Down Your Alley: Fleet Street-1

This month Down Your Alley moves to Fleet Street and the alleys to the north. We look at the alleys which Dr. Johnson would have been familiar when compiling his dictionary and giving Boswell the benefit of his views about places to be discovered in London. There are many alleys remaining in Fleet Street, despite the war damage, some of those alleys running north and on the south side of Fleet Street will be featured in a later post.

[W]e start facing east just after the Royal Courts of Justice and will continue down Fleet Street until we reach an alley bearing the name of the great lexicographer which curiously, apart from being frequently used by him, is not named after him.

We are just inside the City of London, Bell Yard [below] which dates back to the early 15th century when a tavern or inn known as ‘Le Belle’ stood at its southern end. It was pulled down around 1580 and some years later was replaced by another tavern also called the Bell, but that too has long since gone. As might be imagined the dominating theme of Bell Yard is law, as the west side the Royal Courts of Justice takes up the entire length of the Yard.


We may, with a high degree of surety, presume that Bell Yard has not always been the agreeable place it is today for in 1736 Alexandra Pope referred to it as ‘a filthy old place’. Joe Frances, breeches maker, had his lucrative shop here but, as was usually the case in those days, prosperous business men didn’t invest their money wisely. He was a gambler and a heavy drinker, preferring to sit every evening in the Three Herrings tavern a few door away. His sons were both thieves, the eldest following the trade of a pickpocket and the other spent the daylight hours posing as a blind beggar, sitting in the gutter with hands out stretched. His daughter was of no better character; a notable prostitute, regularly seen loitering around the courts and alleys off Fleet Street.


Between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane is Cliffords Inn Passage. In 1307 Robert Clifford was granted the lease on a substantial house and a plot of land towards the northern end of the passage. At that time lawyers had not settled into any particular area of London and it was completely by chance that when Clifford died in 1343 his widow leased the house to a number of law students. Clifford’s Inn, or Clifford’s House as it was called, was the first established Inn of Chancery and from this beginning the long history of legal London started. The house remained in the ownership of the Clifford family until the mid-17th century when it was sold to a group of lawyers as residential apartments. Clifford’s Inn ceased to function as a legal establishment in 1802 and one by one the buildings were demolished until the last survivor went under the demolition contractor’s hammer in 1935.


Leaving Fleet Street through a narrow covered opening, Hen and Chicken Court continues as a passage before opening out into an elongated yard lined with a number of a-little-the-worse-for-ware buildings. This is a quaint court – but perhaps not, as might be imagined, so quaint as when the Hen and Chicken Inn stood on the spot. Documentation relating to the inn is extremely thin on the ground and although Boswell, in his Life of Samuel Johnson, makes mention of a fair selection of Fleet Street inns and taverns he conveys no reference to this one. Of course the name could have been an affectionate handle for one of the more familiar establishments. There is now no great activity in Hen and Chicken Court. Funnelled away from the bustling main street and almost sealed off from its roar, the only audible sound is the rattle of odds and ends sliding down a rubbish shoot.


Don’t be fooled by this narrow approach, Crane Court quickly takes on wider dimensions to reveal the grace of rehabilitated antiquity. It was in rooms at number nine that the first edition of the magazine Punch was published and The Illustrated London News started its long life at number ten. Under the presidency of Isaac Newton, the Royal Society established their headquarters at the far end of the Court in 1710. They stayed for seventy years and sold the property for £1,000 in 1780. Although major redevelopment has taken place in this area over recent years, Crane Court in modern day London still radiates a pleasing character; brightly painted doors adorned with shiny knockers, knobs and name-plates are plentifully in evidence.


Nestling in the midst of a modernised block on the corner of Fetter Lane the narrow passage of Red Lion Court branches from Fleet Street undeterred by the rolling years. A little way along, the passage widens out and here, until quite recently, stood the Red Lion tavern – after which the Court was named. There has been a tavern in Red Lion Court since 1575 but unfortunately the long establishment came to an end when redevelopment encompassed the area a few years ago – alas, the Red Lion is no more. Within the square there once was Riscatype once one of the largest type founders in the world from which as an apprentice I would have to collect packets of type.


Ask anyone ‘in the know’, who inspired the naming of Johnson Court, and as sure as night follows day the answer will come back – Dr Johnson. It is true that Samuel Johnson did spend 10 years of his life in Johnson’s Court, but he had nothing whatsoever to do with its naming; That honour goes to Thomas Johnson, a City tailor, who lived here during the reign of Elizabeth I. Little else is known of Thomas, but of Samuel there are volumes and his name is as alive today as it was in the 18th century. Samuel Johnson moved into number eight Johnson’s Court in January of 1776 after leaving his lodging at number one Inner Temple Lane. With him came Mrs Anna Williams, a Welsh lady who came to London seeking a cure for cataracts but after undergoing an operation totally lost her sight. Johnson took pity on her and after the death of her husband, Zachariah, gave her a room in his house. Boswell described her as ‘very peevish; and I wondered at Johnson’s patience with her . . . She was as active as bad health and blindness permitted; though sometimes impatient, for her temper was “marked with Welsh fire.”. Also in the court, the first edition of the John Bull Magazine rolled off the press in 1820 under its founder and first editor, Theodore Hook. Throughout much of its length it is still a narrow covered way as in the days when the lumbering figure of Dr Johnson trudged along the dark passage. He must have trodden this route hundreds of time, for not only did it lead to number seven, but also his house in Gough Square where he lived between 1748 and 1759.

Photos: Cliffords Inn Passage Basher Eyre (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sweeney Todd’s barber shop Joel Does London. Also notice Hen and Chicken Court alleyway to the side. The original Barber shop of Sweeney Todd, which is now the Dundee Courier building. Sweeney Todd killed over 150 victims and Mrs. Lovett butchered the bodies to be used as meat for the meat pies in her store. They lived off any money and goods the victims happened to be carrying with them. To transport the victims, there was an underground tunnel from the barber shop that led directly to Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop. This tunnel actually went underneath St Dunstan’s Church shown in the top feature image.

Crane Court by Period House: The oldest speculative buildings by Nicholas Barbon, in Crane Court off Fleet Street (c1670)


CabbieBlog-cabMuch 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.

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