This is a dingy back alley filled with rubbish bins, but also a fishmonger and oh so many extractor chimneys for the many Chinese restaurants that fill this part of London.
The alley and much of this part of Chinatown is the result of speculative property development in the 1670s-80s on a plot of open land known as the Military Grounds. The Military Company was probably set up around 1615, as a volunteer militia that leased land in the fields that were at the time on the edge of London for their activities.
In 1661, the Royalist supporter, Charles Gerard, 1st Earl of Macclesfield paid £500 to buy the land, although it took until 1676 to secure the full title to the land due to disputes. He promptly leased the entire site to the famous property developer Nicholas Barbon to develop as housing.
The area shows up as a part-finished housing development in William Morgan’s map of London made in 1682, when finished, it was laid out as a stable yard that ran through the block of housing, and would have originally given entry to back gardens that used to exist down here.
As the land was owned by Charles Gerard, that’s how Gerrard Street and Macclesfield Street got their names.
Off-topic, but interesting, is that upon the restoration of the monarchy, Charle Gerard was appointed the Remembrancer of First-Fruits and Tenths, which was basically a tax collector on the church, and later those funds were used by the government to support poor clergy as Queen Anne’s Bounty. Today the legacy of that still exists, as part of the Church Commissioners.
Back though to the alley, and by the 18th Century, the alley had been named “George Yard” and served the nearby George and Dragon Inn. After the Inn was demolished in the late 19th Century to make way for the formation of Shaftesbury Avenue, “George Yard” was renamed “Dansey Place” and has remained largely unchanged since then.
In the 19th century, the alley gained a certain aroma, as there was a public urinal in the middle of the yard. Today that function is performed by drunken men hiding behind the waste bins late at night.
At one time though, the urinal had a certain reputation with gay men, and thanks to its proximity to theatre land and the stereotype about actors, men didn’t even need to do anything to be arrested, just look like they might be gay.
Another occupant that only recently departed was the legendary Lo’s Noodle Factory, which was renowned for their rice noodles and buns, sold mainly to restaurants, but if you felt brave, they were open to the public. They moved out to Canning Town in 2019, and their former factory turned into an electricity substation.
The alley is pretty much as it has been for several decades, a back passage filled with the residues of the shops and restaurants that back onto it. A dingy smelly overflow that the tourists are not encouraged to visit.
There is some talk of revamping the alley to make it more welcoming to visitors by encouraging more of the restaurants that face the main Gerrard Street to open by their backs, and by hiding all the rubbish bins behind a wall.
Whatever is done, the overwhelming appearance of a back alley providing the necessary, if unsavoury, infrastructure for the many restaurants and shops of this busy part of London is unlikely to change too much.
And keeping some of the dark underbellies of society functioning is a good thing.