This is a narrow alley off Ludgate Hill that dates back to the Great Fire of London, and leads to one of London’s livery halls.
The Stationers’ Company is one of the older of the City’s livery companies, and as early regulators of the printing industry had a long history in publishing and newspapers and copyright.
The company is a bit over 600 years old, but it was Queen Mary who, in 1557 granted them their formal charter and a monopoly on printing in London. Monopolies were often handed out by monarchs, so not that unusual, except that this one went further than most.
While now only a member of the Company could publish anything, the Company was also required to regulate what was printed. The Catholic monarch was not keen on Protestant leaflets, so the Stationers were ordered to censor any publications, and if unauthorised leaflets were produced, to destroy them, and have the printer arrested. Which in those days could be terminal for the printer.
These powers to censor what was published, and grant the right to make copies (copy-right) to printers lasted until 1710. During this period though, the fees the Stationers earned from issuing rights to copy allowed them to buy a large livery hall.
In 1606, they picked on a manor house, Abergavenny House from the estate of the late Henry Nevill, 6th Baron Bergavenny and started converting it into a livery hall. At the time, it’s likely that the building was accessed off the side road, Ave Maria Lane, as there’s no record of a passage leading from Ludgate Hill.
Unfortunately for the Stationers, shortly after conversion work finished, the new livery hall was burnt down in the Great Fire of London, which also laid waste to all the buildings that surrounded it. After the fire, the area was rebuilt, and it seems likely that’s when the alley first appeared. However, it was known at the time as Cock Alley and only reached as far as the small courtyard that existed outside the main Hall.
In 1676, the courtyard was known as the Inner Court, to separate it from the Outer Court which was the larger separate courtyard surrounded by printers workshops.
The William Morgan Map records the Outer Court as already being renamed as Stationers’ Rents, and later as Stationers Court.
By 1815, Cock Alley and the Inner Court were jointly known as Stationers Alley, but was renamed again as Stationers’ Hall Court following rebuilding work in 1800 that saw Stationer’s Hall expanded. It’s likely that the Outer Court vanished at around this time as well, as a larger block of offices was built next to the Hall, and an archway opened up onto Ave Maria Lane.
During WW2, sadly all of the buildings on the eastern side of the court were totally destroyed, and the Hall itself was hit by an incendiary bomb which badly damaged the interior of the Court Room.
When the site was rebuilt after the war, what had been a small courtyard outside Stationers’ Hall was enlarged considerably to the open space that it has today. The old archway was retained, although through a modern building, so although much altered, the alley still follows roughly the path laid out after the Great Fire of London.
They recently discovered during planing for refurbishment works that the large courtyard sits on top of a low-level undercroft. Too small, and damp to be of practical use today, but even large open spaces you think you know well can reveal hidden depths.