Leaving Newman Street through a square covered tunnel beneath the premises of 'Decorative Lighting', Newman Passage gives rise to expectations of interesting features. Although it is, in its own way, an attractive Passage, with a fine cobbled footway, the mindful anticipation is soon thwarted, and further along we turn at right angles in breathless preparation for the unexpected surprises that so often greet us around such corners. But no, it has to be revealed that there are none. Unfortunately, this one-time cut through is now a passage to nowhere; truncated by the establishment of the Post Office vehicle depot in Newman Street.
As part of the Berners estate, Newman Passage has witnessed a long history reaching back to the 1740's when William Berners started to develop Newlands Field, purchased by his father, Josias Berners, in 1654. First to be built was a narrow track leading north to the Middlesex Hospital but it was not until the 1760's that this road was widened and named Berners Street. Newman Street and the tributary Passage came along in 1746, built up with fine houses on either side. The naming of Newman Street and Passage is not a matter of absolute clarity. One possible clue is a corruption of Newlands (Fields) but some turn their sights on the fields to the north in search of the answer, resting on the conjecture that the Berners family owned Newman Hall, a few miles south of Saffron Walden in Essex.
Here in the heart of the financial City, opposite the towering spire of St Michael's, Cornhill, is the little covered alley where Mr Newman and his family set up home in 1650. His move to Cornhill was far from plain sailing - the house he had set his sights on was the property of the Merchant Taylors and the alley was the Company's right of way to their Hall. Naturally, the Taylor's wanted to maintain their access and offered Newman a lease on that understanding. Newman moved into the house on a verbal agreement to the Company's terms but later, when he became tired of the constantly parading feet, had second thoughts and tried to bar them from using the alley. He might have been in a position to negotiate more favourable terms if it had not been for his bull-at-a-gate approach; an almighty argument exploded and the Company of Taylors threatened him with eviction if he did not comply with their request. Such was the influential power of the Company that Newman may have been prevented from securing any other property on his eviction. He realised this and without any further ado succumbed to their terms.
In the many changes that Cornhill has seen over the centuries and in this heyday of modern development when concrete frames filled with plate glass are shooting forever skyward, it is amazing how this Court and numerous others have survived. Old Newman would hardly recognise it now, with cars of Midland Bank employees parked where his house once stood. But, along with his descendants, he would probably be over-joyed to find it here at all.
This area has long been associated with shops and retailers stalls, for here was the extensive Newport Market, curtailed when Charing Cross Road was extended southward in 1887. It was in this market that politician Horne Tooke, when in his youth, helped out at his father's poultry shop. Horne never lived it down when his chums at Eton asked what his father did. 'A turkey merchant.' he replied.
Many of the courts in the Charing Cross Road area are typically shopping thoroughfares, some with little cafes, and the occasional pub. They were, of course, not originally built for the purpose of retailing, but most private dwellings were turned into shops in the late 1800's when the area became a traders paradise. Of particular note in Newport Court are numbers 21 to 24, a row of 17th century buildings converted, as seemed to be the trend, in Victorian times. They were built by the property developer Nicholas Barbon (see Crane Court) on the site of Newport House which he purchased from George, Earl of Newport, in 1682.
Newport Court is a notably different court - nearly all the shops are Chinese. On the corner of Newport Place there is a Chinese supermarket with stalls outside displaying exotic fruits and vegetables. Further along is a tiny cafe advertising ham and egg buns and sausage buns, there is a travel agents, book shop, Chinese Tourist Information Centre, a jeweller, and many others. If you want to sample real Chinese food, this is the place to come, as long as you don't mind being the only none Chinese person eating. Even the Court name board bears the Chinese translation.
'Then a lane that leadeth down by Northumberland house towards the Crossed friars...' When John Stow wrote this in 1598 the Earl, Henry Percy, had already taken his leave of the mansion and moved to pastures new further west. By this time the grounds of the great house had been converted into bowling alleys, and the house itself had become a den of gambling and vice 'common to all comers for their money, there to bowle and hazard.' Unfortunate for the management, illegal gaming houses were springing up all over London and the punters only came in a trickle. The venture never got off the ground and within a short time the house was turned into tenements and the out buildings were prepared as cottages, all to accommodate the homeless and foreigners.
