The alleyways and courtyards of London: J

Jason Court W1

Compared with St Christopher’s Place on the opposite side of Wigmore Street, Jason Court is quite simply – dull; it is about as appealing as a January dip in the Thames. It has no tales to tell in contribution to the historic foundations of this area, and neither can we revel in a beautifully preserved old footway – it is plain modern slabs. However, this was part of the ancient village of Marylebone, and Marylebone Lane, into which this Court runs, is quite a different matter. A stroll along its twisting course will at once reveal a complete contrast with to the symmetrical layout of the surrounding streets. This very distinctly indicates that it was once nothing more than a pathway along the side of the Tyburn Brook providing an access route to the village, clustered around the parish church of St Mary. Indeed it is the Tyburn which gives the area part of its name.

In the middle ages when this was a suburb village, surrounded by fields and well outside the commercial city, a small church, dedicated to St John, was built on the site where Marble Arch now stands. Almost on its doorstep stood the gallows – a most inappropriate symbol of advertising if ever there was one. Served by the main road of Tyburn Way (Oxford Street) it was an easy location to reach and on execusion days the area became choked with spectators, all straining to catch a glimps of the noosed victims. As the crowds gathered, so did the thieves; there were rich pickings to be made from the densly packed throng precoccupied by the gorey detail. By the early 15th century the villagers were at the end of their tether and decided to quit St John’s and establish themselves about half a mile up stream where they built a new church. To completely rid themselves of all association with Tyburn gallows they abandoned the title of St John and dedicated the new church to St Mary.

In those days, when outlying areas were small and local populations were insignificant, places were often identified by the title of the parish church. This area, therefore, came to be known as St Mary by the Bourne. Over the years ‘Saint’ has been dropped and ‘Mary by the Bourne’ has been corrupted to the present day Marylebone.

There are a number of little byways in the vicinity of Marylebone Lane: Hind Mews, just north of Jason’s Court on the west side of the lane, and between Benting Street and Bulstrode Street on the east side is Benting Mews. Still further north on the east side of the lane is Bulstrode Place and a little further on is Cross Keys Close. To the east of Marylebone Lane on the north side of Wigmore Street is Easleys Mews. All are cul-de-sac walkways and provide additional evidence of the ancient origin of this locality.

Jerusalem Passage EC1
UG: Farringdon
Bus: 55 63 243 259
From Farringdon Station walk north along Farringdon Road to the junction with Clerkenwell Road, turn right and in about 100 yds turn left into Clerkenwell Green. Bear right and follow the road for about 150 yds. Jerusalem Passage is on the right.
A Passage formed from the walkway that led from Clerkenwell Green, through the ‘Little Gate of St John’ at the southern end and into the courtyard of the Priory church of St John. This ‘little’ gate was probably much older than the main gateway on the southern side of Clerkenwell Road and remained in use until about 1780 when it was pulled down. On the north east corner of the Passage stood the St John of Jerusalem tavern, pulled down in 1758 to provide a site for Clerkenwell Parish Schools. The schools survived until 1830 when they were relocated and the ground floor rooms were transformed into shops.

Thomas Britton, a countryman from Higham Ferrers and a notable chemist, came to London in the late 17th century and taught himself the trade of a coal dealer. From his house here in the Passage he set out daily, trudging the streets on his rounds and when he had finished, he went round the book stalls in search of second hand bargains. As well as being an antiquarian book collector, Britton was an excellent musician and in the corner of the Passage, above an old barn accessed by a ladder, he had turned a hay loft into a little music room. Here the noble, the talented, and the distinguished gathered every Thursday night to listen and to take part in musical concerts of the highest standard. At one of these events the small assembled group were treated to a performance by the celebrated George Frederick Handel, who turned up to play the single manual organ. Thomas Britton died in 1714 and was buried in Clerkenwell churchyard.

At the southern end of the passage is St John’s Square, dissected by Clerkenwell Road, and here on the left is the Church of St John, built in 1723 on the site of the Priory Church of St John of Jerusalem, consecrated in 1185. The Priory of St John was founded in the 1140’s on ten acres of lend presented by Jordan de Briset, and Anglo-Norman knight and his wife Muriel who had already founded St Mary’s nunnery nearby. Each of the brothers of the foundation took the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, with a right ot own nothing but the clothes they stood up in. On five days of the week they begged food and on Wednesday’s and Friday’s they fasted. Their services throughout day and night were given over to the sick and poor. To their vows of chastity and obedience the brothers may have been slaves, but to poverty they certainly were not; within 200 years of their establishment, the Order became abundantly rich.

