A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Thirty


Pope’s Head Alley – EC3V

Walking from the Bank tube station along Lombard Street towards Gracechurch Street I passed a rather gloomy and undistinguished covered passageway on the left called Pope’s Head Alley. How did it get its name and what used to go on there?

Pope’s Head was the name of a public house or tavern which occupied the site from at least 1465, the alley running alongside. Following the Reformation the pub thought it advisable to change its name to the King’s Head, a name guaranteed to curry the Henry VIII’s favour, and the alley naturally followed suit. But the pub and its alley, rather like a weather vane for current political and religious thinking, reverted to Pope’s Head when Mary ascended the throne and the Catholic ascendancy prevailed. To the chagrin of sign painters throughout the ages, the name stuck, despite the reversion to Protestantism in the middle of the 16th century.

The area was famed for its money lending and banking practices and the powerful Lombard family lived and dealt there. They were Catholic and being providers of much needed money to the king, they were given special dispensation to practise their faith. The alley is supposed to be haunted too. If you stand there during the hours of darkness and felt a light wind on the back of your head, it wasn’t the wind but the devil himself. Whether this piece of hokum reflected the Protestant majority’s distaste for the religious practices that went on the area, I cannot say for certain.

The tavern was described as a massive place strongly built of stone, occupying the space between Lombard Street and Cornhill. The Pope’s Head offered a forerunner of a happy hour. For a penny you could get a pint of wine and while stocks lasted a chunk of bread was thrown in free. Despite its alleged solid construction the pub burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666 but was soon rebuilt.

If you went to the tavern during the 1660s both pre and post the conflagration you might have bumped into Samuel Pepys. The tavern appears along with mine host, one John Sawyer, in his invaluable diaries and seems to have been one of his drinking and dining haunts and where he transacted some of his business deals. Pepys had his first dish of tea there and sat down to a plate of “cakes and other fine things”.

The alley was famed prior to the fire as the place to go to buy fruit and then became popular with children who flocked to see the toy dealers showing off their wares. In the early 17th century George Humble and John Sudbury opened the first general print shop in London at the sign of the White Horse in the alley and next door Mrs Milner brewed and sold her potions for the cure of every ill known and unknown to man. Pepys did some shopping there in 1659 as this entry records, “Thence I went to the Pope’s Head Alley and called on Adam Chard and bought a catcall (a sort of whistle), it cost me two groats. Thence went and gave him a cup of ale”.

Lloyd’s coffee house or rather New Lloyd’s Coffee house as it was branded to differentiate it from the earlier one in Lombard Street – the early manifestation of the insurance centre that was to bear the barista’s name – was to be found in the alley from 1769 until it moved in 1774 to the north-west corner of the Royal Exchange. And why did financial institutions position themselves in the middle of warrens of alley ways? Apparently, it was to ensure that messengers who ran between the banks with important documents could avoid the crowds.


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