I’m not a practical man: simple DIY tasks fox me, I don’t enjoy ladders, electricity makes me jumpy. I’ll call for technical help when my printer runs low on toner. I have a handyman on speed-dial, a capable wife, and a nearby younger brother for whom these tasks hold no terrors. But for all this I find that one science, or sort of science, Geography, is my friend. It’s not all Geography – specifically it’s a sense of place. My sense of direction, if not exactly unerring, is well attuned to the compass points. I know where I am, and mostly, where I’m going. I love Ordnance Survey maps, whatever their scale, not only for their solid reliable practicality, but for the way they situate me so completely in any landscape, and for their often remarked-upon beauty. I can spread a map on the floor and pore over it for hours, bum aloft, tracing footpaths and rivers, marvelling over contour lines marking hills and steep sided valleys, wondering over derivations of village names, imagining the lost settlements marked in that ghostly gothic script. In short, I know my way around, and I am glad of it.
But buried in the heart of London there’s an area which upsets my internal compass every time I try to navigate even a simple route through it. It’s not a large area, bounded by the British Museum to the north, Kingsway, Long Acre, and Charing Cross Road. Essentially it’s page 15 of the expanded section of the Pocket AtoZ. Walking these streets makes me anxious – it’s as if a huge sinkhole has appeared in my mental map of the capital. I know the city well – I was at college in London and lived or worked there for twenty years thereafter. But here, in these densely packed streets, my gyroscope wobbles. Significant buildings pull up their foundations and crash into new and confusing positions, at the end of the wrong streets, too close, or too far away. I don’t think I’ve ever walked a successful simple path through this area. One evening, about a year ago, I led a small group of writers and publishers from a bookshop through this area’s dark heart, to a restaurant. It did not go that well. I got us mildly lost, just enough for eyebrows to be slightly raised after a surprisingly long, but, I like to think, informative walk through our capital’s lesser known streets and lanes. I should have enlisted the help of at least one of these people – a man who has written famously and compellingly about The Old Ways and The Wild Places, and to whom maps are no stranger – Robert Macfarlane. But I did not. I left him to his eloquence while I frantically glanced around for street names and tried to work out which way was south. Or south-west, or something.
It gets worse. A few years ago, I had a new job, right in the middle of London, on the fringes of this area. I arranged to meet two friends for a drink after work in a pub dangerously located near the heart of this mental muddle – close to Seven Dials. It was less than a five-minute walk away; I was nearly forty minutes late. My companions were highly amused: my new place of work was, I regret to say, Stanfords, where they have a map or two. On one part of this accidental early evening exploration, I found myself walking past my new place of employment again and hid my face lest my new colleagues should spot me, and think, probably not for the first time, that I was ill-suited to my role.
But maybe I’m not alone in finding hereabouts uniquely confusing. This hot summer, while attempting to explore the area I walked again, several times and occasionally deliberately, to Seven Dials, where seven, remarkably similar-looking small streets converge. On each occasion I found at least one other person, obviously confused, consulting their ‘phone or a map.
If there’s a solution, I would suggest that renaming the whole area isn’t it. Yet, that’s what’s happening. In some of the eastern parts of this area there are long banners attached to street lights which welcome you to “Midtown”. Apparently no-one knows where Holborn is, so property developers, who take a special joy in tearing down and building anew here, have decided that a new name will do the trick. It seems foolish to borrow a name from another city, thousands of miles away – a name which is not even a description of a place, but of a place half-way between up and down. It’s spreading too, this renaming sickness. Strung above the Strand near Trafalgar Square I found a series of flags emblazoned with the words “The North Bank”, another attempt to rebrand parts of London with names half stolen from other cities, as if we didn’t have districts enough in a settlement that’s two thousand years old, a place full of names to savour, and with a rich past just behind them – from Hackney Wick to Primrose Hill.
Still, getting lost here is not new. The early years of the twentieth century saw the publication of a remarkable series of books, which were not quite guides and not quite gazetteers to many English counties. The Highways and Byways books were hugely successful, but are mostly forgotten now, although they have a claim to have influenced the Shell Guides. Each of the books in the series is somewhat idiosyncratic in its own way, and they tell us much about late Victorian and Edwardian values. Sometimes they make the modern reader wince – there’s plenty of snobbishness and sometimes they’re not especially well written, especially when compared to great contemporary writers of place like W. H. Hudson, Edward Thomas or Richard Jefferies. Highways and Byways in London by Mrs E. M. Cook is no exception – it’s discursive (which I rather like), highly opinionated, and often downright wrong. But its style does have a freshness and directness often missing from the other books in the series. In the book there’s a passage called Where is Russell Square? in which Mrs Cook alleges that this question is often asked, because even Londoners are so unfamiliar with an area which sits adjacent to my own personal Bermuda Triangle.
