This is an ancient lane that used to be much longer but was cut in half thanks to the rebuilding of Farringdon Street next door.
The passageway runs up from Fleet Street and used to be called Poppin’s Alley – originally Popyngay Alley, leading to an open courtyard, called unsurprisingly, Poppin’s Court.
It seems to have come into existence in medieval times, when Fleet Street was being developed, with a line of properties surrounded by fields and a lot of religious establishments. This alley lead to the Abbot of Cirencester’s Inn which was also known as Popinjay Inn, and has been suggested to have been named after a bird on the coat of arms, but I can’t seem to find any proof of that.
Other people had a “popinjay rising” on their crest, so it’s possible that an Abbot had one, I just can’t prove it. Whatever the origins, the alley and court were long associated with the brightly coloured bird.
During the building of the Holborn Viaduct and Farringdon Street, the northern half of the block of buildings that they alley sliced through was itself cut up, and the modern St Bride’s Street appeared.
There was a carving of a parrot over the entrance to the court, but that was lost when the area was flattened for the road building. So away with Poppin’s Court, and the shrunken alley then adopted the name of the court.
However, the apostrophe is itinerant – appearing and disappearing over the years seemingly at a random whim.
It has been suggested, without any concrete facts, just an awful lot of coincidences, that Mary Poppins owes her name and her parrot headed brolly to the alley. The author of Mary Poppins, the Australian writer PL Travers worked as a freelance journalist on Fleet Street and would have probably known the alley and its history. Whether that was the inspiration, however, no one will ever know.
The alley is today a gap between two large buildings, and rather lacking in character. Very clean, very modern, very boring.
The buildings on either side of it are however interesting. To the east is Ludgate House, built in 1872 as the headquarters of Thomas Cook, and is exceptionally richly decorated. To the west is Aitken House, a turn of the millennium repair to a big mistake.
This part of Fleet Street is rightly famous for the 1930s art-deco office built for the Daily Express newspaper. In the mid-1970s though, needing more space, they bought up a load of Victorian buildings next door and built a pale imitation of the original as an extension.
Fortunately, it was demolished in 2000, and while the current office block is rather bland, it restores the balance of the art-deco icon next door, and the blandness of Aitken House makes the Daily Express building stand out even more appealingly.
Something else that was lost is an old pub, which is worth pointing out for the photo, which shows the light deflectors that were often used in narrow passages, but seemed to be very rarely photographed. This is a pity as they would have been commonplace before modern lighting, and I think as charming a street feature as Victorian awnings.
And finally, it’s thought that the alley appears in the Sherlock Holmes tale of the Red-Headed League, under the name of Pope’s Court.