The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Five

Harp Alley, EC4

Appearances can be deceptive, I find, particularly when you are researching the history of London’s streets. Take Harp Alley, for example. These days it is a small alley on the left hand side of Farringdon Street as you walk northwards, just south of Stonecutter Street and leading on to St Bride Street.

In the seventeenth century and, presumably before, it was a lane which ran alongside some fields down to the river Fleet. A map dating from 1658 and representing, as its grandiloquent title states, “A Delineation of the Cities of London and Westminster and the suburbs thereof” as it was in 1657, produced by Faithorn and Newhart, shows a bridge over the river at the end of the street. This suggests that it was a well-travelled thoroughfare and may account for the reason why, by the standards of London’s alleys, it is rather wide.

John Rocque’s map of London from 1746 gives the street a name, Harp Alley, although other maps designate it as Harp Street and in 1677 reference was made to a Harp Court. It was Rocque’s name, though, that has prevailed, the Harp almost certainly coming from the pub of that name which stood on the corner with Farringdon Street. The alley was cut down to its current length, about half of its former glory, in 1868 when the new St Bride Street was built.

Excavations conducted in 1990 revealed the area’s more gruesome past. Burial pits were uncovered, used specifically for plague victims from around 1610 until the Great Plague, a form of bubonic plague, had petered out in 1666. It also appears to have been used as an overflow burial ground for St Bride’s Church for the period from 1770 to 1849. Some of the bodies were removed to the British Museum.

As well as a graveyard the Alley had its own coinage mint, these springing up when there was a shortage of legal coins, particularly of low value denominations. Cities took it upon themselves to produce their own coins which were accepted as legal tender by local tradespeople. One such tradesman’s token has been unearthed, dating from between 1649 and 1672, bearing the legend “Harpe Alley end at Ditch side”.

At the corner with Farringdon Street can be found the Hoop and Grapes and its beer garden runs alongside the Alley. Built in 1721 it gained notoriety for being the venue for what were known as Fleet weddings. The Marriage Duty Act of 1695 was supposed to have clamped down on what were known as irregular marriages, where the wedding took place away from the couple’s home parish but where banns had been read and/or a licence had been obtained, and clandestine marriages, where banns and a licence had not been obtained, imposing legal penalties on any clergymen who performed such weddings. But there was a loophole.

As Fleet prison and the area around it, including Harp Alley, was within the Liberties of the Fleet, the law did not apply there. A flourishing wedding trade developed, so much so that in the 1740s over half of the marriages in London were held in the Liberties. Whilst most of the weddings were genuine, there were a number conducted for dishonest purposes or where one or both of the couples were already married to someone else. Impecunious vicars, especially those imprisoned for debt, replenished their fortunes by officiating such ceremonies. They even employed touts who scoured the streets looking for couples desperate to tie the knot.

It was not until the Marriage Act of 1753 was passed and came into force on March 25, 1754 that this unusual form of civil ceremony came to an end. The association of the Hoop and Grapes with Fleet Marriages, though, saved it from demolition in the 1990s as the only surviving venue of the practice and it is now a Grade II listed building.

Scratch below London’s surface and it is amazing what you find.

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