In a locality bearing street names such as Cloth Fair, Cloth Street and Cloth Court it would be reasonable to assume that somewhere back in time there might have been a drapers shop around here. Cloth Fair and its surroundings have a long history associated with the drapery and tailoring trade. However, the history of the area goes back a little further than the establishment of the clothing trade.
It all started when Rahere, one of Henry I's favourite courtiers, woke up with a start and decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. While he was there he caught a bug and became violently ill with sickness, diarrhoea, the shakes and other conceivable symptom. It was touch and go but within a few days, as though affected by some divine power, he was miraculously restored to full health. Feeling assured that this was the work of heaven, he vowed, in gratitude, that when he returned home he would build a hospital for the treatment of those of unsound financial means. As he stepped back onto the shores of England he was halted in his tracks by a vision of a towering man before him. The vision declared himself to be Bartholomew and he told Rahere that along with his hospital he was also to build a great church. Both of these projects he undertook to the best of his ability and by 1150 his great church, or priory, was completed. The Augustinian Order of monks took up residence, with Rahere as the first prior. Funding of the priory and hospital were not easy so Rahere applied to the King and was granted permission to hold an annual August fair to raise money. The scheme was an immediate success and soon became an established event, initially held every August. By tradition, the official opening ceremony was performed by the Mayor from the steps of the Hand and Shears tavern, in Middle Street. His loud declaration was followed by letting loose a dozen or so rabbits into the milling throng, which were chased by a noisy gang of ruffians. Cattle traders from far and wide set up a market here, later designated as the official London cattle market with the stipulation that no other was to be opened within seven miles radius. Clothing traders and drapers soon latched on to the idea of opening stalls and before too long the fair developed into the largest cloth and clothing event in the country. It first of all lasted for three days and from the 16th century it was extended to a fortnight.
Like all good things, someone had to spoil it. The fair became a place of riots, looting and murder, and it was finally ordered to cease in 1855. However, although the fair ceased to be recognised, in 1884 an article in a local paper reported that trading was still in evidence, stating that the price paid for women varied from one penny to twenty-five guineas. When we considers that the twenty-five guinea quality were as rough as they came, I wonder what one might expect for a penny.
Punters and traders alike would no doubt have called into Ye Olde Dick Whittington tavern which stood on the corner of Kinghorn Street until it was demolished in 1916. The eventual total demise of the fair obviously contributed in a major part to its down fall. Although it had undergone many modifications, like the addition of an 18th century frontage to the ground floor, it held the noble reputation of being London's oldest tavern. A proud claim indeed, but even in those days competition was tough and just like the present day, there were probably a dozen or more other contenders reaching out for the title.
An exceedingly fine example of a 17th century house (built about 1640) comprising of numbers 41 and 42 Cloth Fair should not be missed. Although it has been renovated it offers an opportunity to see a very small part of the city as it was, prior to being swallowed up by the fire. When gazing at this house it is very easy to slip back a few centuries into the time of Pepys and visualise the London of his day.
In the clean up, after the Great Fire had taken its toll and left Carter Lane and its tributaries a pathetic ruin, Cobbs Court rose from the ashes like a phoenix, built up of tall red brick houses. It was not here before that devastating day in September 1666; the site was occupied by the vestry and rectory adjoining the church of St Anne, Blackfriars (see Church Entry).
The only Cobb of any notable prominence around at that time was Paul Cobb, Mayor of Bedford, who, during a prolonged visit to London, came into the confidence of speculative builder, Nicholas Barbon. His wheelings and dealings with Barbon aroused public suspicion and it was later revealed that he had spent the outrageous sum of twenty pounds of Corporation money in entertaining his guests. After the Fire, Nicholas Barbon presented his plans for rebuilding the City and although his scheme was not adopted, his unorthodox style was seen springing up all over the place, including a plot to the south of Ludgate Hill. The association between Paul Cobb and Cobb's Court remains a possibility.
Today it is a modernised Court with ornamental gates at both ends. It leaves Ludgate Broadway through a narrow covered passage, which widens as it opens to daylight. Here there is a secluded paved courtyard with a central fountain and seating. All the buildings are of recent construction. Turning to the right through almost 90° it emerges into Carter Lane opposite to Church Entry. Everything in this quiet corner is very pleasant indeed.
In the London of the 18th century the number of byways named from their association with fighting cocks was absolutely bewildering. There were ten Cock alley's, nine Cock courts, four Cock lanes, eight Cock yards, and sundry others, all leading to the various venues of the popular sport of cockfighting.
