You’re looking at the picture below and thinking this alley is going to be all about the pretty pub, but no, it’s the boring snoring office block next door that’s the protagonist in this alley tale.
Angel Court seems to have existed ever since the area was developed, and shows up for example on Horwood’s map of 1799 as a short dead end alley, with gardens at the bottom end. The pub seems to be there already, and opposite the pub, where the office is today was a large house/hotel with an even larger back garden.
That house and its garden was cleared in 1835 to become the site of the St James’s Theatre – an unfortunate building that struggled for most of its life to make ends meet, and yet was to become a cause célèbre in death.
The St James’s Theatre was built as a personal theatre for the popular singer John Braham, but he wasn’t popular enough, and it started losing money immediately it opened in 1835.
In fact, it wasn’t for another 40 years before anyone turned a profit at the theatre, and did well for a decade, but had some bad times, then turned good from 1891 to 1918 when the actor-manager George Alexander put slightly but not too risky plays for the audience at the time.
In January 1950 Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh took over the management of the theatre, and with a mix of challenging plays and headline actors turned the theatre into a success once more.
However, in 1954 it turned out that a property developer had bought the lease, and gained planning permission (somehow without public awareness) to knock down the theatre.
There were protests, there were speeches in the House of Lords, there were changes to the law to protect future theatres, but the theatre was losing money and needed a fortune in renovation costs – so in July 1957 the St James’s Theatre closed it final curtain and was demolished, to be replaced with an office block.
They did save some decorative panels which adorned the office block frontage, but in 1980 that office was in turn demolished and the panels moved around the corner into the alley, above the car park entrance.
Throughout all this, the Golden Lion pub remained, and with its rich late Victorian frontage decoration stands out proudly from the bland offices on either side.
The pub has been on the site since at least the 1730s, and where it was once a smaller property, at the turn of the 19th century it was expanded into the neighbouring house and the current frontage added.
The alley is a curious mix today – being part space between tall office blocks on the northern end, and a narrow covered space at the southern end opening into Pall Mall. Lots of warning signs about anti-social behaviour and cameras watching festoon the southern end of the alley.
By the old pub is a small plaque marking the theatre, and above a magnificent work of art that shows Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in profile surrounded by allegories of their most famous roles.
Further down the alley is the sculptural freeze that is all that remains of the theatre, set on the bridged fire escape overlooking Angel Court. And the only way to get a photo of it is to hang over the railings trying not to fall over, hence the odd perspective in the photo.
Looking rather grim and forgotten, lost down a side alley, here’s a relic of the grand old days of London theatre.
Location map and local interesting places
- 1] Angel Court
- 2] Crown Passage, SW1
- 3] Pickering Place, SW1
- 4] Blue Ball Yard, SW1
- 5] Mason's Yard, SW1
- 6] Whitcomb Court
- 7] Spencer House
- 8] Mall Galleries
- 9] Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)
- 10] Royal Institution (inc Faraday Museum)
- 11] British Council London
- 12] Canada House Gallery
- 13] National Gallery
- 14] Household Cavalry Museum
- 15] Guards Museum