When I have a few minutes to spare I do like to just stand (or sit with a pint) in a location, let my mind wander and try to imagine what the area was like fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty years ago. Sometimes this can be quite difficult as modern life always tries it’s hardest to butt in on your thoughts, but I came across a street in a calm backwater that allows you to drift back in time, sadly though there is no pub in which to aid these thoughts (it’s just around the corner).
The location in question is Star Yard which can be found just off Carey Street behind the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. Back in the 1740s it was known as Lincoln’s Inn Grange and served as it does now to link Carey Street with both Chichester Rents and Bishop’s Court leading onto Chancery Lane and the entrance to Lincolns Inn New Square. It seems to have changed names to the present towards the end of the 1700s and probably takes it’s name from the nearby Seven Stars Tavern on Carey Street.
It’s not a particularly inspiring thoroughfare but it does have two points of interest. Firstly the rear shop entrance to the Tailors Ede & Ravenscroft, who according to their website are thought to be the oldest firm of tailors in the world established in 1689, although it doesn’t say when they moved into the premises backing on to Star Yard, the earliest I could find in a trade directory was around 1888.They are described as Legal Robe suppliers. I know the area quite well and so it was easy to imagine that the street was similar to the one opposite, Bell Yard. The dimensions of the streets in this area were of sufficient width to only accommodate the passage of single file vehicles with inches to spare on either side and with a high degree of surety we can presume that Star Yard has not always been the agreeable place it is today for in 1736 Alexandra Pope referred to it as “a filthy old place“.
The two existing adjuncts to Star Yard are Chichester Rents which seems to have been a wide open space with lots of small tall buildings, and was largely rebuilt in Georgian times, but retaining the alley as an open space. The other is Bishops Court which begins way back in 1227 when Henry III secured a plot of land for the use of Ralph Neville, Bishop of Chichester and Lord Chancellor, on which to build his London residence. Until 1340 the office of Lord Chancellor was by right given to the successive Bishops of Chichester who continued to administer their duties from the London house. It is from this origin that the dusty lane, which John Stow tells us was called New Street, was renamed Chancellors Lane and thence corrupted to the present Chancery Lane. At a time of upheaval the Bishops house later passed into the hands of the Earls of Lincoln who had their London residence just to the west of here, now Lincoln’s Inn.
As you penetrate the narrowest point of the yard and before the junction with Chichester Rents appears you meet with something rather unexpected.
A Victorian urinal. Made of cast iron with a nice geometric design, it was installed here in the late nineteenth century as part of a vague attempt to improve sanitation in the city. Today it is used as storage space for a local resident.
I then found myself a free table at the nearby Seven Stars and after a few sips tried to visualise the alley as it once was. The early stuff when it was home to he bishops was a bit murky but I could see the alley as it was in the 1700s, narrow, dark and rubbish strewn as a Carter turned the air blue with his profanities on meeting another cart coming towards him, neither wishing to give way.
But the overriding image that came to me was of generations of Lawyers visiting the robe suppliers and then nipping off for a crafty restorative in the Seven Stars, which until fifteen years ago was devoid of a toilet, hotfooting it back to chambers while queuing to availing themselves of the handily situated conveniences just outside the entrance.