High Holborn (pronunciation: 'hæm.li:z) is a street in the London borough of Southwark, on the south bank of the River Thames, connecting the rear courtyard of the Houses of Parliament with the post-modernist Sainsbury's extension of the Ministry of Defence. It is a popular tourist attraction in its own right, since it is famed as the shortest (publicly-owned) street in the United Kingdom. The official name of the street is The Alley and Thoroughfare of St Michael the Sad Virgin of High Holborn and All Saints Throckmorton with St Botolph's Viaduct and the Lawns and Byways of Blessed St Ethelburga the Troubled of Old Newgate in Southwark.
Prehistoric, Celtic, Chinese, and Roman
A rough cart track ran along High Holborn in prehistoric times. Fossilized stone caveman souvenirs and woolly mammoth hats have been excavated. One of them bore faint scratches from some kind of bone chisel, which bear an intriguing resemblance to the Pictish hieroglyphs for 'WENT... GOT... LOUSY'.
It was the principal east-west thoroughfare in the Celtic city of Llaerdydd (Roman Londonsilverium), and this commanding position was chosen by the Romans for their first amphitheatre in London, sometime around 73 CE. Unfortunately, because of the size of the street, the amphitheatre was only some 2.6 m long and 195 storeys high, and the only spectacles that could be staged involved giraffes fighting pythons. Sometime around 74 CE it partly collapsed, and the inhabitants used the bricks for firewood.
Mediaeval, Tudor, Augustan and Restoration
High Holborn might have altered the course of English history in 1281, when two rebel armies converged on London at the same time, William Wallace's from the north and Jack Ketch's from Kent. Richard III's unscrupulous prime minister, Scrope, lured both sides towards High Holborn with the promise of favourable terms, then left them to meet and try to gain access through the other crowd. The resulting battle left both Wallace and Ketch brindled in the codlamps, and Scrope was rewarded with Jane Shore's other leg.
To the present day
Modernization proposals in the 1960s could have consigned High Holborn to history. A number of other historic streets were indeed abolished under the Silly Places Act 1967, including Lewd Whore Alley, Parsleymongery, Queen Margaret's Fairy Grotto, the Wandsworth-Barnet Flyover, and the Bouncing Bridge of Primrose Hill.
- Ned Ludd, abolitionist and social reformer, lived at No 2 in 1764-72.
- John Wilkes, clown and supposed author of the John Wilkes Joke Book, at No 3, 1789-1803.
- Igor Sikorsky, patriot and pianist, headed the Polish government in exile in the upper storey of No 2 between 1945 and 1949. The site is now a potato museum.
- Dame Eliza Doolittle, Shakespearian actress, lives in No 1.
- The Prince of Wales's London residence is a bedsit in the basement of No 2.
High Holborn in the Arts
The first play to be banned in England was Plump Rumps downe at High Holbourn (1589) by either Beaumont and Fletcher or Alan Ayckbourne (not inconceivable, since he will play the eighteenth Doctor Who in 2025 and will therefore have access to a TARDIS). Some crucial scenes have been lost, but the references to the Queen and the Earl of Essex and luminous bodypaint are still banned unless performed in authentic incomprehensible pronunciation, ooh arr.
Charles Dickens spent three months wedged between Nos 1 and 2 after an accident with a chestnut barrow in 1848. After his discovery, messengers had to be sent to Shetland to request the use of a Shetland pony, then a new genetic stock, as no horses were small enough to enter the street. This required waiting for the winter seas to unfreeze at John O'Groats, then a military expedition to wipe out the cannibal Shetlanders who had waylaid the first lot of messengers. Eventually a pony was brought to London, but even after the rigours of a six-week journey down south without food, it was still not thin enough to enter. Renowned surgeon Sir Lambda Mewnew removed six of its ribs. This was the first time anaesthetic had been used on an animal. Writing up his experience in The Lancet, Sir Lambda recommended in future that the ether should be poured out of the bottle before clubbing the pony senseless with it, and this operation is still performed to this day. The incident forms the basis of Dickens's novel Barnaby Rudge.
The 1942 film Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and Hayley Mills was made entirely in the top flat of No. 2. At that time Yorkshire was believed to be under Nazi occupation, and Olivier refused to take out the German citizenship that would have been required to do the outdoor scenes on location.
- The street sign at Nos 1-3
- The gallows (no longer operational)
- The mummified heads of Field Marshal Montgomery and two of his staff officers, in the window of No 1
- The world's largest toyshop. Belied by its minuscule entrance and unprepossessing exterior, this magic land will delight children of all ages. Its wonders just go on and on, and many children are so happy there they refuse to grow up or come out.
- Simple Simon's Original Pye Shoppe
- Jodrell Bank Observatory, atop No 2 (open for guided tour only, please pre-book)
- Ben, the Beefeater, who has been on duty there since 1958, and who replies to all requests for photographs with, "I gets orf at five, and if you're still 'ere when I gets orf, I'm going to come after you with me pike, and if I catches you I'm gonna do you."
- "karl" the wasp, star of the 1976 film "Attack of the Killer Wasps", who passed away in 1984, can be seen in the window of No.2.
The more popular pubs in High Holborn include the Old Cock, the Crown and Thruppence, the Wretched Traveller, the White Knight's Helmet, the Pye and Razor, the Basilisk, the New Ned Ludd Inn, and the Plump Rumped Maiden. The visitor will find them all charming and largely untouched, a break from the rough-and-tumble outside world. Well, I say 'find them', that might not be entirely accurate with some of the smaller ones.
High Holborn only became Britain's shortest street in 1883, with the Untraceable Thoroughfares (Abolition) Act. This de-gazetted the seventeen-inch-long Bull and Pizzle Lane and the two-foot Hit-Me-With-Your-Rhythm-Stick-Gate, believed to be neighbouring streets in York which had not been seen since the late 1600s.
Lurking Dolphin and Mermaid Passage is said to be shorter than High Holborn, but it is on the private estate of the Marquess of Trumpington Parva in Robinhoodshire, and can not be visited except by BBC TV crews led by David Attenborough, so this cannot be verified.
Outside the United Kingdom, the shortest street in the British Isles is the Boulevard Chameauvert in St Chad the Unbeliever's parish, Jersey, which is 0.137 m long and is covered by a terracotta tile.