Raconteur and master of the London quote Samuel Johnson once memorably gave these pearls of wisdom to this drinking partner Boswell:
“Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.”
[T]aking Johnson’s advice Down Your Alley, a new regular slot on CabbieBlog, proposes to give a potted insight into the lanes and alleys of London. We kick off with the heart of Theatreland where thousands walk past these little survivors from an earlier period in the Capital’s history without pausing to investigate these little urban gems or sometimes depositories of human detritus.
St. Martin’s Court
Walking down St. Martin’s Lane the first alley you reach on your right is St. Martin’s Court. St Martin’s Court, Lane, Place, and Street were all named, as might be supposed, from the church of St Martin in the Fields. This notable London landmark was built originally in the 12th century as a chapel for monks working in the Abbey fields so that they would be spared the backwards and forwards trek to Westminster for the reciting of daily offices. When Henry VIII, abolished the monasteries in 1533 the Abbey was surrendered to the Crown along with the convent garden – hence nearby Covent Garden. This move rendered the chapel of St Martin’s redundant and it was demolished. Only 10 years later, a new church was built on the site and the northern half of the parish of St Margaret’s Westminster was given over to St Martin’s. The design was taken by the early settlers to the New World and can often be found in New England. St Martin’s Court, with its three rather plain gaslight standards in a line just off centre of the path, has two entrances leading from Charing Cross Road, one adjacent to the station and the other a few yards further south. The alleyway has the wall of two theatres. Between the two entrances is Wyndhams Theatre and at the opposite end in St Martin’s Lane is the Albery Theatre. The Salisbury, a preserved Victorian public house, frequented by members of the acting profession, is on the corner of St Martin’s Lane.
Continuing down St. Martin’s Lane you next come to Goodwin’s Court on your left, t two steps lead into this narrow gem of a court. Built about 1627 it really is a delightful experience – a treasure of old London, and as fresh today as when the mortar was still wet. On the south side of the Court, numbers one to eight have enchanting Georgian bowed windows painted black, and highly polished knockers and knobs fitted to each of the doors. There are also some fine examples of working gas lamps outside the stepped entrances to number 1, owned by C P Carpets of Kidderminster, and numbers five and eight. Note the clock above the first floor window over the archway leading into Bedfordbury. Before the London Fire Brigade was established, it was up to the individual owners of property to insure against damage by fire. So that the fire fighting forces of the day could see that houses were insured, owners displayed identification marks on doors. One of these marks can be seen at Goodwin’s Court. Number 10 is Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant established in 1952 and a delicate reminder that the properties here used to be shops.
Just opposite the entrance to Goodwin’s Court is the less impressive Cecil Court. Since the 1930s it has been known as the new Booksellers’ Row: rare books, prints and memorabilia, if you are looking for second hand books then this is the place to come. The Court is wide and literally lined from one end to the other with antiquarian and plain, down to earth, second hand bookshops. There is also a dealer of old prints, a poster shop and a philatelist. Down the centre line the Court is graced by two gas lamp standards. The court is named after William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who built a large house on a site near to the present Lyceum in the Strand. Lord Burghley had two sons, Thomas who became Earl of Exeter and on his father’s death inherited the house; and Robert who became Earl of Salisbury. In 1609 the King, who had always looked on Robert as a favourite, granted him a piece of land stretching from the east side of Leicester Square to St Martin’s Lane. On part of the land, facing St Martin’s Lane he built a block of residential property for the use of servants. One of the most notable celebrities to have taken up residence in Cecil Court was Mozart who temporarily occupied rooms here in 1764.
Continuing further down St. Martin’s Lane we come across May’s Court. The naming of the Court goes back to Henry May who owned a row of houses on St Martin’s Lane and he lived at number 43. The Court was the rear access to the row of houses and was originally known as May’s Buildings. Whilst May’s Court is not open to vehicular traffic it has the dimensions of a reasonably wide street. The whole of its southern length is dominated by the red brick wall of the Coliseum Theatre, home of The English National Opera. One of the largest theatres in London, the Coliseum was the first in the world to have a revolving stage. Apart from the flank wall of the Coliseum Theatre this alleyway has little to commend it for seeking out.
The last Brydges Place is easily overlooked. Lying just on the south side of the Coliseum Theatre is one of the narrowest openings to an alley in the whole of London. Unfortunately you will find your endeavours at finding it have been wasted, it is most certainly not one of the prettiest. The passage extends between St Martin’s Lane and the corner of Bedfordbury and Chandos Place, with an outlet half way along to William IV Street. To get the full effect of the narrowness, walk from the east end towards St Martin’s Lane. Towering walls on either side give one a feeling of being squeezed. The access from St Martin’s Lane would, of course, not originally have been built so narrow, demolition and rebuilding over the years in an already congested district, available land was at a premium. This meant that every opportunity to snatch a little extra was seized upon, leaving the access to Brydges Place as little more than a crack in the wall. Although the passage has been here since the early 17th century it started life under the name of Dawson’s Alley. At the beginning of the 19th century it appears to have been known as Taylor’s Yard – indicating an area of rather larger proportions – and by 1875 the name had changed to the present Brydges Place. The reference is to George Brydges, Lord Chandos, who was the forces Paymaster and an ancestor of the Duke of Chandos.
Pictures: St. Martin’s Court by Ham (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 UK); Godwin’s Court by London Unveiled; Cecil Court by Gerry Lynch CC-by-SA 3.0; Junction of St. Martin’s Lane and May’s Court and Options narrowing in Brydges Place by Basher Eyre (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Much of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no longer with us. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.