Back Alley is a small alleyway off of Northumberland Alley.
How we love to use figurative terms of description; they form such a distinctive part of our daily life that we would probably experience great difficulty if they were somehow barred from our vocabulary. Nicknames applied to friends (or enemies), relating to some particular feature of their make-up or a habit is an easy method of making reference to certain persons. For generations people have used terms and names of endearment in casual conversation and the necessity for such usage was even more so in times past than it is now.
Back Alley has been here, under the same name, for centuries and was quite simply the back access passage to houses on Aldgate
, and because at that time it had no name, it was figuratively referred to as the ’Back Alley’. It now runs along the rear of the General Accident Insurance Company and, although it is still fairly narrow, its dimensions have been greatly increased over the years. Whereas there would have been many gateways along here in times past, there are now no access doors at all.
There were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of ’back’s’ in London but nearly all have long since been renamed or demolished and only one other survivor remains in the City: Back Hill, Clerkenwell.
In all parts of the country there are still un-named alleys at the rear of houses and in some areas the term ’backs’ is in use to this day. Gully, jitty, ginnel, entry, are all terms used to describe a minor thoroughfare without any formal name.
Many of London’s access roads and even some of today’s main roads started out as nothing more than narrow passages leading to back entrances of houses on major highways. As we walk around London, many of these are easily identifiable but others are not nearly so obvious.
Wandering down some of London’s ’back alleys’ can certainly be a satisfying and fascinating experience but there have always been those alleys where passage without necessity has been avoided like the dreaded plague. During the hours of darkness, narrow alleys behind old houses, where antiquated lamps give off poor lighting, or worst still, illumination is none existent, are all too frequently no-go areas. This situation not only applies to modern times, it has always been like that. Dingy black corners were the ideal lurking grounds for thieves and those intent on having a ’good time’ at the terrifying expense of their victims. Beware!