Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Month: February 2019

More City courtyards and alleys – Change Alley

By the end of June 1720, one share in the South Sea Company (a monopolistic trading entity) would have cost you £1,050. As confidence began to ebb away, however, the price began to drop. By the end of August, the stock was less than £800 and by December £175, meaning financial ruin for many institutions and penury for hundreds of individuals. A subsequent enquiry revealed a web of corruption, deceit and bribery and resulted in disgrace and prosecution for numerous company and government officials. The so-called South Sea Bubble passed into legend.

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Change Alley (EC3V 9AZ – then called Exchange Alley) is where the dealing in the South Sea shares took place and gets a mention in a poem to peoples’ folly …

Why did ‘Change Alley waste thy precious hours
Among the fools who gaped for golden show’rs?
No wonder if we found some poets there,
Who live on fancy, and can feed on air;
No wonder they were caught by South Sea schemes,
Who ne’er enjoyed a guinea but in dreams.

Some speculators, however, got out in time and with great profit. One of them was Thomas Guy, who owned a bookshop at the end of Lombard Street. We benefit to this day from his successful investment and philanthropy as he used some of the cash to found Guy’s Hospital.

Thomas Guy in 1706

Any history of the City and its development always makes reference to the extraordinary growth and influence of the coffee house, the first being opened by a Greek named Pasqua Roseé in 1652. Its location is commemorated by this plaque in St Michael’s Alley …

Incidentally, there is something suspicious about this plaque – it probably isn’t a bona fide City one. Though blue and oblong, the proportions are wrong, the style is different and it’s anonymous.

‘In many ways the coffee houses formed the central hub of daily life; they were where the news was gathered and distributed; they were the main places for the exchange of gossip. Here a business man could meet his client and discuss a deal in relative comfort and warmth over a dish of coffee (as they called it) and perhaps a hearty meal. As popular as the coffee houses became, they were not without their enemies and slanderers. In 1674 a congregation of ladies formed the ‘Women’s Petition against Coffee’, circulating notices about London in which they complained that by indulging in the beverage men were made as ‘unfruitful as the dessert where that unhappy berry is said to be bought’. Despite their efforts, by the 18th century it was estimated that there were over 3000 coffee houses in London.’ (Extract from the Underground Map blog).

Change Alley was the site of another famous coffee house …

The grasshopper references the emblem of Sir Thomas Gresham who built the Royal Exchange

Following the Fire of 1666, Garraway’s was reconstructed on a grand scale. Situated on a corner with various entrances into the building, it had smaller rooms and a kitchen downstairs and a large coffee room upstairs.

Here it is in a contemporary illustration from the 19th century – the alley looks very different from today where it is hemmed in by white tiled office blocks …

Garraway’s from W. Thornbury, Old and New London, vol 2, p. 174

A panel on the fascinating doors at 32 Cornhill depicts its interior. You can read more about the doors and their stories here

A place where ‘People of Quality who have Business in the City, and the most considerable and wealthy Citizens frequent’.

The Scottish Widows insurance company arrived in 1935 …

They made sure that the splendid company logo was prominently displayed even though it faces the narrow alley and blank walls. I have written about it in more detail in an earlier blog entitled Insurance Company Ghosts

It is extraordinary that the warren of courtyards and alleys off Cornhill survives to this day given not only wartime bombing but, long before then, a ferocious fire.

‘This dredful fire which has laid Waste so useful & opulent Part of the City began in the Powdering Room at Mr Eldridge’s peruke maker near the midle of Exchange Alley on Friday March 25 1748 at One o’Clock in the Morning, and continued burning till Twelve the same day.’

A peruke was another name for the fashionable wigs, or periwigs, worn at the time.

