Magpie Alley EC4
UG: Blackfriars
Bus: 4 11 15 23 26 76 171A
About 220 yds west of Ludgate Circus turn into Whitefriars Street. In about 130 yds turn right in Brittons Court (the sign says George Court). Turn left into Ashentree Court and then right into Magpie Alley.

The Alley marks the position occupied by the dorter (dormitory) of the Friary of the Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel, commonly called the Whitefriars Monastery. After the dissolution of the monasteries the whole of this area became infested with thieves and all sorts of law breakers. They came here claiming sanctuary from the jurisdiction of the City, a liberty enjoyed by the friars before them. (See also Brittons Court and Ashentree Court).

It seems that, along with many other taverns, the Magpie was flourishing in Whitefriars Street during the mid-18th century. A dubious haunt if ever there was one; its reputation for attracting the local criminals was such that few citizens of honourable standing were ever to be found in its bars. In Aldgate there used to be another tavern of equally low reputation, but for a totally different reason. The food dished up by the landlord was so poor that the place earned the title of the 'maggot pie'. Naturally, later landlords were overjoyed that the corruption process had been at work and along the way it had been changed to the Magpie.

Over the years the layout of Magpie Alley and its neighbours seems to have become just a little confused. At one time the Alley left Whitefriars Street approximately opposite to the Harrow public house, but that access has now been stopped up by a shabby old gate. Access from the main street is now via Brittons Court, although, to add to the problem, the sign is missing. Complications are further deepened through the obliteration of George Court which used to be the western extension of Magpie Alley (from Glasshouse Alley) although for some unknown reason an old sign for George Court still appears at the Whitefriars Street end.... Get the picture? If you are by now totally bewildered the best solution is to go and have a look. It's far from pretty, but it is fascinating.

 

Margaret Court W1
UG: Oxford Circus
Bus: Any to Oxford Circus
To the north of Oxford Circus walk up Regent Street towards the BBC but in about 115 yds turn right into Margaret Street. Pass All Saint's Church on the left and cross Gt Portland Street. Margaret Court is then about 25 yds on the right.

When Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, developed this area in the 1730's his idea was to construct a self-contained village and create a fitting atmosphere for the wealthy punters he hoped to attract. His 'village' was equipped with every luxury feature of the time and to provide for the daily needs of the aristocratic residents he built a market (see Market Court). The old Earl had his pistons well oiled; leaving no opportunity un-probed, he had worked out that by including all these on-site facilities he could benefit from unending profits.

By 1724 the Oxford Market was poised for opening but Harley had to wait a further seven years for the go-ahead from George II (see Market Court). In the meantime the Earl had been busy extending his initial project developing additional streets including Margaret Street, dedicated to his daughter, Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley. For the convenience of easy access for the residents, Margaret Court was built as a cut-through passage to the Market.

Without any doubt, Margaret Court has seen more haughty times than these; the depiction Edward Harley had in his minds eye was not the view we see here today. If there must be an attraction then I am hard pressed to find anything more interesting than the patched-up Tarmac, although the single metal stumps at either end may raise up a modicum of enthusiasm.

 

Market Court W1
UG: Oxford Circus
Bus: Any to Oxford Circus
Off the north side of Oxford Street, about 40 yds east of Oxford Circus.

In 1735 this short passage existed as an unsurfaced track, trampled out by the shuffling feet of those determined to establish an easy route between the road to Oxford and Edward Harley's new estate on the north side. It was a characterless cut-through then and it is a characterless cut-through now - its most significant difference being the dreary grey wall of the Midland Bank occupying the total length of the west side. Of more historic importance, although perhaps not of present-day interest, is the site which lies to the north of the Court.

