Mill's Court was once a quaint old place; a narrow passage with a footway of shiny cobblestones from end to end; a place where Mr Pumblechook might have raised his top hat to dear Mrs Quilp as she wobbled by in fear of here pursuing husband. If only that was the scene today Mill's Court would show off its glory in true colours. But alas, times have drastically changed and although the cobbles are still in evidence at the Curtain Road end, this old passage is not like that at all. Apart from this treasured paving the only remnant of bygone days is a derelict gents toilet faced in brown glazed bricks and presently packed so tightly with bits of this and that so as to bar even the most determined.
Walking through the Court from Curtain Road towards Charlotte Road we look up to the signboard and windows of W A Hudson, furnishing brass founders. They have occupied the premises for years and some there will probably remember the days when the old convenience was a godsend to many a bypasser. Mr Pumblechook, however, was a few years previous.
On a site near to here, in Curtain Road, the first of London's theatres threw open its doors to the public in the late 1570's; it was known simply as 'The Theatre'. Seven years later the Curtain Theatre, named after the road, was opened and became the home of the Queen's Players Company. Shakespeare himself regularly performed from its stage and it was here that the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and Henry V were seen by a public audience. The Curtain closed its doors for the final time in the late 17th century.
If you ever had the misfortune to find yourself living in a street named 'Grub', what would be your first endeavour? - Probably to change it - and that is exactly what happened in 1829. Milton Street, of which Milton Court is a tributary, was once that famous thoroughfare which Dr Johnson described as 'much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems... whence any mean production is called grubstreet'. During the 17th century it was one of the dreariest streets imaginable; occupied from one end to the other by makers of artillery equipment such as bows, arrows, bowstrings, and similar articles. It was still a dull lifeless joint when the place became haunted with hacks in the 18th century. The less successful, and so poorer writers made up the population of Grub Street; poets and other literary men who through lack of their own imagination climbed on the backs of their chart-topping counterparts and claimed originality from poached writings. Many of these 'authors' would feel no shame in stooping to the low level of writing pitiful begging letters in order to make what often resulted in a prosperous living. There were, of course, those who could not make a penny either way, like Samuel Boyse, a so-called poet who declined in wealth and self esteem from a student at Glasgow University to a pauper of Grub Street. At his lowest ebb he was totally without a strip of clothing to wear; everything he owned was at the pawnshop. Unable to support himself he removed to a charitable lodging in Shoe Lane where he died completely destitute in 1749.
In the Court itself General George Monk had his home. As soon as Charles II had been restored to the throne in 1660 parliament requested that General Monk be elevated to the position of High Steward in Westminster, but the King went one further and created him Duke of Albermarle. There were few notable incidents in his life; he was a man of sober habits but his son, the 2nd Duke, was a different kettle of fish. Christopher was his name; he bought the sumptuous Clarendon House in Piccadilly and through living well beyond his means had to dispose of it eight years later to raise cash. Sir Thomas Bond purchased the site and thus we have the resulting Albermarle Street and Old Bond Street.
With its shoddy reputation it is surprising that the name of Grub Street remained for so many years. By 1829 the new breed of residents had suffered enough of the ridicule and made an effort to cast off the old degrading image of the street, launching their campaign by introducing a name change for the street. Why 'Milton' was chosen is known only to those involved; some believe he was a respected resident, maybe the leader or instigator of the campaign. Another possibility is the celebrated John Milton who in his final years lived in nearby Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields. When all formalities were completed, renaming of the Court naturally followed suit.
Modern times have seen changes to the Court more drastic than a mere switch of title. Over recent years the whole structure of this place has been transformed beyond all imaginable association with the dismal hack days. From its narrow confining walls Milton Court has now expanded to the dimensions more worthy of being termed a short street. However, any proposal to change its classification would probably ruffle the fur of the principal occupant, accountants Price Waterhouse - it being more swish to announce that one has offices in a 'court'.
Here stood the Mitre Tavern that Ben Jonson kept in so high esteem that it inspired him to make mention of it in 'Bartholomew Fair'. We know also that Pepys valued the Mitre for he frequently dined there and referred to it on the 18th September 1660 when he wrote in his diary that he went 'To the Miter tavern, in Wood Street, a house of the greatest note in London,' where he met some of his friends and their wives. We have no knowledge of his luck at gambling but he was evidently not displeased with his success that night, for he found it necessary to record that, 'Here some of us fell to handicap, a sport that I never knew before.' On a more tragic note he tells us that in 1665 the landlord was a Mr Proctor and that he and his son died of the plague on the 31st July in that year. Pepys adds 'and [he] was the greatest vintner for some time in London for great entertainments.' Alas the Mitre is now gone and near to its site is now the noisy Hole in the Wall.
