With the EU Referendum days away, we look today at one of London’s most curiously named alleys – Little Britain.
This winding street which goes from being an alley to part of the one-way system around BT’s headquarters then turning off again towards Smithfield to become a cul-de-sac and got its name from the Dukes of Brittany who built a house here in the 15th century.
[D]uring the 19th century. ‘Little Britain’ was a derogatory term used to describe people and places that were seen as typical of working-class life.
The street’s early purpose was for selling printed material, as close by Wynken de Worde had, in 1500, moved his press from Westminster to nearby Fleet Street and produced at least 600 titles from his premises. So from 1575 to 1725 there were mostly booksellers on the street until they all moved to Paternoster Row.
But this little street in the ward of ‘Aldersgate and Farringdon Within’ has had some very important visitors and residents:
John Milton, the English poet and scholar lived on Little Britain briefly in 1662 and in 1711 The Spectator, the daily publication and forerunner of today’s weekly magazine, was first printed here by Samuel Buckley.
In 1712 a 3 year old Samuel Johnson was brought to London by his mother in a hope that by touching Queen Anne, he would be cured of scrofula (extra-pulmonary tuberculosis). It was believed from the Middle Ages that the royal touch would cure this infectious disease.
Benjamin Franklin stayed in a house on the street when he was in London in 1724 and it was at number 13 Little Britain where Charles Wesley’s evangelical conversion took place in 1738.
The purpose of featuring this little alley on the eve of the EU Referendum is in describing its importance this week on England’s character.
In 1820, in Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Little Britain was described as follows:
In the centre of the great City of London lies a small neighbourhood, consisting of a cluster of narrow streets and courts, of very venerable and debilitated houses, which goes by the name of Little Britain . . . Little Britain may truly be called the heart’s core of the City, the stronghold of true John Bullism.
Just a few years after Irving wrote these words, others were characterising the locality as a slum and a rookery. Charles Dickens wrote in his novel Great Expectations, the lawyer, Mr Jaggers had his office on Little Britain which was described as ‘a gloomy street’.
Picture: Little Britain by Tigerulze
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 more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.