The alleyways and courtyards of London: O

Old Barge House Alley SE1

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.

Old Barrack Yard SW1
UG: Hyde Park Corner
Bus: 9 10 14 19 22 52 74 137
Off the south side of Knightsbridge, about 225 yds west of Hyde Park Corner.
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.

Old Change Court EC4
UG: St Paul’s
Bus: 4 11 15 17 23 26 76 172 521
To the south of St Paul’s Cathedral (St Paul’s Churchyard) walk through the gardens by the information office and across the road
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 [1280] Gregory Rockesly was keeper… In the 5th of Edward II [1312] William Hausted… and in the 18th [1325] 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 EC2
UG: Old Street
Bus: 5 43 55 76 214 243 271
Oliver’s Yard is off the east side of City Road about 150 yds south of Old Street Station and just to the north of John Wesley’s Chapel.
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.

Orange Yard W1
UG: Tottenham Court Road
Bus: 14 19 24 29 38 176
From Tottenham Court Road Station walk along the west side of Charing Cross Road. Cross Falconberg Court, Sutton Row, Goslett Yard and then turn right into Manett Street. Orange Yard is about 20 yds on the right.
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.

Ormond Yard SW1
UG: Piccadilly Circus
Bus: Any along Piccadilly
As for Appletree Yard but in Duke of York Street turn right (opposite Appletree 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.

Owen’s Court EC1
UG: Angel
Bus: 4 19 30 38 43 56 73 153 171A 214 Angel Station
Off the west side of Goswell Road, south of Angel Station, and about 20 yds north of Friend Street.
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.

Oxford Court EC4
UG: Cannon Street
Bus: 15 17 25 521
Off the north side of Cannon Street, between Walbrook and St Swithen’s Lane, turn into Salters Hall Court where, Oxford Court leads off to the left.
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.


The alleyways and courtyards of London

This page is taken from Ivor Hoole’s defunct GeoCities site listing the alleys and courtyards in Central London, last updated in 2004 and now taken offline.
The Underground Map blog lists this information as is, with no claim of copyright.



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