In 1381 the church was almost completely destroyed through a malicious act triggered off by the Prior himself. Robert Hales, Prior of the Order, also held the office of Chancellor of the Realm and unluckily it was his responsibility to administer the collection of the poll tax – which by all accounts was about as popular as the system introduced in more recent years. Through his connection with the Order, Wat Tyler and John Ball made a beeline for the Knights’ property in Essex; they emptied the wine stores, took all the food, and burnt the place down. From Essex they moved on to Highbury, there destroying a manor house, and then turned their sights on Clerkenwell where they broke into the Priory, set it alight, seized the Grand Prior and beheaded him on Tower Hill.

Within a short period the church was rebuilt and the monastic buildings were refurbished with greater splendour than before. At the beginning of the 16th century Thomas Docwra, Prior between 1501 and 1527, completely refitted the Priory but soon after, Henry VIII wielded his big stick, cleared all the buildings and used them for the storage of his personal effects. Although he ordered the church to be pulled down, by some quirk it remained standing until 1550 when it was blown up and the stone was conveyed to the Strand to be used in the building of Somerset House.

During the following years the Priory passed through a succession of hands, one owner being Lord Burleigh, whose lady wife commissioned a complete renovation to the derelict church. It remained with the Lord’s Burleigh for most of the 17th century and was bought by Simon Michell, a lawyer, in 1721 who rebuilt the west wall of the church, made several other alterations, and in 1723 it was given over to to the Diocese of London and reconsecrated as St John, Clerkenwell.

St John’s Church was returned to the Order of St John in 1931 but was subjected to substantial damage in the last World War. The rebuilding of the church was completed in 1958 to a design by Lord Mottistone who also designed the pulpit in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Johnson’s Court EC4
UG: Blackfriars
Bus: 4 11 15 23 26 76 171A
About 300 yds from Ludgate Circus on the north side of Fleet St. About 60 yds east of Fetter Lane.
Ask anyone ‘in the know’, who inspired the naming of this Court, and as sure as night follows day the answer will come back – Dr Johnson. It is true that Samuel Johnson did spend ten years of his life in Johnson’s Court, but he had nothing whatsoever to do with its naming; That honour goes to Thomas Johnson, a City tailor, who lived here during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Little else is known of Thomas, but of Samuel there are volumes and his name is as alive today as it was in the 18th century. Samuel Johnson moved into number eight Johnson’s Court in January of 1776 after leaving his lodging at number one Inner Temple Lane. With him came Mrs Anna Williams, a Welsh lady who came to London seeking a cure for cataracts but after undergoing an operation totally lost her sight. Johnson took pity on her and after the death of her husband, Zachariah, gave her a room in his house. Boswell described her as ‘very peevish; and I wondered at Johnson’s patience with her… She was as active as bad health and blindness permitted; though sometimes impatient, for her temper was “marked with Welsh fire.”‘. Also to Johnson’s Court came Robert Levett, ‘an obscure practiser in physic among the lower people’, who came into Johnson’s acquaintance in 1746 and although he was without formal training in medicine, Johnson admired his skill and dedication.

Of the small group that moved across Fleet Street, there was one who in times of depression had made Johnson’s life rather more tollerable than it would otherwise have been. He was Francis Barber, ‘his faithful negro servant’, who had been in Johnson’s employment since about two weeks after the death of Tetty (Elizabeth), his wife, while still a young lad of nine or ten. Frank was born in Jamaica, the son of a slave, and was brought to England in 1750 by Colonal Bathurst, father of Dr Richard Bathurst, one of Johnson’s intimate friends. When the Colonal became too ill to look after the boy, custody was given to Richard who found the expense of upkeep too great a burden and agreed that Johnson should take him on. When Samuel Johnson took his leave of the ‘court which bore his name’ in 1776 Francis Barber accompanied him in the short walk round to Bolt Court and remained in his service until the final hour. A blue plaque on the wall records for posterity, the site of number seven, the house where he edited his edition of Shakespeare. Also in the Court, the first edition of ‘John Bull’ magazine rolled off the press in 1820 under its founder and first editor, Theodore Hook.

The twisting path of Johnson’s Court has seen a degree of modern development in recent years but the contours have been left unchanged. Throughout much of its length it is still a narrow covered way as in the days when the lumbering figure of Dr Johnson trudged along the dark passage. He must have trodden this route hundreds of time, for not only did it lead to number seven, but also his house in Gough Square where he lived between 1748 and 1759.

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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