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The Secret Alleys, Courts and Yards of London's Square Mile
By David Long
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Robert Widders
All rights reserved.
Abchurch Yard, EC4
Documented as long ago as the twelfth century, at which time it was known variously as Abchurch, Abbechurch, Habechirch and Apechurch. Each is almost certainly a corruption of 'upchurch', a reference to the rising ground on which the neighbouring church of St Mary Abchurch was built or to the fact that the church was upriver from the much larger St Mary Overie. Now Southwark Cathedral, this last named had been its mother foundation until the patronage was transferred to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, during the reign of Elizabeth I.
What we see now, a small geometrically cobbled yard with circular stonework, was originally the graveyard – to one side of which wartime bombing revealed a fourteenth-century crypt – but in the way of such places it now provides a relatively peaceful spot on Abchurch Lane where office workers can kick off their shoes at lunchtime.
The church itself, with its elegant, shallow, painted dome, is regarded as one of Wren's prettiest; also among the most original even though the fabric sustained severe damage during the aforementioned bombing. The Grinling Gibbons reredos, for example, is particularly magnificent and is the only one in the City with documented proof of its complete authenticity. That said, it took five years to restore after being blown into more than 2,000 pieces during one particular raid. If the church is open take a look at the churchwardens' pews too, which were designed to incorporate sword rests and dog kennels beneath the seats – both once common enough features but which nowadays are only very rarely seen.
Adams Court, EC2
Reached through an uninspiring looking archway on Old Broad Street or via a somewhat pompous little courtyard opening off Threadneedle Street, this court takes its name from one Thomas Adams (1586–1668) who lived here in the 1640s when he was Master of the Drapers' Company. With the company's hall located in nearby Throgmorton Avenue since the purchase of the site from Henry VII a century earlier, Alderman Adams went on to become Lord Mayor in 1645.
The court meanders into Fountain Court and, with its immaculate little greensward overlooked by the City of London Club, the place provides a perfect refuge from the hubbub of the City. As such it provides a most marked contrast to how it would have been in Thomas Adams' day when (as a consequence of his support for the Royalist cause during the Civil War) it was to be the scene of his arrest.
His house on the site was ransacked by Roundheads searching for the king, and he himself was locked in the Tower. Unlike so many others he survived this ordeal, and later helped to restore the monarchy. At the war's conclusion he was rewarded with a baronetcy.
Addle Hill, EC4
Now just a short cul-de-sac off Carter Lane, the hill is thought to mark the location of the home of a Saxon nobleman, its name coming from the saxon adel meaning noble or a prince. In medieval times it was more colourfully known as Adhelingestrate or Athelingestrate, but just as Stow noted little of interest in 1598 – 'In Addle Street or Lane I find no monuments' – there is little here today to detain the traveller.
Curiously, the similarly named Addle Street, EC2, has a less noble connection, being derived from the Old English word for filth or dung.
Alderman's Walk, EC2
Shown on many older maps as Dashwood Walk, in the seventeenth century this was a passageway leading to the large house and gardens of Sir Frances Dashwood. A Member of the Common Council of the City, his son succeeded to the title of Baron le Despencer and later served as Chancellor of the Exchequer by which time the name had been changed.
On its southern side the Walk adjoins the churchyard of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, where in 1413 a female hermit subsisted on a pension of 40s a year. Bordering the churchyard at that time was a ditch, described a hundred years or so later – by which time the smell was being blamed on Frenchmen living nearby – as being full of 'soilage of houses, with other filthiness cast into the ditch ... to the danger of impoisoning the whole city.'
St Botolph's itself is one of four City churches dedicated to this seventh-century patron saint of travellers, and for this reason was positioned hard by the City gates. Three of the four survived the Great Fire, but being generally decrepit this particular one was eventually pulled down and then replaced in 1725 at a cost of £10,400 by a new one designed by George Dance the Elder and his father-in-law James Gould.
One weekend in 1982 a ghost apparently in the church carelessly wandered in front of a camera and allowed its owner, Chris Brackley, to take a picture. Unaware of this at the time, Brackley found an image of a woman in old-fashioned clothing standing on the balcony when he developed the picture.
St Botolph's also once oversaw a charity school for fifty poor boys and girls, and although its two decorative Coade stone figures of charity children have now been removed from the front of the building, the old school room can still be seen in the attractive churchyard to the west of the church.
The poet John Keats was christened here in 1795, as was the actor, benefactor and 'Master Overseer and Ruler of the Bears, Bulls and Mastiff Dogs' Edward Alleyn. Sir Paul Pindar, the façade of whose mansion is preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was a parishioner. The memorial cross in the churchyard is believed to be the first Great War memorial in the country, having been erected in 1916 following the Battle of Jutland and the death of Lord Kitchener.
