Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Set under an arch in the north wall of St. Bartholomew-the-Great is an ancient doorway that in all the times I've ever been into the church, has never been unlocked. Whether it even opens is a mystery. But if it did, and you took a couple of shallow steps up to the street outside, you'd be standing in Cloth Fair and facing a tiny alley called Cloth Court.
Not far from here, I once overheard a tourist saying to her friend, "Such a quaint street - So medieval!" I looked down at the well-swept footpaths and washed down roadway, then up at a row of buildings across from the church, took in their spruced stonework, neat brickwork, double-glazed windows in prim gloss-painted frames, and thought , Lady, you can have no idea.
Casting the mind back just over a hundred years is never likely never get anybody anywhere near the reality of the scene above. And yet the two photos are the same street. The first was taken in 2009 walking towards Smithfield Market. The second shows Cloth Fair as it was in 1887 but from the opposite direction. Incredible? You'd better believe it. In daylight hours, the tight packed, overhung street was short on light, short on air and also short on sewers; long on noise, on filth - animal and human - and on the nauseous smells and fatal diseases that went hand in hand with all that. Night time? Consider very carefully before setting out alone down this unlit stretch of road with its crisscross alleys and dark corners. But not to worry. Because right up until 1910 Cloth Fair was still inside the precincts of the Priory of St. Bartholomew's, and had solid wooden gates that shut it off at night.
Three hundred and more years later on the 1894 map below, you can see one of the street gates to Cloth Fair shown next to the bank.
There's another photo that shows how the street was just before the row houses on the church side of Cloth Fair were demolished in 1910. And by the look of it, the street gate has gone.
Take a look at the building on the far right. It's been there a long time. In fact according to British History Online, it's the oldest residential dwelling in London, having survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the demolitions and rebuildings in subsequent centuries. For many years it was owned by a cloth wholesale business Mitchell, Inman & Co whose family lived over the shop and the business was still selling cloth in Cloth Fair in 1947 at the time of our story.
To get to Cloth Court from there, just stroll on down the road a few yards and on your right you'll find a short gloomy alley with a few buildings either side that seems to come to a stop at the end. But in this part of the City, seeing isn't always believing. Walk to the end of the court, and off to your right you'll see a narrow dark passageway that will lead you into yet another alley. Turn left this time and suddenly you're back in the light on Long Lane, a main street with trucks making their way to and from Smithfield Market.
"Cloth Fair was a narrow street running along the north side of the church, strung with vacant lots burned out on a blitz night six years before. Cloth Court was hardly more than a dogleg passage leading off the street, built around with black-brick row houses four stories high. At that hour only one house in the court was showing a light. I stood in a wind from Siberia watching snowfall cover my trail, reflecting on what I had." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 2]
Did you know?
Bartholomew Fair. In 1133, as a fund raiser, Henry 1 granted the priory of St. Bartholomew the right to hold a three-day cloth fair every year in and around Cloth Fair. Seven hundred or so years later, like fairs the world over, the scope had widened to include all kinds of trades and shows and went on for a couple of weeks. A magnate for thieves and pickpockets, scams and all manner of roguery, the City finally called a halt to Bartholomew Fair in 1855.
At number 41 Cloth Fair a set of leaded windows bear the signatures (etched with a diamond pen) of famous visitors such as Sir Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother. It's also rumored to have skeletons in its foundations - though not necessarily so famous!
Number 43 Cloth Fair sits at the corner of Cloth Fair and Cloth Court and is the former home of English poet laureate John Betjeman (1906-1984). These days you can rent the apartment for your stay in London, complete with one of the prettiest little gardens to take your breakfast on a sunny Sunday morning. A far cry from the 1887 photo above.
For British History Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/st-barts-records/vol2/pp232-247