Tag Archives: London alleys

Down Your Alley: Fleet Street-2

Having reached Ludgate Circus last month we turn to climb up Fleet Street and explore the alleys stretching down towards the Thames. The first landmark is unmistakable, that of the spiritual home of the newspaper industry that once flourished here. Most printers have now left only to return to honour a deceased member of their trade here at St. Brides Church from which our first alley takes its name.

[T]he narrow lane of St. Bride’s Avenue which leaves Fleet Street almost opposite Shoe Lane and turns eastward to pass between St Bride’s Church and the rear of the Old Bell Inn, with an additional branch leading by way of a wide covered path into Salisbury Court. It was once a significant passageway, arched over at the Fleet Street entrance, but is now open to the elements and serves merely as a short cut, for those in the know, between New Bridge Street, Fleet Street and the Bishop of Salisbury’s Court.

St. Bride's Avenue

St. Bride’s Avenue

The rear entrance to the Old Bell, by which most of the regulars arrive, is really quite unobtrusive; a plain door devoid of any accompanying signs leaping out to declare the facilities on offer. Inside, there are no plush carpets or secluded lighting, no gimmicky themes – the Bell is a solid pub and exists for the solid City drinker as it was originally intended. It stands on the site of the Swan tavern, where Wynkin de Worde, assistant to William Caxton, is supposed to have used a room as his workshop. When Sir Christopher Wren drew up his plans for rebuilding St Bride’s church in 1671 he constructed the Bell as accommodation for his men working on the site.

Continue past Salisbury Court and Hood Court is a tiny opening on the left and leaves Fleet Street by way of a quaint narrow covered passage and leads up two shallow steps into a secluded little courtyard to the south, where a mixture of modern and older buildings surround. A connecting path in the southeast corner links with Salisbury Square. The name of the Court is probably taken from a previous inhabitant although it has been suggested that there may have been a connection with Thomas Hood who founded a paper called Hood’s Magazine. If you had lived in the 16th century and been making a visit to the Temple Church then your access would probably have been through Mr Davis’s tailors shop, here in the Court. In those days all churches, their graveyards and cemeteries were places of sanctuary where law breakers could deposit themselves in full assurance that they were out of reach by the hand of justice. The Temple Church was one of the most popular resorts for such criminals and Mr Davis must have been sick to the high teeth with the constant procession through his premises. Henry Styrrell, a barrister of the Middle Temple, too was at the end of his tether with the annoyance caused by the disorderly gathering. In 1610 he petitioned the societies of the Inner and Middle Temple to take action and withdraw the right of way through the tailors shop. Three months after the petition Davis was forced to leave and the building was pulled down. To avoid any future nuisance it was also decided to wall up the gateway between the churchyard and Fleet Street.

Pleydell Court

Pleydell Court

Pleydell Court is the next alley your encounter walking west. Named after the Peydell-Bouveries, the Earls of Radnor who were Huguenots from Spanish Netherlands silk merchants who set up business in Threadneedle Street.

The small alley of Hare Place leads to Hare Court was built by Sir Nicholas Hare, who modestly gave it his name. This notable silk created the Master of the Rolls (probably awarding himself the honour) in 1553. During Elizabeth I’s reign he sat on the commission which tried Sir Nicholas Throgmorton for ‘imagining the Queen’s death’. Sir Nick was lucky to escape the executioner’s axe.


Falcon Court

Falcon Court also features in the very early history of London printing. Wynkyn de Worde, London’s second printer, owned a house here. After his apprenticeship to William Caxton he set up in business in 1502 and remained the predominant printer in London until his death in 1534. It is amazing to learn that on his primitive hand press, laboriously printing one page at a time, he succeeded in the production of over 600 books. He was also the pioneer of music printing in England, a technique developed by wearisome trials. In his will he left a sufficient sum of money to supply a pension for the printing apprentices of Fleet Street and a legacy for St Bride’s church. He was buried in the previous church of St Bride, which was destroyed in the Great Fire.

Pictures: St. Bride’s Avenue Paul Farmer (CC BY-SA 2.0 UK)
Falcon Court. @Tony Grant
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.

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.

Down Your Alley: St. Martin’s Lane

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.


Godwin’s Court

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.


Cecil Court

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.


May’ Court

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.


Brydges Place

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 UnveiledCecil 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)

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.