This is a short grim dank smelly alley behind Leicester Square more notable for the rubbish bins pilled up inside it, and yet, it has a long and sometimes unexpected history.

The alley first shows up in the 1740s when the area was developed with Leicester Fields where the Square is today, and the alley was likely a way of providing rear access to the houses and workshops around it.

The alley itself is named after Samuel Hunt, a highly regarded late 17th-century carpenter who was based in a workshop on the location of the alley today. Not much else seems to be known about it until the late 19th-century when it can be seen clearly in Goad’s Insurance Maps as a short alley with a covered entrance above the front of the alley.

It got its current layout though mainly in the early 20th century, when the large theatre to the south and the smaller buildings to the north were both demolished within a couple of decades of each other.

The north side of the alley is today flats above a shop, that replaced a long-standing cinema that has been there since 1910, and only closed in 1988. It opened as the Cinema de Paris with an entrance to the north but was rebuilt just a few years later with a new grander entrance on Charing Cross Road. It seemed to change its name every few years, from Cinema de Paris to Cameo Cinema to Cameo Revudenews to Cameo Royal, at which point it became an adult cinema. More name changes took place until it was demolished in 1989, and the flats were built on the site.

The southern office block is Alhambra House and was an office block until a few years ago, but is now the Assembly Hotel, having been converted just before the pandemic struck. Alhambra House itself is named after the famous theatre which stood on this location in 1845-1936, when it was replaced with the Odeon cinema that faces onto Leicester Square, with Alhambra House built behind the cinema facing onto Charing Cross Road.

The demolition of the old Alhambra theatre resulted in a very curious lawsuit involving party walls.

When the Cinema de Paris demolished the old buildings to the north side, the wall that separated the former houses above the alley and the theatre was a party wall — essentially they jointly owned half the thickness of the wall each. When the site was cleared, beams were installed at the first floor with the intention at a later date to possibly build above the alley again.

So, what people would see is two buildings, the Alhambra Theatre and the Cinema de Paris separated by an alley, but the theatre wall was still partially owned by the cinema, even though the cinema didn’t touch the wall.

Then came the Odeon Cinema in 1937 with their plans to demolish the old theatre, and they wanted to install larger windows in their side overlooking the alley – on the wall still part-owned by the Cinema de Paris.

For various reasons, Burlington Property, which owned the Cinema de Paris objected to the Odeon’s plans for larger windows, arguing that it would affect their legal rights to the wall, as well as, more practically, possibly affecting their ability to build above the alley at a later date.

The whole thing ended up in court, and eventually to the Court of Appeal, and the Odeon lost — and in doing so set a legal precedent in how party walls were to be treated that still applies today.

Today though, the alley, once lined with workshops and even some flats is a shadow of its former self, being a disgusting back alley filled with bins and refuse, and something flowing on the floor that smelt like an overflowing sewer.

It has hints of former glory in the grand name above the entrance, with the lettering detailed in the railings, but down the alley, it’s lined by entrances and fire escapes from the restaurants around it. Despite the utilitarian use the alley is put to, an architect’s detail can be seen in the arched brickwork on the wall. It could have been a flat wall and I doubt anyone would have complained, but that small detailing in the brickwork, simple as it is, was a delight to see in this otherwise grim space.

But hold your nose if visiting.

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2 comments
  1. SteveP says:

    It does have a certain Je ne sais nothing, doesn’t it?

    I suspect £60 for the Party Wall casebook would be money well spent for many. Our terraced mews house was at the end of the mews and had three adjoiners. One was a house that had been part of a hotel but was then split off during redevelopment to create a £4M standalone house, with the usual lift installation and basement excavation. In order to shore up their excavation, they had to underpin our house. In other words, in order to create space on their plot, they “injected” concrete under ours. (There were no actual “party walls” – there was small air gap, but the law applied).

    Apparently this is allowed, although given the uselessness of the appointed Party Wall Surveyor (they pay) I’m not 100% sure what actually happened. He was so asleep at the wheel I had to threaten to report him to his professional regulator. He then sprang into action {post concrete work) and demanded drawings and samples from the developer. Had he only thought of that earlier.

    To add injury to insult, the developers then tried to attach security cameras and lighting to our rear wall, which overlooked the courtyard of the “new” house. I had to threaten police action this time for trespass as this was not a party wall but rather our demised wall, totally within our plot – just convenient for them to drill into willy-nilly. The charms of life in central London…

    Imagine what happens when you are not home to monitor these cowboys

  2. Hôtel Grand Amour says:

    The arched brickwork you are referring to are actually bricked-in arched windows (you can see the stone window sills). This was an extension to the Cavour Hotel & restaurant, and was a reserved area for VIP guests.
    The building lost the upper two floors due to bomb damage during WWii. It was rebuilt following after.

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