Until the early years of the 18th century the whole of the area stretching from here to Marylebone Road was known as Marylebone Fields. On the land was the St Marylebone Manor, in all forming the estate of Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford. Although he and his wife, Henrietta, were of considerable wealth, an opportunity to supplement their income would never be missed, so, in 1717 they made the decision to develop a large part of their estate. With such a vast area the possibilities were endless and plans were drawn up for the creation of a self-contained village. There was provision for many large houses designed to attract the aristocracy; for their recreational pleasure there was a square included in the scheme; for their convenience, a church; and a market for the financial enhancement of the Earl. The project was completed by 1724 and if it had not been for the protests from local market traders, business would have commenced immediately, but the opening was delayed until the King overruled the objections, giving permission for a market to be held on three days per week. The Oxford market, as it was known, opened in 1731.

Unfortunate for the Earl, the project never realised the popularity he had envisaged. The aristocracy was not attracted and many of the properties remained vacant for far too long. Stall holders at the market started to drift away through lack of custom and it finally ceased to operate in 1882.

 

Martlett Court WC2
UG: Covent Garden
Bus: Any to Aldwych (then via Drury Lane)
From Covent Garden Station walk north-west along Longacre. Turn right into Bow Street and continue for about 110 yds, passing Broad Court, the Magistrates Court, Police Station, and Martlett Court is on the left.

Built in the mid-17th century, Martlett Court has gone through a series of changes over the years. It was built as a twisting passage connecting Bow Street with Drury Lane but at the end of the 18th century the eastern end was curtailed and the Drury Lane access was built over. In 1905, the year when the Aldwych was opened and a time of much 'sorting out' in this quarter, the Court was completely reconstructed in a straight line and once again opened up into Drury Lane.

Occupying pride of place down the centre of the Court are two well maintained gas lamps - not converted to electricity and still in working order. Whilst these magnificent standards add a spectacle of character to an otherwise ungarnished environment, the calibre of the paving does nothing to set-off such prized adornments - it is of Tarmac. Commemorated in the naming of two blocks of flats in the Court are playwrights Francis Beaumont and Richard Sheridan - Beaumont, whose play, The Humorous Lieutenant was first staged at nearby Drury Lane Theatre on the 3rd April 1663; and Sheridan who in later years managed the Theatre. Moving towards the southern end of the Court, the bench of the Bow Street Magistrates lies snugly by, and across Bow Street another famous theatre, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The name 'Martlett' is something of a mystery, appearing early in the Court's history as Martin's Court. Whether the translation to Martlett is a straight forward corruption is not clear, although as the change occurred within a few years of its original naming this seems a most unlikely conclusion. A more credible justification is that a re-think came down in favour of the change to avoid confusion with the 'family' of Martin's (St Martin's Lane etc) a little to the west.

 

Marylebone Passage W1
UG: Oxford Circus
Bus: 7 8 10 25 73 98 176 to Berners Street
From Oxford Circus Station walk east along the north side of Oxford Street. Cross Gt Titchfield Street, Winsley Street and in about 100 yds turn left into Wells Street. Continue for about 90 yds and cross Eastcastle Street. Marylebone Passage is a few yds on the left.

Once an ancient twisting path which since the 18th century has gradually been swallowed up by building developments to the north of Oxford Street. It ran northwest from what is now Perry's Place, across Newland's Fields, to join up with a path alongside the River Bourne in Marylebone village. Through constant change to keep pace with the modern world and the never ceasing search for commercial space in the West End this short portion of history has stood the test of time. It owns no relics of the past, it is not even one of the most attractive of places, but it still survives as a reminder of bygone days when rural tranquillity abounded in these parts. May the contractors of the future, when they come to tear apart this area once more, remember Marylebone Passage.

Marylebone Passage was once cobbled throughout its length but the wisdom of those who tend these places has led to all but the extreme ends being plastered with uneven Tarmac - although the wasted cobbles are still beneath. Along the way there are no buildings of notable distinction save that of the London Fo Kuang Temple, a Chinese religious establishment, on the corner of Eastcastle Street.

 

Mason's Avenue EC2
UG: Bank
Bus: Any to Bank
From Bank Station walk along Prince's Street, by the side of the Bank. At the end turn left into Gresham Street and then turn right into Coleman Street. Mason's Avenue is about 90 yds on the left, adjacent to number 32, the offices of Knight, Frank and Company.