In the courtyard is the old entrance that descends by way of railed stairs under an iron canopy to what used to be a debtor's prison known as the Wood Street Comptor. It was opened for use as a prison on the 28th September 1555 when all 'the prisoners that lay in the Comptor in Bread Street were removed to this Comptor in Wood Street.' (Stow). Its use as a prison ceased in 1791 when it was transferred to Giltspur Street.
Mitre Court is a wide expanse consisting mainly of characterless buildings - nothing like the place that John Stow and Samuel Pepys visited. Thomas More was supposedly born in the Court and it is said that it was at one time the home of Dick Whittington - but they would not recognise it either. Many years ago when the clientele of the Mitre tavern was composed of old bowler-hatted men, the savoury aroma of sizzling beef drifted across this Court; now, the most savoury aroma is that of a toasted cheese sandwich.
As it takes its leave of Fleet Street by way of a short passage beneath Mitre House, Mitre Court soon opens out into a small but attractive courtyard giving access to Serjeants Inn, within the Temple. Adjacent to the Court with its frontage on Fleet Street was the Elizabethan Mitre Tavern.
Although today many taverns claim to be the favourite haunt of Dr Samuel Johnson, our most reliable evidence comes from his biographer James Boswell, and I leave it for him to tell. 'I had learnt that his place of frequent resort was the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street, where he used to sit up late, and I begged that I might be allowed to pass an evening with him there soon, which he promised I should'. That promise was fulfilled on the 25th June 1763 'I called on him and we went thither at nine. We had a good supper, and port wine, of which he then sometimes drank a bottle'. Only two weeks later Boswell had arranged to entertain Johnson and four or five others at his lodging in Downing Street. By misfortune he had engaged in a severe argument with his landlord the previous day and decided to move out. Distressed by the situation he relayed his predicament to Johnson. Never beaten by such trivialities the good doctor immediately responded, 'There is nothing in this mighty misfortune; nay, we shall be better at the Mitre'. So there you have it, sound proof of Johnson's affection for the tavern which once stood here. Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Sir Joshua Reynolds were all regular visitors, clamouring, sometimes nightly, to debate with Johnson on the issue of the day.
Alas the Mitre was demolished in 1829 by Hoar's Bank to provide space for an extension to their premises. The cellar of the old tavern, however, was allowed to survive and is now incorporated into the basement of the bank.
There is still a tavern in Mitre Court, The Clachan, standing gloriously among its legal neighbours. A house of no great antiquity, it occupies a site with its back to Serjeants Inn.
Modern Court is the property of Barclays Bank plc. It is situated at the side of their premises, Fleetway House, at number 25 Farringdon Street and is protected by sturdy iron gates. You can neither gain access to the place, nor will you muster up the inclination. The Court was originally named New Court but that was many years ago - when it was regarded as no longer new, they changed its name.
Mumford Court has now lost all of its old world charm and character. It used to be a narrow little passage with quaint buildings and uneven paving but now it has been transformed into a Tarmaced road with sufficient passing space for two vehicles. Until earlier this century, the Fountain and Star, a fine old inn use to occupy a prestigious spot along the Court but it was swept away by modernisation. Around the corner, in Lawrence Lane was one of the most important coaching inns of Cheapside, the Blossoms Inn. Coaches rumbled out of its yard by day and night, over-laden with passengers travelling to all destinations west. Also long since disappeared was the Poulter's Tavern, named from the poultry traders who had their stalls at the east end of the Cheapside market. Every group of traders had their own spot in the market and around the western end of this Court were the farmers and dairymen, with accompanying herds of cattle, selling warm milk by the jug full. Hence we have Milk Street.
When Hugh Myddleton, as a yound lad, made the journey from his native Wales to tramp the streets he had heard were paved with gold, he had no idea that he would soon have them running with water. As he wandered the treasured narrow ways, hoping to earn the price of a crust of bread, a jeweller stepped outside his shop, looked up and down and yanked the boy inside by the scruff of the neck. Amid the glitter of precious stones and shining metals Hugh Myddleton was set to work on some menial task under the ever watchful eye of his master. He took to his new found trade like a slug on a lettuce leaf, acquiring within a few years an unrivalled skill and the determination to open his own little shop and go it alone. It was while spending his time fashioning gold that Myddleton was approached by James I with the proposition to become the royal jeweller; a move that was to find him a place in the history of England.
