London Off The Tourist Map: No. 2 – St James’s


St James’s is part of Westminster, and is not an area one naturally strolls through, but it’s used in a lot of films. It’s an odd spot, though, formerly residential (albeit built for the aristocracy), now entirely corporate and the home of embassies.

St James’s Palace is the most senior royal palace in the land, built on the site of a leper hospital. Lower Regent Street is now officially known as ‘Regent Street St James’, and despite the Westminster ward being the home to Jermyn Street, Pall Mall ‘Clubland’ and the Haymarket it’s pretty boring – except for this bit, Crown Passage, a narrow street which splits off from Pall Mall opposite Marlborough House and is home to the Red Lion, one of the oldest boozers in the West End still in operation.

Like all proper mad old pubs it has a mad old pub tradition; on the last Saturday in January, Cavaliers in full costume crowd into the Red Lion to lament the death of their hero Charles I, who was executed in Whitehall on 30th January,1649.

For years I worked at an ad agency called Masius in St James’s Square, near where policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead. The square was also home to a very old-fashioned bank (marble pillars, alabaster tiles, mahogany counters, all gone) and the London Library, founded by Thomas Carlyle, one of the city’s most exclusive and expensive private libraries. TS Elliot, a long-serving president of the Library, argued in 1952 in an address to members that, ‘whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster to civilisation’. But you need dosh to become a monthly member. I discovered that the membership rate drops according to your age. Entering my DOB online, I found that I could get in for peanuts, which was depressing.

Another place in St James’s interested me. Watching the original Merchant/Ivory film of ‘Howard’s End’ again (it’s aged very nicely) I became fascinated with the flat that Mr Wilcox takes. I managed to track the building down; it’s here, at 51, St James’s Court, off Buckingham Gate, although the Schlegels’ flat wasn’t opposite. The area is worth a wander through simply because it’s not often considered as a separate ward of the borough anymore.

13 comments on “London Off The Tourist Map: No. 2 – St James’s”

  1. Richard Burton says:

    I do miss London’s hidden gems and interesting pubs (I used to spend a lot of time in the Intrepid Fox). There’s not a lot of interesting architecture where I live now, but I do recommend Googling Sway Tower for a bit of odd history.

  2. Roger says:

    I used to spend a lot of time looking for London’s interesting pubs – the only problem was if I did well I couldn’t remember which pubs they were or exactly where they were, so I had to look for them again.
    Well, that was my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    That is a most bizarre piece of architecture up there. Looks like the designer spent a little too much time in the pub further up.
    In my 17th Century Eng. Lit. class we had a minute’s silence to commemorate the King’s head.

  4. Jan says:

    St James can still surprise you with its sneaky little corners there is a very old underground tunnel which connects Floris the scent shop to St James’s Palace.( Now all locked up and separated off.)

    Floris the very same scent shop contains display cabinets the owners bought cheaply when the Great Exhibition left Hyde Park.

    Also if you leave Trafalgar square and head down into Whitehall on your left just as you leave behind that terrace of tourist tat shops is a tiny little road called Craig’s Court. Now this is a funny little dead end street right where Whitehall palace would have ended. Some painter who lived down there (his names left me ) knocked about with Lady Hamilton – more famous for knocking Lord Nelson off. Nelson must keep a beady eye on his rivals old address from his roost nearby. Apparently the artist finished with Lady Em well b4 she teamed up with Nelson.

    Also in a few of the early Sherlock Holmes novels + stories Sherlocks business offices were situated in Craig court. Funny how Sherlocks Baker street address is so famous but this address almost forgotten.

    Oh and there’s a old telephone exchange down Craig Court you see loads of Open reach vans turning in and out of there. There’s an Open Reach display team parked down there sometimes. Well that telephone exchange is one of the entrance points to the infamous ‘Q’ tunnels

    There’s a clutch of other places round there but it’s been a long day….

    Oh just remembered one before I go. – Buckingham Gate behind Westminster City hall there’s a large hall which last time I was in town looked like it might be in the queue for demolition. Something was occurring there. This place was/is about 40 yards west of the blue boy and girl statues (- remnants of 18C school buildings)The statues are In Buckingham Gate outside a tiny detached shop which is now or a few months ago was a bridal shop. This large red brick building was used for many years by the Metropolitan police as a feeding centre for officers employed on demonstrations, it was conveniently close to NSY. Of course now NSY is to become another hotel Well Buckingham Gate Feeding centre was famous because in that building the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic took place.

  5. Jan says:

    This is what happens when I go on thinking about things late on ONE more funny little spot in St James. Just about opposite St James Palace next door to Berry Bros the wine merchants is a tiny little courtyard that I am pretty certain doesn’t appear on the A-Z.

    This is Pickering Place the site of the Texas Embassy though I am pretty certain they called it summat else – legation or something similar. It’s is marked with a plaque. Texas did not become part of the U.S. until 1845 so had its own diplomatic premises in town. Very odd set up. I think I have written about it on this blog before. Cos Helen contributed stuff to the post. Tiny Odd pedestrian square Pickering Place WC2.