In a widening at the far end of this Yard was the cockpit commonly known as the Gray's Inn Cockpit. It had a pointed conical roof and in structure was not unlike a theatre with seating around a central arena. The Gray's Inn venue was one of the most frequented in the whole of London, attracting nobility from far and wide and many a handsome bet, even by today's standards, were placed on the duelling birds.
The cockpit changed hands in 1710 and again in 1723 when it was put up for sale along with an adjoining piece of land offered for the purposes of building. In 1745 it again came under the hammer and was taken over by John Westcott, a cabinet maker of the parish of St Andrew, Holborn. He then sold it to John Skipwick but retained for himself the right to manage the cockpit at his own discretion.
During the 18th century cock fighting was one of the most popular sporting events, rather like football is today, and large numbers of people jostled for front positions around the pit. The claws of each cock were fitted with long blades and, cheered on by the spectators, they lashed out at each other to the death. Pepys described the scene on the 6th April 1668 when he went to check out the new King's Gate Cockpit: 'and there saw the manner of it, and the mixed rabble of people that come thither, and saw two battles of cocks, wherein is no great sport, but only to consider how these creatures, without any provocation do fight and kill one another, and aim only at one another's heads.' Not a pretty sight, but it continued until the reign of Queen Victoria when cock fighting was declared illegal.
The scene around Cockpit Yard has changed slightly since those days and it now forms a base for council refuge collection lorries. It was not really a pretty sight in the 18th century and neither is it today.
Lying just off Cockspur Street, this little square tunnel was the site of a thriving business in the 18th century. The Yard was occupied by a manufacturer of blades or spurs for fitting to the claws of fighting cocks. These blades were made to a razor sharp perfection and the demand of products from the best makers was so that the company owners often realised a small fortune. Cock fighting was made illegal in the mid 19th century and the more flexible spur manufacturers turned their hands to other items of manufacture while those who were less adventurous went out of business.
Cockspur Court still has a flavour of rough antiquity within the bounds of its darkened brick walls, and the old iron gates at either end have been here since before anyone can remember. Pressing down on this short tunnel, a four storey building can remember the years going back to the beginning of the 20th century, but the concrete jungle of the British Council, at the southern end, has no memory at all - it was built in 1975.
Colville Place stands on the approximate site of an 18th century windmill erected on the land known as Crabtree Field, owned at that time by William Berresford. It was situated a little to the west of the long hedge lined lane, which led to the old manor house named Tottenham Court. When Berresford died in about 1717 the land was inherited by his widow, Ann, who shortly after fell passionately in love with a local carpenter, John Goodge and the two were married. They enjoyed many years of blissful companionship together but John outlived his wife and died in 1748; the land then passed into the hands of his nephews, Frances and William. In the following years these two started to prepare the land for development but they were not large scale developers and it seemed right that they should seek the skill of a more qualified man. On recommendation they contracted a substantial part of the work out to John Colville but they were not aware that he had never before attempted anything of this magnitude; he was a mere small-time builder and carpenter and evidence soon came to light that he was ill-equipped to tackle the major project of building streets and houses. John Colville built the 'Place' and part of some of the streets around, but long before the work was completed he found himself in dire straights and fell into obscurity.
Coleville Place is the sort of place that we always hope is just around the corner. Well, here it is -a surviving Georgian court of about 1765, complete with attractive houses all graced by ornamental stone pots and urns filled with greenery, making this one of the more scenic places in an area dominated by computer buffs and electronic wizardry. There are three electric standard lamps down the centre of the old rugged stone flagged pavement, although these are of no outstanding beauty and merely serve their purpose. A line of trees and a 'green' park on the southern side complete the picture of this appealing byway.
For the inquisitive wanderer, with a few hours to spare, searching out the byways of central London offers one of the most pleasurable and unusual pastimes imaginable. At every turn there is some feature of unexpected surprise; will there be an age old covered alley characterfully steeped in history?; will our eyes be opened in amazement at the sight of well preserved Georgian shops?; or will we find an uncared-for shambles with grass growing out of every crack?. The surprise is all part of the joy and in the district of Clerkenwell there are surprises galore - Compton Passage is one of them.
