Entitlement-on-Thames

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, sporting facial hair that would pass muster in Hoxton and Dalston today.

At the bottom of Villiers Street, just next to Gordon’s Wine Bar, is a set of steps leading down to Watergate Walk, a pathway that cuts through to the Adelphi and doubles as a sort of pub garden for Gordon’s. If, lockdown notwithstanding, you fancy taking your glass of vintage Madeira outside you will find yourself staring at a marooned fragment of the lost riverside landscape that once characterized this area. This is York Watergate, a richly rusticated Renaissance structure, a stately gateway to nowhere. It was built in the 1620s as a private dock for York House, a mega-luxe townhouse that once stood on this spot: a relic of an era when the Strand was a district of palaces and a private water frontage a prerequisite for every Jacobean plutocrat (the 17th century equivalent of your own helicopter pad).

The Watergate was added to York House by George Villiers, the flamboyant, corrupt and generally ghastly 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had taken possession of the mansion after engineering the political demise of its previous owner, philosopher Francis Bacon, which seems to have been fairly characteristic behaviour on the Duke’s part. Buckingham pulled down Bacon’s beloved home (which had existed in various guises for several hundred years) and rebuilt York House in a manner more fitting to his own extrovert sensibility, furnishing it with luxuries and fine art. Despite his abrasive and thrusting unpleasantness, Buckingham was an inescapable personality in the courts of James 1st and Charles 1st, his considerable influence attributed to King James’s fondness for his profile. Whether or not the relationship between King and courtier was a full-blown affair is a matter of scholarly debate, but here’s James writing to Buckingham:

The Lord of Heaven send you a sweet and blithe wakening, all kind of comfort in your sanctified bed, and bless the fruits thereof that I may have sweet bedchamber boys to play me with, and this is my daily prayer, sweet heart.

Buckingham was a conspicuously terrible diplomat – the Spanish ambassador to London called for his execution following a mission to Madrid – a compulsive intriguer and an unsuccessful military leader, none of which hindered his political advancement. Buckingham continued his career under Charles 1st and York Watergate is festooned with carved anchors to advertise his status as an admiral, despite the fact that he oversaw one of the worst naval disasters of the era: a botched 1627 raid against the French at La Rochelle in which he lost 4,000 out of his 7,000 men. Drenched, as we would now say, in Teflon, Buckingham’s unstoppable progress was finally ended the following year, when a disgruntled soldier called Felton stabbed him to death in a Portsmouth pub. Buckingham’s unpopularity was such that his assassination was widely celebrated and Felton was acclaimed as a folk hero. During the Commonwealth York House belonged to Cromwell’s associate Thomas Fairfax, a period that saw the mansion stripped of its pictures, sold off because they offended Puritan sensibilities. After the Restoration York House was occupied by another Buckingham, the 2nd Duke and another George, who by means of smart dynastic gamesmanship happened to be married to Fairfax’s daughter (and sole heir).

George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, by Peter Lely. (National Portrait Gallery.)

George Jnr. proved to be no less reckless than his father; in fact, he was a sort of cartoon image of the Restoration rake: vastly rich and vastly profiligate, lecherous and bisexual, a lethal duellist and a minor poet of skill. The 2nd Duke ingratiated himself with the restored king and pursued a life of pristinely aggressive hedonism. One episode concerned Buckingham’s mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who he had installed at another, up-river, Thames-side mansion. None of this played well with the Countess’s husband the Earl of Shrewsbury, who naively objected to the appropriation of his wife. Buckingham challenged the Shrewsbury to a duel, placing Shrewsbury at a considerable disadvantage, since the Duke’s skill with the epee was very widely admired. The duel took place in Barnes, perhaps the only exciting thing that has ever happened in Barnes, and – predictably – resulted in the deaths of Shrewsbury and another of his party, skewered on the end of Buckingham’s sword. Pepys reports on all this, drily noting that the countess is: ‘a whore to the Duke of Buckingham’ and that the Duke himself ‘is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore’. (The Duchess of Shrewsbury had form. In 1662 two of her previous lovers fought a duel over her, leaving one seriously wounded and his ‘second’ stone dead.)

