Today, Crane Court sits unobtrusively between two fast food outlets on Fleet Street. Visitors who venture into its interior may be forgiven for thinking that the alley has delusions of grandeur, as after a quite impressive entrance of modern terracotta brick the rest of the alley dotted around with large planters is a little non descript.
However, Crane Court when compared to other London thoroughfares has probably more history per metre than any other.
The area that the alley sits within begins life in the parish of St Dunstan’s in the West and possibly was church property. 16th century maps show an enclosure adjacent to St Dunstan’s Church in the ward of Farringdon Without.
Its not until the Ogilby & Morgan map of 1676 that the court is clearly defined and at this stage it is actually a court rather than an alley, although there is an exit into neighbouring Fleur de Lys Court giving access onto Pemberton Court to emerge later onto Fetter Lane.
By the time that this map would have been produced, the buildings inside the court would have been less than ten years old, as their predecessors had all succumbed to the ravages of the Great Fire in 1666. Had you been the owner of a property in Crane Court, you could have considered yourself extremely unlucky to have lost your house, as the fire on that side of Fleet Street was contained only a matter of metres away in Fetter Lane.
One of the houses destroyed in the fire was known as the “Lock & Key” and was the residence of the peculiarly named ‘If-God-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned’ Barebon, commonly known to his associates as Praise-God or Damned Barebon.
He was a Member of the last Parliament before Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, known as the Barebones Parliament. Its members were selected by Cromwell and his Army council rather than being elected. Barebon served as the nominee for the City Of London.
Barebon was a leather-seller, renowned anti-Royalist, mob-raiser and considered by some to be a general pain in the neck.
After the fire, his Son, “If-Jesus-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned“, better known as Nicholas Barebon, who was a property developer rebuilt the “Lock & Key” at the far end of the court in 1680.
Nicholas seems to have been a real chip off the old block with many of his Father’s eccentricities. In the aftermath of the Great Fire, he helped to pioneer fire insurance and was a leading player in the reconstruction work, although his buildings were planned and erected primarily for his own financial gain. Unfortunately, numbers five and six fell victim to a fire in 1971 and were badly damaged; they were the earliest known survivors of post-Fire houses in London and the oldest examples of Nicholas Barebon’s work.
Another resident of Nicholas Barebons rebuilding was a Squire Bradshaw. In the Old Bailey trial records is an entry for 1680. The defendant, James Baker, was accused of being a Catholic Priest. The testimony of Squire Bradshaw’s servant, Mary Dove, attested that she had seen and heard Baker conduct the Catholic Mass in the house on several occasions. Her testimony was short and without corroboration, but was enough to have Baker convicted as a Popish Priest or Jesuit and was therefore sentenced to death.
In 1710 the court became the home of The Royal Society, which was founded in 1660. The President at the time was Sir Isaac Newton. The Society had moved to the court from Gresham College in Holborn and some of the ruling council grumbled at the new house, and complained of it as small, inconvenient, and dilapidated. Nevertheless, Sir Isaac, who was not accustomed to opposition, overruled all these objections, and the society flourished in this Fleet Street “close” for a further seventy-two years.
Once the society was settled in Crane Court, by Newton’s order the porter clothed in a suitable gown and provided with a staff bearing the arms of the society in silver stood guard at the front door. On meeting nights a lamp was hung out over the entrance to the court from Fleet Street.
A repository was built at the rear of the house to accommodate items of the society’s museum.
The first catalogue, compiled by a Dr. Green, contains the following, among many other marvellous entries.
“The quills of a porcupine, which on certain occasions the creature can shoot at the pursuing enemy and erect at pleasure”.
“The flying squirrel, which for a good nut-tree will pass a river on the bark of a tree, erecting his tail for a sail.
“The leg-bone of an elephant, brought out of Syria for the thigh-bone of a giant. In winter, when it begins to rain, elephants are mad, and so continue from April to September, chained to some tree, and then become tame again.
“Tortoises, when turned on their backs, will sometimes fetch deep sighs and shed abundance of tears.
“A humming-bird and nest, said to weigh but twelve grains; his feathers are set in gold, and sell at a great rate.
“A bone, said to be taken out of a mermaid’s head.
“The largest whale—liker an island than an animal.
“The white shark, which sometimes swallows men whole.
“A siphalter, said with its sucker to fasten on a ship and stop it under sail. (Apparently this is a fish with a large sucker on its head. It has been known to move stones weighing around 6kg)
“A stag-beetle, whose horns, worn in a ring, are good against the cramp.
“A mountain cabbage—one reported 300 feet high.”
Standing as it does off of Fleet Street, the court has always had a connection with printing and the newspaper trade.
In the late 17th and early 18th century newspapers could not be legally published without a Government stamp. Editors clearly saw this as a form of censorship and despite the law being enforced by a team of watchmen employed by the Government, elaborate ploys to elude the capture of these illegal publications were put into practice.
Many of the unstamped newspapers were printed in Crane Court and the Officers of the Somerset House Solicitor known colloquially as ‘Government spies,’ or ‘Somerset House myrmidons,’ would station themselves at the end of the court whenever it was thought that publication was imminent. So the printers would make up sham parcels of waste-paper, and send them out with an ostentatious show of secrecy.
The bearers of these parcels would be immediately set upon by the waiting officers and would put up a decent show of resistance before relinquishing their bundles. Meanwhile, the real newspapers intended for sale to the public were sent flying by the thousand down a shoot into Fleur-de-Lys Court (Demolished to allow the widening of Fetter Lane), and were then distributed in the course of the next hour or two all over the City.
No.9 Crane Court was the home to the satirical magazine “Punch“, founded on 17 July 1841 by Henry Mayhew and wood-engraver Ebenezer Landells. After the 1940s, when its circulation peaked, it went into a long decline, closing in 1992. It was revived in 1996, but closed again in 2002.
At No.10 were the offices of The Illustrated London News Which appeared on Saturday 14 May 1842, as the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine. It appeared weekly until 1971, then less frequently, and ceased publication in 2003. The company continues today as Illustrated London News Ltd, a publishing, content, and digital agency in London, which holds the publication and business archives of the magazine
Set into the paving stones of the alley is a plaque commemorating the first publication of the ” Daily Courant“. Initially published on 11 March 1702, it was the first British daily newspaper. However, this commemorates the publication rather than location of its offices, which were located on Fleet Street near the Fleet Bridge.