When we turn up the history relating to this Passage we find, like many of the thoroughfares in this corner of the City, it has past associations with Lord Compton, Earl of Northampton. With such noble connections we may, in our mind's eye, conjure up a picture of grand houses, perhaps now turned into offices; polished door knockers and brass letter boxes; perhaps the odd Rolls Royce parked nearby. The surprise is all yours - but let me relieve you of a morsel of the suspense. Approaching from St John Street and turning into Compton Street we feast our eyes on a collection of small cafes, in the style of small two-up, two-down terrace houses, lining the south side. Nearing Compton Passage, on first sight there is no obvious sign of prestigious accommodation; in fact on second sight there is no glaring evidence of the neatly kept buildings we may have come to expect. In reality, Compton Passage offers an unrivalled example of high, unpointed red brick walls, the continuity of which is occasionally broken by wire mesh protected windows. Barbed wire on the top of the walls serves as a security device providing protection against the determined cat-burglar. And what about the paving! Slabs of natural stone, worn and hollowed by centuries of tramping feet? Afraid not; just mere boring Tarmac of those inventive architecturally creative years around 1960. It is good to trundle down the occasional 'Crompton Passage', if for no other reason, the experience leaves us with the expectation that things can only get better.
At the southern end of the Passage is Dallington Street, named after Sir Robert Dallington, Master of the Charterhouse during the late 16th century. It was constructed on part of the site occupied by the burial ground known as Pardon Churchyard. Its foundation resulted from a vicious plague which started in Dorset and reached London in late 1347. The Great Plague of 1665 was to all accounts a flea in the ocean compared with this epidemic; few of those who remained in London escaped, and by the beginning of 1348 it is estimated that no more than ten percent of the original population were alive. All the available churchyards were overflowing and the situation became so unmanageable that the Bishop of London, Ralph Stratford, bought a piece of ground known as 'No Man's Land' and consecrated it for the purpose of burying the surplus bodies. By 1349 the plague was still causing havoc, and fearful that the City might find itself once again in a similar situation, Sir Walter Manny purchased this adjoining plot of over thirteen acres.
When the plague ceased and the additional ground was no longer required for victims it became the common place for burial of executed criminals and those who had 'desperately ended their lives' (Stow). There bodies were carried in the 'friary cart', an enclosed box on wheels, and draped with a black pall bearing a plain white cross. On the front of the cart was the cross of St John; a single bell jangled by the jolting of the cart as it proceeded on its mournful journey.
This is merely a taste of Compton Passage and its surroundings; for the full flavour, go and see.
A glance through the index of a comprehensive directory of London will reveal no less than fourteen 'conduits', all in some way having past associations with the supply of water to central areas of the capital. The stoney earth of Bayswater, around the banks of the Westbourne stream was particularly rich in rising springs and it is in one of these watering holes that 'Bayswater' has its foundation. During the 14th century the lord of the manor, a certain Baynard, owned a powerful spring for supplying constant water to the manor house. As the supply was plentiful he constructed a duct to channel the water to a trough where horses could drink. This became known as Baynard's Watering - see the connection?
Near to Conduit Passage was the main spring of Ox Lease with its head housed in a sturdy round building topped with a stone ball. Between 1470 and 1815 the Roundhead Conduit, as it was called, channelled the water via Oxford Street, where it joined a conduit from the banks of the Tyburn and continued via Mayfair to the City.
The Roundhead Conduit house disappeared in 1820 and the lead pipes were replaced with a modern water piping system. Until 1825 there remained a very good crop of watercress to be had from the continuing trickling streams.
Conduit Court WC2
UG: Covent Garden Bus: Any to Aldwych, Strand or Charing Cross From Covent Garden Station turn right (south west) into Floral Street and continue along the north side for about 150 yds.
Built in the 1680's, Conduit Court was most likely the creation of Leonard Cundit who owned a tavern nearby in Long Acre. The corruption to Conduit is easy to appreciate.
Thomas Chippendale started his cabinet making business here in 1748. It was a very small concern at the time and the confined space of the Court left little scope for enlargement. Whilst still working here he bought a house in Northumberland Court and there commenced writing his encyclopedia of wood work designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Directory. By 1752 Chippendale had built up a steady demand for his furniture and the Conduit Court workshop was proving impractical, not only from the production point of view but also for the storage of prepared orders. The following year, in his ardent search for alternative workshops, he came upon the ideal premises; a large work area with shop frontage and living accommodation above, near to Garrick Yard, in St Martin's Lane. In the same year he sold his house in Northumberland Court, gave up his old workshop, and moved to his new premises in preparation for the flood of orders which were to result from the publication of his book in 1754.
