This charming cobbled* and sloped passageway looks like it’s been here for centuries, but in fact, may be barely 30 years old.
The archway off a road near the Barbican leads into the former Whitbread Brewery buildings, which are the remains of an even larger site founded by Samuel Whitbread in the mid 18th century. The main surviving buildings were constructed between 1776 and 1784. You can just about see the archway in this 1793 painting of the Whitbread Brewery by George Garrard.
However, the building that stands there today is later, from the 1860s, but at the time it didn’t have the archway entrance. That was added fairly recently, in the late 20th century, and you can still see the change in colour of the brickwork where the arch was punched through the building
So there was an entrance, then there wasn’t, and now there is again.
The archway links the brewery with Milton Street, and Milton Street is – or was once – very interesting.
It used to be called Grub Street and was once known for writers and booksellers, mainly because it was cheap, and writers have a tendency to poverty. Dr Johnson once lived here, before he became richer and fonder of other people’s tea and moved away to Fleet Street.
It also became notorious for supporting the publication of cheap books and periodicals, with low-paid writers living in the attics above the printing houses, and later for political satires, such as a precursor to Private Eye, the Grub Street Journal. By the 1720s ‘Grub Street’ had grown from a simple street name to a term for all manner of low-level publishing.
Over the next century or so though, printing in Grub Street declined and the writers moved away until in 1830 it was renamed Milton Street. Whitbread later bought up many of the printing houses along the road fronting the brewery.
Although you might think a brewery in an – at the time – shabby part of London is, rather shabby, it was an industrial leader in brewing and was visited by Royalty. Most oddly, the rarely used State Coach belonging to the Speaker of the House of Commons used to be stored here, and Whitbread horses used to pull it on the few times it was used.
The brewery closed in 1976, some of it to the north demolished, but Whitbread retained the rest for its offices. They moved out in 2002, and the site sold for conversion into a hotel in 2006, but conversion works didn’t start until 2009, and now it’s a large events venue known as The Brewery.
The building the archway penetrates is known in the development as the D-Block, and the sloping passage as the Milton Street access ramp.
The building was purely industrial, with plant equipment in the basement, and cold storage above. The weight of the storage facility in the upper floors probably explaining the line of iron columns running through the passage, adding strength to the brickwork.
Although the sloping passage is relatively new, it’s been given a historic appearance, and as an aside, if you’ve ever wondered why streets were lined with small regular shaped stones — it gave horses something to dig their horseshoes into to give them grip.
The alley itself though is a dead end – leading to the locked gates.
The name of this seemingly public alley is unclear but is likely linked to the yard beyond the gates. Although that yard was always a private space inside the brewery and shows up initially as “The Brewery Yard” in some early diagrams, it’s later usually (but not always) referred to as the South Yard. This doubtless to distinguish it from the since-demolished northern side of the brewery that was added later.
In a way, this might not even be a public alley, save for the official road sign on the side suggesting that it is, so they’ve turned what was once just an entrance passageway into an alley.
*yes, I know they’re called setts, but everyone calls them cobbles, get over it.