Tucked away in a tight squeeze of concrete offices, Mason's Avenue offers a refreshing relief. Until 1865 it was the home of the Company of Masons' from whence the Avenue gets its name. Their first Hall was burnt down in the Great Fire and rebuilt about 1670. In those post-Fire days when London was rising from the ashes, the work supplied by Sir Christopher Wren alone must have put tremendous demands on the masons. A decision of the City Council to rid London of timber house meant that the masons would be over-burdened with work for many years to come 'and we do hereby declare our express will and pleasure, that no man whosoever shall presume to erect any house or building, great or small, but of brick or stone; and if any man shall do the contrary, the next magistrate shall forthwith cause it to be pulled down, and such farther course shall be taken for his punishment as he deserves.' But when all was done, a gradual decline in demand for the masons' skill brought a reduction in membership of the Company; they suffered financial pressures and were forced to sell up in 1865.

At the mention of an avenue we tend to conjure up thoughts of either a busy main thoroughfare with endless traffic, a residential road lined with trees and grassed verges or maybe a walkway through a city park. Mason's Avenue is none of these, although between the hours of twelve o'clock and two o'clock you might be forgiven for thinking that somewhere along the way you have been the subject of a misleading prank and that you are, after all, standing in a main thoroughfare. Between these hours there is an endless stream of office workers taking their lunch time break and making haste for the popular Old Dr Butler's Head, a fine old pub with an unusual history.

The story goes that King James I, in desperation to find a cure for his agonising bad back, consulted the self professed quack as a last resort. After a great deal of prodding, the King was prescribed a cask of sensational medicinal ale, brewed from a secret formula in the doctor's safe keeping. It was said to be 'flamed with a variety of spices and tinctures' invented by the doctor himself. The King was so delighted with the relief gained from quaffing the draught, probably more through intoxication than anything else, that he subsequently conferred on Mr William Butler an honoury degree in medicine and made him Court Physician.

Dr Butler was renowned for his eccentric cures, and notably, his remedy for the relief of epilepsy was the unexpected firing of pistols at only inches from the ear. Patients by the dozen queued up to be cured of malaria by being thrown into the Thames, head first.

The inn was founded when the doctor, with an eye for making a bob or two, decided to open the doors as a sort of 'pharmacy' selling intoxicating liquors for the cure of all ailments. His ale was later put on sale in selected taverns around London where the sign of The Butlers Head was displayed. The Inn is as popular today as it was then, still selling a variety of ales although the medicinal value is something of a different question. During summer lunch times the alley comes alive with swarms of the doctor's patients jostling for repeat prescriptions of the thirst quenching medication. A random scan around the City houses of administration at three o'clock on Friday afternoons will reveal that they all opted for the sleeping draught.

Old Dr Butlers Head serve a large selection of food including some enormous filled rolls. For more substantial fare there is a restaurant on the first floor.

Opposite Old Dr Butler's, on the north side, a five storey half timbered building adds to the already pleasing character of Mason's Avenue. However, the antiquity is only face deep - it was built in 1928.

 

Mason's Yard SW1
UG: Green Park
Bus: 9 14 19 22 38 to Royal Academy of Arts
From Green Park Station continue westward along the south side of Piccadilly. In about 360 yds turn right into Duke Street St James's. Cross Jermyn Street and Mason's Yard is about 70 yds on the left.

Here, through a covered opening, is a yard of spacious proportions, giving the instant impression that its original purpose was one of much activity. It was laid out in the late 17th century, about the same time as Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans, was constructing St James's Square. In fact the very existence of Mason's Yard has its foundations in the Square and its surroundings.

As St James's Square and the complex of street leading from it were built up, the properties were readily taken up by the aristocratic set who enjoyed hob-knobbing with the glitzy community that Charles II had installed in the court at St James's Palace. It would have been beyond the realms of expectation to assume that this select gathering were going to leave their coaches in the street and allow their horses to roam in the remaining fields of Henry Jermyn. No, His Lordship had already thought of that one and so, at a convenient out-of-sight location he constructed a stable yard with sufficient standing space for coaches. It was known at that time as West Stable Yard and was accessed via a short driveway from the northwest corner of the Square. This was blocked off in 1841 when the London Library was built on the site.

By 1720 stabling activity in the Yard had dwindled and some of the stables were already converted to workshops. About this time Henry Mason purchased a house in Duke Street along with a section of the Yard which adjoined the rear of his property. One stormy night in 1732 he was dreading the thought of trudging down the street to the local for his daily sleeping potion and in deep recline, with the fire roaring, he mused on how heavenly it would be to have it on tap in his own parlour. Suddenly, he sprang to life, clicked his fingers and pointed to his wife. 'That's it', he blurted out with determination, 'We'll open a tavern'. And that is just what he did, calling it the Mason's Arms. The tavern existed until a replacement building on the site was renamed the Chequers, which stands here today.

The Yard has long since ceased to stable horses and all the buildings have been replaced by modern structures occupied mainly by art dealers and the like. Adjacent to the St James's Cafe, in the north-east corner of the Yard a narrow passage wends its twisting way towards Ormond Yard, another old repository for horses and carts.

 

May's Court WC2
UG: Charing Cross
Bus: 24 29 176 or any to Trafalgar Square
From Charing Cross Station (Duncannon Street exit) walk along Duncannon Street, turn right by the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Keep to the right crossing William IV Street. Continue for about 80 yds and May's Court is on the right.

The naming of the Court goes back to Henry May who owned a row of houses on St Martin's Lane and himself 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 Sadlers Wells Opera Company - now called The English National Opera. One of the largest theatres in London, the Coliseum was the first in the world to have a revolving stage.

You come to May's Court for one - or maybe both - of two reasons. Firstly, because you have a yearning to get hopelessly entwined in the spaghetti at the Roberto 2 Italian Restaurant where on fine days you may dine beneath the awning. Secondly, because you have mislaid your mobile telephone and need to call the bookie - there is no other excuse.

 

Memel Court EC1
UG: Barbican
Bus: 4 55 56 153 243 505
From Barbican Station walk north along Aldersgate Street for just over 300 yds. Just before the junction with Old Street turn right into Baltic Street. On the left pass Crescent Row and Sycamore Street. Memel Court is then on the left.

In the small rectangular plot which lies on the southeast corner of the Old Street/Aldersgate Street junction there is a most unusual collection of byways. Quite amazingly, there are seven tightly packed 'streets' in an unbelievibly small area, and to add a little more bewilderment, six out of the seven have a 'wood' related theme to their names. With the exception of Crescent Row they were all built by Thomas Hacket, a timber merchant, so dedicated to his trade that he surrounded himself with related artifacts. He purchased the site in about 1805 and two years later commenced his almost delicate project.

He started building at the east end of his plot, so naming each completed run of houses as he worked through. In turn their names are: Honduras Street, from the Central American mahogany plantations; Timber Street; Domingo Street, from the mahogany suppliers of San Domingo; Memel Street, from the timber exporting communities on the Baltic Sea; Memel Court, leading into Memel Street; and on the western fringes is Sycamore Street.

Crescent Row is something of an intruder in the 'timber' site, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the 'timbers' have intruded upon Crescent Row. It has probably been here since the Romans laid out the line of Old Street and made a sweeping bend rounding the corner, to link with the road which led to Alders Gate. In later years when the line of the main road was altered this short cut-through was named Middle Row. Only in the early years of this century was it renamed to Crescent Row.

Memel Court leads through into Crescent Row with Memel Street branching off to the east. The half-timbered houses which many years ago graced these streets have long since bitten the dust and on their graves stand characterless rough red brick buildings of very recent times. Crescent Row offers a taste of the latter years scene in the way of the old school house still holding fast to the south side, while its playground some years ago was seized for the building of hideous modern structures. All of this little cluster ooze with eagerness to display something of the picture of their more prominent years but it seems that they are prevented and their very existence relies on the need to fulfil a fundamental purpose.

