This short rather plain-looking passageway is actually a remnant of a longer alley that can be traced back at least to medieval London, at a time when there was a large fish market next to where the alley’s northern end is today.
Known generally as the West Fish Market, Ekwall notes that “another name-form [for Old Fish Street] is Westpiscaria”; ‘Piscaria’ or ‘Pisconaria’ meaning ‘the Fish-Market’ and the ‘West-’ affix being a “distinction from the fish-market on the London Bridge”. Meanwhile, Carlin and Belcher suggest that Old Fish Street may have been called, in 1252, “the west fish market”.
The alley used to run from Distaff Lane, which is still there but was originally called Fish Street, down to what is today Upper Thames Street.
There’s a possibility that it may have originally been called Baggardses Lane but was certainly known as Fish Street Hill by Tudor times. It seemed to gain the Old, as in Old Fish Street Hill sometime in the 17th-18th-century, as it’s marked as such in the Horwood Map of 1799.
The alley would probably be pretty much the same, if it wasn’t for the Victorians, who drove a wide new road through this part of London, cutting right through the middle of Old Fish Street Hill with Queen Victoria Street. What was left was a tiny runt of the alley to the north, and a renamed passage to the south, Lambeth Hill, and that had its route changed after WW2 bombing flattened this part of London.
What’s there today is a short alley that passes between an old church and a modern office block.
The church that the alley runs past the back of is St Nicholas Cole Abbey, which despite its name is not an Abbey. It’s St Nicholas church, and the name “Cole Abbey” is derived from “coldharbour”, a medieval word for a traveller’s shelter or shelter from the cold.
The earliest reference to the church is in a letter of Pope Lucius II in 1144–5, and the church is named after St Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of fishermen, which is apt as it sat next to that original fish market. John Stow records that, during the reign of Elizabeth I, a lead and stone cistern, fed by the Thames, was set up against the north wall of the church “for the care and commodity of the Fishmongers in and about Old Fish Street”.
The church was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, and again partially rebuilt when Victoria Street was built beside it to move the entrance and open up new windows to the south.
During the early years of steam trains on the Underground, a vent shaft next to the church so covered it in smoke that the church became known as “St Nicholas Cole Hole Abbey”. The church was however gutted on 10th May 1941 during the worst air raid of WW2, when 1,436 people were killed along with the destruction of large swathes of London. The church remained a ruin for over a decade, but was finally rebuilt and reconsecrated in May 1962.
On the other side of the alley is Bracken House, built in 1955-58 as the headquarters for the Financial Times, and although they moved out in the 1980s, they recently moved back in again, so it’s once again the FT’s offices in London.
It was the construction of Bracken House that preserved the alignment of the alley, as the area was so badly damaged by the war, that pretty much anything could have happened to the old alley alignment.
At the rear of Bracken House is an open courtyard to sit in, which itself sits on top of the basement space used to house plant work for the office. The plant equipment needs ventilation, and if you look under the stone seating, you’ll see grills for the hot air to escape. Which is probably quite pleasant in the winter months.