This is a winding narrow passageway through Clerkenwell that borders a notorious prison and site of a terrorist attack.
The north side of the alley is dominated by a tall old wall, and this was the southern boundary of the House of Detention, a particularly notorious prison built at the turn of the 19th-century as a replacement for older prisons on the site. It gained the name of the House of Detention in 1847 following rebuilding work.
The rear of the prison gained fame in December 1867 when an attempt to rescue a Fenian arms dealer, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, but the explosion was badly designed and the blast killed twelve bystanders and wounded 120 in the road behind the prison. The event became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, and lead to the last public execution in the UK, when Michael Barrett was hanged outside Newgate Prison in May 1868.
The House of Detention itself was demolished by more conventional means in 1890, and the site was taken over by the Hugh Myddleton School. The school closed in 1971, was a Further Education College, and then at the turn of the Millenium, the site was converted into flats. Underneath the flats though, are the remains of the prison’s basement, a series of brick-vaulted rooms, and these are now used for corporate events.
Back to the passageway though, it was likely originally called Short’s Buildings, after the row of buildings on the southeastern side of the passage, and was renamed Sans Walk around the time of the closure of the prison and opening of the school, when it was felt a more wholesome name was required. In the end, it was named after the oldest Vestryman at nearby St James Church, Edward Sans, with the decision agreed by the London County Council on 24th July 1893 (Islington Gazette).
On the eastern corner of Sans Walk is a new row of flats built around 2008/10, sitting on a plot known as the Rosemary School Annexe, but had been a school for deaf children.
Opposite, on the side wall of the houses, is a stone engraved with a notice that the wall “is the entire property of the County of Middlesex”. Further down is a row of former warehouse buildings, now converted into flats and offices.
In the middle is the new entrance to the school now flats, and called Kingsway Place – named after an old road that used to run in the area, and presumably sounding smarter than naming flats as houses of detention, although I think I would prefer the older name. It would undeniably be far more interesting as an address.
Opposite the former school is a modern block of flats with a round tower on the corner for the stairs, and this is Priory House, which is a block of sheltered housing built in 1997 and owned by the charity arm of the Worshipful Company of Mercers.
Further down is an impressive brick house with no windows at all on the street side, and this is the former chief warder’s house for the prison, hence no windows facing outwards just in case a prisoner tried to get inside and use it to get over the wall. It was later used for the school keeper.
The passageway ends in a couple of former industrial buildings that have been sympathetically restored and are now used as offices.