This is a small alley just off Fleet Street in the City, but one that’s richly decorated with historic tiles telling the story of the newspaper trade that used to dominate the area.
The alley passes through the long since vanished White Friars monastery that used to occupy this part of London between Fleet Street and the Thames. They were known as the White Friars after the white habit worn by the Carmelite Friars.
Following the dissolution of the friary in November 1538, the land was sold off for development, and by the early 17th century, the area had been claimed as a short-lived ‘Liberty’ outside of the jurisdiction of the City. For a while, the area was known as ‘Alsatia’ (after the disputed continental territory of Alsace), a sanctuary for debtors whose criminality and squalor was notorious. These unusual privileges were repealed in 1697, and it came under the control of the City of London.
While it was liberty outside the control of the City though, it had attracted theatres and outsiders but it slowly deteriorated into a maze of slum housing. There was substantial rebuilding at the end of the 18th century, which is when the current road layout came into existence, and that’s when Magpie Alley can clearly be seen to appear on maps — but in a different location to where it is today.
Magpie Alley used to be to the south of its current location – one block south, but that block, occupied by The Daily News, was destroyed during WWII, and during later rebuilding, the alley shifted northwards to its current location.
The main occupant to the south side of the alley now is Northcliffe House, the former home of the Daily Mail newspaper until they moved out in the late 1980s for their home in Kensington.
What turns this fairly short covered alley into something really interesting though is the decoration on the wall – which tells the history of printing and newspapers in this part of London. The panels were added in 2001, as part of a 1990s planning agreement to rebuild the former Daily Mail printing house into conventional offices.
The panels tell the history of printing, from Wynkyn de Worde’s decision to move Caxton’s printing press from Westminster to the City of London through the huge surge in printing that took place as handwritten scribes switched to printing presses and the rise of the newspapers in this part of the city.
The text in the tiles largely comes from A Farewell to Fleet Street, by Susie Barson and Andrew Saint, published by English Heritage.
Northcliffe House is currently being refurbished and expanded, and part of the agreement will see Magpie Alley given a bit of a clean up and new lighting added to improve the historic tiles along the wall.
The alley’s name came from the Magpie Pub, which took on Whitefriars Street, which is where Magpie Alley used to be before it was moved northwards in the early 20th century.
Something else worth seeking out when visiting the alley is a basement space at the courtyard end of the alley that contains the remains of part of the White Friar’s monastery, and there’s a large glass wall to look through and see it, and then head a bit further along Ashentree Court to see metal plates in the wall with photos of the Daily Mail printing presses that used to rumble in the basement below.