A narrow winding passage snakes behind the streets of High Holborn and is a relic of a time when the area was mostly fields.
Little Turnstile, as with the other turnstile alleys in the area takes its name from the time when Lincoln Inn Fields was largely fields, and used for grazing cattle. It was fenced but was also open to people to walk through and to stop the cattle following them, turnstiles were added to the gates.
Hence, along Holborn, there are three alleys surviving from those turnstiled days.
This is Little Turnstile, unsurprisingly, is the smallest and narrowest of the surviving turnstile alleys, and although once described by London chronicler John Strype as “very ordinary”, is arguably far more interesting to visit than its larger brethren.
As the area developed initially it was dominated by leather trades, but by the 17th century, the area was better known for booksellers. One of the more notable booksellers in Little Turnstile at the time was the radical Thomas Spence, who may have been the first Englishman to speak of ‘the rights of man’. He spent a lot of time in jail for his views calling for more democracy and the reform of Parliament.
While the other turnstiles are rather bland office-lined passages, Little Turnstile has managed to retain its narrow winding countenance.
Although the western side of the alley is lined with old buildings, the eastern side is entirely modern. That’s thanks to WW2 which managed to destroy most of the buildings on that side, which was mainly a back entrance to the Royal Music Hall.
The Royal Music Hall faced onto High Holborn and was built on the site of an old tavern in the 1840s. Originally called Weston’s Music Hall, it opened to great success in 1857. It was sold in 1868 and renamed the Royal Music Hall and enlarged slightly. Rebuilt again in 1892 and renamed, again, as The Royal Holborn Theatre of Varieties, and by now you won’t be surprised to learn that, yes, it was rebuilt yet again in 1905 and renamed, again, this time as the Holborn Empire. By now it could hold 2,000 people.
Sadly though it took a direct hit from a bomb on the night of 11th May 1941 and the entire interior was gutted by fire. Although it was considered for rebuilding, in the end, it was demolished in 1960 for offices by the Pearl Assurance Company to sit next to their grand Edwardian offices (now the Rosewood hotel), and that’s the building that stands here today.
As a building, Weston House doesn’t have much to admire, being a very blank block of stone faced walls and darkly tinted glass. At least the building is named after the man who built the original music hall on the site. The building is larger than the old music hall site, as the developer bought up the plot next to it on the eastern side as well, which at the time was occupied by Ellisdon’s toy store – an early provider of mail order catalogues. They took up the ground floor shop in the new office block, but closed in 1980. The store is now a Waitrose.
The older side of the alley is lined with shops and cafes. One with a possibly original Georgian bow fronted window.
At the southern end of the alley, is the Ship Tavern, which traces its history to the earliest developments in the area in 1549, although the current pub for all its historic charm inside only dates from 1923. It looked a lot more conventional for the time before it was rebuilt in its current “mock tudor” appearance.
So next year will be the current building’s centenary.
Although it says it dates from 1549, before it was rebuilt, the sign outside the pub used to say it was established in 1580. A new building gained an older heritage. The pub’s website suggests that the name comes from its proximity to the Fleet river, which would make sense if not for the likelihood of dozens of pubs lining the roads between the Fleet and where this pub is. So I am inclined to be dubious about that.
One thing that seems to be true is that the pub was used for meetings of Catholics at a time when they were persecuted. There’s a reference to Bishop Challoner who was based in London from the 1730s and held Mass in the upper rooms of the Ship Tavern, with a “sturdy Irishman” standing guard at the door to prevent people from entering. Services were concluded with a serving of “the Bishop’s beer”.
During the Gordon Riots of 1780, when the nearby Sardinian Embassy Chapel was sacked by rioters, the church’s valuable silver plate was taken to the Ship Tavern where the priest, James Archer was in hiding from attack.
Apart from supporting Catholics, in later years the tavern was also home to Freemasons. Probably not at the same time though, as that would have been awkward.
A pub that old and character rich is also used for filming. So it’s closed on occasional days to earn far more money from celluloid than it can from beer.
This article was published on ianVisits
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