One of the things that persistently niggled James I was the inadequate supply of fresh water to the City of London, so in 1607 he set the ball rolling with a challenge to any man who could devise a workable system. The result was a plan for an open channel to drain water from the higher lands of Hertfordshire to the northern perimeter of the City. Two years later Hugh Myddleton proved his worth by setting the scheme in motion at his own expense by building a new water course twenty-one miles in length from the River Lea to a small reservior in Clerkenwell. The project almost bankrupted him and when he turned to the Corportation for financial assistance they bluntly refused - blaming the cut in essential services on a lack of Government funding - so Myddleton sought alternative backing from the King. Seeing the opportunity to earn a bob or two, James I struck a deal with his 'goldsmith' to supply half the cost in return for half the profits. When completed, the New River (as it is still called) flowed for thirty-eight miles from its source near to Ware in Hertfordshire to the River Head, and Hugh was additionally elevated to nobility by being made a baronett and thus became Sir Hugh. His commemorative statue can be seen on Islington Green, at the junction of Essex Road and Upper Street - where the toilets always seem to be locked.
As Myddleton Passage leaves Arlington Street it runs as a narrow path along side the Shakespear's Head public house, before opening out into a tree-lined road where there is a long row of yellow-bricked tenements. Soon the road turns through 90° and emerges into Myddleton Square, opposite to St Mark's church.
Since the late 15th century many of the houses situated around the area of Spital Fields had been occupied by Flemish protestant weavers. They had built up a reputation for fine quality products and a century later the number of workers in the trade had increased multifold. An order proclaimed by the French authorities in 1598 - the Edict of Nantes - gave religious freedom to French protestants, known as Huguenots. Its revocation in 1688 caused thousands of refugee Huguenot silk weavers to leave France and set up their workshops near to the Spital Fields. By the early 1700's the number of weavers employed was over 30,000 and it is estimated that there were some 15,000 looms in operation. The weavers adopted as their spokesman and campaigner, a local landowner by the name of George Wheler. Having recently returned from France, he understood the lives of the Huguenots, showed sympathy to their needs and built them a small chapel on the site of this Passage. It was the first of twelve places of worship built over the following years for the sole use of the silk weavers.
As fashions changed and cheap imitations were imported from the Continent the prosperity of Spitalfields went into decline, forcing workers and their families to move to cheaper housing. Further gloom hung over their heads as technical advances lead to automation in the weaving industry, spelling out very clearly the numbered days of the handloom. Steadily the French population decreased. One by one the chapels were sold off or demolished and by the beginning of the 19th century there were over 40,000 silk weavers without any form of work. The last of the chapels, on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane was taken over by the Wesleyan congregation, and in 1899 it was modified as a synagogue to serve the increasing Jewish community.
All of this area is in the midst of long-lasting suspense-pending finalisation of building plans. Spitalfields Market has removed to another site, the adjacent Flower Market too has been vacated and the Market Garage, on the west side of the Passage, is broken and adorned with graffiti. It is also of worthy note that Nantes Passage is of over-sized proportions in relation to its width and is in no way representative of our image of a typical City passage.
The Yard is attributed to Thomas Neal, associate of Nicholas Barbon, one time Master of the Mint, and Groom Porter to Charles II. Both Neal and Barbon shared similar obscure principles in relation to their business methods. They attracted investment on the strength of their speculative propositions but usually came unstuck through poor management. Neal was responsible for the construction in 1693 of the converging roads known as Seven Dials where Monmouth Street cuts through the central hub and five minor roads radiate out like spokes of a wheel. Its naming reflects not the layout of the roads themselves, but the seven sundials mounted on a central column - one facing each street. Although the diarist John Evelyn enthused over the design 'where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area...', had it been left to some of his fellow citizens the place might have been called 'seven trials'. The column was removed in 1773 to Weybridge Green in Surrey and placed there as a memorial to the Duchess of York.
Neither of the access openings to Neal's Yard can be regarded as enterprising advertisements. From Shorts Gardens the way is as an uncared-for entry, whilst the square covered entrance from Monmouth Street is almost a deterant to the wanderer unfamiliar with this quarter. But any discouragement must be set aside, for this is a fascinating place where most of the array of small shops occupy old warehouse buildings of rugged brick. Neal's Yard is absolutely brimming with tiny eating houses, many of them situated in the triangular section about half way along, where there are always a good many people milling around. Next-door-but-one to Neal's Yard, in Shorts Gardens, is Neal's Yard Dairy, the most complete cheese shop of all time, its shelves sagging under the weight of well matured whole cheeses - a must for all lovers of cheese.
