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A short walk around Covent Garden and Holborn with Paul Sinclair

Story added 23rd Oct 2017

Second from right: Wellcome Collection.

One of the joys of eschewing the bus or tube in favour of walking the streets of the capital is turning a corner to discover pockets of London history still left relatively unscathed from the tourist trail.

In this article, Paul Sinclair, who runs many London walks starting from Build, shares some of his favourite hidden gems of central London that you can easily discover just a short walk from our Keeley Street building.

Tram Tunnel, Kingsway

Image on left: London Transport Museum. Image on right: Dewi Williams.

At the junction of Southampton Row and New Oxford Street is a steep slope with solid Edwardian railings either side. This was once the north entrance to the Kingsway tram tunnel. Built as part of a slum clearance scheme, it passed below Kingsway, curved right to follow Aldwych and surfaced again under Waterloo Bridge.

There were two stations, Holborn in the north and Aldwych in the south, with central platforms and stairs which brought the passengers out onto a narrow island in the middle of Kingsway.  The entrance was steep enough to create difficulties for the trams; in the early days, fully laden, they would sometimes roll back down to Holborn station!

The tunnel closed in April 1952. Since then, the northern section has been used for storage, as London’s flood control centre, as a film set, and in 2009 was opened to the public for an art installation. The southern end was reopened in 1964 as an underpass to help relieve traffic congestion around Waterloo Bridge.

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St George’s Church, Bloomsbury

St George’s Bloomsbury is one of the churches built as part of the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1710. Concerned at the growth of non-conformity in some of the city’s poorest areas, Queen Anne decreed that fifty fine churches be built, hoping that people would be so inspired by the architecture that they would return to the established Anglican order.

This church is the last of six built by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The size and grandeur of his churches required huge sums and, as a result, only twelve were actually built before the project ran out of money.

The steeple is unique. The stepped pyramid, said to be a copy of the Mausoleum at Hallicarnassus in Turkey, might also hint at Hawksmoor’s links with the Freemasons. 

This site was chosen as it was on the edge of St Giles, one of London’s most notorious slums.  Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751), with the spire of St George’s clearly visible towards the top of the picture, gives us an idea of the squalor and despair that characterised the area. Thirty constables were required to keep order in the small parish in 1700s. 

Despite its establishment origins, the church has had connections with many non-establishment groups from abolitionists to suffragettes. The most ornate of the funeral monuments is that of Charles Grant, one time Chair of the East India Company and friend of William Wilberforce, with whom he set up the free colony of Sierra Leone. In 1913, the church held the funeral service for Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse in the Derby.

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The Old Curiosity Shop

Possibly London’s oldest shop, this was originally two houses, then a dairy in 1700s, a bookshop, a waste paper merchant and now a handmade shoe shop. Although some of the structure dates back to the 1500s, most of it is the result of modernisation in the 17th and 18th centuries.

With its overhanging upper storey, uneven floors and wooden beams, it could have been, as is proudly claimed, the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ novel. In fact the name was adopted some thirty years after the book was published. It was a clever marketing ploy by the owner at the time, a Mr Palmer, which inadvertently ensured the shop’s survival…

The Great Fire of 1066 burned itself out just to the east of here, and consequently the shop and surrounding area survived. In the late 19th century, it was known as Clare Market, selling mainly meat from the decrepit Elizabethan buildings. When the time came to clear the slum, the shop was saved due to its apparent literary associations. It is now Grade 2* listed.

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Endell Street Military Hospital

Image on left: Wellcome Collection.

Endell Street Military Hospital in Covent Garden was opened in May 1915 by militant suffragists Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. It was the first unit to be entirely run and staffed by women, and the majority of patients were men.

Heralded for its achievement, the hospital became a specialist centre for head injuries and femoral fractures and even led published clinical research. It closed in August 1919 having treated 24,000 patients, carrying out more than 7,000 operations.

The men were visited by many entertainers to support them through their convalescence. They were also encouraged to take part in activities to develop a more positive outlook including reading, crawling races and embroidery.

The all-female staff proved what many had before doubted, that women could manage the medical and administrative needs of a hospital just as well as men. In 1917, both Murray and Garrett Anderson received CBEs in recognition of their accomplishments. Although caring for injured soldiers won over public sympathy for the women’s movement, it did not help progress women’s rights much further forward. None of the thirty-seven doctors who worked there went into general surgery afterwards, but instead practiced as GPs or in women’s hospitals.

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About the author

Paul Sinclair qualified as a guide at the University of Westminister. He leads walking tours for Build exploring the City of London and the history, architecture and famous residents of the various villages of London.


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