Skip to content

In Old Holborn

September 19, 2014
by the gentle author

Holborn Bars

Even before I knew Holborn, I knew Old Holborn from the drawing of half-timbered houses upon the tobacco tins in which my father used to store his rusty nails. These days, I walk through Holborn once a week on my way between Spitalfields and the West End, and I always cast my eyes up in wonder at this familiar fragment of old London.

Yet, apart from Leather Lane and the International Magic Shop on Clerkenwell Rd, I rarely have reason to pause in Holborn. It is a mysterious, implacable district of offices, administrative headquarters and professional institutions that you might never visit, unless you have business with a lawyer, or seek a magic trick or a diamond ring. So this week I resolved to wander in Holborn with my camera and present you with some of the under-appreciated sights to be discovered there.

Crossing the bed of the Fleet River at Holborn Viaduct, I took a detour into Shoe Lane. A curious ravine of a street traversed by a bridge and overshadowed between tall edifices, where the cycle-taxis have their garage in the cavernous vaults receding deep into the brick wall. John Stow attributed the name of Holborn to the ‘Old Bourne’ or stream that ran through this narrow valley into the Fleet here and, even today, it is not hard to envisage Shoe Lane with a river flowing through.

Up above sits Christopher Wren’s St Andrew’s, Holborn, that was founded upon the bank of the Fleet and stood opposite the entrance to the Bishop of Ely’s London residence, latterly refashioned as Christopher Hatton’s mansion. A stone mitre upon the front of the Mitre Tavern in Hatton Garden, dated 1546, is the most visible reminder of the former medieval palace that existed here, of  which the thirteenth century Church of St Etheldreda’s in Ely Place was formerly the chapel. It presents a modest frontage to the street, but you enter through a stone passage way and climb a staircase to discover an unexpectedly large church where richly-coloured stained glass glows in the liturgical gloom.

Outside in Ely Place, inebriate lawyers in well-cut suits knocked upon a wooden door in a blank wall at the end of the street and brayed in delight to be admitted by this secret entrance to Bleeding Heart Yard, where they might discreetly pass the afternoon in further indulgence. Barely a hundred yards away across Hatton Garden where wistful loners eyed engagement rings, Leather Lane Market was winding down. The line at Boom Burger was petering out and the shoe seller was resting his feet, while the cheap dresses and imported fancy goods were packed away for another day.

Just across the road, both Staple Inn and Gray’s Inn offer a respite from the clamour of Holborn, with magnificent tranquil squares and well-kept gardens, where they were already raking autumn leaves from immaculate lawns yesterday. But the casual visitor may not relax within these precincts and, when the Gray’s Inn Garden shuts at two-thirty precisely, you are reminded that your presence is that of an interloper, at the gracious discretion of the residents of these grand old buildings.

Beyond lies Red Lion Sq, laid out in 1684 by the notorious Nicholas Barbon who, at the same time, was putting up  cheap speculative housing in Spitalfields and outpaced the rapacious developers of our own day by commencing construction in disregard of any restriction. Quiet benches and a tea stall in this leafy yet amiably scruffy square offer an ideal place to contemplate the afternoon’s stroll.

Then you join the crowds milling outside Holborn tube station, which is situated at the centre of a such a chaotic series of junctions, it prompted Virginia Woolf to suggest that only the condition of marriage has more turnings than are to be found in Holborn.

The One Tun in Saffron Hill. reputed to be the origin of the Three Tuns in ‘Oliver Twist’

In Shoe Lane

St Andrew Holborn seen from Shoe Lane

On Holborn Viaduct

Christopher Wren’s St Andrew Holborn

In St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place

Staircase at St Etheldreda’s

The Mitre, Hatton Garden

Charity School of 1696 In Hatton Garden by Christopher Wren

Choosing a ring in Hatton Garden

In Leather Lane

Seeking sustenance in Leather Lane

Shoe Seller, Leather Lane

Barber in Lamb’s Conduit Passage

Staple Inn, 1900

In Staple Inn

In Staple Inn

In Gray’s Inn

In Gray’s Inn Gardens

In Gray’s Inn

John Bunyan died in Holborn in 1688

Chaos at Holborn Station

Rush hour at Holborn Station

Fusiliers memorial in High Holborn

You may also like to take a look at

In Old Clerkenwell

In Old Rotherhithe

In Fleet St

In Mile End Old Town

In Old Stepney

In Old Bermondsey

14 Responses leave one →
  1. September 19, 2014

    Great photos, old Holborn is a very interesting place, hope it stays that way and doesn’t get developed…. Valerie

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    September 19, 2014

    Well …
    My wife’s first employer then resided in Hatton Garden …
    The “old Mitre” is still there, but sadly declined in the quality of its beer in recent months ( or so the CAMRA Pub-of-the-year survey found), however, there is now a pub at the top end, (“Cask”) which serves a vast variety of interesting liquids.
    As for: the tobacco tins in which my father used to store his rusty nails – snap – my father used “Three Nuns” tins for the same purpose – & so do I. still, thought now carefully labelled, …..
    There’s a lot of history in those stones
    No mention of “Bleeding Heart Yard”, which surprises me?

