Of Alley, London
There is an interesting story behind this very odd street name
Of Alley must be one of the oddest street names to be found anywhere. The reason for the name rests with a remarkable character who lived during the 17th century. This was George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham.
George Villiers Senior and York House
The 1st Duke, who had the same name as his son, had been a prominent figure during the reign of King James I and the early years of the reign of King Charles I. The relationship between Villiers and King James was more than that of courtier and monarch, and it was an ill-guarded secret that the two men were lovers. Even so, Villiers married and had four children, one of whom died in infancy. The third child, George, was only seven months old when his father was murdered and the fourth, Francis, was born posthumously.
In 1621 George Villiers Senior had become the owner of York House, a 13th century mansion that had been much improved over the intervening years and passed through a number of distinguished hands, including Queen Mary I’s Archbishop of York, hence the name.
The house stood on London’s Strand, which at that time adjoined the River Thames. Villiers built a “Watergate” that led, via a set of steps, to a landing-stage on the river. This is the only part of the property that can still be seen today, and it is separated from the Thames by the gardens of the Victoria Embankment, built between 1864 and 1870.
York House was lost to the Royalist Villiers family during the Civil War but they regained it at the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660. However, the 2nd Duke only used it for ceremonial occasions.
George Villiers Junior and the later history of York House
The 2nd Duke of Buckingham led a turbulent life that alternated between being in and out of royal favour. He fought in the Civil War on the Royalist side and, after the execution of King Charles I, joined Charles II in exile abroad. However, his loyalty came into question when he began negotiations with the Commonwealth government of Oliver Cromwell.
He was not fully trusted by the Cromwell government either, and spent some time in Tower of London. His earlier marriage to the daughter of Thomas Fairfax, Cromwell’s foremost general, helped him to get out of the Tower but did him few favours with the Royalists!
However, he was able to get back into Charles’s good books after the Restoration, although this did not last and he was to spend another spell in the Tower, followed by more cycles of favour and disgrace.
But what of York House? Villiers sold it to Nicholas Barbon, a property developer, in 1670, after which it was demolished and several streets of houses built in its place. Villiers insisted, in the contract of sale, that his name should be preserved in the names of the streets, and that is what happened.
Thus every element of his name and title – George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham - became a street name, although not all of them are visible today. Villiers Street runs down the side of Charing Cross Station and Buckingham Street runs parallel to it. George Court is a narrow alleyway that is impassable to vehicles. Duke Street later became part of John Adam Street.
But that left one part of his name unused, this being “Of”. It is not surprising that a street named “Of” would not be particularly prominent, and that is why it was only an alley. The silliness of “Of Alley” was too much for later rulers of the city, which is why it was renamed York Place. However, the name has not disappeared entirely, which is why the nameplate still reads “York Place, Formerly Of Alley” (the latter being in very small print!)