#MyStrand: Justin Sherin, playwright and screenwriter
Posted in 19th Century, 2020-2029, 20th Century, 21st Century, contemporary, future, people, Places, shops, Stories, Strandlines, streets and roads, theatres and tagged with digital life writing, Explore London, instagram, Interview, life writing, London by Londoners, MyStrand, People of the Strand, Photography, Visual history
I often scour Instagram for gorgeous, strange, or mysterious looking photographs of the Strand, historical and contemporary.
@WychStreet, an account run by Justin Sherin, is an account I return to again and again, as the photographs – and generous evocative captions – instantly transport me into the past.
Justin was kind enough to share some of his stories with Strandlines for this post. From a fleeting childhood memory to a ghost story, our conversation is an excellent taster of what you can find over on his instagram page.
Thank you so much, Justin.
Fran – Assistant Editor, Strandlines
Your posts of beautiful old photographs caught our eye on Instagram. Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers: who are you, and why do you share old photos of the Strand area?
I’m a playwright and screenwriter. I grew up near Philadelphia, first home of Craven St.’s most famous resident, Benjamin Franklin.
I came to London with my Dad in 1995. We were in Maiden Lane doing God knows what — when I turned and saw Bull Inn Court. It looked just as it does now, of course. We didn’t have time to turn in, but I was gobsmacked. That’s the only word. A weird, strong, inexplicable gravitational pull — ‘this makes sense.’
When I returned to work in the theatre in 2002, Bull Inn Court was one of my first stops. (I quickly found the Nell Gwynne’s jukebox.) Luckily I’ve been back and forth a lot since. Though not so much lately. I miss it.
How did you start collecting London photos?
London is beautiful because you can see all 2000 years in a street if you look hard enough. I’ve always wanted to figure out how old London fits into the one I know.
Often it sneaks in. In the City, Cullum St. looks nothing like 1910—but there’s a barbershop nearly on the footprint of one from back then.
When screamingly poor I used to walk the streets all day. It got in my blood. I found out about the Oxford Arms, Warwick Lane, one of the last coaching inns, and went to the Guildhall to buy a print of a ghostly man standing at the entrance. I had to eat more cereal for a few weeks, but it was worth it. When I hung it in my little room I felt less lonely.
Now the archives are online it’s a good way to daydream and avoid writing. The Bishopsgate Institute is especially good. Charles Goss (1864-1946) created their London collection. He was an obsessive. He took lots of photographs himself, and saved everything down to handbills and merchant tokens. Archivist Stefan Dickers still runs the Bishopsgate in that spirit.
Why did you choose the name @WychStreet for your Instagram account?
I think Wych St. and Holywell St. symbolise what London is vs. what some try to make it.
You could get drunk there, go to the theatre, find a man or woman, buy a cheap bed for the night, and take home ‘literature’ to lock in your desk. The houses were in rough shape. No wonder the Victorians tore it down.
But people went there for a good time, or to kill time, or just to get by. They were for everybody, so they were beautiful in a way the Aldwych isn’t.
London has always torn down and rebuilt, but London is for Londoners. We can’t forget that.
What’s the biggest difference in the Strand area in the last 10 years? What about 100 years?
For the Victorians it was London’s high street. But today you come for the theatre, or Somerset House, and mostly drink or shop or get haircuts elsewhere. It’s a shame. That’s grown in my lifetime.
I tend to linger in the area around Villiers St./Charing Cross because there’s a rush. People are there to do things, not just go to the office. Gordon’s Wine Bar is a great crossroads of humanity.
Which photos are most popular with your followers? Why do you think that is?
People like when I discuss Wych St. and Holywell St. because they’re almost palpable, I think. A wound at the heart of things. Nobody likes the Aldwych, they’re not sure why—so when you reveal a warren of theatres and porn and brothels and pubs and actors’ digs and esoteric shops under Australia House, they’re fascinated.
I try to post photos that show the past is nearer than we think, or else places that are long forgotten. When you see New Inn, for example—a strange, shabby little place—265 Strand (its site today) never looks the same again.
Can you tell us about your personal favourite photos or stories?
I may have seen the ghost of William Terriss. (Actor-Manager at the Adelphi, murdered by a deranged employee at the stage door in 1897. I have it on good authority he still runs the place.)
Years ago I wandered up Bull Inn Court in a snowy twilight to take a photo. I stood in line with the Adelphi stage door. Went home, thought nothing of it, then blew it up and showed it to a friend: ‘Who’s that?’
We saw a guy in a top hat, somewhat transparent, about six feet ahead.
Nearly everyone responded the same way, unprompted. Sadly it was the early days of digital cameras, and the photo is now with Terriss, up in the air somewhere … he was known to help young people make their way in the theatre, so maybe he nodded to me.
What can people expect to see if they follow @wychstreet on Instagram?
Occasional London time travel with detours to New York. Also dogs and cats.
Fran Allfrey is Assistant Editor of Strandlines. She has been walking and cycling the Strand for over a decade looking for the best places to eat, lamp-posts to chain a bike to, and patches of greenery.