But although Buckingham was one of the richest shits in England he was permanently short of cash, and in 1672 he flogged York House to a developer for £30,000, who promptly pulled it down and built streets upon the site. One typically egocentric condition that Buckingham insisted on in the Deed of Sale was the provision that his name and full title should be commemorated in the new development: hence George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street and – wait for it – Of Alley. (In a nice turn of history, Pepys ended up living in one of the houses on the site, 12 Buckingham St.; but don’t go looking for Of Alley, it has been re-christened York Place.) After that, Buckingham, continued to lose money, fell out with Charles II, spent a spell as a prisoner in the Tower, and died, without heir and in reduced circumstances, in 1687. Anyway, as you sip your hypothetical glass of Madeira in that hypothetical future when you are allowed to visit Gordon’s pub garden, indeed any pub garden, you can stare at the sole survivor of York House and wonder which of London’s contemporary landmarks is due a similar fate.

York Watergate today. Photo: Valentine Hamms.

As fate would have it, the 2nd Duke’s much re-built country seat, Cliveden (in Buckinghamshire, naturally), became the pivotal venue for The Profumo Affair, another salacious collision of power and socially transgressive sexual relations; but that’s fun for another time.

See also: The Poor Wee Drinkur.

A Quick Trip Round The Bermudas, By Way Of Porridge Island and Saffron Burrows

Goodwin’s Court seen from Bedfordbury.

From The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose, 1785:
‘PORRIDGE ISLAND. An alley leading from St. Martin’s church-yard to Round-court, chiefly inhabited by cooks, who cut off ready-dressed meat of all sorts, and also sell soup.’

From Cunningham’ s Handbook of London,1850:
‘PORRIDGE ISLAND. A paved alley or footway, near the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, destroyed in 1829, when the great rookery (of which Bedfordbury is still a sample) was removed from about the Strand and St. Martin’s-lane. [See Bermudas]. It was filled with cooks’ shops, and was cant name. The real name is, I believe, unknown.’
*
‘THE BERMUDAS: A nest or rookery of obscure alleys and avenues running between the bottom of St Martin’ s Lane, Bedford St. and Chandos St.’.

As Cunningham’s Handbook says, not all of the ‘great rookery’ disappeared, and even now fragments may be seen amidst the glitz of the modern city. A notable survivor is Goodwin’s Court, just off Bedfordbury. A hovel-alley turned West End ornament (notwithstanding a pervasive stench of piss), Goodwin’s Court features beautiful bowed shop-fronts, 18th century in style, although they are no longer shops and God knows what they are now. When I was a boy my parents took me to a show-business party in the house at the Bedfordbury end, the one with the staircase that straddles the alley. The host was the late Tony Sympson, an actor whose family were instrumental in preserving Goodwin’s Court against destruction (this was when practically all of WC2 was slated for demolition). I remember a jewel-box of a house composed of implausibly large rooms, their Regency elegance constituting an act of defiance. The house is still someone’s home; perhaps the most desirable place to live in all the West End. Next door is Giovanni’s, a discreet Italian restaurant popular with old-school actors and producers (the house red is especially good value, but watch yourself).

