This winding passage snakes around a cluster of alleys in the City and is probably more famous for the former coffee house that can be found here. The name though, doesn’t come from the coffee house, but from the church that sits on the northern corner of the alley, St Michael, Cornhill.
This is one of the oldest parishes in the City of London, predating the Norman Conquest, although naturally, the church on the site today is somewhat younger, being a post Great Fire of London rebuild and later embellished in the 19th century.
The embellishment in the 19th century was triggered by a demand from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for money from the Drapers Company, who held the patronage of the parish unless money was spent on the church – so they spent it decorating the church instead. That’s why there’s a gothic revival stone surrounding the main entrance to the church, which is historically totally out of keeping with the rest of the building.
The church is also indirectly responsible for the layout of the alleys in the area.
It’s possible to start to see the layout of the alleys appear in Tudor times, as the alleys were starting to form new boundaries around the church’s lands, and by the 1670s, the area is fully built up with the alleys clearly defined with their current layout.
However, the names have changed a bit. Initially, it seemed that St Michael’s Alley was just the short north/south lane running alongside the church, but today, it includes the east/west alignment as well. That was originally Castle Court, and it seems that the renaming took place comparatively recently, possibly just after WWII.
If you walk down the alley past the church, you’ll come upon the Jamaica Wine House, which says it was the first coffee house in London. The coffee house opened in 1652 as the Pasqua Rosee’s Head, and the proprietor, Pasqua Rosee, was a servant working for Daniel Edwards, a coffee importer, who helped his employee set up the coffee house.
He was a good publicist, printing handbills to promote his new coffee house, advertising coffee as being able to prevent and cure the dropsy, gout and scurvy, as well as scrofula, miscarriages and as a most excellent remedy against the spleen, hypocondriack winds and the like.
Timing helped – as the coffee shop was set up when London was strongly puritan and frowning on anything fun, including wine and beer, coffee was seen as a suitable alternative to decadent drunkenness.
The coffee house was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt by a different owner as the Jamaica Coffee House. The current building dates from the 19th century, and the earliest reference I can find to it being called a wine house instead of a coffee house is 1934.
The rest of the alley folds around the back of the church, and is pleasantly open to the skies as the church graveyard is still here, so there’s a patch of nature in the midst of all these buildings. A squirrel was sitting on a stone wall on my visit and amusing several people walking past. It almost seemed frozen to the spot, maybe from fear, but it “woke up” fairly quickly and seemed friendly when I approached.
The alley has a number of small side passages leading off to other alleys, which makes the layout seem complicated, but in truth, it’s mainly a loop around the back of the ancient church, with tiny blobs around the edges.