Down Your Alley: Great Turnstile

Off the south side of High Holborn, approx 300 yards west of Chancery Lane Station, just by the London Weather Centre you will find Great Turnstile and its smaller cousin Little Turnstile. When the area around here was largely open space and cattle grazed in the fields to the south, known as Cup Field, Fickett’s Field, and Purse Field, a turnstile in a narrow lane allowed the passage of pedestrians but prevented the straying of cattle.

[T]his lane, sometimes known as Turne Style Lane, was the main access to the group of fields from the highway and was therefore called ‘Great’ to distinguish it from another turnstile (Little Turnstile) further west. When the turnstile was abandoned the alley was built up with shops and became what was described in 1720 as ‘a great thoroughfare’ having the shops of milliners and shoemakers. When these traders moved out the alley was taken over by literary buffs, housing bookshops and publishing houses. Until earlier this century there were four sturdy wooden posts fixed into the ground at the entrance to the alley, they served as a reminder of the restrictions imposed by the old turnstile. On the south- west corner stood the Turnstile Tavern but, alas, that was many years ago and today not a single stick of evidence remains. It was closed in 1640 and subsequently given over to the Council.


Looking from Gate Street into Little Turnstile

To the south of Great Turnstile is Lincoln’s Inn Fields, formed under that name in the early 17th century out of the three previously named fields – Cup, Fickett’s, and Purse. Until the early 18th century a path crossing these fields was a perilous place to tread. By day it was a favourite resort of beggars and hired children who often used violence on unsuspecting victims in order to relieve them of anything worth having. By night, thieves lurked in the darkness ready to pounce on anyone daring to travel the lonely road. The fields, in the course of time, have been witness to events ranging from tragedy to comedy. It was here that Babington and his scheming band were put to death after their planned conspiracy to oust Queen Elizabeth from the English throne and replace her with Mary of Scotland. For his supposed involvement in the Rye House Plot, Lord William Russell was executed in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

On the 29th January 1727 the first staging of John Gray’s The Beggar’s Opera took place at the Lincoln’s Inn Playhouse, on the south side of the Fields. This was also the venue for Thomas Arne’s first opera Rosamund, performed here in 1733.


Mary Ward in Great Turnstile

John Gray knew this area well and probably suffered at the hands of muggers on more occasions than one; he gives this warning and advice to anyone contemplating a crossing:

Where Lincoln’s Inn wide space is railed around,
Cross not with venturous step; there oft is found
The lurking thief, who while the daylight shone
Made the wall echo with his begging tone:
That crutch which late compassion moved shall wound
Thy bleeding head and fell thee to the ground.
Though thou art tempted by the linkman’s call,
Yet trust him not along the lonely wall;
In the midway he’ll quench the flaming brand,
And share thy booty with the pilfering band.
Still keep the public streets, where oily rays,
Shot from the crystal lamps, o’erspread the ways.

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Hansard, the Government publication which records the business of the House of Commons first saw the light of day in Great Turnstile. In 1797 Luke Hansard, a printer from Norwich inherited a business together with a contract for the printing of Government papers. However, it was not until 1892, long after Hansard’s death, that the publication was produced under his name.

At the end of Great Turnstile, to the right, is a narrow turning into the quiet backwater called Whetstone Park. On its appearance today we may be coaxed to conclude that it has always been that way – but how wrong that would be. A local rag of 1682 puts to right any deception: ‘500 apprentices, and such like, being got together in Smithfield, went into Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where they drew up, and marching into Whetstone Park, fell upon the lewd houses there, where, having broken open the doors, they entered, and made great spoil of the goods; of which the constables and watchmen having noticed, and not finding themselves strong enough to quell the tumult, procured a party of the King’s guards, who dispersed them, and took eleven, who were committed to New Prison.’ This was not an isolated incident; the same gang, on being released from the cells ‘came again, and made worse havoc than before, breaking down all the doors and windows and cutting the feather beds and goods in pieces.’ It was all part of everyday life in Whetstone Park where theft and violence flourished hand in hand with the antics of ladies who lived by immoral earnings.


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 more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.