Although today it’s largely a wide open alley, it was once a classic of the area, narrow and winding between rows of narrow Victorian buildings. It’s also an alley that’s fairly young in an area that’s very old, with the alley dating from around the start of the 19th century as older buildings in the area were torn down.
The northern corner of the alley was the site of London’s stock exchange, and the broad passage that runs behind the Royal Exchange was originally known as Sweetings Rents, and split in two.
On the corner where today the statue of George Peabody stands was the site of St Benet Fink Churchyard, which had stood on the site since Saxon times, and while destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.
St Benet is short for St Benedict, and the church may be named after the 7th century Benedict Biscop, with Fink added later after the name of the local landlord, Robert Fink who paid for the church to be rebuilt — but it could also be named after the 6th century St Benedict Fink. It’s not entirely clear which is the true origin of the name.
When the church was rebuilt after the fire, a donation of £1000 was made by George Holman, a Roman Catholic, which at this time would have been controversial to say the least.
Leaping forward to 1838, and the massive Royal Exchange building burnt down, and its reconstruction was the trigger to redevelop the block behind the building as well. Away with the old stock exchange and the cluster of older buildings — and also away with the old church.
Although there were protests to save the church, the Bishop of London supported its demolition as there were so many other churches nearby, and the proceeds from the sale of the land were used to pay for a church of the same name in Tottenham.
The area now gained its modern layout – with the wide passage behind the Royal Exchange and the slightly winding layout of Royal Exchange Avenue.
At the top is the statue of George Peabody, the American born banker and co-founder of J.P. Morgan, and in retirement the philanthropist who set up the Peabody housing association.
The statue was sculpted by William Wetmore Story, and unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 1869. Sadly, Peabody himself was too unwell to attend the ceremony, and died less than four months later.
A curiosity the statue is that around it is a circular water drain in the pavement.
And that’s because the statue used to be a few feet to the east, and on this site stood a drinking fountain, which itself is now not far from where the Peabody stature once stood. They’ve almost swapped places.
The drinking fountain was commissioned in 1878 by the Drapers and Merchant Taylors’ Companies and presented to the City of London by John Whittaker-Ellis. The bronze statue on top is of Maternité, a mother with two children and is a replacement, as the original marble sculpture deteriorated within a few decades of being unveiled, and there was once a canopy above the statue, removed in 1954.
The two statues were swapped around in the 1980s when the office block on the corner was redeveloped.
On the corner is a quite remarkable building number sign and what looks to be almost a relic of an older building that once stood on the site, although it dates from the rest of the building, which was constructed around 1855.
Otherwise the alley curves around a clean polished corner and then ends passing through a gap in the office blocks that front onto a narrow London street.
Slightly of note is that the end of the alley is next to the Cock And Woolpack pub, an old wooden frontage that stands out strikingly from the stone buildings of the area.
Location map and local interesting places
- 1] Royal Exchange Avenue
- 2] Cowper's Court
- 3] Castle Court
- 4] Newman's Court
- 5] Bengal Court
- 6] Pope's Head Alley
- 7] St Peter's Alley
- 8] Post Office Court
- 9] White Lion Court
- 10] Tokenhouse Yard
- 11] Nicholas Passage
- 12] St Stephen's Row
- 13] Great Bell Alley, EC2
- 14] St Benet's Place