The Street Where London's Victorians Bought Their Porn

By Dr Matthew Green Last edited 13 months ago
The Street Where London's Victorians Bought Their Porn

If you think of the Victorians as prudish, then go to Holywell Street in the 1880s and you'll be in for a pleasant surprise. Hidden behind the Strand is a narrow, rambling street full of sorrowful timber-framed houses and second-hand bookshops. Variously damned as "a place where dirt and darkness meet and make mortal compact" and by The Times as "the vilest street in the civilised world" this was the illicit pornography hub of Victorian London. So get browsing.

Holywell Street was filthy is the Victorian era. Here it is shortly before its demolition

You'll find around 20 shops posing as standard booksellers but in fact peddling salacious material that totally undermines conventional ideas about Victorian sexuality, which preached restraint and subjugation. Enter one. Don’t be alarmed if the proprietor treats you with suspicion — he'll want to be sure you're not an undercover policeman.

The first pornographic bibliography in the English language (a great read) details the kinds of illegal pornography available on Holywell Street in the 1870s and 80s. So you might find Randiana; Being the Experiences of an Erotic Philosopher (1884), a potpourri of sexual encounters featuring orgies, ecclesiastical buggery and lesbian sex scenes replete with gutta-percha dildoes brimming with warm oil and milk.

Gladstone in all his outraged glory. Photo by charleyk in the Londonist Flickr pool

But there is also, for your delectation, Gay Girls of New York, Kate Handcock, The Lustful Turk and The Story of a Dildoe!, obscenely illustrated.  To see photographic porn, including stereoscopic slides, you'll need to venture upstairs.

In the end, the only way to suppress this "foul sink of iniquity" was to wipe it off the map. Return after 1901 and you'll find Holywell Street flattened to make way for the soulless Aldwych development. Today, the only trace of it is a statue of an outraged-looking Gladstone in front of St Clement Danes; he is staring right down the exterminated street.

Historian and broadcaster Dr Matthew Green is the author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, out now in Penguin paperback.

Last Updated 28 October 2016