Covent Garden and Holborn

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History of the Area

Drury Lane is a street on the eastern boundary of Covent Garden and best known nowadays for the Drury Lane Theatre. It was originally a medieval lane known as the Via de Aldwych and got its modern name when Sir Robert Drury a barrister built a mansion called Drury House in 1500. There have been four theatres on the same site with the first being built in 1663 when theatres were allowed again under the English Restoration. The current theatre was built in 1812 and is now (2023) owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

After the death of Robert Drury, great-great-grandson of the original owner, the property passed out of the hands of the family and by 1809 had been replaced by rows of small houses. Drury Lane became one of London's worst slums, a centre of prostitution and was full of gin palaces. It is said to have inspired William Hogarth's series of drawings The Harlot's Progress. The old buildings were cleared away when Kingsway and the Aldwych were built at the turn of the 20th century. Kingsway was formally opened in 1905 and is one of the widest streets in central London - a huge change from the maze of small streets that had been there before.

Drury Lane

My grandfather wrote 'Drury Lane' on the back of the next photo, and I have no reason to doubt this is the location.

Drury Lane
Cable laying at Drury Lane [1]

Drury Lane is surprisingly long and runs from High Holborn to Aldwych. I have been unable to match the view in the photo with the modern appearance of Drury Lane as there are few recognisable features to check out apart from the railings. Many street railings were removed during WW2 and there have been significant redevelopments in the area since then.

Drury Lane
Drury Lane and Kingsway marked on extract from a 1936 Ordnance Survey map [2]

The men in the trench are heavily outnumbered by the onlookers who include many children who have made themselves comfortable on the temporary fence. It seems odd nowadays to see that everyone in the photo is wearing a hat of some kind apart from the three children standing next to the workmen of which the one on the right is a girl. The workman in the trench closest to the camera is even wearing a trilby hat whilst pulling the cable. The front of the lorry at the top left of the image sports a starting handle, very solid-looking tyres and leaf-spring suspension. It must have been a very rough ride.

Sicilian Avenue

The following photo is admittedly not particularly interesting, and I have only included it to show off! I worked out that the shop in the background must be a furnishing one and thought that the arch to the right looked familiar. I checked London Directories for 1930 and found the Midland Furnishing Co. Ltd. at 15-23 Southampton Row next to Sicilian Avenue. And a check on Google Street View confirmed that the arch was indeed the entrance to Sicilian Avenue.

Sicilian Avenue
Sicilian Avenue marked on extract from a 1936 Ordnance Survey map [2]
Sicilian Avenue
Sicilian Avenue [1]
Sicilian Avenue
Sicilian Avenue from Google Street View [7]

Kingsway

This photo shows a group of Callender's workmen outside the offices of The Dictaphone Company. All but one of the gang is wearing a flat cap and the 'odd man out' a battered trilby. Many are also wearing waistcoats.

Kingsway
Cable laying gang at Kingsway Holborn [1]

The Dictaphone was the first practical dictation machine.

I found a 1914 directory entry for the company listing their office address as 107 Kingsway, London. This was part of a building called Kingsway House that still stands but looking considerably different. There are plans to rebuild Kingsway House internally but to retain the facade.

Cutting
Dictaphone Company Directory Entry at 107 Kingsway in the 1920 Post Office Directory [16]
Kingsway House
Kingsway House, Kingsway from Google Street View 2023 [7]

The American company Dictaphone was founded by Alexander Graham Bell. The technology provided a mouthpiece for the person dictating a letter to speak into and the sound was recorded on a wax cylinder that would later be replayed by a typist. The typist could repeat any phrases not heard clearly to improve accuracy. Amazingly, improved versions of this technology persisted until well after the end of WW2. They were superseded by devices making recordings on magnetic tape and ultimately by solid state recording. I used a hand-held voice recorder to dictate reports when working for the government in the 1970s but hated the things and was pleased when I could use a word processor.

Dictaphone
Early Dictaphone machine [8]
Dictaphone
Dictaphone Operator with machine and stand with recorded cylinders and typewriter. [8]

Towards the end of the 20th century, I worked on an assignment as an IT Consultant for the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) towards the Aldwych end of Kingsway. At the time they occupied a strange circular 1960s Tower which is now a Grade II listed building. The building, that was originally known as Space House, had a central core containing lifts, toilets etc. and the floors were open plan. Desk layout in a building that shape was very strange as you can imagine.

NATS
NATS building at 1 Kemble Street, Holborn [8]

The next page covers cable-laying at Soho and Bloomsbury.