If there’s a reason for the chaos which crushes the yellow and white streets of the AtoZ and forces them into new and unfamiliar mutations, it shouldn’t apply to me. If anything, these streets should feel like a sort of home. When I worked in Central London, at Stanfords and before, I often stayed in a hotel right at the top of Drury Lane, just as it narrows before running into New Oxford Street. This Travelodge is quite magnificently ugly. It’s as if Le Corbusier had got really drunk on absinthe (say), dashed something off for a new client and tossed it in the post. It’s really something. It’s not the sort of uncompromising concrete brutalism which now wins affection and plaudits from some serious students of architecture, although it is brutal, it is uncompromising, and it is certainly concrete. It’s just a mess. But I liked it anyway, and continue to like it, partly because Travelodge allow bicycles in their rooms, and I like bicycles. This summer in the middle of a hot July, I checked in with my bike, at the start of a long ride west. When I used to stay here for more prosaic but more remunerative reasons, I’d wake, drink some instant coffee, shuffle into work clothes, check under the bed a few times for the things I hadn’t left behind, and stumble my way down the oddly positioned steps to Drury Lane. Then I would turn left or right, and immediately get lost. I never noticed the little shop selling vintage clothing immediately opposite the steps. Everything is vintage these days, and there’s little in Wow Retro that you couldn’t find in a good Oxfam shop. It may not be that surprising, therefore, that I overlooked it, especially when in a mild direction-based panic. The building is unremarkable; it’s tall and narrow, like a Victorian terrace, made from a reddish grey brick, but it was probably built in the late 1970s or 80s, as post war rebuilding took hold. The new building may be a simulacrum, a nod to a predecessor. The building adjoining it, now host to Vanity Nails and Beauty, is clearly Victorian, with modest tile ornamentation adorning its façade. Wow Retro is only important to me because in a building on the site, my great grandfather Isaac, and his brother William, had a cheesemongers shop, in the middle decades of the 19th Century.
The Woolcotts were not always Londoners, and are Londoners no more. This branch of my ancestors came from Somerset. West Monkton is a small village to the north of Taunton, on the edge of the Quantock hills. But the family left this small village, up-sticked, and made the move to the capital. I don’t know why, but I can hazard a guess. In 1851, for the first time, the urban population of Britain exceeded the rural, driven by the industrial revolution which created work in the cities, and the Enclosure Acts which impoverished country communities. I don’t know the exact causes of the Woolcott migration, and maybe they just believed the streets of the capital were paved with gouda.
If they thought so, their choice of Drury Lane for their enterprise seems, at first glance, bizarre. Today it’s associated with the theatre of the same name and has a reflected west-end glamour, especially at its south end, near Aldwych, where theatres huddle together and coaches disgorge passengers into their golden foyers. But in the 19th century the streets around here were some of the poorest in London. And the poverty was shocking, even to contemporaries.
In After London the Victorian naturalist and writer Richard Jefferies imagined a future England where feudalism is again the system of government following a great environmental catastrophe. Much of southern England has become a great lake, and at its eastern end, the waters washing over London bubble murkily; wildlife and wild fowl stay clear of this reedy, sticky water and its foul miasma. Jefferies, like many of his time, associated the capital, then at its industrial zenith, with a sort of moral decline. In this passage you feel he is pleased the city is gone. Although I’m not generally in favour of the wholesale destruction of cities, I know what he means. London retained its reputation for grimy pollution, with a fetid, dead Thames and buildings dark with soot well into the 1980s. In the ‘70s, when taken there as a child, I was struck, scared even, by the dark, forbidding blackness of the Albert Memorial, before cleaning and restoration revealed its astonishing, and in some ways no less ugly, full-on Gilbert Scott high Victoriana. The terrible poverty of Victorian and Edwardian London was obvious from literature and from Charles Booth’s Poverty Map, but in general society it was largely ignored. Mrs Cook, in Highways and Byways in London is critical of the way the poor are treated, but often associates their poverty with drink, as if there were a simple causal relationship, and sometimes mocks the poorer immigrant communities, or at least, makes light of their plight – employing the simple myth of the happy poor – like the singing chimney sweeps and cheery urchins of Mary Poppins. In one passage she claims that the poor have better childhoods than the rich, and there’s a fair bit of talk about barrel organs and cheeky street hawkers. Cook has had little direct experience of these people and instead prefers to quote literary sources in her descriptions, and often fictional ones. She was not alone in her deliberate distancing. The poorer districts were considered dangerous, and the invisible boundaries that still cross the city today, between wealthy and poor, were more obvious still. When Jack London, researching People of the Abyss in 1902, expressed his desire to visit the East End, the police asked him, quite seriously, if this was a suicide attempt.
