Last month we explored Carter Lane from which it’s only a short walk across Ludgate Hill to two curiously named streets. Ava Maria Lane and Amen Corner. Their derivation comes from the feast day of Corpus Christi. Monks chanting the Lord’s Prayer in procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral setting off from Paternoster Row (Pater Noster being the Latin opening words of the Lord’s Prayer) would reach the final “Amen” as they turned into Ava Maria Lane – hence Amen Corner.
At his point the Catholic Angelic Salutation, still recited by the faithful would begin “Hail Mary, Mother of Grace” or Ave Maria in the Latin.
The alleyways joining these ancient streets are seeped with history and tradition. From St Paul’s Cathedral walk down the north side of Ludgate Hill, turn right into Ave Maria Lane. Continue for about 30 yards where Stationers’ Hall Court is on the left.
Branching from Ludgate Hill, a short passageway soon opens out into a sizeable square where on the left is Stationers’ Hall, the home of the Stationers’ Company, founded in 1403. In 1556 they were incorporated with the Society of Textwriters, with their first hall established in Milk Street, off Cheapside and in 1563 they moved to St Peter’s College in Dean’s Court, on the west side of St Paul’s Cathedral. Their first purpose built hall materialised in 1606 when they purchased the London home of Lord Abergavenny, which stood on the site of the present Hall. The Stationers’ demolished his Lordship’s house and in its place erected a wooden structure which sixty years later was completely destroyed in the Great Fire. It is estimated that the value of the books lost in the burning of the Hall was in the region of £200,000. In 1670 Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design the replacement hall which still occupies the site, although the Portland stone facing was added by the Company’s architect, Robert Mylne in 1805. World War II left the roof of the Stationers’ Hall severely damaged and the decorative ceiling devastated, but skilful craftsmanship has since restored it to the original design.
The Stationers’ Company was originally established to oversee the stationery, printing and publishing and bookbinding trades and until quite recently it was the tradition for liverymen of the Company to carry on the business of publishing at Stationers’ Hall. A proportion of the profits realised were usually distributed annually between colleagues who had fallen on hard times, and sundry expenses incurred by the Company.
Copyright registration was established by the Company in 1557 and primarily concerned the printing of copies following the death of an author. It was not until 1662 that a committee of the House of Commons passed a bill requiring all works printed in Britain to be registered at Stationers’ Hall. This Act expired in 1681 and was superseded by a bill of 1710 stating that all works must be registered prior to their publication. An amendment to the bill in 1842 introduced the right of authors to protect their work from infringement by legal action. That Act remained in force until the passing of the Copyright Act of 1911 when it became unnecessary to register a work for protection against infringement.
Continue walking down Ave Maria Lane. Amen Court is a little way on the left. Many of the highways and byways around the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral bear names which have ecclesiastical origins. It is very likely that Amen Court housed the scribes and letter writers employed in writing the great volumes of the Cathedral.
Reputedly built by Sir Christopher Wren, Amen Court is a secluded little solace hidden away behind Ave Maria Lane. This charming little Court contains the late 17th century houses of the residentiary cannons of St Paul’s Cathedral, some of which still retain the original torch-light extinguishers, positioned by their doors. One or two are further graced with old iron foot scrapers. Tucked away at the far end a pretty garden adds the finishing touches to this tranquil setting.
Before the Great Fire, the ground on which Amen Court is constructed was occupied by the Oxford Arms, one of the many galleried coaching inns of the City. All were built on a similar style where the galleried rooms, usually of two storeys, bordered three sides of the court and the fourth side was built up with stabling. In the Oxford Arms courtyard the stables lay on the west side, up against the Roman Wall. The old inn was burnt down in the Fire but as the cogs of commerce once again began to grind and as the construction of new St Paul’s Cathedral was taking shape, the Dean and Chapter rebuilt the inn on the same site. Adjoining the inn, on the site of part of the old courtyard, they built the cannons’ houses with a connecting door to the inn. In a later lease of the inn it was stipulated that on no account was this door to sealed up or barred.
The Oxford Arms inn is long gone; like the rest of the old coaching inns of London it rapidly lost trade when the railways claimed a foot-hold in the carriage business and the Oxford stage was forced off the road.
It is unfortunate that we mortals do not have the run of Amen Court; it is protected by a high gate and the only means of gaining access is by prior application to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Pictures: Stationers’ Hall Court and Amen Court by John Salmon (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Much of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.