This alley is both long and grand, but also has an utterly delightful narrow tunnel at one end. Just behind the Bank of England, the area used to be the estate of the Earl of Arundel, but was sold and developed by Sir William Petty.
The name is interesting, being named after an old building that stood nearby, which was for the exchanging on Tokens — small coins given by traders to customers prior to the introduction of low denomination copper coins such as farthings.
Prior to 1672, cheaper copper coins were rarely issued by the government, leaving people with the problem of how to pay for small goods. The use of silver coins could be analogous to today finding the smallest coin for paying for goods being a £20 note – so how do you pay for a coffee? That’s why traders issued unauthorised tokens, which could be exchanged for legal tender when you had enough of them — at the Token House in the City of London.
The passageway is also famous for its grim appearance in Daniel Defoe’s novel, the History of the Plague, where he wrote that when “passing through Tokenhouse Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, ‘Oh! death, death, death!” in a most inimitable tone, which struck me with horror, and a chilliness in my very blood.”
The street was not the impressive sight it is today though, being mainly warehouses and homes, not offices.
The yard’s history took an unusual twist in 1799, when he entire street was sold by Sir William Petty’s descendent, the Marquess of Lansdowne to the Bank of England. At the time the Bank was struggling with a lack of space and had intended to expand into the street, but then Sir John Soane secured permission to expand the Bank’s existing site and create the Bank of England site we have today. The Bank then sold the street in 1824.
Today the yard is mainly lined with tall stone clad buildings, mostly offices although one block was converted into flats a decade ago.
At the top of the Yard is the modern TokenHouse, a Grade II* listed former bank built in 1872 and today used for offices, with its grand doorway franked by lion heads.
What is rather charming though in this stern looking alley is the totally out of character looking tunnel that passes through the end of the yard linking to the street behind. Above the passage, the crest of the City of London is carved out of stone.
A narrow brick lined passage with arches supporting the building above, it’s an utterly delightful interlude in an area packed full of oppressively grand facades.