  3. alison homewood permalink
    September 19, 2014

    Those beautiful timber-framed houses! Next time you might throw an eye into Gresham College, opposite the magnificent Prudential building. Hidden behind the shopfronts, it is a small but lovely 15th Century hall, used until 1900 by the Mercer’s School. Now it is a fine venue for free public talks, based on Sit Thomas Gresham’s principles as laid out for his former Quad college that stood where Tower 42 now stands. Well worth a look and a photo or two.

  4. Cornish Cockney permalink
    September 19, 2014

    Ali Mir has an extensive programme of excellent free guided walks from Holborn Station every Wednesday and Friday lunchtimes. A great way to learn more about the area.

  5. September 19, 2014


    … and I’m very glad I will be able to visit Old Holborn furthermore in GREAT-Britain!

    Love & Peace

    PS: And to alison: if you like timber-framed houses: do an excursion to Hann.Münden near Kassel:

  6. September 19, 2014

    Does Bleeding Heart Yard count? Or is that more Farringdon?

    And bonus points for finding the plaque to Sun Yat Sen, the father of Taiwan!

  7. Custard Apple permalink
    September 19, 2014

    I used to work opposite Snow Hill, sadly not mentioned. It was where the Mohocks used to grab passing gentry, squeeze them into a barrel and then shove it down the steep, curving hill. They had to make their own entertainment in those days!

  8. Rupert Neil Bumfrey (@rupertbu) permalink
    September 19, 2014

    Good to see the #Pru buildings, I recall they were printed on my Mother’s savings books for her four children, which resulted in a pay-out of £1,500 to each one of us back in late 1970’s!

  9. Viv Wilson permalink
    September 19, 2014

    I used to visit this fascinating area occasionally and after reading your post, now wish I had explored it more thoroughly when I had the chance.

    My father, Mr Henderson, was the manager at Leonard Lyle’s ‘Gentlemen’s Outfitters’ for many years. I wonder if anyone remembers him? Leonard Lyle’s was situated in one of the half timbered buildings, Staple Inn. I think it may have become Moss Bros. at some point. I don’t know which company has it now.

    I used to visit him at the shop during the late 60’s – mid 70’s arriving on my Honda 50 which in those days I could park outside the shop!

    Although I never really explored the area outside, I remember very well the varnished wooden shelves, cabinets and ‘fixtures & fittings’ inside the wonderful old shop. I’ve recently seen a so-called ‘vintage’ tie press for sale on eBay that came from Leonard Lyle’s, London. I remember also the awkward twisting stairs down to the basement floor where my dad and his staff and I ate lunchtime sandwiches in shifts, in a tiny kitchen area.

    I was always a bit surprised by the ever respectful attitude he was shown by the two other staff members. He was ‘Mr. Henderson’ at all times, never Bill! It was all very “Are you being served?”. At the time, aged about 19, I was a student, and my own clothes shopping – cheesecloth skirts, loons and Biba tops took place at Kenny (Kensington) Market, with no help from anyone. By comparison, it seemed very strange to me that grown men, barristers and the like, should need such close attention from my father in matters of their dress!

  10. Maureen Musson permalink
    September 19, 2014

    Bleeding Hear Yard *is* mentioned…….

    I visited the area recently, as I discovered my ancestors ran a pewter business in Shoe Lane – until the City of London compulsorily purchased it in 1825 to build Farringdon market. My great-great-great grandfather had been a wealthy man, but due to this, his son died in the workhouse. The market was not a success and was soon pulled down.

  11. Jennifer Jeynes permalink
    September 19, 2014

    At the corner of Red Lion Square, (25), is the home of free speech, Conway Hall
    Ethical Society. There are regular lectures, free, open to anyone who likes to think

  12. Ian permalink
    September 20, 2014

    I have spent a happy hour so reading this entry slowly and googling various street names, looking at maps for the road/Fleet layout and so on. Bliss.

  13. Victoria permalink
    September 21, 2014

    A favourite part of London for me but hadn’t made the connection with the tobacco tins! I have vivid memories of my grandfather filling his pipe from Old Holborn boxes and then them being recycled – also for screw containers by my father. Such vivid memories, I loved my grandfather who died when I was twelve. Your photos and text will form the basis of another Sunday walk for us here; thanks for sharing.

  14. Janette permalink
    August 29, 2015

    Fascinating to see the amazing photos. Were you aware a John and Sarah Hodgkinson lived in Shoe Lane? He worked in a brass foundry there. Sarah was born in 1782. They were married at St. Brides.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS