London’s Alleys – Steelyard Passage, EC4 – IanVisits


This Victorian era brick arch underneath Cannon Street station looks mundane, but rich in hidden history.

The passage known as Steelyard is in memory of the previous occupants of the area, which has in recorded history had just two owners. Today its the railway, but before them, right back to the 11th century, it was an enclave within London controlled by the Germans.

Well, technically, the Hanseatic League, which covered parts of modern day Germany and Netherlands.

What we had, right in the heart of London was a mini-walled off city of its own, with its own laws and privileges, trading with the rest of the country. Although their fortunes waxed and waned, it was during a good period when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne that their privileges started to be curtailed. It was King James I who reopened the Steelyard, but it never recovered and most of it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

Although the area was rebuilt, it was done as part of the wider City of London, and while the land still belonged to the League, the idea of a separate walled off area was dead.

The cities of Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg finally sold their holding in London to the South Eastern Railway in 1852, for the construction of the railway station that sits above.

On the outside eastern side is a small plaque erected to remember the former landlords of the area.

The railway arch that remembers the former owners was just a random railway arch, and for many years, a home to the homeless.

A project to clean it up in 2012 has seen modern lighting added, and a curious artwork installed. If you visit during the daytime, listen out for the sounds of the former riverside wharfs played through loudspeakers. If you visit at night, lighting effects play an illusion of water lapping up against the victorian brickwork.

The passage has been cut into by a modern glass walkway which links up parts of a local gym, and allows the chlorine smell of the swimming pool to percolate into the tunnel.

A wooden henge has been installed to divert people away from the storage areas which are still used for rubbish bins, and further down, the occasional car park.

Another recent addition is the concrete and steel bracing needed to reinforce the old brick arch. Some may dislike it, but when done well, modern additions to old buildings often enhance both, and they just about manage it here. The alternative would have been to line the entire tunnel in a skin of concrete, so this is a pleasing compromise.

Also as you leave, note the two cannons on the western side. That’s naughty, as Cannon Street is nothing to do with cannons, of the military sort. The area used to be known as Candlewick, from the production of candles, and cannon street is just a corruption of that.

There is still a Ward of Candlewick in the City of London, but Cannon Street station is in the neighbouring ward of Dowgate, which has long amused  me.

A final thought, there were attempts from the 1980s to 2003 plans to divert the Thames Path away from this railway arch to a new footbridge which would have run along the foreshore as an elevated walkway above the water. Sadly, never built.



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