After the stock market crash that followed the South Sea Bubble scandal, the fire insurance market had consolidated into the hands of three major companies : The Sun, Royal Exchange and the Phoenix. Each had their own small fire fighting force that independently dealt with fires, including the Exchange Alley one. This map of the 1748 fire damage was drawn up to ensure a satisfactory allocation and settlement of any claims …

The three separate fire fighting forces were merged in 1832, along with those of six other companies, to form the London Fire Engine Establishment. You can see a late 17th century/early 18th century fire engine at the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr on Lower Thames Street EC3R 6DN …

By the way, one striking feature of Change Alley has remained the same over the centuries – as you wander around the bordering streets, you keep seeing it. There are five access points. Two off Cornhill, two off Lombard Street and one leading out of Birchin Lane.

I shall be visiting more alleys in future blogs. As you will see from these pictures, they have managed to keep much of their charm and air of mystery …

Thank you for reading this week’s edition.

Tales from the City’s courtyards and alleys

One evening in April 1718 a comedian named Bowen (described as a ‘hotheaded Irishman’) was drinking copiously in the Pope’s Head Tavern. Having worked himself into a ‘transport of envy and rage’ he sent for an actor, a comedian and competitor called Quin. As soon as Quin entered, Bowen planted his back against the door, drew his sword, and bade Quin draw his. Quin remonstrated in vain and at last drew in his own defence, trying to disarm his antagonist. Bowen eventually received a mortal wound, of which he died in three days, ‘confessing at last his folly and madness’. Quin was tried, and honourably acquitted. This story, from British History Online*, sent me searching for the scene of the affray – logic telling me that it must be in Pope’s Head Alley (EC3V 9AY).

Sadly the Tavern no longer exists and the alley has been shifted a little to the east from its original location.

It looks a bit sterile from its Cornhill entrance (it leads to Lombard Street) and I wasn’t going to bother to walk down it …

I am glad I did though, because first of all, looking up, I noticed this line of bees and bee hives …


Here is a close-up of one of them …

And then came across the Pope himself …

The bee symbol was traditionally associated with the Barberini family and, in particular, the 17th century Pope Urban VIII Barberini. I honestly don’t know if this is the reason for the bees but that’s my hypothesis.

Below the Pope’s head there is metal fence incorporating the galloping Lloyd’s Bank horse …

So the moral of this tale is – don’t judge an alley by its entrance.


I went on enthusiastically to explore more. I know it’s a cliche, but the phrase ‘stepping back in time’ really does come to mind with some of them.

For example, here is a picture I took of Ball Court and a side entrance to Simpsons’s Tavern …

The Tavern’s full address is Ball Court, 38 1/2 Cornhill (EC3V 9DR). It still looks authentically 18th century …

On Cornhill you will find the entrance to Sun Court (EC3V 3NB) …

At the end of the alley the scene opens out considerably …

You are looking at the rear of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall with its lovely curved glass windows. There is a nicely carved rendition of the Merchant Taylors’ coat of arms …

Here is the full colour version …

The motto is a quotation from Gaius Sallustius Crispus: ‘Concordia parvae res crescunt, discordia maxumae dilabuntur‘ : with harmony small things grow, while with discord the mightiest are ruined.

Further along Cornhill another nice surprise awaits you in White Lion Court (EC4V 3NP) …

The gated entrance doesn’t look terribly promising

Once inside you find yourself facing this stunning four-storey house, said to date from 1767 …

Probably originally the home of a wealthy merchant, it was once the offices of Lloyd’s Register of Shipping.

On the wall is another emblem of the Merchant Taylors’ crest …

And a nice example of the Parish Boundary mark for St Peter Cornhill …

I hope you have enjoyed this short tour through some of the City’s courts and alleys. There are many more to visit and I shall cover them in a future blog.

*Incidentally, there are a number of versions of the fight between Quin and Bowen and not all of them coincide with the British History Online account. The fullest I have found appears in the book The Life of Mr James Quin, Comedian, from his commencing Actor to his retreat to Bath. It was published in London in 1766, includes an account of Quin’s trial, and can be found online here.


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