On the corner of Bedfordbury and Chandos Place is a generic boozer called The Marquis of Granby. This pub is nowhere near as nice as The Harp a couple of doors down but The Marquis is of interest because it was once The Hole in the Wall, an authentic 17th Century dive at a time when this area was a scary district. Supposedly, the Hole in the Wall was where the legendary highwayman Claude Duval was finally arrested and taken into custody. That was in 1670 and Duval had been at large for several years by then, his reputation as the prototype gallant highwayman disseminated widely in Restoration England. Duval was a Frenchman from Normandy and, possibly, an ex-mercenary; but his biography has become fused with myth. The legend has him asking permission to dance a minuet with a lady whose jewels he had just stolen from her husband’s coach; but that tale derives from a satire by Pope that mocked the idea of the dashing thief on horseback (and, not incidentally, alluded that the handsome young crook was a molly). Notions of genteel criminality were an even bigger joke then than they are now, yet somehow the send-up became the romantic tableau (as per Wm. Frith, see below). In any case, it seems unlikely that he was arrested at the Hole in the Wall, although he was definitely was hanged at Tyburn, aged 27. The legend holds that his body was then conveyed to St Paul’s churchyard, about a hundred yards from The Hole, in a torch-lit procession flanked by hordes of weeping women who may or may not have been mugged by him. That’s less likely. And there was never a monument to him in the church, as is often stated. In fact, so much of this story is bollocks that I feel like a bit of a tit mentioning it.

William Frith’s Victorian imagining of Claude Duval: ‘Grand Theft Minuet’.

Behind the Marquis of Granby is a slim, dagger-shaped passageway called Brydges Place. At the thicker end of its wedge are the back doors to The Marquis and The Harp, the latter being one of the nicest West End of all pubs, as well as a discreet entrance for Two Brydges Place, a civilized drinking club. The eastern end of the passage offers many possibilities for drinking, socialising and making odd connections in general, especially on a warm night when punters overflow from the pubs into the alley. The stars are more vivid when you can only see a narrow slit of sky, assuming you can see anything at all past the sodium yellow of the streetlights. Due to its secluded aspect, Brydges Place is a refuge for the homeless, the covered yard next to The Harp being a place where they can gather in considerable numbers. At the sharper end of its point it acquires a grimmer aspect and one usually has to be careful not to trip over at least one filthy sleeping bag, with or without its occupant. Here, the antique desperation of The Bermudas still persists: Brydges Place remains a rookery in miniature, an authentically oppressive period setting for contemporary deprivation. Fittingly for the survival of an ancient slum, Brydges Place narrows to shoulder-width at the point where it debouches into St Martin’s Lane. This limits its utility as a cut-through, especially when there are crowds emerging after a show. (Remember when there were shows in London?) One evening, as I trundled down it towards St.Martin’s Lane, I noticed a very beautiful woman waiting for me to clear so she and her friend could enter the alley: I recognised her as being the celebrated actress Saffron Burrows. I clocked her cheekbones and made eye contact, whereupon she said to her companion: ‘We’ll have to wait for this large man to exit before we can go down here’. A fraction of a second later, I stepped on a loose paving slab and my desert-booted foot dropped into filthy rainwater up to my ankle. Smooth, smooth, smooth.

Brydges Place, looking towards St.Martin’s Lane.

Class, Sex, Fruit

William Hogarth: ‘Morning’ from ‘The Four Times of Day’ (1738)

As London attempts a return to some sort of normality, Covent Garden’s website offers a handy list of the measures that visitors may expect: social distancing, queuing protocols, hand santiser stations, roads closed to traffic to improve pedestrian access, etc. .The photos on the site are a bit like architects’ visualisations, with figures added for scale. Covid-19 seems to have completed the cauterization of the area, a process that started when the fruit and veg market decamped to distant Nine Elms in the mid- 1970s. It seems astonishing now, but civic functionaries at the GLC intended to flatten the market buildings and replace everything with a giant mall. Public protests eventually forced the GLC to abandon its planned redevelopment; but when the market re-opened in 1980, residents and campaigners felt that they had won a pyrrhic victory. Covent Garden became a Disneyfied retail playground: heritage frosting for the up-market chains, living statues and gaudy stalls peddling trinket-shit to out-of- towners.

