‘Covent Garden: The 17th Century West End’—A Guest Post by John Pilkington

It may be hard to imagine now, but there was no ‘West End’ in the mid-17th century; nor, for that matter, was there an ‘East End’ as such. There were the two cities of London and Westminster, linked by the Strand, with the tiny community of Charing between them. Oxford Road – a Roman road, not yet known as Oxford Street – ran through open land to the Tyburn gibbet where public hangings were carried out, and on to Uxbridge. Piccadilly, an old road which led to the village of Kensington and eventually to Reading, was then called Portugal Street (in honour of Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza).  

To the north-west of Charing Cross, between there and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Convent Garden had been, since medieval times, a vegetable garden and burial ground for the monks of Westminster Abbey. In the upheaval of Henry VIII’s Dissolution in 1536, the land was seized and passed through various hands until it became the property of Lord Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. Yet it remained undeveloped until the 1630s, when his great-grandson, the 4th Earl, built a large house to the south, on the Strand. He also commissioned the famous architect Inigo Jones, who had travelled in France and Italy, to lay out a tract to the north – the first ‘piazza’ in England. It was originally a railed square, with attractive terraced houses added outside it, and a colonnade under which people could walk. On its western side a church was built for the new residents. Nearby thoroughfares reflected the names of the founder: Bedford Street and Russell Street. While St Paul’s church still stands today, a familiar backdrop for street entertainers.

Bounded roughly by Long Acre on the north side, Drury Lane on the east, Maiden Lane to the south and St Martins Lane on the west, the area soon became fashionable. The first shop opened in 1644; by the 1650s a busy market had grown up selling mainly fruit, veg and flowers. There were also wig-makers and barbers, milliners, a goldsmith and an ironmonger. But it was the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 which accelerated Covent Garden’s growth. That same year, it officially became a parish. Flemish and Huguenot refugees settled, making it something of a polyglot area. In 1670, pressed by the 5th Earl of Bedford, the King would grant the market its royal charter.

Meanwhile, an enterprising man named Robert Baker had bought land in Portugal Street and done well selling ‘Piccadills’ – ornate lace collars for well-off customers; the name stuck. Mansions arose along its length: Berkeley House, Clarendon House and Burlington House (the last is the only one remaining). There was no further westward spread to speak of yet, beyond the thoroughfare approximately where Wardour Street stands today. To the south, however, St James’s Fields was being developed, and Berkshire House had been built in the 1620s by Thomas Howard, a son of the Earl of Suffolk. It would become the home of Barbara Villiers, King Charles’ notorious mistress; when she was made Duchess of Cleveland in 1670 it became Cleveland House.

Urban sprawl is nothing new, and nor was it then. A gradual ribbon development along the Thames, and beyond the city walls along the roads out of London, had been happening since Chaucer’s time. But a number of factors helped Covent Garden’s growth, one of them being that the district largely avoided the Plague of 1665, which was far more severe in the overcrowded City. The following year came the Great Fire, which got no further west than Fetter Lane. Tens of thousands had lost their homes. Shopkeepers who had lost their businesses moved west and set up anew. There was a general westward movement, even if it was only the better-off who could acquire houses.

But in fact, by the early 1660s Covent Garden was already flourishing. Thomas Killigrew had been granted a royal patent to establish a playhouse: The King’s Theatre, adapted from a former riding school, opened in 1663 between Drury Lane and Brydges Street. Fashionable folk came to shop and to be entertained, to see and be seen, to exchange news and gossip. Celebrated residents about the Piazza included the artists Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller, as well as actors and musicians. Street life blossomed. Man-about-town and diarist Samuel Pepys writes in May 1662 of watching ‘an Italian puppet play… which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw.’ The following February he saw ‘the new theatre now a-building in Covent garden, which will be very fine.’

Unsurprisingly, there was another side to Covent Garden. Southwark had for centuries been the ‘Soho of the day’, being outside the rule of the City Fathers and notorious for its brothels, gambling dens and animal baiting, as well as celebrated for theatres like the Globe and the Rose. Now the western suburbs acquired an equally licentious reputation. The old theatres were gone, since their closure on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. With the opening of the King’s (apart from the Duke’s, at Whitefriars, one of only two licensed theatres in the capital), and the important appearance of the first actresses on the stage, there was a new crowd seeking night-life after the theatre show – which for many, meant sex.

Prostitution, already rife in nearby spots like Drury Lane, soon spread to the Piazza itself. There were large numbers of women for hire, often nicknamed ‘Covent Garden nuns’ or ‘spells’. Some solicited openly outside the theatre, others used the side streets or the colonnade. Some of the flower-sellers – the forerunners of Eliza Doolittle, who insisted she was ‘a good girl’ – changed roles after dark, and no doubt earned a greater income by so doing. Male prostitutes also existed, and in 1681 the first ‘bagnio’ (bathhouse) opened, copied from those in Venice which had in turn been inspired by the hummums of Constantinople. It was in effect a male brothel and a place of assignation. While female brothels thrived outside the Piazza in locations such as Long Acre, Bow Street and Brydges Street. Pepys writes in 1664 and 1665 of ‘all the bawdy houses’ in Long Acre, and of ‘abundance of loose women [who] stood at the doors which, God forgive me, did put evil thoughts in me’.

Bordeel, Jeremias Falck, after Johann Liss, 1655 – 1677, Rijksmuseum, public domain.

And yet, we should not think of Covent garden as merely a place of low-life. That existed, but so did many fine houses, taverns and fashionable restaurants. Among those Pepys visited were Oxford Kate’s in Bow Street, Chatelin’s and The Fleece; at the Rose Tavern he drank ‘burnt wine’ on Christmas Eve 1667. And even more notable perhaps, from a historian’s viewpoint, was the rise of the coffee house.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the coffee house culture, which began in London in the 1650s. These exclusively male establishments had spread from the Middle East via Venice; the first one opened in Cornhill in 1652. A decade later there were many in Covent Garden (by the early 18th century, the number in London as a whole would be well over 500). Unlike the taverns they sold no alcohol, only coffee brewed in great pots, at a penny a bowl. They provided a place for men to meet, to read the London Gazette which was always on hand, and to talk freely, acquiring the nickname ‘the penny universities’. Most developed distinct clienteles, being known as haunts of one political faction or another. At the famous Will’s Coffee House in Russell Street writers and wits could be found, like the celebrated playwright John Dryden. Pepys would visit, among others, Miles’s on the corner of Bow Street, or perhaps the Turk’s Head or the Brown Bear. Like others, he saw the house as a kind of men’s club, writing as early as January 1660: ‘[I] went to the coffee club, and heard very good discourse.’

So popular and so pervasive were the coffee houses, in fact, that there was a backlash. A campaign started, culminating in The Women’s Petition Against Coffee of 1674, though it was unsuccessful. Moreover, the King himself soon began to take a dim view of what went on among the drinkers of the brewed bean. The places allowed debate and dissent to flourish; he heard of the spread of ‘scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers.’ As a result, in 1675 he attempted to ban the coffee houses, but the public outcry was so great that the bill was abandoned almost immediately.

The coffee house was here to stay. In the early eighteenth century, however, London’s relentless expansion would sweep past Covent Garden, eventually creating a new West End. Leicester Square had already been laid out by 1670, named after the 2nd Earl of Leicester. Oxford Road became Oxford Street, with shops as well as residencies. Yet the Piazza retained its distinct character with its bustling market, its proximity to the Drury Lane Theatre, and with Southampton Street providing a new access from the Strand. The Royal Opera House opened in 1732. By then, however, the better-off residents were moving on. Rents became lower, and the parish’s reputation fell with them.

Today’s Covent Garden remains a lively place to visit, to eat and drink (especially coffee) and be entertained. The Piazza may have changed, and yet its geographical outline is broadly the same as that which our bewigged, sword-carrying forebears trod 350 years ago. I wish I had been there to mingle with them.

John Pilkington has been a writer for over thirty years. He has written plays for radio and the theatre, as well as television scripts for the BBC. He is also the author of more than twenty books including the popular Thomas the Falconer and Betsy Brand historical mysteries for adults, and the Elizabethan Mysteries for children, the last one of which was shortlisted for the 2010 Young Quills Award. His last series, set in the early 17th century, features government spy or ‘intelligencer’ Martin Marbeck, described by Booklist as ‘a seventeenth-century James Bond’. The Thomas the Falconer series is being reissued as e-books by Sharpe Books. As always, he is at work on a new historical novel.

To find out more, see his website at www.johnpilkington.co.uk

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