In 1860, just as the Woolcotts were settling in to their new venture, Dickens wrote in The Uncommercial Traveller that “There is nothing shabbier than Drury Lane, in Rome itself. London is shabby by daylight and shabbier by gaslight…the mass of London people are shabby.” The area had long been associated with the grimy side of life. In the early eighteenth century John Gay had written, with an overfondness for the exclamation mark:
O! may thy virtue guide thee through the roads
Of Drury’s mazy courts and dark abodes!
The harlots’ guileful paths, who nightly stand
Where Catharine Street descends into the Strand!
The parish workhouse stood on the site of my Travelodge. Inspected by the esteemed medical journal The Lancet in 1865, the subsequent report was damning: the facility was overcrowded, smelly, dark, with inadequate furniture and bedding.
Amongst this misery, what were the Woolcotts thinking? Why was this a suitable site for their establishment? Wouldn’t it have been more profitable to choose somewhere less poverty-stricken?
They may have had little choice. I associate my father’s side of the family with a slightly stand-offish, middle-class and highly respectable veneer. Of dusty great aunts in floral print, long careers in the civil service, of houses in Claygate and Christmases in steamy homes which smelt of ham. Money was seldom mentioned, but not for the lack of it. But these were the 20th Century Woolcotts, the ones who had survived two world wars, who had sold the cheesemongers and embarked on different lives. I know nothing of their antecedents, the Somerset refugees – if rural impoverishment forced a move to the world’s greatest city, they had to choose somewhere.
They were always canny, this family. If you open a shop what you need is customers. Your best advertisement is the shop itself and you need it to be seen. In the language of modern retail, this is footfall: the number of people who pass your establishment every day, and who might be tempted in. Today, this part of Drury Lane is relatively quiet, it’s not on the way to anywhere. But it wasn’t always the case. Before the construction of the great Aldwych crescent, and the wide Kingsway in 1905, Drury Lane was one of the capital’s most important north-south thoroughfares and would have thronged with people. My family were not the only ones to notice. Just a few doors away, at number 173 another shop with dairy at its heart opened its doors in 1869, later extending its offering to general groceries. It lasted a little longer than the Woolcott’s business and spawned a few other shops bearing the same name: J Sainsbury. The Sainsbury’s website is pleased with its heritage and a little disparaging about their competitors. I feel able to take some offence at their claim that they always took cleanliness more seriously than others and were proud to use full milk from “country cows”, rather than a watered-down version from their cousins, who were kept nearer the city. However, it may be too late to sue for defamation of cow-racter*. Their first shop was demolished in 1958, but Sainsbury’s did not abandon the area, at least not yet – it opened a new store in the same road. In turn this closed in 1975, after Covent Garden Market moved south of the river. Sainsbury’s house journal from April of that year devotes its front page to the shop’s closure, and paints a sorry picture of the area’s decline, quoting the shop’s manager, Allan Redford: “On Saturdays only the rats are about in the streets. There is no scope here at all.” Coming from a retailer’s magazine, this is bleak stuff.
But the Woolcotts escaped somehow and at some point, albeit without first setting up a grocery empire. They sold up and bought houses for rent in south London, and slowly, by degrees, left the capital. Over generations they moved west again, to Surrey, and then Wiltshire, edging slowly back towards West Monkton.
Walking these streets on this hot summer afternoon, just a few minutes from the bustle of Covent Garden, was a curious business. I was still worried about getting lost, but I had to get over that, and I did so by wandering, by being less determined to be somewhere else. The streets don’t run with rats any more. The gin shops are gone, and some of the streets to the east were swept away by slum clearance.
Finding the past in London’s cleaner 21st century is harder, you must wait, listen and look for stillness to let older voices emerge – hard here, hard anywhere urban. Little streets and small walkways persist, the leftovers of the mazy courts. The poor are always with us, and in these years, more than before. In one narrow walkway I discovered a small green tent, somehow erected on paving slabs, with a homeless man sprawled at its opening. These lanes are quiet, and the old industry and trades may be imagined, just about.
The past here feels slippery. I looked for it, but History, like Geography, escaped me – the tangible feel of it, its corporeality. I don’t know when the Woolcotts first arrived at Drury Lane, when they left, why they came, what drove them to leave, nor the exact location of their nearby home behind Leicester Square, destroyed by further slum clearance and the construction of the Hippodrome. Their home has gone, the building they made their living from has gone. Like the blurred people moving too fast for old camera shutters in Philip Davies’ book Lost London, my ancestors are no more than ghosts. All I can find here is my enthusiastic but niche nostalgia for an irrecoverable past. Wow, Retro.
Jon Woolcott is a cyclist and writer who also works for the publisher Little Toller. He is writing a book about the hidden, radical and personal histories of the south of England.
Sources: It goes without saying that there are many sources for the history of Drury Lane, some of which are referenced above, but the introduction to the brilliant Lost London 1875-1945 by Philip Davies was especially useful.
*I apologise to anyone who has been upset by this pun. But on the other hand, my whole life has been leading up to this moment.