Covent Garden is so over-familiar and so despised by Londoners that it is worth remembering what it represents: the only Renaissance square in the city, Inigo Jones’s homage to all things Italian (inspired by the piazza of Livorno) and a gimlet-eyed speculative venture on the part of the Earl of Bedford, who owned the land. It was intended to be an up-market residential development but the Civil War scared off the smarter residents, and by the 18th century it was a full-blown party district, London’s crustiest erogenous zone. Many of the rooms above the piazza’s elegant colonnades were ‘working flats’ leased by prostitutes who used the local drinking shops as places to meet clients. Hogarth’s studio was on the south-eastern side of the piazza, and he remains our best guide to 18th century dissipation, recording several dives for posterity. The first of his series The Four Times of Day (1738) is a winter tableau showing Covent Garden on a freezing morning: a matron en route to church is inconvenienced by a couple of rakes making moves on a pair of malleable wenches. The young blades have clearly spent the night carousing in the dodgy looking shed beneath the portico of St Pauls’s church, ‘Tom King’s coffee house’, an all-night café that served as a place for tarts to pick up trade. Punters also had their pick of several bagnios, bath houses where one could engage private rooms for liaisons with the girls who operated there.

‘The Bagnio’; plate 5 of ‘Marriage a la Mode’.

In the fifth image of his Marriage a la Mode Hogarth sets the fatal fallout of an adulterous liaison in a bedroom at The Turk’s Head, a bagnio in Bow St., wherein a young earl expires after being run-through by his wife’s lover. On the north-eastern side of the piazza you would find another ominous-sounding bagnio, Haddock’s, as well as the Shakespeare Head Tavern, the most notorious of all Covent Garden’s 18th century pick up joints. The Shakespeare’s head waiter was Jack Harris, self-styled ‘Pimp-General to the people of England’, who lent his name to an inventory of tarts, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a London-wide punters’ guide compiled by a succession of writers that was in print for decades. (Harris seems to have been proud of the fact that he made prostitution a bit more upmarket.) A few yards to the east, standing roughly where Drury Lane Theatre is now, was The Rose, a tavern which Hogarth used for a scene in A Rake’s Progress. Here, Hogarth’s anti- hero gets debauched in a chaotic private chamber, surrounded by an assortment of foxy, poxy, gin-spitting girls – their beauty spots masking venereal sores – one of whom is relieving the insensible rake of his watch.

Detail from plate 3 of ‘The Rake’s Progress’; the ‘Rake’ paintings are in the John Soane Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Hogarth seized on the social theatre of Covent Garden: how the licentious nature of the district dissolved class divisions, or threw them into sharp relief. This remained true throughout the 18th century. In August 1776 the debt-ridden son of Lord Milton enjoyed a lengthy supper at the Bedford Tavern, another edgy establishment on the south side of the piazza, in the company of four working girls and a blind fiddler (yes, really). The party continued until three in the morning, at which point young Milton dismissed his entourage and blew his brains out with a pistol. The debts were gambling debts, naturally, incurred in the clubs of St. James’s. Even more tragic and bizarre is the 1779 murder of Martha Ray, singer, and mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, shot outside the Covent Garden Theatre by a demented cleric who was infatuated with her. Perpetrator and victim were taken to the Shakespeare’s Head where an impromptu inquest took place. The killer claimed that he didn’t intend to shoot Martha but ‘a phrensy overcame me’. He was hanged at Tyburn, but the strange thing is that the murderer seems to have attracted more public sympathy than his victim.

The Shakespeare’s Head stood roughly where the crass and ungainly Royal Opera House extension stands now. This 1990s project vandalised a considerable portion of Covent Garden, requiring the demolition of an entire terrace of Georgian houses on Russell St. and putting in its place a lifeless box showcasing shops that one can find anywhere. It is depressing to consider that one of the glories of Covent Garden turned out to be one of the agents of its demise, although in the light of recent events it all seems a bit academic. In the past decade most of the best pubs and bars closed and Covid-19 is succeeding where the GLC failed. You are permitted to consume goods and services if you queue nicely. But there’s no such thing as an antiseptic party, or a socially-distanced debauch. You can’t get slurringly romantic and maintain a two- metre exclusion zone. Welcome to Alphaville, WC2. We are all figures in an architect’s illustration now.