A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
My life is governed by coincidence. About a week ago I was due to go to the theatre in London (The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess – hilariously funny), just off Aldwych. That very day, a Facebook friend of mine – the same one who pointed me towards Sydney Padua’s Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (I do have wonderful friends) – posted a Victorian photo of a bookshop in Wych Street. I would not have given that any more thought if I had not realised that later that day I would be walking over the spot where old Wych Street stood. It had never occurred to me to wonder what had been swept away to create one of the less beautiful parts of London, that overbearing district of Aldwych and Kingsway, the Edwardian period’s less successful attempt to start doing to London what Haussmann did to Paris.
Some idle searching easily uncovered a wealth of regret and nostalgia for what had vanished. Wych Street was one of a maze of medieval streets and inns (as in Inns of Court, not pubs) just outside the western edge of the city, sandwiched between the Strand and Covent Garden. It was a district of theatres, shops and, by all accounts, appalling slums. Wych Street and neighbouring Hollowell (or Holywell) Street ran straight and not quite parallel to the Strand, from St Clement Danes to Drury Lane, and they were demolished in 1901 to make way for the curve of Aldwych, with its two highly respectable theatres, Waldorf Hotel, Australia House, and the home of the BBC World Service, Bush House. Along with the two streets and the maze of lanes that criss-crossed them, three of the historic Inns of Court disappeared as well: New Inn, Clements Inn and Dames Inn.
Much was made in contemporary accounts of the fact that it had escaped the Great Fire, and showed what the medieval city must have looked like (QED, slum-clearing reformers might have said). This was one of the ‘rookeries’, cleared through the admirable reforming zeal of the fledgling London County Council, formed in 1880 to bring together the chaotic and inconsistent parish-based public services that had strained London’s public health and living conditions beyond scandal. This piece in Punch from 1890 (scroll down to The Laidly Worm of London) describes the LCC as the brave knight slaying the dragon of squalor through slum-clearance. One can see the point, just a shame about the architecture – and the replacement of homes with public buildings.
It doesn’t take much hunting around to find lots of images, and even a rather fascinating Wikipedia entry, which gave me many lines of enquiry. Many London streets have disappeared, but few seemed to have left a trace in the memory like Wych Street. In Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain, Stephen Maturin kills time in London by browsing in the bookshops of Wych Street. Some contemporary images play up the nostalgia and the picturesqueness, but the commentary on this watercolour from the British Library website gives a slightly different story:
Although this watercolour painting depicts Wych Street, London, 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
That puts a slightly different perspective on Stephen Maturin’s bookshop-browsing – one I am sure that O’Brian fully intended, but one I had missed until now.
Rather like the dispersal that Bookfox Leena described when the Liberty of St Katharine’s was swept away for the greater good, the denizens of Wych Street were scattered to the four winds, and, as they transcended classes from slum-dwellers and shop-workers to more prosperous and powerful lawyers, those four winds embraced both the East End and the West End. The invaluable Wikipedia entry pointed me towards a short story by Stacy Aumonier, published in The Strand Magazine in 1922 – just about the time when the old district under The Aldwych would have been beginning to fade from living memory.
Where Was Wych Street? brings together so very neatly all that Wych Street might have meant to the people who walked it, while outrageously describing the dangers of nostalgia. Stacy Aumonier is a brilliant new vintage writer for me to discover (no doubt my vintage-loving Bookfox friends already know him well). He was a literary gent about town, performed on stage, and wrote some novels, but he was mostly renowned for his many, many short stories. He had local connections for me, marrying in Surrey the splendidly named concert pianist Gertrude Peppercorn.
Reading this short story has led me to more. He enjoyed playing with story-telling, spinning yarns with ingenious and rather hyperbolic structures. Some have a ‘La Ronde’-like structure, where the hook of the story is something that comes full circle. Some, including Where Was Wych Street? can be characterised as ‘One thing leads to another’, with the consequences being wildly out of proportion to the apparent cause (‘All for the want of a horseshoe nail’ sums it up).
So I’ll end this random ramble with an entirely spoilerific summary of Where Was Wych Street? But do read it, for its mastery of storytelling and its sly humour. I’ve mentioned before the British obsession with journeys and locations and knowing where we are, where we want to be and how to get there. This story is about a disparate group of people who all think they remember Wych Street before it was obliterated, and have been scattered across London. It embraces two tragedies: one of lost lives, another of lost opportunities; and the over-riding tragedy that being right is no salvation, in fact it can be dangerous. It starts in the East End, in a Wapping pub. A lady called Mrs Dawes, sinking ever deeper into a gin-soaked haze of nostalgia, recalls her palmy days serving in a corset shop in Wych Street. So where was Wych Street? Everybody in the bar has a theory, one person even places it south of the river, but even Mrs Dawes can’t quite remember. A sailor in the bar, a man of colour, is the one who gets it right, but everyone starts to shout him down with their own opinion and in the ensuing fracas he is hit over the head and dies. The perpetrators barricade themselves in nearby Aztec Street, and a notorious and blood-soaked police siege ensues. Well, that escalated quickly, as they say. Both murderers, and one policeman, die in the siege, and a judicial enquiry is held. The courtroom is of course full of lawyers, of different ages and ranks, and all have the same hazy memories of the area round the Royal Courts of Justice before it was all swept away. The examination of Mrs Dawes’s evidence is derailed by a renewed discussion of where Wych Street was. The person who knows this time is a rising QC, who sees fit to correct the judge. This sets off a train of suspicion of his soundness that leads to him repeating his risky piece of knowledge in the home of his prospective father-in-law, Lord Vermeer, and contradicting a powerful guest. His future marriage, and all the career advantages that go with it, hang in the balance. An apology and admission that he is mistaken will put all to rights, but he finds he cannot do it, and tears up the letter he planned to send. All is lost. In this story, no matter if your home is in the East End or the West End, with all the class baggage of each, being right is dangerous.
So, Where Was Wych Street? I think I know now, but I may be keeping it to myself in casual conversation.
The images are all in the public domain, the first two from Wikimedia Commons, the third from the British Library website. In all cases, clicking on the image will load the source page.
Where Was Wych Street? is available on Project Gutenberg.