Holborn on Agas


Above: A small part of the so-called ‘Agas’ map, first published about 1561, showing the land around Holborn.

The first complete map of Inner London in existence today is a actually not a map but a ‘bird’s eye view’ originally made as a wood-cut about 1561. Only three paper copies of the map exist today. Over their long life an 18th century historian attributed the map to a well-known mapmaker called Ralph Agas. The only trouble is, Agas made a map of Oxford but is not likely to have made the London map. However, since the originator of the London map is not known, having a ‘handle’ even if it is the wrong name is useful. Every librarian and archivist knows the story and so calling the map the ‘Agas map’ is known to be incorrect but it is a well-used quick name for the map.

The section above shows the entire length of the street called Holborn, which is relatively short. Today the roadway where ‘Holborn Bridge’ is shown on the map is now called Holborn Viaduct. The roadway west of the junction of Holborn with Gray’s Inn Road is now called High Holborn. Holborn as a street is shown on the map but is not named. However, it was almost certainly known as Holborn.

At the western end of Holborn are the words ‘The bares’. The bars consisted of two posts – one either side of the road – which defined the boundary of the City of London. The posts are not shown on the map. Today there are two pillars with figures of dragons mounted on them. At this point Gray’s Inn Road runs north (as it still does today). The large garden with buildings along the south side and a gatehouse beside that road represents Gray’s Inn. It was named after the Gray family and is one of the four Inns of Court.

Below ‘The bares’ is a light coloured house which could represent Staple Inn. Just north of the houses lining the north side of Holborn is a very large property, labelled ‘Ely Place’. Known also as Ely House, it was the London residence of the Bishops of Ely. As can be seen from the map, the extent of the property was enormous. Some of the red-roofed buildings have small turrets and there is also what looks like a church tower. Those buildings probably represent the Great Hall and the chapel on the site. Today’s cul-de-sac called Ely Place runs north where the eastern part of the houses are to be seen. In today’s Ely Place is the ancient Chapel of St Etheldreda which was part of the original property.

On the west of the property is Leather Lane – a street still with the same name today. Beside it is a large garden probably laid out with box hedges in the Tudor style. The dark green rectangles probably represent a simplified version of the layout. Much of the property on the west side was later acquired by Sir Christopher Hatton and the ornamental part was called ‘Hatton’s Garden’. Sadly the lovely garden is no more but a street was laid out on that land and called Hatton Garden. It is now famous for the sale of diamonds. North of Hatton’s Garden is a large orchard which, alas, is now covered by several streets lined with houses and small factories.

On the south side of Holborn is shown the church and churchyard of St Andrew, Holborn. Both are still in existence. Today’s church was built after the Great Fire of London (1666). Notice the church is named ’S Andreus’ which is similar to the German spelling of the saint’s name. This indicates that the mapmaker probably spoke German or a similar language (like Flemish or Dutch) which means that he may have been from northern Europe.

Running south from Holborn are Chancery Lane, Fetter Lane and Shoe Lane which all still remain as thoroughfares with the same names today. At the eastern end of Holborn is shown part of the River Fleet and the roadway crossing it via Holborn Bridge. At the time of the map the roadway from Holborn sloped down to the bridge and on the eastern side of the bridge the road sloped up again. This state of affairs continued until the 1860s when the Victorians decided to build Holborn Viaduct. The roadway between Holborn and Newgate Street was kept at a constant level, with the dips in the old roadway eliminated and a new grand bridge spanned where the River Fleet had once flowed. By the 1860s the Fleet flowed underground and the land had become Farrindon Street.

Careful inspection of the map will reveal cows in fields which today are anything but rural in appearance. In Tudor times the map shows that you only had to walk west from the City of London as far as Holborn to find yourself in the beginnings of open fields. If you want to see animals standing in open fields today, you need to travel out of London almost as far as the M25!


This entry was posted in /City-Fleet Street. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Holborn on Agas

  1. James Crowe says:

    Really interesting. Thank you.


  2. You are very welcome. I’m glad you liked it.


  3. Penelope Tay says:

    Is there any connection between Turn Agen Lane and Dick Whittington?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.