I had intended this month’s Down Your Alley to be Guy Fawkes related and Gunpowder Square seemed the perfect place to start. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information about this little alley which calls itself rather grandly a square. Its only association with anything ordinance related is a gun. Its three neighbours, located between Fetter Lane and Shoe Lane seem to have a more interesting history.
Wine Office Court is visited by tourists from every nation, Wine Office Court must be one of the most frequented courts in the whole of London. With its narrow covered access, darkened rough brickwork, worn paving, and treasured buildings storing over 300 years of history, it is a typical representation of our image of old London. But the average tourist does not come here to revel in the hollowed out stones beneath his feet or to venerate the age-old walls; he comes to eat, drink and make merry in the famous Old Cheshire Cheese. For decades its bars and restaurants have been a major attraction on the visiting lists of British and foreign tourists alike.
Wine Office Court including ‘gun’
There has been a tavern on this site ever since the late 16th century, but resulting from a spark in Mr Farriner’s Pudding Lane bakery it went the same way as everything else in Fleet Street. No time was wasted in rebuilding and the new tavern was open again for business in 1667, only months after the Fire had reduced the site to a smouldering heap. The Cheshire Cheese has a well-chronicled association with the literary set, going back to the time of its foundation. If we are to believe the claims of successive landlords down the centuries, Samuel Johnson, that great lexicographer, writer, and wit is supposed to have spent half his life here. In fact, there are items of Johnsonian memorabilia at almost every turn. For many years a painting of Johnson and his biographer, Boswell, has hung over the restaurant door, ‘Come, let us dine at the Cheese’ reads the caption below. Inside the restaurant, at the head of the long ‘Johnson table’ is what is claimed to be ‘the favourite seat of Dr Johnson’ and hanging above is a copy of a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Boswell, in his Life of Samuel Johnson, seems to indicate that the Doctor’s favourite tavern was the Mitre, which used to stand on Fleet Street. He makes no bones about it when he states that ‘I had learnt that his place of frequent resort was the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street, where he loved to sit up late’. The Mitre Tavern was pulled down in 1829 so that Messrs Hoare could extend their banking premises. Although there is no reference in ‘the Life’ to the Cheshire Cheese it is difficult to believe that Johnson never ventured into the place, particularly when we recall that for much of his life in London he lived just around the corner.
Oliver Goldsmith too must have been a frequent customer. He lived across the passage at number 6 Wine Office Court where he wrote The Vicar of Wakefield. And how can we mention such an old tavern without a peek at Dickens who must have walk in and out of these Fleet Street courts by day and by night? Few people know it, but Dickens kept a rule of life that compelled him to visit every tavern in the City of London daily; at least this is what some will have us believe. With this knowledge to hand, it seems very likely that the renowned pub goer downed the odd vessel or two in the ‘Cheese’. He gave a hint of the tavern in his Tale of Two Cities where he says, ‘Down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street and so up a covered way into a tavern’. It does appear that the covered way may have been Wine Office Court.
Fleet Street is not generally considered as one of the most favoured sauntering areas for tourists but ‘the Cheese’, as it’s affectionately known, attracts visitors from far and wide. Squashed in the tiny bar you can brush shoulders with sightseers of all tongues. Americans sipping pints of English beer and commenting on Dr Johnson and the sawdust-covered floor. The tavern also attracts local workers from a variety of professions and trades who prefer to gather at the serving hatch in the corridor. Impenetrable men of advertising huddle together telling dirty stories and laughing very heartily.
John Ogilby and Hugh Morgan, two of the earliest scientific cartographers, lived in Wine Office Court while compiling and printing their 1677 map of London. At the time these two were diligently engraving their blocks they would have heard outside, the occasional tramping of those visiting the wine office. It occupied part of the west side of the Court, from where licenses for the sale of wine were formerly issued.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, there was certainly an abundance of taverns in Fleet Street and it has been said that the ‘Hind’ was among them. It is quite true that the sign portraying a female red deer was a popular inn sign of past years but I can uncover no trace of such an inn sign in Fleet Street.
Beneath its covered access and beyond, Hind Court is a quiet place compared to its next-door neighbour, Wine Office Court, where, on a summer evening the multitudes quaffing at the Old Cheshire Cheese can render its passage impassable. There are no taverns here and for that matter, there is precious little else. With the gentle intervention of Bolt Court joining from the left, it slinks effortlessly into Gough Square and that is where it ends.
Curious Bolt Court takes its name from the ‘Bolt in Tun Tavern’ which stood on the opposite side of Fleet Street, on the corner of Bouverie Street. ‘Bolt’, in this peculiar title, is presumably a bolt as fired from a gun or possibly an arrow. A ‘tun’ is a large wine cask with a capacity of 252 gallons.
From the yard of this one-time famous old coaching inn, coaches rumbled out into the density of horse-drawn traffic in treacherous Fleet Street en route to places as far afield as Cambridge, Lincoln and Winchester. To add to its fame the ‘Bolt in Tun’ was the scene of tears of sadness and drunken celebration as the final long-distance stage to leave London rattled through the gates of its yard. For a long time, after the inn was demolished, the yard continued to house the properties of sundry small businesses and provided space for off-street parking, but the site was built on in 1950 and all trace of the yard has now completely disappeared.
Another derivation of the name suggests that the entrance to the Court had a gate which was bolted at night to keep out thieves. a rather unlikely implication.
That crotchety old genius, Dr Johnson moved from number seven Johnson’s Court to take up residence at number eight Bolt Court in 1776 ‘still keeping to his favourite Fleet Street’. When James Boswell called on his great friend at the doctor’s house in Johnson’s Court on the 15th March you could have knocked him down with a feather when he found out that the man was no longer living there. He recorded the event of the removal in these words: ‘I felt a foolish regret that he had left a court which bore his name; but it was not foolish to be affected with some tenderness of regard for a place in which I had seen him a great deal, from whence I had often issued a better and a happier man than when I went in, and which had often appeared to my imagination, while I trod its pavement in the solemn darkness of the night, to be sacred to wisdom and piety.’ The last time that Boswell saw Johnson was on the 30th June 1784 at the Fleet Street entrance to Bolt Court. As Johnson climbed down from the coach in which they had returned from dining with Sir Joshua Reynolds he called out to his friend ‘Fare you well’ and made off, ‘with a kind of pathetic briskness’, down the dark alley to his house. Two days later Boswell set out on a business trip to his native Scotland and was not to return to London before Johnson’s death on the 13th December 1784. All the old properties have long been demolished but a plaque marks the site of the Doctors house. The Stationers Company established a school for boys here in 1861. It later moved to Hornsey.
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.