    Course Berry Bros is very interesting premises – that street is like a honeycomb. But I can’t drivel on much longer must go bed. Night.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – you are quite correct about Craigs Court Telecom building being an entrance to the Whitehall tunnel system. The fact is well known, and I own several books which mention it.(the other well known access point is via the door adjacent to the I.C.A. at the bottom of the Duke Of York’s steps, on The Mall. Behind the door is a flight of steps, leading down, and completely unconnected with the I.C.A. Stephen Smith’s great book ‘Underground London’ mentions this in some detail. Anyhow, I wrote about Craigs Court on an internet forum, and I received a flurry of angry queries, and had my entry removed.(much like dropping a pin on the Google Earth image of G.C.H.Q., and labelling it something like: “Nosy bastards”. It’ll be gone next time you look). Another interesting thing about Craigs Court is that, somebody very important got his horse-drawn carriage stuck in the entrance, and, after fruitless hours of trying to shift it, had to face the indignity of having the roof sawn off, and getting out that way. I believe that this led to pavements and roadways in the capital being made separate entities, and having their edges delineated by a kerb. Berry Brothers & Rudd sounds a fascinating place, and their cellars do indeed extend well beyond the ground level building. One of the more fun loving royals, in days past, had a tunnel from one of the royal buildings nearby, that led to a door in BBros.&R’s cellar, so that booze could be collected without the hoi polloi being shocked at how much Malmsey the Duke of Clarence had drunk this week.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    (Until or unless he drowned in it, of course. I always thought that reference was intended to refer to the man drinking himself to death, not literally drowning.)

  8. Jan says:

    Yes Ian you are quite right some bigwig couldn’t get back to parliament to respond to a division bell I think and because he had copped the strop the legislation that brought about placing pavements was brought in. Seems mad doesn’t that some guys carriage getting stuck in the mud in that little dead end street brought about paving and improved road surfaces? Weird.

  9. Jan says:

    In both Mayfair and Soho there’s really odd set ups so that you can access most business premises one to the next without leaving the buildings terrace. The buildings being linked at both cellar and ground floor level. Mayfair and gentleman’s club lands are just like that but with the added complication of their extensive wine cellars. Think the RAC clubs swimming pool originally drew its water from an underground spring. The presence of springs kept wine cellars cool but hopefully not damp.

    Very interesting that they were thinking of using an underground river possible Westbourne or one of its tributary streams to cool Victoria underground station.

    Behind the Hilton on Park Lane where the Windows on the World restaurant and bar is there’s a cobbled street running parallel with Hertford street. This cobbled street runs behind and to the N side of the big hotel and the north side of this street slopes upward noticeably. (The building nearby is Al Fayeds security base controlling operations on night of Diana P of W. Death.)well this slope is the course of the River Westbourne or one of its tributary streams still there still making its mark on the land.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – shortly before I wrote the above, I had watched, for the ‘n’th time, the brilliant 1973 movie, ‘Theatre Of Blood’ starring Vincent Price. He plays, with obvious great enjoyment, Edward Lionheart, an over the hill, and notoriously bad Shakespearian actor. He is shunned for an award by a guild of critics. To cut a long story short, he cuts a swathe through these critics, offing each in a manner described or suggested by the Bard. One, of course, is drowned in a butt of Malmsey. It’s a superb black comedy, with Vincent Price, and all the cast, enjoying themselves. It’s on the same lines as his two ‘Doctor Phibes’ movies – beauifully made and shot, slightly campy, and immense fun. Vincent Price will always be my favourite filmstar, bar none.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Okay, Ian, I have Theatre of Blood on my search list. That bunch of Plantagenets is right at the beginning of the Tudors, which I think of as “my” period. Henry VII is the beginning of English involvement with what is now Canada so I can almost excuse the interest in foreign history.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – when I was at secondary school (when it were all fields round ‘ere, etc.) History lessons began with Henry Tudor, and ended with James the First of England, Sixth of Scotland. Frustratingly missing out any bits that might be construed as interesting to a bunch of 12 year olds. I actually learned more about that period of history from my ‘Ladybird’ books, than from any damn lesson. We did have a teacher who would give out homework credits if you did something off of your own back… Enough credits, and that was you free of any more homework for the rest of the term. Occasionally, we’d do a lesson on an invention, or work of art, or building from any part of history, and I wrote out the old Aesop’s fable of ‘The Fox And The Grapes’ in Old English, and read it out to the class. Voila! No more homework. I was also fascinated by contemporary reports of James I – his somewhat casual attitude to personal hygiene, especially. I read an account by a foreign dignitary who was presented to the King, and, as a mark of fealty, shook the proffered Royal hand, which, said the dignitary, felt as if His Majesty was wearing a satin glove. The King, however, was not wearing gloves, shunning them instead for a layer of filth. This was not an isolated occurrence, apparently. Like French Royal courtiers using the long corridors of Versailles as the world’s grandest toilet (which I learned from my French teacher), these are the things that would make more children interested in history – you only have to see how successful the ‘Horrible History’ books are.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Does anyone know the name of the bank that had a museum of curiosities in it, that one could visit if they had time to kill before visiting the manager for a bollocking?

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