London’s Alleys: East Passage, EC1

This alley is a result of the dissolution of the Monasteries, as it sits within the lands owned by St Bartholomew’s Priory. When the land was sold to Sir Richard Rich, it was developed into a cluster of narrow streets and passages, of which this is one.

This development is actually quite significant as it’s one of the earliest developments of an entire block at the same time predating even Covent Garden — and the strict linear layout of the roads in this cluster of streets was almost unique at a time when most streets and passages were more, well, curvy.

East Passage is today about half its former length, and used to be known as Back Court or Back Street, which is apt, as it runs behind the row of shops that were built to face onto Long Lane, so it’s indeed the back street behind them.

By the 19th century, Victorian rebuild shops dominated the north side of the alley — all facing onto Long Lane with back doors into the alley, while the south side was more industrial, mainly supplying the publishing industry.

Goads insurance maps show a packing case factory, machine rulers, printers, and  paper box factory and a cluster of smaller unnamed traders.

A survey (pdf) ahead of the recent Crossrail works on the other side of Long Lane found the remains of a 16th or 17th century brick wall under East Passage.

About half the northern side was destroyed by bombing raids in WW2, the raids that flattened the whole area that is today’s Barbican estate. You can easily see the unfilled section with the darker stylish, but undeniably modern brickwork.

Today the passage is the sort of clean neat alley that reflects its modern use, mainly as back entrances to expensive flats above the shops.

At what is today the end of East Passage, but was once the middle point is the Old Red Cow, one of the oldest pubs in the area, along with the nearby Hand and Shears, which used to also host the “Court of Piepowder”, which was a temporary court of law set up for the duration of the famous Bartholomew Fair to deal with the unruly behaviour that often occurred.

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