Skip to content

In Old Holborn

March 2, 2023
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 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. 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 tree-lined 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

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

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Christine Swan permalink
    March 2, 2023

    Wonderful photos, thanks GA. I walked through Holborn last week and I too associate the Staple Inn with tobacco tins filled with buttons, badges, nails, screws and other items which are unlikely to ever be used again but kept ” just in case. My father soldered a spider, fashioned from a piece of foam rubber attached to a spring, to the inside of an Old Holborn tin ( I had the later green painted version). My sister and I both had one to terrorise our classmates with. I wished I’d kept it.

  2. Christine Swan permalink
    March 2, 2023

    Correction- my tobacco tin was Golden Virginia, my sister’s was the white and orange Old Holborn tin!

  3. March 2, 2023

    In your blog today you mention the International Magic Store. In 1973 I remember being taken from Smithfield Market (where I was working) to a magic shop nearby which was run by an old lady. The shop was on a cobbled street – possibly since paved. Does anyone remember the shop and its name? We got so many practical jokes from there….!

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    March 2, 2023

    Thank you for revealing the mysteries and history of this wonderful area of London. I have been situated in or around Holborn in various jobs throughout my working life and some photos trigger a memory of an event or even an occasion of meeting a family member who worked nearby for lunch or to go somewhere after work . In particular the photo of the bridge in Shoe
    Lane at the rear of Fleet Building in Farringdon Street where I would occasionally meet my father .
    It was not always so peaceful a place . I worked in an office in Bow Bells House then situated in Bread Street when a bomb went off at the Old Bailey in 1973 and the tremendous bang shook the building . We guessed it was a bomb and my first thought was for my father who worked in Farringdon and I phoned his workplace . He was ok and I remember our phone conversation was interrupted by a voice that said . “It was the IRA . We bombed the Old Bailey “. In those days a crossed line was a common occurrence so apart from ending the call there wasn’t anything we could do. Later on we learned from news reports it was actually the IRA who had tapped into the telephone lines in the area and there were other reports of people hearing this voice . I don’t know their purpose for doing this .

  5. Milo permalink
    March 2, 2023

    That was a fun little poke around a fascinating area. Thank you.

  6. Susan Locke permalink
    March 2, 2023

    Sent round the corner shop for “half an ounce of Old Holborn” many times from about the age of twelve so the building was always so familiar.

  7. Richard permalink
    March 3, 2023

    Wandering round Leather lane I went into St Albans church for the first time. Quite interesting.
    A lot of artwork by Hans Feibusch. The church itself stand out above the surrounding buildings.
    Bit of a Victorian monstrosity by Butterfield. Thanks.

  8. Christy permalink
    March 3, 2023

    Your love of the city is (always) contagious

  9. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 5, 2023

    I have an old Lloyds’ Old Holborn tobacco tin too. Mine contains Paper Clips! More wonderful photos so thank you again GA.

  10. John Cuningham permalink
    March 5, 2023

    The picture of Holborn Bars featuring the former headquarters of the Prudential Assurance Company struck a real chord with me. As a former “Man From The Pru”, the “Pink Palace” as it was affectionately known by Pru emoyees has a huge resonance for me.

    Leaving a dead end job in my mid twenties back in the 1970s to become a Prudential Agent was the start of a life transformation for me. The Pru was famed for giving people a leg up. It certainly gave me one.

    I was with the Pru for twenty years, making much progress career wise. When I reluctantly moved on following a change of direction by the Pru I enjoyed much success in other organisations, wholly down to what I learnt at Prudential.

    I was in London last year and wandered around the forecourt of the Pink Palace. I’m now fairly old and retired but as somebody who left school at fifteen with zero qualifications, I managed to end my career as a senior manager with a global corporation and build a great life for my family and myself. Its all down to the chance that I was given by the Pru almost fifty years ago.

Leave a Reply

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

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS