Aldwych, WC2B

Place Name

Although Aldwych is a relatively new addition to London’s landscape – it was started in 1900 and completed in 1905 – the meaning of its name has a far older provenance as a reference to a 9thCentury Danish settlement. It was first recorded as the Latin name Vetus vicus in 1199, becoming the more recognisable Aldewich or Aldewic in 1211. Over time this mutated into Oldewiche in 1393 and Aldewyche in 1398. It is believed to have derived from two words eald meaning old and wic meaning town or village or trading settlement, this being on the edge of the City. According to An Encyclopaedia of London: “It is said that Alfred the Great, after he had finally subdued the Danes, and wrestled London from the, allotted territory for their occupation outside the City. This therefore was the village that clustered around their church.” It adds that the adoption of Aldwych for the new project was largely the result of one man the London County Council’s clerk Sir George Laurence Gomme, a leading British folklorist and keen antiquary, that the “historic name was adopted”. The new name was announced in The Times on February 9, 1903: “After considerable deliberation the General Purposes Committee of the London County Council have decided upon the names of the new main street to be constructed from Holborn to the Strand and the new crescent street in connexion with it. In a report which will be presented to the Council at its meeting to-morrow the committee state that, as these streets would undoubtedly form one of the most remarkable and attractive features of London, the selection of suitable names were a matter of great importance. They had, therefore, devoted considerable attention to the subject, and were now in a position to advise the Council thereon. They had had the advantage in their deliberations of having before them a long list of names which had from time to time been suggested, and also the recommendations of the Building Act Committee and the Improvements Committee, who had discussed the matter before the Council referred it to the General Purposes Committee. They were, in the first place, impressed with the advisability of selecting, if possible, names which consisted of one word only, as in the case of such streets as ‘Piccadilly,’ ‘Whitehall,’ and ‘Cheapside’ an arrangement the practical advantages and convenience of which would, they felt sure, commend themselves to the Council and the public. Secondly, they thought it was well, wherever possible, to make use of some name which would recall and perpetuate the associations of the locality in which the street was situated. The application of that principle in the past had been of considerable value to Londoners, and they thought that the present generation should provide for posterity what its ancestors had handed down to it. The district now under consideration was particularly rich in historical associations, being the site of a Danish settlement named ‘Aldwych,’ ‘which owed its origin to the great peace established by King Alfred. For many years the name was preserved as ‘Aldewych-fields’ and the ‘Via de Aldewych,’ the latter being the old name of Drury-lane. The only record of this remaining up to the present day was the narrow street known as ‘Wych-street,’ but this had now been absorbed by the improvement. They thought that the Council would do wisely to resuscitate the name of ‘Aldwych’ by applying it to the curved street at the southern end of the improvement. The name in itself appeared to them to be suitable in every respect. It was short and simple, thoroughly English in form, and did not conflict with any other street name in London. With regard to the main street extending from the curve to Holborn they thought that the most suitable name would be ‘Kingsway.’ The name had the merits of shortness and simplicity, and the adoption of it at the present moment would be an opportune commemoration of the fact that the improvement was carried out at the commencement of the reign of our present Sovereign, and as her Majesty the Queen was a Danish Princess the association of Kingsway with Aldwych would seem particularly appropriate. Moreover, ‘Kingsway, like ‘Aldwych,’ was short, distinctive, and in both form and sound English. It appeared to them to be no small advantage to get rid of the wearisome repetition of ‘street,’ ‘road,’ or ‘avenue’ in our street nomenclature. The committee accordingly recommend that the streets be named ‘Aldwych’ and ‘Kingsway’ respectively.” It is a name David Mills in A Dictionary of London Place Names approvers writing: “This is a particularly interesting and significant name, since it probably refers to the extensive commercial settlement known as Lundenwic which flourished in this area between the 7th and 9th centuries.” However while the name is historic the area itself is not and when the new development began the city lost the largest remaining area of pre-Great Fire of London streets which included Holywell Street and Wych Street.  Holywell Street was known popularly as Booksellers’ Row and was during the Victorian era the centre of the pornography trade. The scheme that was to wipe away these vestiges of Elizabethan London was devised by Frederic Harrison, Chairman of the Improvement Committee, in 1892.

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