A very brief history of 1 Victoria Street

Posted on Sep 5, 2013

The site now occupied by the high-rise offices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the Eastern corner of Victoria Street has a colourful history. At various times it was home to alms houses for the poor, offices for solicitors, pulpit for Calvinist preachers, and the site of the first printing press where William Caxton achieved the very “first book ever printed in these kingdoms”.

19th Century

Map Of London 1868, By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S.

Map Of London 1868, By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S.
Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S.

From 1863, the Eastern corner of Victoria Street was occupied by the Westminster Chambers – a giant office complex for agents, solicitors, and others involved with Parliament or the law courts of Westminster. It was built as part of a regeneration project and the architects, Banks and Barry, intended it to:

“form a striking entrance to this great street, and redeem it from the waste and desolate character which it has presented for so many years.”

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You can find a more detailed description of the building and its uses here. 

17-18th Century (and before)

Before Victoria Street was built, two main thoroughfares ran directly West from the area around the Abbey and Dean’s Yard: Orchard Street and Tothill Street. The modern Victoria Street slices through first Tothill, then Orchard, then on to Old Pye Street as it travels North West.

A bit of guesswork comparing a number of old maps is needed to work out exactly where the current corner of Victoria Street would have been, but it is certainly within a small area which was occupied by New Way and the Almonry which started adjacent the Sanctuary of the Abbey precincts and occupied a large area towards the North West (from the Abbey). This area has a facinating history.

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In the New Way resided the well-known Sir Robert Pye, from whom Old and New Pye Streets derive their names, and the husband of Anne Hampden, the “patriot’s” daughter. The New Way Chapel stood, according to Hopwood’s map of 1801, at the west end of the Great Almonry, opposite the entrance to Jeffery’s Buildings from New Tothill Street: here the celebrated Calvinist, Romaine, used to preach, previous to his election as Lecturer of St. Dunstan’s-in-theWest.

The Almonry & Great Almonry, Westminster

Close to the Sanctuary, and indeed adjoining its western side, was the Eleemosynary or Almonry, where the alms of the Abbey were daily doled out to the poor and needy. But it is far more memorable on quite another account—namely, as the first place in which a printing-press was set up in England. This was, says Pennant, in the year 1474, when William Caxton, encouraged by the learned Thomas Milling, then abbot, produced here “The Game and Play of the Chesse” “the first book ever printed in these kingdoms. There is,” he adds, “a slight difference about the exact spot where it was printed; but all agree that it was within the precincts of this religious house.”

The Almonry was a building, analogous to our more prosaic modern alms-houses, erected by King Henry VII and his mother, the Lady Margaret, to the glory of God, for twelve poor men and poor women. The building was afterwards converted into lodgings for the choir-men of the Abbey, and called Choristers’ Rents. These were pulled down at the beginning of the 19th century. Hard by stood the Chapel of St. Anne, now commemorated by St. Anne’s Lane. This lane occupies part of the ground covered by the orchard and fruit-gardens of the Abbey; and close to the present Dean’s Yard gate were “The Elms.” Across the court ran the granary, parallel with what was the prior’s lodging.

The Almonry was divided into two parts: the Great Almonry consisted of two oblong portions, parallel to the two Tothill Streets, and connected by a narrow lane (the entrance being from Dean’s Yard); and that the Little Almonry, running southward, stood at its eastern end.

More information & sources:

‘Westminster Abbey: The sanctuary and almonry’, Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878), pp. 483-491.
URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45169

Crace Collection of Maps of London, British Library.