The alley and the buildings it ran behind first arrived in the 1620s, so while much has changed, the route this alley follows has been unchanged for nearly 400 years. Although the alignment of the alley hasn’t changed, its name has – several times.
John Morgan’s map of 1682 shows it as Dawsons Alley, probably after William Dawson, who had leased land for farming in the area in 1598 just before it was developed in the 1620s. However, by 1800 it was known variously as Taylors Rooms, or Taylor’s Buildings.
Looking at Goad’s Insurance Maps shows that in the 19th century it was lined with factories and workshops. A building on the corner of the alley was what I thought was a pub called the Blind Fag, although it turned out to be a blinds factory.
It seems that the clearing of the area for the construction of the Coliseum at the turn of the 20th century is also when the name changed from Taylor’s Buildings to Brydges Place.
There used to be an old men’s urinal down here as well, presumably at the eastern end where this “narrowest” alley widens considerably. The urinals became known for gay hookups at a time when homosexuality was illegal and eventually demolished by the LCC in 1953 to deter “the behaviour of perverts” ahead of the Queen’s coronation.
A few years later, the alley played a part in an advertising campaign that is as iconic for its design, as for its utter failure to sell the product — a gentleman walking through London with a Strand cigarette. The tagline being that you’re never alone with a Strand, but the message that everyone took was that you’re always alone with a Strand.
Although famous for the cinema advert, there were also a number of print adverts, and they were shot down this alley.
Just as well that men’s loo had been removed a few years later otherwise the advert, of a man in an trenchcoat loitering alone in an alley would probably be far more famous for a totally different reason!
Towards the end of the alley – if heading eastwards are a set of rather nice back doors to the Coliseum, and if they seem rather posh for what you might expect to be a fire escape, that’s because they lead to the Royal Retiring Room, for you know who, so these doors allow the regal one to leave the building avoiding the crowds by the main entrance.
So, this shabby side alley once famous for gay liaisons can lay claim to a most curious fame — to have been walked through by a Queen.
Having read about the second narrowest alley in London, you’re bound to want to read about the actual narrowest alley in London – which is Emerald Court.