 

Mermaid Court SE1
UG: Borough
Bus: 21 35 40 133 P3
Mermaid Court is off the east side of Borough High Street approx 225 yds north of Borough Station and just south of Newcomen Street.

Imagine a beautiful woman with flowing waist long blond hair, sitting on the rocks at Lands End, but instead of dangling her legs into the sea, she is assisting the waves in creating an almighty spray - with her tail. What a sight for sore eyes; an attraction that would have men of all ages scrambling from every direction. Is it any wonder that tavern landlords nation wide were enticed into calling their houses after the mythical half human-half fish creature. The landlords of London were no exception. Along with the tavern that stood on the south side of this Court there were also three other 'mermaids' all within half a mile of the Bank.

The Southwark Mermaid vanished from the scene many years ago but the name is retained and serves as the only memorial to the dear old place. Until the mid-18th century the Court was known as Mermaid Alley and ran through an archway beneath the first floor of the tavern to a yard at the rear. There is still a covered access from the High Street and part of the yard can still be identified by the widened section where the Court approaches Tennis Street. Southwark was a great entertainment centre; there were numerous theatres, cock fighting and bear bating were all the rage, and at the rear of many of the Borough High Street taverns there were bowling greens, tennis courts, or skittle alleys. About 1655 the Marshall of the King's Bench Prison leased a piece of land at the end of Mermaid Court and planted an orchard there, but forty years later every tree had been uprooted and two bowling greens had been laid out on the site. Now they too have gone and the area is built up with four storey flats.

Mermaid Court is now a mixture of old and new, although there are no buildings of particular note in either of these categories. Dating from its characterful days there remain three 'drunken' iron stumps and of a similar period are the iron protectors on the north side of the Court, fixed there to prevent the coaches and carriages from damaging the brick-work.

Bordering the north side of the Court was the Marshalsea Prison, one of four houses of detention, which occupied the site between St George's Church and Newcomen Street. It was set up in the 14th century for the confinement of anyone failing to comply with society, but by the 17th century its main clientele comprised of debtors. By 1800 the old building was unfit for use and was replaced in 1811. Dickens had first hand knowledge of the Marshalsea; for four months in 1824 his father was imprisoned there, and so that the young Charles could be close at hand, he lodged in Lant Street. His famous story of Little Dorrit is centred around the Marshalsea and the principal character, Little Dorrit herself, was born and spent much of her early life in the prison. Dickens often visited the place and his description of the building provides a more than adequate illustration: 'It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at the top.' What a depressing place it must have been.

On the north side of the Marshalsea was a long yard leading to the Axe and Bottle Inn. In 1735 this yard was widened and the inn was demolished to be replaced by the King's Head. The new hostelry inspired the renaming of Axe and Bottle Yard which became King Street, and in 1879 it was again changed to Newcomen Street after a 17th century family who donated their property here to a charity.

Mermaid Court featured prominently in the Southwark Fair which used to take place yearly on the 8th September and lasted for fourteen days. Preparation for the fair started well in advance, and every resident of Southwark played their part in setting up lines of many stalls along the main street, in the alleyways, and around the bowling greens. They were all prepared in readiness for the opening day when the Lord Mayor rode along the High Street, accompanied by his Sheriffs, to St George's Church. Being more spacious than most of the alleys, Mermaid Court (then Alley) was usually crammed with people pushing about the great many stalls and booths. Congestion was so bad that in 1733 a young woman, battling her way through the Court, was crushed to death by the jostling crowds. Continual efforts were made to curtail the event but it was only as a result of the increase in murders and muggings that the City authorities were forced to call it a day in 1762.

 

Middle Yard SE1
UG: London Bridge
Bus: Any to London Bridge Station
From the southern end of London Bridge, opposite Southwark Cathedral, turn into Duke Street Hill. Middle Yard is approx 240 yds on the left.

