Long before Dr Johnson arrived, there was a Johnson’s Court – a long alley that sliced between long deep buildings fronting onto Fleet Street. This winding alley and courtyard weave its way around an area that’s rich in alleys creating a mini-maze of passages to explore.
John Strype’s 1720 Survey described Johnson’s Court, as “hath but a narrow entrance, but opens into a square Court, with a Freestone Pavement, and good Houses, well inhabited.”
Some 300 years later and entry to the alley from Fleet Street is still through a narrow gap between two post-war offices, one being Hulton House, commissioned by the magazine publisher Edward Hulton. The main block that the passage wraps around was known as Anderton’s Hotel, then after WW2 as Bouverie House, a rather bland slab of office that fronts onto Fleet Street.
Do look up as you go in, as there’s a plaque to the right marking the centenary of the meeting of the British Institute of Professional Photography, which took place on this site in 1901.
The alley within is that typical space of a long line of buildings of a mix of old and new, with modern glass and brick blending with old stone or plaster renders, and in place, a very 1980s use of brown tiles clad over an older building.
A hidden delight down here though is the large open courtyard which is a delight to sit in on sunny days, shielded from the noise of the city roads. The fountain seems unreliable on my visits, so on some occasions, a lot more seating is available than on other days.
Slip through some modern brick arches and more older buildings and a return to the narrow weaving nature of this part of town, a realm of fire escapes and old offices.
One of the quirks of the alley though is that it’s famous for something that’s not there – Dr Johnson’s House.
Although there are plenty of signs in Johnson’s Court pointing you to Dr Johnson’s House, that building is actually in Gough Square. This makes the presence of a sign in the alley itself saying it’s the site of Dr Johnson’s House an oddity, however, Dr Johnson moved around a lot — and while he lived in the museum building between 1748 and 1759, he had to move out, and at one time rented a since-demolished house in what is today Johnson’s Court.
However, the surviving 1700s building he lived in is how you end a walk through Johnson’s Alley — at the building he lived in, next to the alley that was called Johnson long before he arrived.