This concealed alley and courtyard in Soho looks like a twee cottage courtyard that’s been around for decades but is actually a fairly recent conversion because until 2010 most of the cafes that now fill the space were garages for cars.
It’s also a bit confusing namewise.
Officially, Smith’s Court is the open passage running off Great Windmill Street and the courtyard at the end. There’s also a covered passage linking the courtyard to busy Brewer Street which is the main entrance used by pedestrians. However, that covered passage is officially called Farriers Passage.
For simplicity, I will deal with them together as today they form the same development.
Smith’s Court appears to have been built along with the development of the area, and shows up clearly marked on John Roque’s map of 1746. The name leaves little to the imagination, and yes it was a backspace for stables and smithies. Likewise, the adjoining Farriers Passage is a reference to the shoeing of horses.
Trawling old maps shows that structurally, hardly anything changed from when Smith’s Court was first built right up to recent times.
Horsey affairs carried on right up to the advent of the motorcar, and a look at Goad’s Insurance maps shows that in the 1880s, the south side of the main alley was still lined with stables, while the north side, which has today been fenced off was a “Hospital for horses” At the end of the alley, where today there’s a big sign for the shops was a shed for carts. And inside the courtyard, the space was mainly occupied by cabinet makers and leather workers.
While the usage has changed over the centuries, the street and alley layout is largely unchanged and a good 300 years old.
One use that has fortunately fallen out of favour cropped up in 1968 when a suspected police informer was attacked by criminal gangs and was found in one of the garages nailed to the wall. He survived somehow.
Although it’s a recent conversion from garages into cafes, the attempt to do the work actually dates all the way back to 1993 when planning permission was granted for the conversion work. That was withdrawn in 2002 though after problems with the plans emerged.
The property owner was back again in 2010 with an amended design, which is what we have today. Most of the changes were to deal with anti-social behaviour in the area, so the courtyard now has lockable gates, and the recess on the open alley that had been the old horse hospital and was now used as a motorbike park, and at night a dark nook for illicit nookie, has been fenced off.
The courtyard was repaved with york-stone and the new shops fronted with muted wood decorations to give it that cottagey feel. Do look in one corner where an old iron spiral staircase has been retained and looking marvellous for it.
While all very nice, one change that irks me is the moving of the apostrophe.
The alley and courtyard’s official name is Smith’s Court, and that’s always been its name, but the developer has decided to call it Smiths’ Court, so it’s no longer a court owned by the Smiths, but a court that belonged to lots of people called Smith.