This is a dank dirty passage that slips in between the London Underground’s former head office and a posh hotel.
With a name like St Ermin, you’re going to expect something religious going on, but, not unlike religions themselves, the origins of the name seem potentially more myth than fact.
It’s generally said that this patch of London was the site of a 12th-century chapel originally built by Henry II in thanks for an Irish monk’s prayers which he believed saved him and his fleet from a stormy death off the French coast. That monk went on to be canonised as St. Ermin.
Except – there isn’t any record of an Irish monk being canonised as St Ermin. There’s a Belgian abbot, Saint Ermin of Lobbes (St. Erminus), who may have been associated with a Norman knight who accompanied William the Conquerer when he came to England. But it’s pushing it a bit to suggest that after years of seeming nothing happening, that King Henry II would suddenly dedicate a chapel to the monk.
A newspaper suggested in 1901 that the origins could be a corruption of St Hermit’s Hill, which was also claimed by the chronicler, John Stow, and while the alley isn’t exactly hilly, it’s in the very flat Thorney Island part of Westminster, and a modest bulge in the ground would have been a hill as far as locals were concerned.
The other difficulty is that the alleyway hasn’t always been called St Ermins.
The alley first shows up as a longer forked passage in William Morgan’s map of London from 1682, but called Dormers Hill on his map, and much less appealingly as Torment Hill in John Roque’s map of 1746.
By 1799, a small branch off the alley is showing up as St Ermins Hill in the R Horwood map, but it’s not clear if that was being applied to the whole alley, or just the branch off it at the time, but it’s certainly applied to the whole alley in the Greenwood map of 1828.
It’s possible that the name was corrupted from something else, or just plain invented in the late 1700s by some romantic fellow who might have known about a Belgian saint. We will likely never know.
Today it’s not a particularly holy alley, being really not much more than a goods access to the two large buildings on either side.
The south side of the alley is dominated by St Ermin’s Hotel. This was originally built as serviced residential flats in 1887-89, but just a few years after it was built it was converted into a hotel, opening in 1899 as St Ermin’s Hotel, and was to later become famous as much for its luxury as for its spies and political plots.
Although the front of the hotel is a grand Queen Anne style building, the back is pretty plain and basic, providing mainly doorways for staff to use to come outside for a smoke.
The other side is more famous for what it looks like on the other side, being 55 Broadway, more famously the art-deco headquarters of the London Underground. At least until recently, it’s now being converted into flats.
It’s not that you’ll find much of the art deco down here either, as it’s mainly some blanked-off windows and a long row of ventilation grills., and if you carry on down the alley to the end where it curves round, then you can get a good look at some bins and a fire escape.
Updated 14th Aug 8:50am – corrected which century Henry II lived in.