At the southern end of Conduit Court is Floral Street, renamed in 1895 from Hart Street after the White Hart Inn, built in 1632 and demolished around the mid-18th century. Charles Macklin, a famous actor of the time, bought this building when still a house and turned it into a tavern and eating house. It became known as Macklin's Ordinary and was opened for an extremely limited period each day. At five-to-four in the afternoon a bell was rung from the top of the building for the duration of five minutes; at four o-clock, prompt, the doors were opened; ten minutes later the doors were closed and the first course was served. The fixed charge for a three course dinner was three shillings (15p) including a beverage of the customers choice.
Until earlier this century the Bird in Hand tavern occupied the position of number 17 Long Acre with an entrance in Conduit Court. It was a picturesque two storey old hostelry with dormer windows projecting from the quaint rickety roof and a cladding of numerous sign boards on the outside walls. On one such board the words of an appropriate famous proverb were stylishly written in a rhythmic flow of words so infrequently encountered in our day of modernists:
Alas, along with most of the other alleys of Long Acre, Conduit Court has been subjected to the treatment suffered by a good many of London's treasured byways. All that now greets us are the plain high brick walls characterlessly built in a fashion as though to hide from view the old tavern. However, the site of the entrance to the Bird in Hand can still be traced where there is an inlet on the east side about half way along the Court. Near to Conduit Court at numbers 12-14 Long Acre is the map shop of Edward Stanford, considered to be the largest map shop in the world. It was established in 1852.
Copthall Close is a successor to the now disappeared Copthall Court which formed the access to Copthall Buildings and extended northwards from Throgmarton Street, just to the west side of Drapers Hall. Its name derives from the style of the buildings occupying this site during the 16th century, which had 'copted' or high ridged rooves. Although there must have been a hall standing near to here at some time there is no obvious evidence in support of it.
Sheltered from the scurrying tempo of Moorgate, Copthall Close is a pleasant place but for the quaintly minded. A turning on the south side of the Close leads to the narrow Copthall Buildings, Telegraph Street, and Tokenhouse Yard - a much more rewarding and worthwhile expedition.
There is a telephone kiosk in Copthall Close, but if you can find it vacant you have the luck of the gods.
After the staggering labyrinth of Cornhill's alleys, Corbet Court can be something of a disappointment. But too much excitement crammed into a short space of time can over burden the system and perhaps a short respite at this point is a timely welcome.
There is no fun to be had here, and the proprietors are not going to let you forget it; a bold notice states 'Unauthorised parking is subject to normal police clamping'. So be warned! This has always been a dreary unaccommodating Court; It seems that old Corbet, a property owner, set the seed in the late 17th century when he attempted to prevent unauthorised persons from entering his newly built Court. He was a misery if ever there was one, but it seems that his clan were also a bunch of unsociable characters with an inbuilt determination to make mountains out of worm casts; Miles Corbet, who plotted against Charles I, was a member of this family. At that time it was merely the hostile attitude of grumpy Corbet - there was nothing private about his Court, it was a common right of way. There is no way through Corbet Court now, it is a cul-de-sac, and to be fair it is private property.
When the Tabard Inn stood across the road from here and the George Inn Yard was choked up with coaches, there stood on this site the 12th century church of St Margaret, sometimes called St Margaret's-on-the-Hill. On its closure in the mid 16th-century the parish, along with that of St Mary Magdalene, was amalgamated with St Mary Overy, now Southwark Cathedral. The church and its graveyard were sold and transformed into a court of law with adjoining prison, or comptor as they used to be known, and a pillory was erected in the middle of the road. John Stow passed by here a few years after the conversion and noted 'A part of the parish church of St Margaret is now a court, wherein the assizes and sessions be kept, and the court of admiralty is there kept. One other part of the same church is now a prison, called the Compter in Southwark'. In 1676 a fire swept along Borough High Street taking everything in its path and the prison was completely destroyed. For six years the site remained a charred ruin until a decision was made to rebuild the comptor and an adjoining court house. It continued to serve as the Borough Comptor until an order was passed for its demolition in 1855.
Counter Court, which is a mis-transcription of Compter Court, is a narrow place having but one door giving access to an Indian Restaurant. In a way the Court bears a distinct likeness to that of its former day character; there are grimy walls and boarded-up windows - a similar picture to the one we would have encountered over a hundred years ago. There are no cherished treasures between these close walls, not even an old building worth looking at. It remains merely as a cut-through passage - here for the preservation of history.
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