Chichester Rents, WC2
I am rarely impressed by modern architecture, but I was walking northwards up Chancery Lane, on the left-hand side just beyond Carey Street, I came across a glass and steel structure which I can only describe as an overbridge, linking two buildings across an alleyway. Each storey of this steel and glass construction is angled but at a different angle from the storey below or above, making for an interesting and striking feature, as well as providing additional space. There is a thoroughfare below, presumably less airier than it once was, with an intriguing name, Chichester Rents. What was that all about?
In mediaeval times Bishops were in the habit of acquiring land in the City of London for their headquarters when they, and their considerable retinue, were up in the metropolis on official business. In around 1226 the then Bishop of Chichester, Ralph de Neville, acquired some land in the Chancery Lane area for his London residence. What was unusual about the plot was that it was dissected by Chancery Lane, the mansion being built on the west side and a garden planted on the eastern side, the area now occupied in part by Chichester Rents.
By 1422, though, the Bishops of Chichester had got fed up with their gaff and rented it out to apprentices of Common Law at nearby Lincoln’s Inn. The name of this alley is presumed to derive from the fact that it was rented out by the Bishopric of Chichester. Their lordships occupied a number of residences in the City of London and Westminster, including a house in Tothill Street (1508) and one at what is now known as the parish od St Andrew by the Wardrobe, near St Paul’s (1533).
Save for the name, nothing remains of the mansion or the gardens and we can only speculate as to their fate. The 16th century saw the area around Chancery Lane transformed with many more buildings being constructed and, perhaps, the land was redeveloped. When the alley that bears the name of Chichester Rents was developed is also shrouded in mystery. It does appear, though, in outline, but not named, in John Ogilby and William Morgan’s invaluable large-scale map (100 feet per inch) of the City as Rebuilt by 1676, produced that year.
The Chancery Lane underwent three major redevelopments, in the 18th century, towards the latter part of the 19th century and in the 1980s. At least the last redevelopment had the good sense to retain a few of the facades of the Victorian building phase and with a bit of imagination we can get a sense of what it may have looked like at the time.
At either side of the entrance to Chichester Rents stood two pubs. On the southern end stood The Old Ship Tavern and Chop House, which Charles Dickens took as his model for the Sol’s Arms in his novel, Bleak House. Sadly, it is now a Pret a Manger sandwich bar and coffee shop. The building at the northern end looks more like a pub, it once was The Three Tuns, shouting its final last orders in 1987, and is now, too, a coffee shop.
These days the alley is rather anonymous but its name reveals a fascinating facet of London’s history and its crown a fine of modern architecture at its best.