This is a narrow passageway off bustling Whitehall leading to a large quiet courtyard and is reputed to be the location for a secret tunnel, and a parliamentary mishap.
The alley, just to the south of modern-day Trafalgar Square was originally the site of the Hermitage of St Katherine. The hermitage seems to have existed by 1253, but the actual date it was formed is unknown, as is its eventual closure, but the last record seems to be around 1610.
The land was variously being developed, and Craig’s Court was built towards the end of the seventeenth century by Joseph Craig, a vestryman of the London parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields on land that he already owned and another land that was sold to Joseph “Cragg” by William Waad in 1695.
It was originally named Craggs’s Court and is labelled Crag’s Court on John Rocque’s map of 1747. It is labelled Craig’s Court on R Horwood’s map of 1799 which is its current name.
The most impressive building to see down here is Harrington House, which is thought, if not proven, to have been built by Joseph Craig, and he may also have lived in the house for a while.
The grand-looking building remained in the Craig family until the early 1800s, when it was leased out to a number of tenants, gaining its name of Harrington House when the 7th Earl of Harrington, moved there in 1867/8.
The current owners brought the building in 1925, along with the building that stands on the north corner of the court – and both were combined into a single building behind their original facades. The buyer is significant, as it was the Postmaster General, which was the government office in charge of telecoms, and today the building is still owned by British Telecom as a telephone exchange.
Telephone exchanges are not usually tourist attractions, but thanks to the historic nature of the building, it was opened to the public for a weekend in June 1953 as part of the Coronation celebrations and had over 2,000 people wander in for a look. That’s unlikely to happen again this year though. Alas.
The telephone exchange gained a bit of unexpected publicity in April 1958, when the IRA attempted to detonate a bomb outside it, but the terrorist was spotted while trying to plant his bomb and fled the scene.
It is rumoured that this is also an access point for the secretive Q-Whitehall tunnel underneath Whitehall that was created during WWII for use as a telephone exchange, and is said to still be in use.
A former bank building in the passageway is now a pub, plus ca change, known as Walkers of Whitehall, and there’s still grand bank decoration in the basement seating area.
The other pub associated with the alley, on the corner with Whitehall is the Silver Cross, and although it looks like an old pub, is fairly modern. For example, in the 1970s, it was a branch of a travel agents, The Transport Ferry Service, which was set up after WWII using former military tank-landing craft to operate one of the first Roll-on/roll-off ferry services from the United Kingdom to continental Europe.
There’s a story attached to the narrow passage that leads to the courtyard, and it says that a former Speaker of the House of Commons, Arthur Onslow rode in a carriage to Harrington House, but the lack of kerbstones meant his carriage got stuck, and in the end, the Speaker was ungainly rescued by cutting a hole in the roof of the carriage.
As a result, the Speaker is said to have lobbied hard to support the 1762 Westminster Paving Act which removed the responsibility of maintaining the paving in front of buildings from the owner to a government commission.
Now there’s no doubt that the 1762 act did that, and that he was a remarkably long-serving Speaker of the House of Commons. However, he wasn’t Speaker when this particular law was passed, and even if he was, there’s the principle of political neutrality for the Speaker, and he would never have been lobbying for a law to be passed.
However, let’s assume all that happened, and the carriage was stuck, if the passage was too narrow to let him open the door and he had to be extracted through the roof, then a pavement wouldn’t have made a jot of difference to his predicament.
The law that was passed didn’t even call for pavements to be added, only dealt with who was to maintain the existing pavements, and standardised the quality of them.
It’s a nice story, but one that when you think about it, doesn’t quite add up.