Beneath the City Lit, Holborn

Pictured: Gladys Louise Smith (April 8, 1892 – May 29, 1979), known professionally as Mary Pickford. When Gladys was four years old, her household was under infectious quarantine as a public health measure. Their devoutly Catholic maternal grandmother (Catherine Faeley Hennessey) asked a visiting Roman Catholic priest to baptize the children. Pickford was at this time baptized as Gladys Marie Smith.

From the City Lit website:

“City Lit’s story began with London’s literary institute movement, which came into being after the First World War. A report to the London County Council recommended making better provision ‘for the needs of a large number of students who seek education other than vocational’, with ‘a coherent programme of studies related to leisure, and an adult setting’. It is difficult now to understand just what a radical departure this was.

City Lit was one of five literary institutes in the capital, including Plumstead and Woolwich, Marylebone, Dalston and Peckham.

Professor Chris Baldwick: In early 1929 a lecture series was organised by the City Lit, in which T S Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Edmund Blunden and a few other contemporary writers were lined up to speak on either “tradition” or “experiment” in modern literature, in pairings that invited some conflict between those supposedly antagonistic principles. In the event, they nearly all wriggled out of the staged combat by arguing that tradition and experiment were in one way or another the same thing.”

From: FROM SAXON LUNDENWIC TO VICTORIAN ROOKERY: EXCAVATIONS AT THE CITY LIT, KEELEY STREET, LONDON, WC2 by Nigel Jeffries and Bruce Watson (London and Middlesex Archaeological Society):

“Redevelopment of the City Literary Institute premises in the London Borough of Camden during 2003 revealed evidence of Middle Saxon (c.ad 650—850) occupation, including external surfaces, fence lines, rubbish pits, a wattle-lined well and one sunken-floored building. Some time after ad 730 a large ditch aligned east—west was dug across the northern portion of the site. This ditch is interpreted as a defensive feature encircling 8th- or 9th-century Lundenwic. By 1658 Humphrey Weld had built a large house on the site with formal gardens to the rear. This house was demolished before 1746 and replaced by terraced housing, which by the mid-19th century had become a notorious slum known as the Wild Court rookery. During 1855 the properties on the site were refurbished to convert them into ‘healthy homes’. This conversion involved the sealing up of a number of cesspits. The contents of these pits contained food waste and domestic rubbish providing an insight to the daily lives of the residents of Wild Court. There was evidence of gold refining using an archaic technology, implying that it was an illicit activity…

…The City Lit excavations were an opportunity to study the ‘material histories’ relating to a notorious and extremely well documented London slum. The census returns show the properties on the site were inhabited by either Irish (Wild Court) or English and London-born tenants (Little Wild Street), and provide interesting details concerning occupations. While the finds from the cesspits can be attributed to the particular properties, their multiple occupancies make it impossible to connect them to particular families or individuals.

In 1876 the area was described by the Metropolitan Board of Works as ‘some of the most wretched houses in the metropolis in which the inhabitants are closely packed’. This description could be interpreted as meaning that the 1855 refurbishment was a long term failure, but it is more likely that the high level of multiple occupancy that continued in these properties was now seen as unacceptable. In c.1882 (after 30 November 1881) all the properties on site were demolished as slum clearance carried out by the Board of Works. The demolished brick superstructure of the buildings was used to infill the cellars and level up the yards to the rear of the Little Wild Street properties. Before or during the demolition a certain amount of domestic rubbish was dumped into the cellars. This material may well represent material discarded by the householders within the cellars shortly before the demolition began. Material from the backfill of these cellars included domestic potter y dating to 1830—1900 and clay tobacco pipes dating to 1820—60. Other finds included a white clay ceramic alley and a 19th-century ivory chess piece. The four semi-complete, laced Derby or Oxford men’s leather shoes are probably of late 19th-century date, although the Derby and Oxford styles date back to the late 18th century.

Immediately after the site had been cleared, Great Wild Street Elementary School was constructed here. The school was completed during 1884 and opened on 5 January 1885. In c.1905 Little Wild Street was renamed Keeley Street, after Robert Keeley (1793/4— 1869), a comic actor and theatre manager. The school closed in 1935 and from 1936 was a London County Council Handicraft Centre. In 1947 the Kingsway Evening Institute (later known as the Kingsway College for Further Excavation (sic) ) took over some of the buildings. From 1970—71 until 20 July 2001, parts of the premises were used by the City Lit and the remaining portion from 1976 was used as a Centre for the Deaf. The new City Lit premises at Keeley House were opened on 3 May 2005. There is a permanent display in the City Lit canteen about the history of the site, which includes a number of finds from the excavation.”

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