This narrow picturesque alley in Spitalfields looks old and is indeed old, far older than it looks. It follows an ancient line that runs along the southern boundary of the old St Mary Spital priory, and the northern side of the Wodeland pastures.
St Mary Spital was the site of the largest infirmary in medieval London, with a total of 180 beds, and the name itself, spital is an archaic slang form of “hospital.”
Closed down by the dissolution of the monasteries, the southern fields were leased in 1537 to the Fraternyte or Guylde of Artyllary of longebowes, Crossebowes and handegonnes for 297 years, and its from that use that the area gained its name of the Artillery.
They didn’t keep it for that long though, and in 1682, George Bradbury and Edward Noell bought the Artillery Ground for £5,700 with a license to build new houses. They began to develop the area in association with two city merchants, Nicholas Barbon and John Parsons.
It was they who laid out the narrow warren of streets that exist today and delight so many visitors and tourists with this maze-like cluster of old buildings and hipster fashionable shops.
What is today Artillery Passage had a large row of shops or houses built on its north side, and was at the time known as Smock Alley, although when it changed to its current name is unclear.
Today, the buildings that line the narrow passage are mainly narrow-fronted Georgian houses with mansard roofs and retail uses on the ground floor. They are not set back from the street or lane, and form continuous building lines and a clearly defined enclosure to the street.
What adds to the charm of this alley is the details that remain, such as the original panelled front doors and in places the shutters and ironwork.
While the alley could do with a bit of a clean, and the modern bins removed, it’s a delightful piece of history right next to the skyscrapers of Bishopsgate.