This is an exceptionally short stump of an alley on Old Street that resembles a post-war gap where a house wasn’t rebuilt until you spot the street name sign and realise it’s the remains of a once slightly longer passage.

The alley first appeared in the 1680s as a gap between the houses facing Old Street (called Rotten Row) leading to the empty fields to the north. At the time, it seems to have been called simply Cow Court, and another alley nearby was later added and called Red Cow Alley.

John Roque’s map 1746

There’s a bit of a gap in the information, but by the 1890s, the current name and layout of a small passage called Red Cow Yard had emerged.

Goad’s Insurance map 1888

The alley nearly vanished after WWII as the whole area was flattened by post-war clearance, and the only building left standing was right next to the alley, which probably saved it from being lost underneath the rebuilding of the area. So we have a patch of Old Street that is entirely post-war rebuilding, except for the one solitary corner building right next to this alley.

OS Map 1944

The building is a large warehouse that replaced a row of low-rise terraced buildings at some point between 1922-42, and you can see the old houses and the gap for Red Cow Yard here.

The warehouse was refurbished in 2018 as open plan offices and a ground floor showroom, gaining two floors in height. Comparing the before and after images shows a relatively clever way of adding the extra floors. There was a ground floor, two floors with large windows and a smaller top floor. In effect, they lifted the top floor one storey to create three main floors and then added a modern-looking mansard floor above — so it looks as if just one modern floor was added, not two.

The other side of the alley is a mid-1950s office block constructed by Islington council as a purpose-built development, although it was converted into a live-work series of apartments in the 1990s.

But why is it called Red Cow Yard?

There were in fact a lot of red cows in London – showing up variously as Red Cow Yard, Red Cow Alley and Red Cow Court, and all in the vicinity of the Smithfield meat market.

It’s possible that the name could be related to the red Angus and similar red-haired cattle that would be brought to the market for slaughter and sale. A less likely but possible derivation is from a red heifer, a female cow that has never been pregnant, milked, or yoked. The latter might be supported indirectly by red cows being linked with the Clerkenwell workhouse, where there were references to red cow milk.

There’s no conclusive answer – but the collection of red cow passages around the meat market at least leans strongly towards the name being related to literal cows rather than metaphorical ones.


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