This is a Clerkenwell alley that seems likely to owe its origins to the dissolution of the monasteries and the sell-off of their land.

The Priory of St John of Jerusalem, aka the Knights Hospitallers, is the monastery in question and was the home of the Hospitallers’ Grand Prior in England and their UK headquarters. The Priory was founded sometime the reign of King Henry II (1154-1189), and later acquired considerable lands to support its income. However, it was never rich as it sent most of its money to the Grand Prior in the Holy Land, often leaving it impoverished.

Destroyed by the Peasants Revolt, it was rebuilt in 1504 on a grander scale but didn’t last much longer as King Henry VIII shut it down during the dissolution of the monasteries. The land was sold off by King Edward VI, restored by Queen Mary I, and finally, Queen Elizabeth I evicted the Priory for the last time, who then let people rent the buildings.

It was James I who finally sold off the land, and that’s when much of the development finally took off.

The passage passes through what was called the Lavender Garden when the monastery was here, and although tempting to read too much into maps, following the closure of the Priory, it seems that the boundary between two owners may have run where the passageway is today. Maybe.

William Morgan’s Map 1682

The first indication of Albermarle Way appears on John Rqoue’s map of 1746 as Albermarle Street. It was created by the merchant Joseph Cook, who built about 20 houses on the south end of the old gardens. However, the houses may have been of very poor quality due to later complaints about the lack of drains into the main sewer.

Although the street was in effect created by a builder, it was named after the Duke of Albemarle who lived in nearby Newcastle House. His future wife, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, had become convinced that the Kangxi Emperor of Qing Dynasty China wished to marry her, so the Duke dressed up as the Emperor and proposed. She agreed and later became known as “the Mad Duchess of Albemarle”.

Albermarle Street was the main road east-west until Clerkenwell Road arrived in 1874–78, cutting through a cluster of smaller roads and houses to create the layout we have today.

OS map 1892

The buildings on the south side were demolished to make space for the road and the odd triangle block that stands there today. It seems that’s also when most of the buildings on the north side were also rebuilt in their current style.

It was renamed Albemarle Way — possibly in 1950, as 1951 is the oldest reference I can find for its current name in newspapers or company records.

Starting at the western end, the passageway is dominated by two curved corner buildings. Most distinctive is the red ironwork-decorated building originally built for the jewellery manufacturer Edward Culver. Although built specifically for the firm, they moved out just 15 years later and then Westminster Bank took over the building. Today it seems to be an office.

The rest of the businesses along the passage are very Clerkenwell, looking like relatively upmarket design companies, but the one at the eastern end is worth a look at, as it is a 76-year old watchmaker firm, Gleave & Co, and they have some wonderful old clocks in their window.

The building on the southeastern corner was erected about 1888 after Clerkenwell Road had been completed, and first occupied by wholesale grocers Phillips & Co. They didn’t last, and in 1896, it was converted into a coffee and temperance hotel, and later became a branch of British Tea Table. The building was gutted during WWII and rebuilt in the same style, and is today offices above shops.

Although the passageway is narrow, it’s busy as it seems to be a shortcut for black cabs, who were frequently seen nipping down the partially cobbled passage on my visit.


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