The Slang Guide to London – Holywell Street


Jonathon Green continues his slang tour of London with a trip to the ‘specialist’ bookshops of The Backside of St Clements…

All gone now. What you’re looking at above is the Australian High Commission (though didn’t that get knocked down too a year ago or so?). Like Fred and Rose’s lair at 25 Cromwell Street, Holywell Street had to go. Murders? perhaps, but something seemingly comparable: free thought, and even worse, dirty books.

Once, these toponyms don’t just happen by chance, there was a holy well, that of St Clement, whose church is still standing on the Strand, ‘whose waters are sweet, salubrious, and clear, and whose runnels murmur o’er the shining stones.’ Or so they said c. 1100. It cured ‘cutaneous diseases’, but maybe that was just the simple act of washing in clean water. Long covered, it’s successor was a cul-de-sac: Pissing Alley. There was some kind of zoo there too, or certainly ‘wild beasts’, prefiguring the nearby Exeter Change ‘Royal Menagerie’, where in 1826 the hapless Chunee, an elephant finally maddened by confinement and importunate human gaze, was executed by the soldiery.

It always traded: mercers first – the Half Moon was the oldest shop in London – then costume hire and old clothes, which meant Jews and they were always problematic, and as the lawyers and the scribblers began to gravitate to nearby Fleet Street and all the maze of courts around, to publishing and the selling of books. It was old. And thus suspicious. Along with nearby Wych Street and Russell Court, its mere topography represented a threat, a marginal area, narrow twisting streets, ancient buildings, dubious inhabitants, immoral merchandise: everything that town planners, hell’s-bent on carving out a shiny new metropolis deplored. It was known as ‘The Backside of St Clements’. It had to go.

They were radical, politically dangerous books at first. And the men who came to make 1860s Holywell Street a precursor of 1960s Soho, started off their career publishing them. Foremost among them, William Dugdale, a one-man embodiment of Holywell squalor, who published radical tracts before ever he set a forme of filth . He was on the edge of the 1819 Cato Street Conspiracy, aimed to bring a cabinet dinner to an explosive conclusion, but was never caught. In 1822 he pirated Byron’s Don Juan; in 1827 he offered the semi-sexy Memoirs of a Man of Pleasure (retitling the less titillatory  History of the Human Heart  of 1769) and in 1832, with an edition of Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (‘Fanny Hill’), went the rest of the way round the pornographic corner.  And down the hill. Thereafter it was pulp all the way. Stroke books. Read with but a single hand.

His tumescent catalogues included classic and contemporary works, such as The Battles of Venus, The Bed-Fellows or the Young Misses Manuel [sic], The Confessions of a Young Lady, Eveline, The Ladies’ Telltale, The Lustful Turk, Scenes in the Seraglio, and The Victim of Lust. There was a good deal of fladge though it was left to the far less notorious general publisher John Camden Hotten to produce such titles as Lady Bumtickler’s Revels. There was a series, Lascivious Gems: among them ‘The Diary of a Nymphomaniac’, ‘The Fanciful Extremes of Fucksters’, ‘The Pleasing Pastime of Frigging’ and ‘A Night in St John’s Wood.’

He put out bawdy songbooks – The ‘Tuzzymuzzy Songster’, ‘The Wanton Warbler’ – and The Boudoir and The Exquisite, top-shelf titles avant la lettre. He was regularly prosecuted and ran up nine sentences by 1857. His trial that year so appalled Lord Campbell –  ‘a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic’ –  that My Lord drove through the first Obscene Publications Act. The idea of women frequenting Dugdale’s shops was apparently the final straw. A century later there was a new OPA and Lady Chatterley’s prosecutor would ask: ‘Is this a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?’ Like the texts, little changes in Pornland.

The stock was repeatedly seized and destroyed. No matter: there was always more, knocked out in the cobwebby back rooms of one of his half dozen shops. The books, illustrated with barely lavatorial daubs, sold at three guineas, approximately three times the price of a ‘straight’ three-volume novel and six weeks’ wages for the average worker; he became rich. It didn’t last. When he died in 1868 he was serving a sentence in the Clerkenwell House of Correction and the death certificate hints at syphilis. There are no portraits.

Dugdale was a hack and employed the same. There was James Campbell Reddie who wrote among much else The Adventures of a School-boy, listed as ‘A very natural and powerfully written tale, describing in vivid colours the seduction of two young and delicious creatures by two sprigs of fashion, Eaton [sic] scholars, and the gradual transition from the most refined voluptuousness to the grossest sensuality [is] richly and lusciously depicted.’ Some way from the 1970s porn factories with their ‘Daughter Eats Out’ or ‘Librarian’s Doggy Delights’ but it was the same old in-and-out.

That book was illustrated by another Dugdale regular: Edward Sellon, late of the East India Company, thereafter coach driver, fencing master,  girls’ school teacher, and all-purpose ‘thoughtless, pleasure-seeking scamp.’ A natural. And so he was, authoring The New Epicurean; or, The Delights of Sex, Facetiously and Philosophically Considered, in Graphic Letters Addressed to Young Ladies of Quality (1865) and its sequel, Phoebe Kissagen; or, the Remarkable Adventures, Schemes, Wiles, and Devilries of Une Maquerelle (1866). His illustrations adorn The New Lady’s Tickler; or, the Adventure of Lady Lovesport and the Audacious Harry.

In 1866 he sold to Dugdale the manuscript of his allegedly autobiographical work. The Ups and Downs of Life. Sex all the way and grade-A caddishness, but apparently, and as far as any autobiography can be, its tales were true. In April 1866, aged 48, he reached the final down and shot himself through the head in a room in Webb’s Hotel, Piccadilly. He left a note for his latest mistress, a poem entitled ‘No More,’ and a final tag: ‘Vivat Lingam. Non Resurgam’: ‘Long live cock. I shall not return’.

Holywell Street had developed for centuries and reached its debauched maturity in the mid-19th. Then it was gone. The last shopkeepers were turfed out in 1901 (the trade, undaunted, decamped to Charing Cross Road) and the wrecking ball arrived in their wake. What went up was Aldwych: dull, institutional, Australian bureaucrats on one end, Indians on the other and the World Service in between. All things must pass.

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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.