Amen Corner, EC4
No known connection with the 1960s band of the same name, but more likely derived, as suggested by John Carey in an 1828 edition of the Gentleman's Magazine, from the words recited by the clergy of the medieval St Paul's as they marched in a procession through the City:
Let us suppose processioners mustered and marshalled at upper end of Paternoster Row next Cheapside. These commence to march westward, and begin to chant the 'Paternoster', continued this the whole length of the street (thence Paternoster Row). On arrival at [the] bottom of the street they enter Ave Maria Lane, at the same time beginning to chant the 'Salutation of the Virgin' or 'Ave Maria' which continues until reaching Ludgate Hill, and crossing over to Creed Lane. They there commence the chant of the 'Credo', which continues until they reach the spot now called Amen Corner, where they sing the concluding Amen.
Several doorways in the court still have old-fashioned link extinguishers from the days when residents would pay so-called link boys to run ahead of them lighting the path with a torch or link. These would be extingushed upon arrival, whereupon the boy would take off in search of another 'fare'.
Amen Court, EC4
Sharing its origins with the aforementioned Amen Corner, Amen Court for many years provided accommodation for the scribes, residentiary canons and minor canons gathered around St Paul's Cathedral.
Unfortunately a reasonably solid-looking, three-storey redbrick gatehouse on Warwick Lane guards the way in to this small, secluded enclave with its central but secret garden: admission is only possible by prior application to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral. Alternatively one might sneak a peep, in which case take a look at the Minor Canons' House and Nos 1–3 which was once home to the great wit Sydney Smith – Hesketh Pearson's Smith of Smiths – who was a Canon of St Paul's in the 1830s, and later to R.H. Barham who penned the Ingoldsby Legends.
The large wall visible through the main archway, incidentally, conceals a grisly remnant of the old Newgate Gaol, the rest having been swept away during the construction of the Central Criminal Court (on Old Bailey, reached via a pretty garden shown overleaf and the semisubterranean Warwick Passage). Concealed behind the wall is the narrow passage known as Deadman's Walk along which the condemned were taken to their executions. Afterwards many were buried beneath it and today ghost-hunters refer to it as one of the most haunted spots within the Square Mile. Especially popular is the 'Black Dog of Newgate' which sounds like a pub but is the name given to a shadowy apparition recorded hereabouts. Apparently on more than one occasion – to the accompanying sensory delights of a hideous smell and the sound of human feet dragging along the cobbles – a large black shape has been observed seething and slithering and slobbering along the top of the wall. For those with a taste for such things its origins are said to lie with a case of cannibalism in the gaol during a famine in the time of Henry II, the victim having adopted canine form before returning to haunt those who had feasted off him.
America Square, EC3
Actually more of a crescent and sadly now largely obliterated by Fenchurch Street station and its Victorian façade. It was laid out in the 1670s as part of a scheme by George Dance the Elder and named in honour of Britain's colonial possession, perhaps in the hope of attracting ships' officers and middle-class merchants with transatlantic connections to move here.
Today its most striking feature is at No. 1, reputedly the first London skyscraper to exploit the 'air rights' over open rail tracks by building over the platforms with a new station entrance incorporated into the development. Granite-clad and with a large roof garden and terraces fifteen storeys above street level, the building itself was completed in 1991 in a deliberately 1920s Art Deco style with an entrance reminiscent of the Chrysler Building in New York.
Anchor Yard, EC1
Far larger in the eighteenth century than now, when it would have had an opening wide enough to admit dray carts delivering ale to the popular Anchor Tavern nearby. Today, on this unlovely stretch of Old Street, there is little of interest besides pretty little Wenlake Cottage which fortunately falls within the St Luke's Conservation Area.
Angel Court, EC2
A modest cut-through from Copthall Avenue to Throgmorton Street, the name comes from the long-gone Angel Tavern although the yard is now better remembered for Birch's Wine House. Tradition has it that for more than a century the soup course was prepared here for the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet at Mansion House, although one wonders why such an establishment was unable to knock up a few gallons of its own....
Since the mid-1970s the court has been dominated by a 21-storey octagonal tower, expensively shod in purple Dakota marble and formerly the London home of J.P. Morgan. Built on land owned by the Worshipful Company of Clothworkers (see Dunster Court, here), it surrounds an internal courtyard containing two old plaques marked St X B 1796 and 1867 SCS. These are parish markers denoting the boundary between St Stephen Coleman Street and St Bartholomew-by-the-Exchange.
Angel Passage, EC4
One of only two survivors of the several dozen Angel Alleys, Angel Courts, Angel Passages and Angel Yards which once bore testament to the popularity of this particular name for so many City taverns. Angel Passage is also now a very rare survivor of another sort, of the myriad tiny thoroughfares which as recently as Edwardian times thronged the area between the river and busy Upper Thames Street.
