This is a short well-used alley to the south of Westminster Abbey that has been home to spies and politicians in its long life.
It first shows up as Bennets Yard in William Morgan’s map of London in 1682 as a wide-open space between a cluster of buildings surrounded by fields. As such is likely to have been a working yard space in a farm. By 1746, the whole area is developed, and Bennet’s Yard has acquired most of the alignment that it has today – as a narrow east-west alley between rows of houses fronting Marsham Street and Tufton Street.
By the late Victorian times, the alley has become almost a classic City of London alley, as a narrow passage surrounded by light industry and livery stables. The western side was accessed via a covered passage. It also seemed to have acquired an extra T, turning from Bennets Yard into Bennett’s Yard.
During WW2, the entire northern side of the alley was flatted by a direct bomb hit
In the 1930s, much of the southern side of the alley was redeveloped into a mixed development of flats and offices, Romney House, to a design by the Austro-British architect, Michael Rosenaur. The building was constructed in three phases, initially as officed and retail, with the residential flats and a hotel added later.
During WW2, it was requisitioned by the government and allegedly used as offices by the secret services. After the war, was part of the Home Office and also the Department of the Environment, which tried to have it demolished. Saved from demolition it became the temporary headquarters for the new Greater London Authority (GLA) in 1999 while they waited for City Hall to be built next to Tower Bridge. In 2006, the remaining offices were evicted as the whole building was revamped internally into a dedicated block of 170 flats.
The north side is a new development from the turn of the 21st-century of modern flats replacing 1960s developments. That development, by Pollard Thomas & Edwards was controversial as it involved flattening a number of older buildings, including The Fleece, an 18th-century pub noted for being a meeting place for the suffrage movement, artists and writers. A green plaque on the corner has been added by the Thorney Island Society to mark the demolished home of the war poet, Siegfried Sassoon.
Today the alley is split into two personalities. The eastern half is mainly a short road that slopes down to a sunken car park that sits underneath the new block of flats. To the south, you can see a recently blocked up doorway leading to a set of fenced off steps and peer through the railings into the 1930s car park.
Then the alley is pedestrianised and heads up to Marsham Street.
On my visit, it’s clearly a well-used alley with lots of people using it as a convenient shortcut, and staring curiously at the person loitering for ages trying to take photos without people in them of this otherwise seemingly unremarkable passage that has a lot of hidden history.