This avenue in Holborn is a modern addition to the area – by London’s standards that is, as it dates from 1910. Before that, the area was a conventional block of shops and houses having been developed by the 1670s.

The impetus for demolishing the block of small buildings and building this baroque avenue comes from the redevelopment of Kingsway and Southampton Row for the tram tunnel and general slum clearance to the south. As the road at the northern end where Sicilian Avenue is today needed widening to allow space for the tram tunnel, an opportunity was taken along with the expiry of shop leases for a larger redevelopment of the whole block instead, including the avenue running through the middle.

The avenue was designed by the architect Robert Worley in 1906 on behalf of the Bedford Estates in a monumental Edwardian style, originally clad in Italian marble, which was replaced in the 1920s for reasons I haven’t been able to ascertain.

The avenue appears to have been completed in April 1910, as that’s when the first adverts for retailers using that address appear in the newspapers, and The Sphere newspaper wrote a short article about the newly opened avenue in the same month.

Not much is known about the architect, other than that he and his brother, the better known Charles Worley, worked on the London Pavilion (now part of the Trocadero Centre), Piccadilly Circus, and Albert Court, a mansion block next to the Royal Albert Hall. It does seem odd that an architect was able to win such large commissions without leaving a long line of smaller works in his wake, but whatever he did before has been lost.

The construction of the avenue came at a time when pedestrian shopping avenues were rising in popularity, mainly in the Piccadilly area, and where those were covered passages, Sicilian Avenue is unapologetically expecting Italian weather with its open passageway surmounted at each end by Romanesque columns.

Although today the avenue is mainly lined with cafes and restaurants, it used to be a major hub for booksellers. Of particular note is the shop frontages, that project forwards from the stone surrounds to allow the most amount of light in, as they were built before the widespread use of electric lighting.

John Betjeman was quite keen on the avenue, describing it at a RIBA lecture in 1954 as an architectural joke, and he approved of architectural jokes.

The avenue has a mix of styles, but overwhelmingly an English Edwardian baroque that still manages, if you squint a bit, to look vaguely Italian. Deep red brickwork peels out above the second floor, largely covered by the richly decorated tiles.

The Italian airs to the avenue may be accidental though — as it’s not really Italian architecture and was originally going to be called Vernon Arcade, after Vernon Place, the road at the north end of the passageway, but the development was renamed Sicilian Avenue part way through its construction.

Although the building above the shops is now offices, when originally built, it was for two blocks of flats, known as Vernon House and Sicilian House. They were later converted into offices, and although joined as a single block internally, still have two separate entrances at street level.

Although built for the Bedford Estates, these days avenue is owned by Holborn Links, which owns a large block of land in the area. The avenue was refurbished to a design by Tate Hindle in 2015, restoring the original street lamps — although one seems to have been damaged and removed since then, leaving a small twig of Christmas tree decoration at the moment.

A second wave of refurbishment is expected soon, to clean up the office buildings on either side and running above the avenue shops.

Unsurprisingly for a passageway with an Italian name, there’s a long standing tenant, the Spaghetti House, which has been on the corner of Sicilian Avenue since 1955.


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  1. Julian Michael says:

    Most of these cafés and shops at street level appear to be closed and boarded up.

  2. TOM says:

    I remember a PC bookshop here in the early 1990s. It was my first stop for anything computer related.

    • Maurice zreed says:

      Me too! There were some excellent bookshops down there. All gone now.

    • Chris Roberts says:

      Loved PC bookshop in the 1990s too. Great place to find those unusual computing books the mainstream stores didn’t stock. Many an afternoon spent browsing here!

    • Barry says:

      In the days before Amazon it was the best place to get pretty much any computer book. Run by James Lake they expanded into a few units there and it was always a treat to visit. If they didn’t have what you wanted they would always order it in.

  3. Leytonstoner says:

    Those beautiful shop fronts also used to front that building’s Southampton Row elevation as well. Sadly, no longer.

  4. John says:

    Writer Norman Lewis used to own a camera shop here.

  5. Kim Theed says:

    I remember using both the PC bookshop and the camera shop,but my favourite was stems the florist run by Janet if she didn’t have the flowers you wanted they were probably out of season. I used those shops from 1984

  6. Leo says:

    My office is nearby and I walk along here quite often. It’s beautifully out of place, but also desserted by local standards. I often take private phone calls here as its so quiet during work days. The pandemic saw alot of the shops that were here off it seems.

  7. Steve says:

    I first visited Skoob Books there in 1985. Long relocated, obviously. Much later it was great for the Italian cafe that would serve me a double espresso to go with my morning Marlboro light on the way to the office. Now (all) also long gone. Many a large baguette for lunch came from Onion, its walls plastered with Fay Maschler reviews. Sicilian Avenue is now a hollow shell of its many former selves, along with much of that block, and for those of us who remember it in its pomp this is an utter tragedy. Thank you Ian for telling its story.

  8. Lizebeth says:

    I have often visited this off-the-beaten-track and lovely place, and wondered at its history. Thank you for including it. But at present it seems deserted? Did lockdown kill it off, and is there any chance of boutique shops and cafes ever returning? It seems a microcosm of what is happening in all areas of the developed world, with fewer and fewer independent retail establishments being able to survive — and correspondingly less enjoyment of the streetscape for all of us. Very sad.

    You say it might be refurbished a bit in future. Any idea about shops reopening there?

  9. Terry Jones says:

    I hope the refurb doesn’t mean higher rates = boring chain stores. As others have said, it’s sad that the quirky shops have gone.

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