A little way into the Alley, Carlisle Avenue leads off to link with Jewry Street but its history seems firmly secured in the depths of time. Further along is Rangoon Street where the innumerable tea warehouses of the East India Company once dominated the scene. That Company was dissolved in 1861 and the East India Dock Company took control, but with the demise of shipping on the Thames and the eventual closure of the docks they too folded in 1969.
Between two City of London crested bollards the Alley descends from Fenchurch Street amid buildings old and new towards its southern extremity in Crutched Friars. As a general view of the scenery in Northumberland Alley there are few glaring spectacles to raise the eyelids that extra millimetre. In fact it is a very general sort of place, until, that is, we home in on the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners where they have created a picture of sheer delight. The central feature of this small private garden is a miniature Niagara sending a cascade of water crashing into the pool below, accompanied by dancing fountains. A rewarding highlight in this otherwise characterless byway.
In 1785 there was a discovery in the Alley of several Roman paving stones, now in the keeping of the Society of Antiquaries.
For the origin of Nottingham Court we must look back to the second half of the 17th century when Heneage Finch, first Earl of Nottingham had a house in Great Queen Street. A lawyer of the Inner Temple, Finch moved into the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields when Great Queen Street was still in its primary years. The area was, however, already fashionable with wealthy families wishing to rub shoulders with James I after he had taken a shine to Theobolds House and made this his principle private route from Westminster. When the developers moved in and erected some of the most sumptuous houses in London, the presence of Heneage Finch, no doubt, enhanced the attraction. He was an influential Tory and in 1660 became Solicitor General, Lord Keeper in 1673, and two years later was appointed to the office of Lord Chancellor.
Nottingham Court was named to his memory, but as honourable as he was, his father was the driving force behind his success. Serjeant Finch, Recorder of London and Speaker of the House of Commons, descended from a long line of political and legal ancestors. He owned Nottingham House in Kensington, which was sold by his grandson, Daniel, in 1689 to William and Mary, and thus became Kensington Palace. It remained the principal residence of the reigning sovereign until the death of George II in 1760.
If Heneage Finch could see his memorial court today he surely would not be at all pleased to have it associated with his name. There is a most suitable and well-understood expression to describe this place; it has no flowery syllables or tongue-twisting pronunciation; it is quite simply - grubby. Whereas nearby Broad Court has neatly positioned potted shrubbery about its friendly old stone slab paving, Nottingham Court untidily exhibits industrial refuge disposal bins about its broken Tarmac paving. In this overwhelming immediate environment one feels a sort of pity for the Covent Garden Christian Centre - The London City Mission who have their premises here.
At the southern end of Nottingham Court is Shelton Street, commemorating William Shelton, a wealthy trader, who left provision in his will of 1672 to build a school for under privileged children. Shelton was a charitable man; he could not pass a pauper by without offering some good deed; money to buy food or an article of clothing. His will named executors to take charge of a sufficient sum of money to purchase clothing for twenty aged poor people each year.
At its northern end the Court emerges into Shorts Gardens, where, until the end of the 17th century, William Short caringly tended his plot of land and grew plants for the gardens of Gray's Inn, where he filled in his time digging and hoeing.
As tempting as it might be to hallucinate the one-time presence of a nunnery on this site, there is no evidence in support of any such claim. It must therefore be assumed that the Court acquired its name from either the builder or an influential resident. John Stow remarked of Coleman Street, 'This is a fair and large street, on both sides built with divers fair houses, besides alleys, with small tenements in great number.' He wrote this in 1598 and had he returned to the street eighty years later he would have reported a very similar picture. Coleman Street was tightly packed with houses in those days and likewise, the alleys and courts leading off were almost bursting at the seams. There were no less than six houses along each side of Nun Court and at the far end was a large house with a rear garden which could have been built for Mr Nun himself. Of course, Moorgate, to the east, was not constructed at that time and so the Court would have been considerably longer than it appears today. All the houses in Nun Court have long since disappeared and in the short cul-de-sac there is but a single access door.
Before the streets of London were constructed of durable materials they were so pot-holed and ridged that travelling along them could often be a hazardous business. Apart from this, the movement of traffic about the City was thoroughly disorganised - farmers driving herds of cattle to market were a constant obstacle and accidents were a frequent occurrence. Although the problem was not so much volume of traffic, as it is today, travelling only a short distance in the chaos took a long time. The Thames offered an escapement route and those who could afford to hire a sculler and oarsman travelled in relative comfort and at reasonable speed. In those days all the major activities were centred reasonably close to the River and only a short walk away from the innumerable jetties along the waterside. Royalty and noble lords built their houses close to the Thames with easy access to private stairs where they boarded their luxurious barges.
The Monarch owned barges for different occasions, just as the Queen today travels in a style of coach fitting of the event. The barge-house, conveniently situated about mid-way between the Tower and Westminster was where the King's barges were moored. It was located alongside Barge House Stairs, approximately on the site of the present jetty, and here the Royal Barge Master attended to maintenance and preparation for state occasions. The barge-house was probably in existence before the reign of Henry VIII and survived until the mid-17th century when it was left unattended and eventually rotted away.
There is still a discernible alley here today although it has now taken on a form more likened to a yard and is filled with lock-up shops, ranging from a sandwich bar to a jewellers. There are also shops of florists, milliners, hairdressers and many more, all situated alongside Gabriel's Wharf. It is an unimaginable venture back in time to remember this area as jungle of high gloomy warehouses closely sited along the waters edge. In the wildest of dreams one would not have envisaged that in the passage of years this place would be half way along the road to becoming a tourist attraction. At the northern end of the Alley a riverside walk has been laid out and to the east there are pleasant gardens of shrubbery with seats dotted here and there. There are plenty of reminders of the old barge house in this area: Bargehouse Street is still here, and as though determind that the name shall be preserved, a new building is named Barge House Crescent.
Until 1834 Old Barrack Yard formed the access road to Knightsbridge Foot Barracks which occupied the site now covered by St Paul's church, Wilton Place. When the Guards moved to their present home at Wellington Barracks in Birdcage Walk the site was donated by the Duke of Westminster to the Diocese of London. The foundation stone of St Paul's was laid in November 1840 and at a cost of £13,000, supplemented by a contribution from the Duke of £500, the church was completed and consecrated in 1843.
Leaving Knightsbridge, the Yard, or passage as it would more correctly be defined, briefly widens out before reducing in width to a narrow path leading behind the church where it links with Wilton Row. There are still pleasing characteristics of old times down here although modern developments have transformed the overall appearance, and still the contractors are knocking down the time-served walls and raising up contemporary replacements. Most worthy of note among the remains is the Grenadier public house, where the Duke of Wellington is reputed to have seen the nights away drinking from a leather stirrup cup while trying his hand at a game of cards. Displayed around the walls is a collection of prints depicting the history of the Grenadier Guards and on the ceiling a worldwide assortment of paper currency. Every old tavern worth its salt can muster up a tale of ghostly chills and the well-known spirit haunting the rooms of the Grenadier is said to be that of a soldier who expired this life while waiting for his quota in the jug-and-bottle. This is a cheery place, but sporting your medals in the Grenadier will not guarantee the landlord saluting you with a free pint.
There are now no relics or visual reminders of the old King's Exchange which occupied a site just to the north of here, but it would be most unusual if there were; it moved in the early 14th century. The narrow street too has gone, a victim of World War II, and Old Change has become a large open square with seating and surrounded by modern office blocks.
Old Change used to extend from the southern side of the present Court through to Cheapside, following a line to the east of St Paul's choir school, roughly in the direction of the more recent New Change. The King's Exchange building stood approximately half way along the street, which would have been near the junction of St Paul's Churchyard and New Change. It was set up by Henry III as a central collection point where items of gold and silver could be exchanged for coinage. Items collected were then dispatched to the various mints, in those years situated around the country. Additionally, officers of the Exchange were responsible for issuing the dies used for casting the coins and receiving them back when they were worn out. John Stow puts it admirably: 'These received the old stamps, or coining-irons, from time to time, as the same were worn, and delivered new to all the mints in England'. He goes further and tells us who was in charge leading up to the time of the relocation of the Exchange: 'Andrew Bukerell then had to farm the Exchange, and was Mayor of London in the reign of Henry III.' - he was actually elected Mayor in seven consecutive years (1231-37). 'In the 8th of Edward I  Gregory Rockesly was keeper... In the 5th of Edward II  William Hausted... and in the 18th  Roger de Frowicke.'
On the corner of Old Change and Watling Street stood the church of St Augustine, first recorded in 1148. The old church was completely destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren in 1687 when the parish boundary was extended to take in that of the little known church of St Faith-under-St-Paul's. It occupied the crypt beneath St Paul's Cathedral and was a parish church in its own right, frequently used by the Company of Stationers'.
Worship at St Augustine's was brought to a final end through enemy action in 1941 and only the 140 foot tower was left standing. This has now been incorporated into St Paul's Choir School, built to a design of Leo de Syllas in 1967.
Oliver's Yard is a large place with an access wide enough to place it in the category of a small street. Here there are modern offices galore, all with one striking common feature - they are totally devoid of any form of character whatsoever, but it has never ranked among London's prettiest byways. Until the developers took over there used to be workshops here - grubby, dirty places they were too, but along with the grime there was a ring of Old London atmosphere abounding among the bustling activity. Now the activity is restricted to the movement of motorised vehicles jostling for the many private parking spaces laid out in the Yard.
Although the Yard has been here since the opening of City Road in 1761 it did not become known as 'Oliver's' until the end of the 18th century when Thomas Oliver carried out some modifications to buildings in the Yard to accommodate his activities as a stone mason. He was apparently insignificant in his craft, directing his skills to small personal items of stone ware, and by consequence did not rise to the heights of the great masons of his time.
But Oliver's Yard is by no means the main attraction which turns the tourist from goggling at Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace and brings him to the City Road - that pride of place is given over to Wesley's Chapel and House, both more glorious and lying only a stride away on the south side.
After setting up the religious breakaway movement in Oxford with his brother, Charles, John Wesley moved on to Bristol where he opened his first church, and from there he turned his sights towards London. In 1777 his own hands, which were more accustomed to pulpit thumping, laid the foundation stone to the City Road chapel and the following year saw the congregation seated spell-bound in the pews. In 1899 the chapel was rebuilt after a tragic fire destroyed the building and almost everything in it. Saved and still retained is the most striking feature of the chapel, the shining mahogany pulpit from where the ageing John proclaimed the word.
When Wesley moved into the adjacent house it was a relatively new building of about 1770, set back from the recently constructed main road linking the City with the Angel (Islington). He took up residence in 1779 and remained until his death twelve years later. His body lay in state in the already famous chapel while thousands of his followers filed past his coffin in respect of their leader. He is buried in the little graveyard behind the chapel and a commemorative statue stands in front.
William of Orange could have had associations with Orange Yard. Nell Gwyn may have trudged down here on one of her excursions, although I can hardly think why; there might have been an orange warehouse here or perhaps a fruit merchant held his stall in the vicinity. On the other hand its name could even reflect the predominant colour in a coat of arms; in fact the Yard could have been named after any one of these, or a combination maybe. More than likely we have all been led up the garden path and the place has never had any connections with oranges, lemons, fruit and vegetables, colours of the rainbow or anything else of that ilk.
One fine detail we can call up in relation to Orange Yard is that there is nothing here to attract the revelling tourist in search of London's most exhilarate attractions. Foyles book shop, claiming to be the largest in the world, is opposite to the Yard. It was set up by the two Foyle brothers who, having failed an examination to enter the civil service, made a decision to sell their text books for the highest price they could get for them. The speedy sale and acceptable profit gleaned from the exercise prompted them to purchase a job lot of second-hand book and repeat the process. They soon realised that the foundation of their business was in place. Foyles moved from number 121 Charing Cross Road in 1966 to their present building, a five storey block now under the watchful eye of Christina Foyle, daughter of one of the founders.
For a late hour splurge the Borderline Nightclub is on the corner of the Yard.
The end of the Civil War in 1660 saw the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, it also saw the return James Butler , Royalist Commander of the force in Ireland. When the King had firmly got his feet under the table he sent for his loyal subject and in recognition of his allegiance made him Duke of Ormonde. Twenty years later Butler's lordly image was getting a little top heavy for his meagre base so he put himself in the market for new premises and in 1682 upstaged his fellow aristocrats by buying the largest house vacant at the time - it also happened to be the largest house in St James's Square.
Only five or six years earlier Henry Jermyn, recognised founder of the West End, had completed his development centred around the Square together with the provision of private stables (West Stable Yard, now called Mason's Yard) for the well heeled set about to take up residence. Ormonde House at that time had no private stabling facilities; whether this was an absent minded omission from Jermyn's plans is apparently top secret but the Duke could hardly be expected to share with his neighbours. Apart from this, with the many callers to Ormonde House it would have been highly impractical to use an already congested stable yard, so he took possession of a surplus piece of land on the north side of the house and built his own.
