This is one of London’s more famous passages, often nicknamed Booksellers’ Row, thanks to the large number of bookshops that line both sides of the alley.

Although the alley route is old, and the buildings look old, in fact, most of what you see here is late Victorian, as the entire site was rebuilt in the 1880s. Back to the 1680s first though, and the area was lined with houses and back gardens, but the alley seems to appear later, as it’s not in a contemporary map but does appear very roughly defined in a 1746 map.

The rough layout shown in the map could be due to an event in June 1735, when it’s alleged Elizabeth Calloway, who owned a brandy shop in the alley, took out a large insurance and it is claimed then set fire to her shop.

In the process of doing so, she burnt down a lot of her neighbours as well – a newspaper report of the time said that within two hours, four houses in Cecil Court and nine in St Martins were burnt to the ground, and many more were damaged. The fire was so notable that The Queen was moved to give 50 Guineas to the poor affected by the damage.

Although never convicted of arson, it was reported that she had tried to encourage her tenants to join her for supper elsewhere and that people rescuing the barrels in the stock room found the barrels had been emptied of their contents before the fire started.

The buildings were rebuilt, and it was not long afterwards that the alley gained one of its more famous residents — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who lived in the alley for a short while between 1764-5 while aged 8 years old. It was here that he met Johann Christian Bach and composed his first symphony. He was nearly orphaned, though, as his father had a near-fatal illness while staying in London.

By 1799, Cecil Court was clearly defined as a building-lined passageway and had also been given its name. Note that the entrances were quite narrow at the time, with the central space wider than the entrances.

R Horwood map 1799

A picture of the shops lining the south side of Cecil Court in 1883 is here, and a painting said to be from 1892 (but was painted earlier) is here.

By the 1880s, the buildings lining Cecil Court were, despite their external appearance, internally in a very poor state of repair. The London Star newspaper described “Lord Salisbury’s rookeries” as a disgrace to the city and that the police were being used to keep people away from Cecil Court in case a building collapsed on them.

This was all going on while Lord Salisbury was Prime Minister, and eventually, the pressure on him to act grew, and he finally, in 1885, he took action.

The passageway was extensively rebuilt with two mansion blocks of shops with flats and offices above, Burleigh Mansions and Charing Cross Mansions on either side. That’s also when the narrow entrances were widened to the full width of the passageway as well, giving us the alleyway that we have today.

Goad’s insurance maps – sheets 188 and 193 combined

Although today associated with books and antiquarians, Cecil Court was once at the cutting edge of technology, as the home to a large number of early film companies. It became known as Flicker Alley when some 40 companies involved in making films were based there. For a while, pretty much anyone who was involved in cinemas would have had an office in Cecil Court.

However, the filmmakers moved out, and booksellers, looking for a new home after the original “Booksellers’ Row” in Holywell Street, were made homeless when that street was demolished — moved in, creating “New Booksellers’ Row”.

They’ve been here ever since.

One of the myths about the alley is that it inspired Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, which J. K. Rowling has repeatedly denied, saying in 2020 that it’s not based on any real place. Lots of people still come to visit, and that seems to annoy the shopkeepers, judging by this rather irate notice placed outside one of the shops.

It seems to me a rather unfortunate approach. Yes, I am sure the clusters of twig-wielding visitors are a bit of a nuisance at times, but you have two choices – to embrace the opportunity or be seen as a grumpy old man.

The chances that any of the visitors will buy anything are negligible, but the chances that they mention the fabulous shops filled with old books, banknotes, and coins to their friends are high—and some of those friends will visit and may buy things. I worked in retail, and often, word-of-mouth recommendations will lead to sales in the future.

However, the main memory people will leave with now is of a curmudgeonly and unwelcoming place that shouldn’t be visited again.

It’s a slightly sour way to end a visit to Cecil Court.

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11 comments
  1. Serena says:

    I don’t imagine Harry Potter fans will be the slightest bit interested in the secondhand, antique and collectable bookstores, or art galleries, in Cecil Court, so why would anyone worry what they think about curmudgeonly shopkeepers?! There is no need to humour illiterate tourists.

    • ianVisits says:

      Apart from your rather odd assumption that Harry Potter fans wouldn’t be interested in history or art – you ignored the rest of my point about word of mouth about this marvelous enclave of heritage being passed on to friends who might be interested in shopping there.

  2. Hazel Morgan says:

    My family has much affection for Cecil Court with its ballet bookshop and a music shop which can sometimes provide music scores you can’t get anywhere else. 🎵♥️

  3. Phil says:

    In the mid to late 1960s when that part of London was largely deserted on Sundays my dad used to take me exploring in this are and over to the City. I remember there being a shop in Cecil Court that appeared to be full of antiquities (not antiques) from Europe and the Middle east. The thing that sticks in my mind is what appeared to be a “mummy” case. The shop mave have rented out props like the one that used to be in England’s Lane in Belsize Park. But to me they were real.

  4. John A says:

    Cecil Court is home to Watkins Bookshop.
    If you know, you know…😁

  5. Ry says:

    The Cecil Court shopkeepers take pride in their little tucked-away corner of Central London (whilst also doing their best to accommodate the tourist groups alongside their regular visitors by carrying a few token memorabilia items, such as the case with Watkins Books, established in 1893 and the oldest esoteric bookshop in London). A bit of a shame that one sole gentleman’s response to the tourist groups that gaggle through Cecil Court every day has brought down your entire opinion of what is a wonderful, unique alleyway filled with charming, independent shops full of friendly people who know many customers by sight if not also by name. All the people I’ve spoken with in the alleyway have always been a lovely, warm ( sometimes eccentric) bunch!

  6. simhedges says:

    “It seems to me a rather unfortunate approach. Yes, I am sure the clusters of twig-wielding visitors are a bit of a nuisance at times, but you have two choices – to embrace the opportunity or be seen as a grumpy old man.”

    Well, perhaps I am a grumpy old man, but I love that notice, and would very much like to see a similar one put up in Victoria Street in Edinburgh (another place that looks nothing like Diagon Alley, but which is claimed by tour guides to be an “inspiration” for it).

  7. Chris Rogers says:

    Shame Motor Books I think it was closed, that had a beasement crammed literally with aviation books.

  8. Alan Simpson says:

    I too miss Motor Books. When I worked near Trafalgar Square (1997-2013), Motor Books was a regular lunchtime haunt.

  9. Anja Edwards says:

    Quite a rude sign in my opinion. Surely the ‘grumpy old man’ could have come up with something a little kinder, or more delicately phrased. Unfortunately I didn’t notice the sign last time I visited, or I might have mentioned how it reminded me of the ‘old’ Foyle’s.

  10. Patrick says:

    RB Kitaj, who was greatly inspired by literature, painted “Cecil Court, London W.C.2. (The Refugees)” in the Tate collection.
    Though like many of this paintings, it is rather difficult to decipher.

    https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/kitaj-cecil-court-london-w-c-2-the-refugees-t04115

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