Above: View looking east in Cloth Court at the street called Cloth Fair.
The large open space that was originally known as West Smithfield – to distinguish it from East Smithfield near the Tower of London – is today generally just known as Smithfield. The two open spaces were rather like large village greens. In Tudor times they were places of recreation, locations where cattle could graze with plenty of grassed areas crossed by footpaths. Smithfield is still quite open but sadly it is now, in the main, covered in tarmac with just a small open space, used as a garden mainly by lorry-drivers and workmen on a tea-break. The area was until the mid-1800s in use as one of the largest cattle markets in England. Once each year there was a different sort of market, accompanied by merry-making, called Bartholomew Fair because it was held for several days starting on St Bartholomew’s Day – 24 August. One speciality of the fair – as well as the jugglers, clowns, and the hog-roasts – was a Cloth Fair when itinerant traders brought cloth to sell to the London residents.
Just off Smithfield today is a narrow street still known as Cloth Fair as a reminder of the unusual market. If you walk along it you will find that one of the even smaller turnings is called Cloth Court. Although it has one main secret, there are also another two that should be mentioned. Firstly, as can be seen, it is a very attractive alleyway and typical of the way such thoroughfares looked up until the 19th century. Secondly, it has a Blue Plaque on the wall recording the fact that Sir John Betjaman, the English writer, Poet Laureate and broadcaster, used live in Cloth Court (from 1954 until 1973).
These two facts would normally be sufficient to cause Cloth Court to be singled out for special mention and recommended for a visit by those interested in seeing unusual alleyways in London. However, these facts are not the reason for writing this blog. It has an even more unusual feature that should be pointed out. If you look carefully at the view of the alleyway, you will see that it has a building on the left with an overhanging first storey. It has been used as offices for many years. In Victorian times the workers in the office looked out of the window at a bare brick wall on the other side of the alley.
The bare brick wall contained a window frame that was bricked up. Between 1691 and 1851 house-holders had to pay ‘window tax’ according to how many windows were on their dwellings. Many people simply bricked up windows that they did not really need to save money. Some time after the Second World War a firm of architects, bored with their uninteresting view across the alley of a bricked-up window, commissioned the painter Brian Thomas to make it look ‘real’ by creating a domestic scene. The painting remained until the 1990s and then, fearing that the weather would affect it, a sheet of clear Perspex was added as a cover. Unfortunately the weather has caused the Perspex sheet to become clouded and that prevents the public from seeing the original painting with any clarity.
Above: Looking up from street level at the painted window.
The view of the painted window was taken in the 1970s – long before the Perspex sheet was added. The general theme of the painting can just be made out. It seems that ‘Our Jack’ has come home from travels at sea, because the figure on the left is entering the room dressed as a sailor, holding his ‘Jack Tar’ sailor hat. On the right is ‘Mum’ with open arms greeting her son with ‘Dad’ in the background. The young lady in the centre appears to have fainted – perhaps with astonishment at her boy-friend returning unexpectedly. The scene is finished off with the inevitable lace curtains at the window and pot plants on the window-sill. Whatever the scenario may be, the false ‘window’ is certainly a curiosity. It is the only one of its type in London and, because it is so high up in a narrow alleyway, it is often missed by most visitors to the area.