This short alley next to Leicester Square is undeniably the underbelly of the glitzy lights of the West End. A dingy space of back doors and air conditioning units, of dubious smells and garish signs. It’s perfect.
It links two old roads that were built in the 1670s as the area built up from the fields it had always been, and is named after Cranbourn Street to the north side — the main road in and out of Leicester Square from the tube station.
Cranbourn Street and the Alley were both part of the Earl of Salisbury’s estate in London which he was developing, and they’re named after the Earl’s country estate of Cranborne, Dorset. The area was developed by the Earl, who leased the land to Richard Ryder to build the homes in the area, as the developer was known to the Earl thanks to works he did in Cranbourne.
Amongst other areas nearby, his lease included the triangular block that today surrounds Cranbourn Alley.
William Morgan shows an unnamed alley in roughly the correct location in 1682, while John Style mentions the street in his Survey of London in 1720, and John Horwood’s map of 1799 shows and names the alley as well.
At the time, the area was noted for its clothes shops, and a since-demolished Cranbourn Passage on the north side of the street was a well known area for shoe-makers.
However, the alley gained a fearsome reputation thanks to the “She Barkers“, young ladies whose job was to lure shoppers inside to buy goods.
The noted engraver and writer, John Smith writing in his posthumously published book, Antiquarian Rambles in the Streets of London said “Woe used to betide the woman of the middle classes who passed through Cranbourn Alley with an unfashionable bonnet. It was immediately seen from one end of the place to the other, and twenty barkers beset her, each in turn, as she walked forward, arresting her course by invitations to inspect the ware that was for sale within,”
However, so cheap were the goods, that a “Cranbourn Alley article” was soon to be slang for something cheap and vulgar. In an odd way, not unlike the tourist trades of today, luring passers by in with bright lights only to send them away with a cheap bauble or two.
As the area turned away from selling goods to providing entertainment, the alley became better known for that other trade that ladies ply in the area laying in wait for men seeking temporary succor in the arms of a lady of the night.
A lot of that has now cleared away, in part thanks to the costs of the area and the local council’s puritanical views of such matters, and oddly, the major landlord of nearby Soho also cleaning their patch up.
Today it’s a narrow dirty unkempt area, a king of back street alleys used as a home for air conditioners, for rubbish, for all the squalor that modern life needs to dump somewhere, for a dead pigeon stuck in a shop sign.
What a queer old history this little alley has seen in its life.