The Old Curiosity Shop: A little piece of 16th century London with a literary link
Down a little unassuming side street in the back roads of Holborn is historic shop. Just two stories high, it is dwarfed by the modernity surrounding it. At first glance, fans of Charles Dickens may be thrilled to see the author’s name emblazoned across the upper storey as it claims to be his Old Curiosity Shop from the Victorian novel of the same name. Perhaps on close inspection the truth isn’t so clear cut.
Built in 1567, the building is believed to be the oldest surviving shop in London. It was constructed using wood from old ships, with a tiled, hipped roof. The ground floor windows today still feature 17th or early 18th century frames, with 19th century glazing. It managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 as the fire died out before it reached the Holborn area. At one point the building was used as a dairy, run by one of the mistresses of King Charles II (1630-1685).
During Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) lifetime, the building was apparently used by a waste paper merchant. The author originally serialised The Old Curiosity Shop in his serial Master Humphrey’s Clock from 1840-1841, before publishing it as a complete book in 1841. The novel told the story of orphan ‘Little’ Nell Trent and her grandfather, who live at The Old Curiosity Shop. The book was incredibly popular with the Victorian public, with even the Queen remarking it was ‘cleverly written’.
The idea that Dickens was inspired by this very shop in Holborn is tenuous – although he lived for many years in the area and neighbouring Bloomsbury. Around 30 years after book was published, one of the shop’s owners decided to cash in on Dickens’ popularity and named it The Old Curiosity Shop, proudly declaring it was the very one ‘immortalised by Charles Dickens’. Given he was a local, there is a chance Dickens would have visited the building, or at least walked past it. The real shop believed to have been the inspiration of Dickens’ tale stood on Orange Street, behind the National Gallery.
Regardless of Dickens’ association with the building, the signage linking him with the shop surely ensured its survival. The nearby Clare Market slums and shops were demolished in 1905 to create Aldwych and Kingsway, including the tramway subway. The Clare Market area today is mostly occupied by the London School of Economics (LSE).
At some point during the 19th century, the building became an antiques store, eventually closing in the 1970s. When it shut its doors, receipts and documents dating back as far as the 1920s were found. The building was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1958. Since the 1990s, the shop has been selling shoes by Japanese designer Daita Kimura. Why not pop in to see the low ceiling beams and winding staircases?
- The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street, Holborn, WC2A 2ES. Nearest station: Holborn or Temple.
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For a guide to Dickens’ London hotspots, click here.