsterers for the sale of bedding and second-hand household goods."
On the north side of Wych Street, nearly about the centre, is the entrance to New Inn, through which in the day-time there is a thoroughfare into the dismal region of Clare Market. In a narrow court of this street the notorious Jack Sheppard served his apprenticeship to Mr. Wood, the carpenter; and in White Lion Passage stood the "hostelrie" of the "White Lion," the scene of many of the events in the career of that prince of "cracksmen," who used nightly to meet in the taproom his professional friends and acquaintances, and with whose feats and various adventures the pen of Mr. Harrison Ainsworth has made us so familiar.
The site of the old "White Lion" was at the corner of one of the small courts on the northern side, and is now occupied as a carpenter's shop.
Speaking of Wych Street as it was in the days of Jack Sheppard, we may say of the Via de Aldwych, as the writer of "Haunted London" says of Holborn Hill-
--The street curves quaint,
To be sold, a Black Girl, 11 years of age; extremely handy; works at her needle tolerably, and speaks English well. Inquire of Mr. Owen, at the `Angel' Inn, behind St. Clement's Church, in the Strand.
It is said by Allen, in his "History of London," that the "Great Fire" of 1666 was not the first of its kind which laid London waste, for that "in 1136 a great fire happened within the City, which destroyed all the way westward to St. Clement Danes," but he does not mention the precise spot where this fire ended at the west.
We have seen that the parish of St. Clement Danes was not considered remarkable for decency and order in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; for in spite of the rank, wit, and fashion which distinguished it a century and a half later, we find that it even then bore no better character; and the Clement's Lane of the First and Second Georges was no bad precursor to the Wych Street of our own day. The London Spy of that date observes, half in earnest and half in jest, that it "is deemed an excellent air for breeding attorneys in, the chief subject of all conversation turning here upon verdicts, costs, damages, writs of inquiry, &c."
According to the same authority, published in 1725, there was formerly in the parish of St. Clement's the custom of "saddling the spit," which, the writer adds, "is now laid aside, for reasons well known at Westminster Hall." It would seem that whatever this custom may have been-and as far as we have been able to discover, history preserves a discreet silence as to its nature--it was a rough and boisterous one, "more honoured in the breach than in the observance."
Lyon's Inn, lately demolished, was an old Inn of Chancery, belonging in former days to the Inner Temple. It faced Newcastle Street, on its eastern side, between Wych Street and Holywell Street; one entrance led to it from the latter, and also another through Horne Court, next door to an inn known as the "Spotted Dog." Mr. Diprose, in his "Account of St. Clement Danes," tells us that this same "Spotted Dog" had been a hostelry for some 230 years at least before its demolition in 1864, for the purpose of carrying out a building speculation of the "Strand Hotel Company," a speculation which ended in failure. It is said-but we know not with what amount of truth--that the once holy well, which gave its name to the street, was under the "Spotted Dog."
Left - Holywell Street from St. Clement Danes Church, Strand: Drawn by F. C. Emanuel from a 'Disappearing London' Postcard.
Howes, in his "Annals," in continuation of Stow, quaintly tell us that it was "a guest inn or hostelerie held at the sign of the `Lyon,' and purchased by gentlemen professors and students in the law in the reign of King Henry VIII., and converted to an Inn of Chancery." Sir Edward Coke was a student there in 1578.
This Inn, never of much importance, had fallen utterly into disrepute before the beginning of this century, and become the resort of gamblers and swindlers. Here lived Mr. Weare, who was murdered near Edgware by Thurtell in 1824. The latter in defence pleaded in extenuation that Weare had cheated him at cards out of £ 300.
Each of the three Inns alluded to in this chapter was governed by a Principal or Treasurer, and a number of "Ancients," corresponding to Benchers; and Seymour tells us, in his "Survey," that there were "mootings" in each Inn in every term.
The Globe Theatre, which covers its western portion, was built and opened in 1868. It has a narrow frontage in Newcastle Street. On this site the Architectural Association had its first home. The theatre was built from the instructions of Mr. Sefton Parry, the proprietor, and will seat 1,500 persons. The auditorium is effectively decorated in relief, and has a domed ceiling, with a sunlight in the centre. The site having been excavated very considerably for the proposed hotel, the floor of the pit has been made many feet below the line of the street, and is approached by a steep flight of steps from Wych Street. In Wych Street also are the entrances to the gallery stairs, and that to the "royal box." The ordinary boxes are entered from Newcastle Street, and are on a level with the street, so that stairs are avoided. Here, too, enter the occupants of the stalls. The seats are all fairly commodious, and conveniently placed, so that all that is passing on the stage can be distinctly seen and heard from any part of the house. The house opened in December, 1868, with Mr. J. H. Byron's comedy of "Cyril's Success," which in itself proved a great success.
The principal front of the "Opera Comique" is in the Strand, and observant passengers who know the narrowness of the area between the Strand and Holywell Street will find it difficult to imagine how, even in London, where now-a-days theatres are edged in among houses anyhow, an "Opera Comique" can have been formed there. This frontage, however, is, in truth, nothing but the entrance to an underground way leading across Holywell Street to a theatre which has been built between that and Wych Street. The building, which is very small, backs on the "Globe," and is to a considerable extent underground, as will be understood when we mention that a long flight of stairs in Wych Street leads down to the stage level, and that the pit, of course, is lower than that again. The theatre was opened in 1870, and has seen several changes of lessees. It is a pretty little theatre, very nicely decorated, but has no marked characteristic with regard to the entertainments given. These consist principally of French plays or opera bouffe, and are presented sometimes in French and at other times in English.
The Olympic Theatre, at the end of Wych Street, occupies the site of old Craven House, which was taken down in 1803, the ground being purchased by Mr. Phililp Astley of the "Amphitheatre" over Westminster Bridge, who constructed what was called at the time "a house of public exhibition of horsemanship and droll," which he styled "the Olympic Pavilion." It was opened as such in 1806, but the speculation does not appear to have been successful. In 1813 the lease was sold to Robert Elliston, who introduced pieces of sufficient merit to attract the fashionable dwellers in the West-end, and by that means raised the theatre to something like successful popularity. The building was destroyed by fire in 1849, but rebuilt and opened again in the same year, and is now one of the most popular theatres in London. Madame Vestris had the management of the "Olympic" from 1832 to 1839, and many of the most eminent actors of the day have appeared upon its boards. The pieces brought out at this theatre are principally melodramas of the superior kind. For many years Robson, one of the most gifted modern comedians, attracted thousands here to witness his wonderful delineations of the tears and laughter, the joys and sorrows, of human life in its humbler aspects. Mr. Horace Wigan was for some time manager here; Mr. Benjamin Webster has likewise had the management, and since then Miss Ada Cavendish took it in hand and redecorated it.
Text from Old and New London by Edward Walford 1897.
There are some wonderful photographs of Wych Street and the surrounding area's demolition from a souvenir brochure published by the London County Council for the opening of Kingsway in 1905 here and here.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: