There are two taverns in Watling Street; of these, the foundations of most ancient antiquity are here at Watling Court where the Red Lion stands on the corner. Taking the evidence on view today, a vast proportion of the population would most certainly refute this statement in favour of Ye Olde Watling which was built in 1667 on the site of its predecessor burnt down in 1666. Without doubt the Watling is an old treasure surviving from the days when Bow Lane and Watling Street were main thoroughfares, but it is not so old as the Red Lion which was entertaining the folk of these parts when John Stow came on his perambulations in 1598. We can not be sure when the first tavern was built on the corner of Bow Lane and Watling Street, but the meticulous hand of Stow recorded no evidence and so we can be reasonably sure that it did not exist. . On the other hand, there has been a Red Lion tavern in Watling Street since at least 1540, and the Court that gave access to its rear entrance is as old as the tavern itself. Until the early 1900's it was in fact known as Red Lion Court but there is a Red Lion Court in Fleet Street, also in the postal district of EC4, and so to make the postman's lot a happier one, they changed its name.
Before Cannon Street was extended towards St Paul's Cathedral in 1852, Watling (Red Lion) Court continued through to what was then Basing Lane, a narrow thoroughfare lying roughly along the line of Cannon Street. From the time of its foundation until the day its southern end was closed off, the Court had held significant prominence in City life. Unlike many of the neighbouring courts its spacious dimensions gave scope to the traders who kept large shops here, among them some of the better names in the drapery business. Many of the old buildings were still standing here until 1940 when the blitz wiped the smile from the faces of everything that had survived through thick and thin. Even the Red Lion tavern was caught on the hop and is now a modern pub chaperoned by the Booke Bond tea building.
In the Red Lion they proudly display a map of the Roman Watling Street throughout its route between Chester and Dover. They would have us believe that somewhere about Marble Arch the old road took a diversion from its north south direction and ran along the line of Oxford Street, entering the City at Newgate. The theory has been argued for and against for many years past and will continue so for many more. However, I fear that the disappointment is for those whose allegiance is aligned with the Red Lion, for the scales weigh far lighter on their side. There was in fact no sudden turn towards the east; the Roman road continued its line from Edgware Road to Park Lane and so on to a place named Thorney Island, a shallowing in the Thames, where it crossed to the south bank.
Furthermore, 'Watling', in relation to the City street, is a fairly recent corruption. Until well into the 15th century it was called Atheling Street, meaning the street of a nobleman or prince. By about 1500 it had become Watheling Street, the name by which the street was known until about the mid-1700's when the translation to Watling occurred. And what of the Red Lion and its court? Stow says 'a place so called of a great lion of timber placed there at a gate, entering a large court...'
Well Court is one of those byways we all tend to think of as a typical example of an Old London alley. Throughout its twisting route between attractively elegant Bow Lane and rather formal Queen Street it is intriguingly pleasant - that is, to all but perhaps the most difficult to satisfy. This Court is the result of two differently named courts amalgamated under a single title. No physical change took place, but earlier this century the Bow Lane end was known as George Yard whilst the Queen Street end has always been Well Court. The Court owes its origin and name to the seven watering holes sunk on the site in Roman times. It probably all started when a Roman soldier noticed a spring rising from the ground and informed his commanding officer. One hole after another would then be dug down to the underground streams, each culminating in joyous shouts as the vessels were lowered to draw up the crystal clear water. These wells were uncovered on the south side of the Court during excavation work in 1960.
The City was once rich in underground water supply resulting from the impermeable London clay which carried the streams from the higher ground to the north down to the Thames. Even with all these watering holes the householder - or more specifically, his wife - would still have to walk a considerable distance to fetch a pale of water. However, she had to grin and bear it until 1240 when the City commenced a water supply improvement scheme. They purchased a selection of fields noted for their high production wells and springs, in the area of Tyburn, in the west, and channelled the water through lead pipes to a conduit at the west end of Cheapside. This was the first of many similar systems to follow, paving the way, in the early 17th century, for Hugh Myddleton's New River project and the eventual piping of water to individual properties.
There have been many findings of Roman building remains and relics in Well Court; a recent discovery is thought to have been a bakery.
Although Well Court is rich in underground antiquity it has not altogether stayed in the past centuries. For a start it is a very tidy Court; its walls are clean and freshly painted and the paving is laid with the neatness of modern techniques. Here, the 20th century Bow Lane Coloney Wine Bar resides in perfect union alongside the wells of the 2nd century, and almost adjacent is the Golden Fleece Cellar Bar with a waitress service restaurant.
The Court is a tributary of Whitcomb Street, known until 1670 as Hedge Lane, from its entire length being hedge lined.
Adjoining the site of Whitcomb Court, to the south, was Shaver's Hall, a renowned gaming house of the 17th century. It was purchased by Colonel Thomas Panton in 1664 who subsequently pulled it down as part of his plans to build on the site, but regulations against new developments brought into force in 1671 put paid to his idea. Panton prepared a petition to present to the King and had the good fortune of being supported by Sir Christopher Wren who managed to persuade the King that the plans were sound. The resulting development was Oxendon Street, Orange Street and Panton Street, all incorporating housing for traders.
Of the two courts running out of Whitcomb Street, Whitcomb Court is without any shadow of a doubt the untidy relation. From its covered entrance at the Oxendon Street end there is all the promise of an untainted old alley, alas, soon dashed as the Court opens out to daylight. The rough Tarmaced paving is a fitting accompaniment to the unsightly rubbish bins which permanently adorn this Court, making it a most unsavoury place. Completing the picture, along the north side of the Court is the drab high wall of the Prince of Wales Theatre, opened in 1884.
Opposite, in Oxendon Street is the Comedy public house, named not from the hilarious happenings inside, but from the nearby theatre.
For a more exhilarating tributary of Whitbomb Street see Excel Court.
An exceedingly ill-fated tale surrounds the White Lion tavern, which stood here in the 17th and 18th centuries. It tells how, in 1765, the landlord, desperate to repay his heavy debts, sold the house and its contents for an amazing £3000. He had not expected to realise anything like this figure but learning that the prospective purchaser was a gullible fellow he pushed his luck one notch further. The man fell for it and that night the landlord threw a party with free ale to celebrate the deal. In the dead of night, when the last drop of ale was drained and the guests gone, the landlord retired to dream of his fortune. It turned out that one of the last stragglers to leave had emptied his lighted pipe into a bag of sawdust and the discarded tobacco lay smouldering until it ignited in the early hours of the next morning. Amid smoke-filled rooms the landlord raised the alarm by calling to the night watchman in the street below but it was too late; the dry timbers of the building were alight like tinder and within minutes the place was burnt out.
Unfortunately, no money had changed hands and the deeds and other legal documents of the sale were as yet unprepared. The sale had effectively not taken place and with no home, income, or means of paying off his hefty debts the unlucky guy was thrown into the local comptor.
The White Lion was never rebuilt and today the Court is home to the Westminster Aviation Insurance Group, also the Carroll Insurance Group has offices here. This is a pleasant Court, paved with slabs, where seated stone white lions are on guard at the stepped entrance to the building at the far end of the Court. Out of office hours sturdy iron gates bar the covered access.
The cobbled footway into White Lion Yard descends from Brook Street beneath a square covering. Adjacent to the Yard, during the 18th century, stood the White Lion Inn. No doubt a haunt far removed from the dominoes, shove-halfpenny, and bar billiards type of establishment, for Robert Seymoure noted in 1735 that Brook Street was 'nobly built and inhabited by people of quality'. From the door it would probably have been possible to reach out and engage in a spot of fishing in the Tyburn which flowed alongside, but that watercourse was covered over when Avery Row was constructed in the 1720's. If the White Lion had been here today it would surely have been one of the more congenial houses in the West End, catering for the commuting fraternity rather than the tourists. Alas, the old inn has been lost in time, demolished many decades ago, and only its Yard now remains as a memorial.
Not far away, at number 25 Brook Street is the house where Handel moved to in 1723 - it was here that he wrote the Messiah and where he lived until just before his death in 1759.
Of the numerous alleyways at one time sprouting from Coleman Street like twigs from a branch, many still survive in one form or another. Although truncated or severed through the passage of their long history some of them might even be said to still reflect their 'old world' image. There are others that merely spark off a reminder of those bygone days, their character having been changed beyond all association with their latter day standing.
When we reflect on the scene in Coleman Street of 200 years ago it is very easy to let the imagination stray and conjure up a picture of White Horse Yard with its cosy tavern playing host to the City dwellers and local merchants. This is as it may have appeared, but a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since those times and we are destined to drop to earth with one mighty thud, for the scene at present day White Horse Yard is not quite that sort of picture. The White Horse Inn is long gone but the narrow passage and rear yard survived for many years after, giving way in very recent times to modern development. All that now remains is the name, in what can be more accurately described as a widened section of the main street, where clinically white office buildings nestle amid their neighbours of similar appearance.
White Bear Yard once formed the side access and back yard to the tavern which stood on this site, but that was a long time ago. Clerkenwell's Wine Bar with its canopied corner door now occupies the site. The grossly truncated Yard, now only a few feet in length, appears to have been greatly demoted in status. It does not even seem to be worthy of supporting an address any longer - the only access in the Yard is given as 144A Clerkenwell Road. But perhaps this is the fate of a forgotten old yard, once great and active in its time. A taste of the lovely cobblestones of adjacent Back Hill would not go amiss here, to bring back a little characterful charm to this miserable cul-de-sac.
As an inn name, 'White Bear' probably stems from Henry III who kept his white bear in the Tower of London so that it could conveniently be let into the Thames to catch fish. In 1542 the French Ambassadors, after they had feasted with the Duke of Somerset, were entertained to their delight by watching a bear hunting in the river. Some years later, the white bear was adopted as the personal emblem of Anne, consort of Richard III. The sign became popular with tavern owners but it was by no means exclusive to them; grocers and printers were among the tradesmen who advertised themselves 'at the sign of the white bear'.
'Next unto the parish church of St Buttolph is a fair inn for the receipt of travellers'. So says John Stow in his Survey of 1598. He probably called in at the White Hart for a swift one while taking time out to catch up on his notes before going on to the 'hospital of St Mary Bethelem'. This was one of the two main London hospitals for 'distracted people' and occupied the site of the present Liverpool Street main line station. It was founded by Simon Fitzmary, a sheriff of the City, in 1246 as a priory, the monks offering an open house to the Bishop of Bethlehem whenever he had business in London. Within 100 years of its foundation the priory was transformed into a hospital for lunatics and the monks, for most of their time, were engaged in begging money to support themselves and the inmates. At that time everybody in London had heard of Bethlehem Hospital, it was the source of daily conversation and became shortened by some to Bethlem, but more in evidence was the corruption to Bedlam. This latter give rise to the present day usage indicating a noisy disturbance. Stow would have had no difficulty in gaining access to the hospital, it was open to the public as an entertainment venue on payment of a small entrance fee. On Monday 8th May 1775 Johnson and Boswell, always eager to investigate the talk of the town, came to view the 'mansions of Bedlam'. Referring to the visit Boswell noted in his journal 'the general contemplation of insanity was very affecting.' What they found at the hospital was quite obviously not a pleasing sight but to the majority it was an amusement of great delight. Over 100 people at any time, each having paid their two pence entrance fee, could run riot up and down the wards tormenting the miserable inmates. For those who wanted an additional dose of excitement and an element of risk, on payment of an extra penny they could join the patients for dinner. Naturally, the management held no responsibility for the frequent casualties.
The church of the original priory remained standing until the mid-16th century when it was pulled down and replaced by houses for Christ's Hospital. As for Bethlehem Hospital, it survived on this site until 1676 when it moved a little way to the west on London Wall and then, in 1815, it was transferred to a new building in Lambeth Road providing accommodation for a thousand patients classified as mental. Bedlam building remained for few more years until the site was acquired by the Great Eastern Railway Company with plans to extend the line from the Shoreditch terminus into the heart of the City. Liverpool Street Station, occupying over ten acres of land, was opened in November 1874.
The White Hart Inn was conveniently situated first for pilgrims visiting the priory and in later years it was used as a night stay by those travelling long distance to experience the spectacle of Bedlam. At the height of its popularity, in the 15th century, there would have been a daily turnround of about 50 guests staying at the Inn. Not all of these were mad-house spectators; a large proportion would be travellers arriving either too late at night to enter the City, or those wishing to pass through the gate before curfew in order to make an early start the next morning. All of the City gates had the facility of accommodation outside the bounds of the wall and their landlords made rich pickings from frequently overcharging. To assess the magnitude of business passing through these establishments we only need to consider the profusion of inns in Southwark, largely established on the strength of traveller leaving and entering the City via London Bridge, which was also barred by curfew gates. Of course, the White Hart of today is a modern pub, tarted up and brought into line with the expectations of the up-to-date fraternity of City workers. But the Inn has not forgotten its root, the very history in which its foundations lie, of priories, monks and pilgrims; of mad-houses, lunatics, and the crowds that came to revel at the expense of the unfortunate few. The history of the Inn goes back to at least the time of the foundation of Bethlehem Priory. It was then a much larger place with galleries surrounding the courtyard where during the summer months guests were treated to regular theatrical performances. All this has long gone but the Yard remains, much changed in character, but still as an accompaniment to the Inn and as a reminder of the days when over laden stage coaches rattled and rolled over its cobbles from early morning until dusk.
Until the late 19th century the one time famous White Hart Hotel stood on this site. Like the George Inn and many of the other now demolished inns of Southwark it was built around a courtyard with a first floor gallery. At the height of its popularity the Hotel would have been nightly full to capacity with travellers into and out of London. On the 26 May 1676 it was reduced to ashes in a fire said to have started in a house between the George Inn and the Talbot (Talbot Yard). About 500 houses were swallowed up in the flames as the fire roared along the Borough High Street. None of the inns in the street were completely saved but most were resurrected to see another day. The White Hart ended its days in dereliction after ceasing business as an inn, and was finally pulled down in July 1889.
This was the same White Hart of which Shakespeare made reference in Henry VI. On that occasion he was recording the deeds and words of Jack Cade, an Irishman who claimed fame and favour through proclaiming that he was Lord Mortimer, a relative of the Duke of York. In 1450 Cade led a riotous gang in protest against the incompetence of the King, using the White Hart as his headquarters and it was from here that he rode towards the City, severing the ropes of the bridge with his sword, to declare himself Mayor of the City. On the way back he was accosted by the people when Shakespeare makes him say 'Hath my sword therefore broke through London Gates, that you should leave me at the White Hart in Southwark?' Dickens, many years later, couldn't resist it as being the meeting place between Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller.
In striking contrast to neighbouring King's Head Yard, White Hart Yard leaves the High Street through an unadorned square arch. It now offers little in the way of olde worlde treasures other than to savour the quaint memory of the long gone famous Inn. Most of the buildings in the Yard have recently been replaced by up-to-date offices, and on the south side of the Yard a newly opened wine bar has a pleasant court-yard and seating. In modernising the Yard the central drainage channel has been retained, even if it is now formed from modern cobble style paving.
The dirty walls and high wire-netting of Wild Court have just about as much appeal as a tormented skunk in a ladies boudoir, but its history, on the other hand, is quite a different matter.
This triangle of land roughly bounded by High Holborn, Drury Lane and Kingsway was, until the early 17th century, known as Oldwyck Close and across it lay the private path used by James I when riding between Westminster and his haunt at Theobalds. Hob knobbing with royalty had been an itching aspiration of the affluent class of society for some time and when word got around that the King could regularly be found in these parts it immediately became fashionable to live nearby. It was not too long before these new inhabitants were pestering Queen Anne of Denmark to give the private road a name, to which she subsequently obliged, calling it Queen Street, later altered to Great Queen Street to distinguish it from Little Queen Street, now obliterated.
Two or three houses already occupied plots scattered about the fields - one of them was owned by Lord Herbert of Cherbury who died there in 1648. However, major development was first attempted when Richard Brett and John Parker jointly purchased a section to the south of Queen Street and attempted to raise buildings, but the locals complained that they were spoiling the open landscape and the two men were thrown into jail. In 1630 Sir Edward Stradling purchased the plot, applied for permission to build, and was allowed to carry out his plans, which materialised as a stately mansion with two wings and two court-yards. The frontage of the house measured 150 feet along the street and the garden was of equal distance wide and 300 feet in length.
It was in 1640 that John Weld, son of Sir Humphrey Weld, grocer and Lord Mayor of London in 1608, acquired the Queen Street mansion and named it Weld House. His family lived there until 1675 and at some point, presumably after the death of John, Mrs Weld received a letter from the Lord Mayor stating that he had been requested by the Lord Chamberlain to provide a house in London for the Spanish Ambassador who was shortly expected, and that he had chosen the Weld household. We have no knowledge of how long the Ambassador stayed, but it was of a sufficiently lengthy period to cause him to set up his private stables in nearby Parker Lane, now Parker Street.
On the south side of Wild Court Mr Watts ran his business of journeyman printer, and daily, in the early hours of the morning, his right hand man, Benjamin Franklin, walked round the corner from his lodging in Wild Street to man the presses. On a different mission, Titus Oates abided his time around the corner in, now disappeared, Cockpit Alley. At the place once known as Snatcher's Island, where Wild Street meets Great Queen Street, pickpockets, male and female, lurked in their droves. It was then becoming a depressing place.
Visited by tourists from every nation, Wine Office Court must be one of the most frequented courts in the whole of London. With its narrow covered access, darkened rough brickwork, worn paving, and treasured buildings storing over 300 years of history, it is a typical representation of our image of old London. But the average tourist does not come here to revel in the hollowed out stones beneath his feet or to venerate the age old walls; he comes to eat, drink and make merry in the famous Old Cheshire Cheese. For decades its bars and restaurants have been a major attraction on the visiting lists of British and foreign tourists alike.
There has been a tavern on this site ever since the late 16th century, but resulting from a spark in Mr Farriner's Pudding Lane bakery it went the same way as everything else in Fleet Street. No time was wasted in rebuilding and the new tavern was open again for business in 1667, only months after the Fire had reduced the site to a smouldering heap. The Cheshire Cheese has a well-chronicled association with the literary set, going back to the time of its foundation. If we are to believe the claims of successive landlords down the centuries, Samuel Johnson, that great lexicographer, writer, and wit is supposed to have spent half his life here. In fact there are items of Johnsonian memorabilia at almost every turn. For many years a painting of Johnson and his biographer, Boswell, has hung over the restaurant door, 'Come, let us dine at the Cheese' reads the caption below. Inside the restaurant, at the head of the long 'Johnson table' is what is claimed to be 'the favourite seat of Dr Johnson' and hanging above is a copy of a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Boswell, in his Life of Samuel Johnson seems to indicate that the Doctor's favourite tavern was the Mitre, which used to stand on Fleet Street. He makes no bones about it when he states that 'I had learnt that his place of frequent resort was the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street, where he loved to sit up late'. (It was pulled down in 1829 by Messrs Hoare to extend their banking premises). Although there is no reference in 'the Life' to the Cheshire Cheese it is difficult to believe that Johnson never ventured into the place, particularly when we recall that for much of his life in London he lived just around the corner.
Oliver Goldsmith too must have been a frequent customer. He lived across the passage at number 6 Wine Office Court where he wrote The Vicar of Wakefield. And how can we mention such an old tavern without a peek at Dickens who must have walk in and out of these Fleet Street courts by day and by night. Few people know it, but Dickens kept a rule of life that compelled him to visit every tavern in the City of London daily; at least this is what some will have us believe. With this knowledge to hand it seems very likely that the renowned pub goer downed the odd vessel or two in the 'Cheese'. He gave a hint of the tavern in his Tale of Two Cities where he says, 'Down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street and so up a covered way into a tavern'. It does appear that the covered way may have been Wine Office Court.
Fleet Street is not generally considered as one of the most favoured sauntering areas for tourists but 'the Cheese', as it's affectionately known, attracts visitors from far and wide. Squashed in the tiny bar you can brush shoulders with sightseers of all tongues. Americans sipping pints of English beer and commenting on Dr Johnson and the sawdust covered floor. The tavern also attracts local workers from a variety of professions and trades who prefer to gather at the serving hatch in the corridor. Impenetrable men of advertising huddle together telling dirty stories and laughing very heartily.
The Cheshire Cheese was recently closed for almost 18 months, undergoing renovation, and now, for the first time in its long history, has a window facing onto Fleet Street. Thankfully, the ground floor bar and restaurant have been untouched and remain as they have been for decades. Also remaining, almost as part of the fixtures, is Mike, a restaurant waiter, who has been at the 'Cheese' since about 1967, and is still serving up steaks, roast beef, and 'Ye Famous Pudding' - all with the most obliging service.
John Ogilby and Hugh Morgan, two of the earliest scientific cartographers, lived in Wine Office Court while compiling and printing their 1677 map of London. At the time these two were diligently engraving their blocks they would have heard outside, the occasional tramping of those visiting the wine office. It occupied part of the west side of the Court, from where licenses for the sale of wine were formerly issued.
In the normal course of events Wyndham Yard is only accessible to those who have authority to enter; a gate across the opening prevents the infiltration of waifs and strays. It all sounds very grand, and why not in a district containing the salubrious address of Portman Square. The surprise here is that one is led into the expectation of being greeted with something rather more graceful, whereas the reality is that there is nothing to classify this place as extraordinary. Beyond the short passage a collection of buildings surround the Yard, some displaying more character than others, but all with an equally cheerless facade.
To the north is St Mary's Bryanston Square, built in 1824 by Sir Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum. To the south the elongated dimensions of Bryanston Square points like a slender finger in this maze of meticulously laid out streets.
The estate was commenced in about 1760 on land acquired by Sir William Portman, Lord Chief Justice, in 1553. Many of the streets around this area bear names associated with the family and Wyndham Yard commemorates Anne Wyndham who married Henry William Portman, instigator of the project.
Yorkshire Grey Yard is not quite the picture we would expect to find if purely relying on the illusion conjured up by its haughty sounding name. This dejected cul-de-sac which once sported one of the most fashionable taverns in town is now private and just a little grubby.
The Yorkshire Grey Tavern, named after the horses popularly used by many of the stage-coach companies, was probably built here around the beginning of the 18th century and demolished about the mid to late 19th century. Despite its standing among the upper crust of society there remains only a fragment in reference to its history.
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