One of the best hidden of the City’s alleys can be found through a small gap in a corner laying within a small maze of other alleys.
This is Bengal Court, the modern name for an ancient alley. Two narrow gaps in the walls open up to a larger space that was once filled with shops and warehouses, but today lined with offices.
The exact origins of the alley are lost in the mists of time, but the area has long been a market place for London. It sits within the London Ward of Langbourn, which suggests a market place where goods were laid out on long boards or trestles.
The area later became famous for its banks and its coffee-houses, the most notable later to give rise to Lloyds of London.
The line of this particular alley pretty much lines up with the old Parish boundaries, give or take, and that may be the origins of the alignment, although maps of the time tend to have a certain variance with reality.
It shows up on maps as an unnamed passage as early as 1682 in William Morgan’s map of London. It is named as White Lyon Alley in John Rocque’s map, of 1746, although by then it was almost certainly called White Lion Court.
At some point in the 19th century, it changed its name to Bengal Court. This appears to be thanks to a pub that sat within the alley the Bengal Arms Tavern, originally listed “dining rooms” by an 1882 directory, and later as the “Cornhill Restaurant”, although it is marked as a public house on the 1916 Ordnance Survey map.
On the corner is the locally famous George and Vulture restaurant, formerly one of London’s famous coffee and chop houses.
It is mentioned at least 20 times in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, who frequently drank there himself. The George and Vulture has been the headquarters of the City Pickwick Club since its foundation. When it was threatened with demolition, Cedric Charles Dickens, the author’s great-grandson, campaigned to save it.
Since 1950 it has been the home of his Dickens Pickwick Club and, in the same year, it became the venue for the Christmas Day Dickens family gathering, in the Dickens Room.
Finally, there is a remarkable photo on the Collage website that shows a once popular but now now long-lost method of increasing the amount of daylight getting into rooms overlooking narrow alleys — the polished wooden shutters that reflected sunlight into the rooms.
Today we have electric lamps, so the shutters are long since vanished, which is a pity as they are quite delightful.