On the death of James Butler the house fell to the 2nd Duke who lived there until 1715 when he was accused of Jacobite conspiracy and forced to find alternative refuge in France. The house then went to his brother, the Earl of Arran. In the 1730's when the Ormond mansion came up for sale its enormous proportions proved too much to attract a buyer and so, in 1736 it was pulled down and replaced by six smaller properties now forming numbers 9-11 St James's Square and 4-6 Duke of York Street.
Scanning down Ormond Yard, the overwhelming impression is that this could be an attractive place -although this is not intended to imply that it is unattractive. There is rather more than a trace of village atmosphere here and with the aid of a little tarting up it has all the makings of becoming a good second to Crown Passage (St James's). At Briggs Gentlemens Hairdressers (number 5) there is a sign which was once a feature of every high street - the barbers pole. This example is not of the simple red and white painted wooden pole, but its contemporary revolving successor. Also in the Yard is the Gaslight Bar advertised as London's number one fun place for businessmen - and they don't mean slot machines and nightly bingo. It seems inappropriate that the overhanging light is electric. Around the corner, in Duke of York Street is a magnificent example of a Victorian public house, the Red Lion, probably one of the smallest pubs in the West End. The foliage draped about the windows and door has adorned the house for years. Likewise, the liberal displays of engraved mirrors have survived the last war and more recently, a brewery renovation programme.
At the far end of the Yard a narrow twisting passage leads into Mason's Yard.
The history of Owen's Court, built on the site of Islington Fields, is surrounded by the story of somewhat fortunate Alice Wilkes. Islington Fields was a popular recreation resort during the 16th century and it happened that one fine summer morning young Miss Wilkes was taking her customary stroll when she noticed her shoe was unfastened. Her predicament could not have occurred at a more precise moment for just as she stooped down to do up the buckle, an arrow, shot by a practising archer, passed right through her hat. We can well imagine the language echoing across the field: 'Cor blimey! What the hell d'you think your play'n at?' Or perhaps some less gracious syllables in a similar mode. The offending archer was led by his instinct and darted into the bushes, but his gentlemanly upbringing and guilty conscience soon had him running towards his innocent victim. Charmed by his concern, Alice fell for the man, who turned out to be Thomas Owen, and the two were later married.
Many years after when Thomas died and left his widow a small fortune she remembered her timely escape from the clutches of death and in gratitude built a row of almshouses for the poor of the neighbourhood. In 1613, still feeling in debt to her guardian angel, she donated the entire cost of building a school for boys, at the junction of St John Street and Goswell Road. Alice Owen died the following year and left the administration of the estate to the Brewers' Company who developed the entire area of Islington Fields.
Henry Fitz Ailwyn, first Mayor of London who reigned for 24 years (1189-1213) lived in 'one fair and large built house' on the corner of this Court. He was a draper by trade and carried on his prosperous business from rooms within the building. During his long term of office one of Fitz Ailwyn's most notable achievements was to introduce building standards as a precaution against fire. He decreed that 'no man should build within the city but of stone, until a certain height, and to cover the same building with slate or burnt tile.' (Stow). In fact he really went to town in his effort to rid London once and for all of flaming disasters by further declaring that ruinous buildings were to be pulled down. No one was to cover their houses with reeds, faggots or strawboards and digging of cellars were prohibited. These rules were to be observed throughout the City and within two miles outside the City gates. 'Here we go again', you could hear the citizens cry; it had all been tried before and everyone continued in their own sweet way doing what they always had done.
Fitz Ailwyn died while still in office and left his house to the brothers of Tortington Priory in Sussex for use as their town house. In 1533 Henry VIII came to blows with the Pope, closed all the monasteries, and gave some of the property to his pals. John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, happened to be in the King's good books at the time and was offered the 'great messuage' which he promptly named Oxford House. It passed through the family to Edward, grandson of John de Vere and in 1575 it was on lease to Sir Ambrose Nicholas, Lord Mayor of London. In 1585 the house was bought by Alderman John Hart, a relative by marriage to William Cecil, Lord Burleigh.
Oxford Court provides a pleasant little retreat behind the thundering Cannon Street, where the former churchyard of St Swithin's (built 1687, gutted by bombs in 1941, and demolished in 1958) has been turned into a pleasant shrubbery filled park. It is raised above the level of the Court and accessed through a decorative wrought iron gate. Most pleasantries in life seem to have their impediments and that which presents itself here is that there is but one seat - situated at the end of a curved path, and this is apparently permanently reserved for the repose of gentlemen of the road.
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