Today, even so, it has little to recommend it: nothing indeed besides (at its southern end) Waterman's Walk and Oystergate Walk which provide a number of excellent vantage points to see the Thames and its bridges and the dominating tower of Southwark Cathedral.
Angel Place, SE1
In the rambling preface to his Little Dorrit, Dickens describes:
A certain adjacent Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, [where] I came to Marshalsea Place, the houses in which I recognised, not only as the great block of the former prison. ... Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea Gaol; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; will stand among the crowded ghosts of many miserable years.
Later renamed Angel Place, which is a shame as the Marshalsea name is now highly evocative, the Court was once owned by one Richard Fulmerston. He ran the Angel Tavern which contained a room set aside for use as a private prison cell – an unusual facility eventually superseded by a purpose-built gaol – whose inmates were to include the writers Tobias Smollet and John Wilkes. Fulmerston sold it to the Crown for use by the Marshal of the King's Bench. A former Lord Mayor, John Wilkes is commemorated by a bronze statue on the corner of Fetter Lane and New Fetter Lane, the only cross-eyed statue in the capital, perhaps because, when not being imprisoned, the subject was active as a politician, a polemicist and sometime pornographer.
Artillery Lane, E1
For a long time the lane led to the sixteenth-century Tasel Close Artillery Yard (see Artillery Passage, here), an area used by gunnery officers of the Tower of London and members of the Honourable Artillery Company from the Dissolution until its sale in 1682.
On the corner of Gun Street a new block has been built behind the windowless skeleton of an older, surviving façade, and in the 1700s Dr Johnson was recommending a walk from Charing Cross to Whitechapel, promising his friend he would see along the way 'the greatest series of shops n the world.' While he did not identify these any further, it is possible that he was referring to this place, in particular No. 56 – with its Doric columns and twin curved windows an exemplar of Georgian retailing – and No. 58 which while refronted since Johnson's day is still exceedingly handsome.
By the beginning of the last century the area was again terra incognita, however. When the writer Jack London visited England in 1902, he put up at Highgate and contacted the offices of Thomas Cook for information about how to arrange a visit to the East End. Back came the reply that the travel agent was unable to help, its representative admitting he knew nothing of this unexplored quarter of the capital. Left to his own devices the author decided to don a disguise as a sailor and just dive in. Sleeping rough on the streets, the experience was to provide valuable research for his book People of the Abyss.
Artillery Passage, E1
Following the dissolution by Henry VII of the hospital and priory of St Mary Spital – founded in 1197 in the area we know today as Spitalfields – a portion of the land on which it stood was set aside as somewhere for Fat Hal's militia or 'Trained Bands' to hone and perfect their gunnery skills.
Charged with defending the City during the Tudor period, the Tower Ordnance and the Guild of St George (also known as the Gentlemen of the Artillery Garden, forerunners of today's Honourable Artillery Company) quickly set to work. Stow, visiting the site while composing his Survey, observed that the ground which had formerly been popular with clothworkers keen 'to shoot for games at the popingay' now 'being inclosed with a brick wall, serveth to be an artillery yard, whereunto the gunners of the Tower do weekly repair, namely, every Thursday; and there levelling certain brass pieces of the great artillery against a butt of earth, made for that purpose, they discharge them for their exercise.'
Despite all this Artillery Passage was still known locally as Tasel Close, the name coming from the prickly teazles which were favoured by Spitalfields' population of French Huguenot weavers who used them to comb and prepare their cloth.
Eventually the more martial name was adopted, however, and in time the Honourable Artillery Company moved to the premises they still occupy on City Road. In 1680 the Tower Ordnance too moved on, their practice sessions now considered potentially too injurious to the growing local population. Within two years the artillery yard had been built over, and nothing remains of it now but the names of several local thoroughfares: Gun Street, Artillery Lane and Fort Street; even a bar called Grapeshots.
Ashentree Court, EC4
The Carmelite order of White Friars – so-named because of the white mantle worn over their brown habits – arrived in London from the Holy Land after being driven from Mount Carmel by the Saracens. Swapping the life of hermits for that of mendicants (and so required to live and work among the people) they occupied a large site stretching from Fleet Street down to the river.
Excerpted from Hidden City by David Long. Copyright © 2012 Robert Widders. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by The Rt. Hon. The Lord Mayor of London,
Hidden City – Street by Street,
Appendix I: Street Names Within the Square Mile,
Appendix II: The City of London Wards,
Appendix III: City of London Parishes,
Appendix IV: Built, Burned, Rebuilt, Bombed and Redundant: The Fate of City Churches,
Appendix V: Finding Pavement-Pounding Thirsty Work? Take a Break,
Appendix VI: City Open Spaces,