Names such as North, South, East, West, Upper, Higher, Lower, and Middle usually indicate the position of a particular thoroughfare in relation to something else. Middle Yard is nothing more than the middle lane of the three that run down to the Thames from Tooley Street. Like its two neighbours it has been here since the mid-17th century when it was built as a storage yard for Hay's Brewery.

By 1538 Henry VIII had transferred his attention to south of the Thames and in his great furry to rid the country of all religious houses had sent the Abbot of Battle on his way. Battle Abbey, which stretched along the south bank west of old London Bridge, was quickly demolished and by 1540 only the Abbots house was still standing. In the aftermath, plots of land were leased or sold to individual speculators and warehouses and sundry industrial premises began to spring up on the site.

The proliferation of inns and taverns in Southwark meant that the trade of the brewer was always going to be in great demand, so, in 1651 Alexander Hay saw the possibility of making his fortune and purchased a brew-house on the site. In later years the business passed to his two sons who, along with brewing, extended their interest as wharfingers, building up a complex of companies whose warehouses dominated the entire river frontage between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.

In 1928 the 12th century church of St Olave which stood at the junction of Tooley Street and Duke Street Hill was demolished and the site purchased by the Hay's Wharf Group. Three years later the Company's new Head Office opened on the site - a distinctive building bearing the name 'Hay's Wharf' to this day. Adjacent, to the east, was Chamberlain's Wharf, part of the Hay's Group, built about 1865 to replace a dilapidated warehouse. Then, further east, was Cotton's Wharf opened in 1857, again replacing an earlier building. Its life was short; only four years after its owners had moved in, a mighty blaze started within the walls and left it a gutted shell. The fire was fuelled by a row of tar barrels stretching for almost a quarter of a mile along the water edge. At first the wind took the flames westward and in a matter of minutes Chamberlain's Wharf was reduced to ashes. A sudden change in the wind direction then turned the flames onto Humphery's Wharf and several others, speedily charging them into roaring furnaces. London Bridge, the vantage view point, was said to be blocked by the large number of spectators come to witness the blaze.

The Hay's Wharf Group of companies owned storage facilities for cargoes ranging through coffee, tea, cocoa, dairy produce, leather, wines and spirits, and sundry other occasional shipments. Along with the closure of London Docks, shipping on the Thames came to an end in 1969 and the Hay's Wharf Group of companies closed their doors for the last time. At the expense of a Kuwaiti consortium the site is now being transformed into the new London Bridge City comprising of a complex of shops, offices, restaurants, private hospital, and a park. Hay's Galleria, constructed within the walls of Hay's Wharf, Humphery's Wharf and taking in the site of Hay's Dock, is the result of a spectacular transformation into a complex of shops, bars, apartments, and offices under a glazed tunnel-vaulted roof. A Thames-side walk linking the refurbished buildings runs between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.

Hay's Gap is a newly built alley joining the Thames-side walk with Hay's Lane, an old cobble stoned lane which has now been tarted up, partly rebuilt and lined with trees. Old and new blend together most satisfactorily here.

 

Middlesex Passage EC1
UG: Barbican
Bus: 4 56 153
Opposite Barbican Station and on the south side of Long Lane walk down Cloth Street and turn right into Middle Street. Cross Kinghorn Street and take the first left into Bartholomew Passage. Cross the cobble stoned square diagonally to the right. Here is Middlesex Passage.

The Passage twists and turns around the southern precincts of St Bartholomew's Church. It emerges through a wrought iron gate beneath a building owned by St Bartholomew's Hospital into Bartholomew Close. Why the Passage is so named is not clear but with its location being between Bartholomew Passage and Bartholomew Close is probably a corruption deriving from Middle Passage.

William Hogarth was born in Bartholomew Close in 1697 and Benjamin Franklin lived here in 1725 while carrying on his printing chores in St Bartholomew's Lady Chapel. In 1660 the Restoration of Charles II proved too much for John Milton and as secretary to Oliver Cromwell he hid himself away in the house of a friend here in the Close.

No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without the written permission of the author

 
 

 

1