The lane is one of the earlier London roads to be laid out, and the area shows up as fully developed by the 1300s, with houses along the lane, and St Swithin’s church at the southern end.
The church was first recorded in the 13th century and was dedicated to Saint Swithin, the 9th-century bishop of Winchester famous for the folklore that if it rains on 15th July (St. Swithun’s day), it will rain for forty days.
The church was rebuilt a couple of times until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Rebuilt to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, it sat in a prominent location on the corner of St Swithin’s Lane and Cannon Street, with the famous London Stone mounted in a niche on the wall.
The church was badly damaged during WWII and finally demolished in 1961, to be replaced with a shop and office, and that 1960s building was itself replaced a few years ago. The London Stone was restored as part of the development of the modern office block.
Going back to medieval times though, another of the early named occupants of the lane was the Drapers’ Company, a grouping of merchants, who were formalised as a guild in 1361, and granted a monopoloy over the drapery trade in 1364 by King Edward III. By this, they came to set pricing and trade standards such as the measure known as the “Drapers’ ell” by which all cloth was sold, and to oversee the training of apprentice drapers.
In the 1420s, the increasing wealth of the Drapers company, saw them wanting to move their meetings from renting rooms to their own hall, and that opened on St Swithins Lane in 1430. In the 1540s, they bought Thomas Cromwell’s former house from King Henry VIII, and sublet their old hall in St Swithins Lane, until the Great Fire of London burnt it down.
Another occupant of the lane was also a trade guild, the Salters’ Company, which managed the trade in salt, at a time when it was an exceptionally expensive product. They also wanted their own hall, and in 1645 bought a large plot of land behind the shops lining the lane and built a large hall.
Which was burnt down shortly after they completed it. It took until 1668 to build another hall to replace it, and then enlarged in 1827. Their hall was destroyed during WWII, and after the war, the land was sold to the City of London under compulsory purchase order in 1949.
The area was badly damaged during WWII, with St Swithins Church demolished, and about half the shops and offices along the lane also reduced to ruins.
One of the largest ruined sites along the lane was the City Carlton Club. Confusingly, although it was a club for people who supported conservative policies, it was nothing to do with the much more famous Carlton Club, which is still a mainstay of conservative politicians.
Today, if approaching the alley from the southern end, there’s the modern office with the London Stone in it, and opposite it is a richly decorated mid-19th century building, and do look around the window sills on the ground floor where there are painted rams heads supporting the windows.
The alley as you pass along is a mix of Edwardian offices and post-war rebuilds and some shops in older Victorian buildings. Do notice the mosaic tiles that still survive in front of some of the shops.
Do take a detour at the sign of the dark man, the logo of Sandeman’s port. George Sandeman, a wine merchant moved to this location in 1805 and became a major importer of Port. The famous image of The Don was created in 1928 of a dark figure wearing a Spanish hat and Portuguese student’s cape, by George Massiot-Brown.
The company moved out in 1969, but the logo remains hanging over the side passage.
Down this passage is something worth looking for though, and that’s an old crane that hangs off a side wall. Known as a Capital Crane, it was installed when Sandemans moved into the alley in 1805 and was in constant use to lower cargo into the cellars until they moved out. It’s now listed and preserved on site. Arguably, the combination of heritage and obscure location makes it the highlight of a visit to the alley.
Further north, the alley widens thanks to a modern office development, New Court. This is the headquarters of the Rothschild investment Bank, and is the fourth building on the site. It’s significant in finance history as this is where the global price of gold was set between 1919 and 2004. The current building is to a design by architect Rem Koolhaas of OMA and was completed in 2011. You may notice a grand coat of arms hanging from the ceiling, the coat of arms of the Rothschild family. The Latin phrase is Concordia, Integritas, Industria, which translates as ‘harmony, integrity, industry’.
Sadly, on my visit to look at the covered courtyard, a security guard came out and told me to leave as it’s private, even though there are none of the usual signs to indicate that.
After that, I needed a glass of port to relax.