This is an ancient alley of legendary status and about which many myths have been written.
It’s a narrow easy to miss alley, but deep down here is the famous Old Mitre Pub, built in 1546 by the Bishop of Ely for the staff who worked in his mansion house next door, although the current building dates from the 18th Century, with faux-tudor remodeling in the 1930s.
The Bishop owned a lot of land around here, but was forced to lease it to one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites, Sir Christopher Hatton. Like lots of royal favourites he spent lavishly and died, still popular, but also very poor. It is claimed — without any evidence — that a tree that grew where the pub is today was a meeting place of the Queen and Hatton. A chunk of the tree is still in the pub.
It’s a lovely secluded spot that once was the haunt of the local newspaper workers (The Mirror was just across the street), but today is filled more often with lawyers and city folk. As such, it’s closed at weekends.
The alley itself runs pretty much along the line of the old Cloister that would have been part of the Bishop’s residence, and may have managed to survive as a path over the years as the land was redeveloped in the area. That’s more a coincidence as the remains of the Cloisters would have been a natural boundary to have a path alongside.
The first maps to make reference to the alley, which at the time was known as Mitre Court, is Horwood’s of 1799. It was renamed Ely Court at the turn of the 20th century.
Probably the most repeated story about the alley and the pub is that in times past, the City of London police could not enter to arrest someone as it was legally still part of Cambridgeshire. This legend stems from the fact that as the Bishop of Ely once owned the land, his ancient legal authority was inherited by Cambridgeshire Council.
Sorry, but it’s a myth, but one that might have an indirect smidgen of truth in it.
Undeniably, the Bishops of Ely owned the land in this part of London, and they held jurisdiction over it at a time when religious institutions ordered the affairs of their parishioners. However, the Bishops sold the land in 1772 to the Crown, and Ely Place was constructed shortly afterwards.
The local parish that surrounded Ely Place didn’t however seem to take over the affairs of the area, and it was deemed to be extra-parochial — that is outside the authority of the local parish church.
There is a reference to Ely Place being an extra-parochial area in a court proceeding, in that the residents consider themselves to be in St. Andrew’s parish, but are exempt from paying poor-rates as they actually belonged to the Bishop’s Palace.
There is a note in the Police Act of 1829 that Ely Place was extra-parochial, but that was probably because anyone who paid the poor-rate had to pay for the police — and the residents of Ely Place didn’t pay a poor-rate to their local parish.
In 1832, a court heard a case to decide the status of the area. Were the officials of the surrounding area, known as the “Liberty of Saffron-hill, Hatton-garden, and Ely-rents” right to demand rates from the residents of Ely Place.
It was noted in the evidence that when officers of the surrounding liberty were on patrol, they wouldn’t enter Ely Place, and if they attempted to do so, would be turned away. This is important, as the references is to the officers of the liberty, not to the officers of the newly formed Metropolitan Police.
The police could come and go as they liked, but the neighboring parish officials were not welcome.
In fact, there are reports in the news of the police chasing criminals into Ely Place without any hesitation, such as the account of a theft from a draper in May 1848, where the police apprehended the thief in Ely Place.
So the story that London police couldn’t enter the alley because it was controlled by Cambridgeshire police is — sadly — a fake news item in the history broadcast. However, the story will doubtless continue to be told by tour guides to incredulous visitors, and why not — after all, it’s a nice little story.