This is an exceptionally busy alley, thanks in part to being part of a cluster of narrow passages, but also because one of its occupants is the legendary Simpsons Tavern.
A tall but very narrow covered passage leads off Cornhill, with a grand sign above whispering of meaty delights within, and leads to a narrow courtyard with a 1970s office building on one side, and a pub seemingly straight out of Dickens London on the other.
That pub is the reason so many people walk down this alley, for it’s Simpsons Tavern, the oldest surviving chop house in London.
Established in 1723 by Thomas Simpson as a Fish Ordinary restaurant in Billingate, offering to cook fish brought to him by workers at the local fish market, the restaurant moved to its current location in 1757 and hasn’t moved since.
The restaurant, and technically, a hotel, took over half of a house and is still known as 38½ Ball Court.
Although known as a chop house, it was still seeing the original fish dinner, promptly at 1pm well into the 20th century, and today while famous for retaining the 18th-century seating benches on the first floor, they do have conventional tables downstairs.
Ian Nairn described it as a pub ‘of the old school: dark ceilings, dark woodwork, marble-topped tables, high-backed seats, and polished brass.’, which indeed it is – and old school pubs were more about food than beer from a time when few people would have space for a kitchen at home.
Although never formally stated, many people believe that Simpsons is where Ebeneezer Scrooge headed to on Christmas Eve in Dicken’s Christmas Story.
The alley itself emerged around the 16th century as open land next to St Michaell’s Cornhill church was slowly built upon, leaving a cluster of narrow alleys to get between the buildings.
Most of the buildings were flattened by the Great Fire of London, but the layout of the alleys managed to survive the rebuilding, and the centuries of constant rebuilding ever since.
Originally known as Ball Yard, it seems to have changed its name to Ball Court in the 19th century.
Over the centuries, while the restaurant remained, the other side, which used to be a rather nice Edwardian building was torn down in the 1970s, giving a rather back of an office appearance.
Avert your eyes and head into Simpsons instead.
Location map and local interesting places
- 1] Ball Court
- 2] Castle Court
- 3] Newman's Court
- 4] Cowper's Court
- 5] Bengal Court
- 6] Royal Exchange Avenue
- 7] St Peter's Alley
- 8] White Lion Court
- 9] Post Office Court
- 10] Plough Court
- 11] Pope's Head Alley
- 12] Nicholas Passage
- 13] St Benet's Place
- 14] Lime Street Passage
- 15] Tokenhouse Yard