London boasts many memorials to Viscount Haratio Nelson. The most obvious is, of course, the very well known column towering 170 feet high in Trafalgar Square, erected to celebrate his victory at Trafalgar. There are other tablets and plaques scattered about the City; a statue of the'modern' admiral in Deptford Town Hall, the memorial stone over his final resting place, a monument in St Paul's Cathedral, and in some way, Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment. The 3,500 year old column was offered to England in 1867 after Nelson came through victorious in the Battle of the Nile, and after it had stood outside the palace of Cleopatra for 15 centuries.
Nelson Passage is perhaps not so readily attributed to the old sea dog but it was named as a tribute to the Admiral, who succeeded at Trafalgar in 1805. There are no monuments or relics on view here; on the contrary, it can be quite plainly and truthfully stated that the most notable feature of this narrow walk-way is a solitary characterless stump at the Mora Street access. Dirty high walls on one side and a complimentary wire-netting fence on the other are the adequate descriptive syllables required to paint a detailed picture of this insalubrious little cut-through. However, do not despair; the rather more welcoming atmosphere of the Nelson public house in Mora Street will help to gladden the heart and perhaps prepare your spirits for the equally depressing experience of Guinness Court, across Lever Street.
Until the beginning of the 20th century New Inn was one of the Inns of Chancery, so named because it was newer than Clement's Inn. The main entrance to the Inn was from Wych Street, now non-existent, with New Inn Passage providing access to the rear. Clement's Inn and New Inn both shared common relationships, they were regarded as the creme de la creme and attracted the more respectable element of the largely questionable legal profession. There were gardens of tree lined walks adjoining the Inn where members of both societies - Clement's and New - mingled in recreation. So closely situated were the two inns that until 1723, when a gate and railings were erected, there was little to distinguish the division. In 1486 the members of New Inn leased from Sir John Fincox, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, a travellers hostel known as 'Our Ladye Inn'. This they turn into New Inn Hall and for the convenience they paid a rent of six pounds per year - 'for more (as is said) cannot be gotten of them, and much lesse will they be put from it.' One of the most notable members of New Inn was Sir Thomas More, Chancellor to Henry VIII.
In 1900 work commenced on the construction of Aldwych, Kingsway, and the widening of the Strand and as a result of the proposed plans New Inn was disbanded and demolished in 1903. Along with it also went Wych Street, Holywell Street, known as Bookseller's Row, and a whole host of alley's and passages. High rise buildings are the only present day feature of this remaining short cul-de-sac.
Here is one of those typical City crannies, so unperceived that if you stand at its entrance and ask directions of passers by, you will scarcely find one in every dozen who will be able to tell you. Enquire into the origin and you may well be there all day without learning anything of significance. The name is a misleading error made over a century ago by a sign maker joining the two words 'new' and 'castle'. It has no connection whatsoever with that coal producing town in the northeast and neither does it have any associations with a suburb of Stoke-on-Trent.
When London was recovering from the devastation left by the Great Fire, Lord Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, took up an offer of a piece of land on the west side of College Hill and erected 'a very large and graceful building'. The Villiers family already held a large estate on the south side of the Strand but this was to be His Lordship's business address 'for the more security of his trade, and convenience of driving it among the Londoners.' He had an astute mind for business matters, introducing new ideas with an explosion of enthusiasm, but his morals were too frequently laxed, leading to failure after failure. John Dryden once summed up the strength of his commercial activities thus: he was 'everything by starts and nothing long.'
By the end of the 17th century the Duke had abandoned his 'business address' and the house was occupied by Sir John Lethieullier, alderman of the City and elected sheriff in 1674. The house was demolished about 1730 and small merchants' houses, collectively known as Castle's New Court, were built on the site. Over the following years these houses gave way to office buildings, and successive development of the area has seen the gradual elimination of the grand courtyard. In the name of Newcastle Court one small part still remains, now merely a passage leading to a yard dwarfed and squeezed amid its modern neighbours. There is little point in planning a stroll through the Duke's old stomping ground at weekends - it is gated and padlocked.
Almost opposite, on the east side of College Hill is the church of St Michael, Paternoster Royal. It stands on the ground that has supported a church since about 1220, and first recorded in the Calendar of Wills of 1259 as 'Paternoster cherch' and in 1301 it is mentioned as 'Paternoster cherche near la Rayole'. Paternoster is derived from the pre 17th century name of the lane - Paternoster Lane, the habitat of the rosary makers. 'Royal' comes from the 12th century settlement of wine merchants who imported their stock from the vineyards of Reole, Bordeaux -the area to the northern end of College Hill became known as 'the Reole', (see Tower Royal).
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