This delightfully narrow alley with a Victorian tiled and arched entrance and a rare surviving ancient wall can be found in a quiet cluster of streets just moments from busy London Wall.
As you might guess from the name, this part of London was once a monastery, the Austin Friars who owned a large plot of land in the area for around 250 years until their dissolution by King Henry VIII in 1538.
The dissolution must have been particularly painful for this monastery, as one of their former tenants on land they owned nearby had been Thomas Cromwell — who lead the dissolution. He totally coincidentally ended up owning a large plot of the monastery’s former land which he built a grand house, but it was seized by the King following Cromwell’s downfall – and sold off.
Sir William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester acquired the rest of the monastic buildings and built a townhouse on the site. It survived until 1844, when it was turned into warehouses.
Cromwell’s former mansion house became Drapers’ Hall – and they still occupy the site, and another survivor was the nave of the old church, which is today the Dutch Church and just across the road from the passage. The rest of the church was turned into a storehouse for corn, coal and wine, with the monuments sold for £100 and the lead stripped from the roof. The choir, tower and transepts were demolished in 1600 and in 1862 a fire destroyed the rest of the church. The nave remained and was used for various factions, lately the Dutch, but it was destroyed in WW2 so what’s there today is a 1950s reconstruction.
The alley itself likely follows a line separating the Austin Friars main buildings on the eastern side from a Great Garden on the western side. Over the centuries, as the monasteries closed and their lands redeveloped, the old footpath has managed to survive — a convenient border between separate later landlords.
It first significantly shows up as Bell Alley in William Maitland’s History of London in 1739, — possibly after a local house known as Le Bell, but that seems to be the only map with a name for the alley, most mark it as a narrow unnamed passage, right up to the 1940s.
We can be fairly sure that the alley entrance on one side is late Victorian, as a photo taken in 1881 shows the alley with its former buildings — a Queen Anne style office — the drainpipe suggests it was built in 1704 and a wide squared alley. The current tiled and arched style was certainly in place when the area was bombed in WW2.
An old survivor is a sign for Pater & Co, stockbrokers. The company closed down in 1923 when one of the two partners in the firm retired. The alley opens up slightly in the middle, with a fenced-off space, and above a large lightwell for the offices that surround it. Do look right up at the top for a rather scary looking fire escape.
Down here though is a much older survivor – a chuck of old wall slightly bulging out as if sagging under its old age. Up high is a parish marker from All Hallows-on-the-Wall, dating to 1853, but if you go into the doorway and peer up through some metal rails, you can see that the wall is even older – as there’s another parish marker dating from 1715 – from the since-demolished church of St Peter le Poer.
The wall isn’t listed and doesn’t appear in any historic records I can find, so it’s survival down here is a small miracle. Worth seeking out as it’s very distinctive when surrounded by the more modern buildings.
Location map and local interesting places
- 1] Austin Friars Passage
- 2] Pinner's Passage
- 3] Royal Exchange Avenue
- 4] Tokenhouse Yard
- 5] Newman's Court
- 6] White Lion Court
- 7] St Peter's Alley
- 8] Moorgate Place
- 9] Ball Court
- 10] Coleman Street Buildings
- 11] Cowper's Court
- 12] Great Bell Alley, EC2
- 13] Castle Court
- 14] A stone obelisk hiding a ventilation shaft
- 15] Victorian Bath House
- 16] Ornate mahogany doors at 32 Cornhill
- 17] A statue and a maypole