On London History Day, it is worth being reminded that our Archive at 10 Old Pye Street, on the corner of St Ann’s Lane, has had its own brushes with history. These days the streets are a quiet backwater of Westminster enlivened by the St Andrew’s Club a few yards away across the lane, which has a good claim to be the oldest youth club in the world. It has been in operation since 1866 and is still going strong.
Almost a couple of centuries before that, Sir Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695) one of the greatest musicians Britain has ever produced, is believed to have lived there In a house on the same site. The poet Robert Herrick also lived in St Ann’s Lane.  
Our small archive is in the corner of a Peabody building and used to be a sweet shop.  We have met people from St Andrew’s who were at school nearby and can remember buying sweets there. Recently we came across an old photo with the proprietor Hassan Hafez standing in front of Mini Grosvenor Store as it was then called. If anyone knows anything more about Hassan we would be very pleased to hear from them.
Well before Mr Hafez, the same site was the scene of a spectacular experiment in improving the lot of working people. On this corner there was a six storey building called the Westminster Workingmen’s Club and Reading Rooms. It was established with accommodation for up to 60 families who were too poor to be able to afford rents in the Peabody buildings which required men to be in employment earning 18 to 20 shillings a week before they were admitted. It replaced an earlier much smaller experiment in nearby Duck Lane (now St Matthew Street) set up by philanthropists led by Miss Adeline Cooper, which was the first attempt to have a working men’s club open every evening for non-alcoholic drinks, newspapers and general socialising. 
The building also included a cooperative shop and with the same shape of entrance as we have today. The working men’s club was part of the “Westminster Improvements” designed to clear what had been an extremely squalid area. Partly because of its proximity to Westminster Abbey – whose sanctuary (guaranteeing freedom from arrest) attracted generations of criminals – St Ann’s Lane sank from being a fairly prestigious address to harbouring scenes of unprecedented moral and social degradation dominated by thieves and prostitutes which was a no-go area even for the police. 
John Hollingshead’s 1862 book Ragged London gave details:  “Enter a narrow street called St Ann’s Lane, glance at the fearful side place called St Ann’s Court and wonder if ever such filth and squalor can be exceeded. The court had every feature of a sewer in the long puddle of filth sucked into a hollow centre......  As I turned around to leave the place, I caught a glimpse of several rough long-haired heads peeping round the edges of the entrance”. 
This was the epicentre of the roads around St Ann’s Lane that Dickens had earlier called “The Devil’s Acre” in the first edition of Household Words. He described it as “the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for Tom cats”.  Cardinal Manning, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, described the area as a “slum’, believed to be the first time that word had been used in print.
J E Smith, vestry clerk of St Margaret and St John the Evangelist, wrote “Parochial Memorials” added some on-the spot knowledge: “During the cholera epidermic of 1848, a medical gentleman was called to visit a sufferer in one of the streets on which the church now abuts. While stooping over the poor creature to administer medicine, with which he was provided in readiness, his coat pockets were emptied of the contents by the dying woman’s husband!”  
He added that when the first services in the new St Matthew’s were taking place, local inhabitants “mustarded in force“ to interrupt the worship by beating empty barrels, breaking windows and other disorderly conduct.
Nowadays all this seems like a distant dream. However, the layout of the roads hasn’t changed and it doesn’t require much imagination to conjure up the squalor of the 19th century.