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.

Dry Quarantini

Samuel Pepys’s diary, 7th June 1665: ‘The hottest day that ever I felt in my life, This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us,” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw’.

This is a very odd time to be starting a project about Londoners’ relationship to drinking. When I put up my first post, all of three weeks ago, I was hoping that this site might encourage people to go out and visit London’s bars in a spirit of bibulous curiosity; I think I can be forgiven for being wrongfooted by a sudden attack of ‘events’. At a stroke, the notion of going into a bar to meet a friend for a drink has become impossibly exotic, a lost custom of a lush epoch. However, our current predicament is an obvious opportunity to take a look at the most celebrated pandemic to have hit this or any other city. Pepys is our man on the ground here, and his account of seeing quarantined plague houses in Drury Lane is significant; Drury Lane is, of course, in the parish of St Giles, and this doomed locality was ground zero for the epidemic. Plague had been quietly festering here since early in the year, and a parish official later admitted to Pepys that he was only recording a portion of plague fatalities as having actually died from the illness. With brutal directness, the authorities tried to stop the spread by locking up infected houses and imprisoning anyone left inside for forty days, marking the doomed premises with a red cross on the door. In April the first house was shut up but neighbours took pity on the inmates, overpowered the guards and released the afflicted into the streets.

Other parishes viewed St Giles with horror and more strenuous attempts at quarantine were made, but it was too late. The disease crept into Holborn, down Chancery Lane to the Strand, and eventually into the City itself. The churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields contained so many hastily-interred corpses that the church’s foundations were undermined, leading to its demolition and re-building in the 18th century. (This seems entirely appropriate for St Giles, one of those London spots that seems permanently blighted. After all, the phrase ‘one for the road’ is a local coinage, deriving from the custom of condemned convicts receiving a last drink outside the church, half-way point on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn.)

That could have been handled better … London in 1665.

On 13th of July Pepys writes: ‘Above 700 died of the plague this week’. A week later Pepys was in Deptford, seeing off friends who were leaving the city for the country, and one them gave him a bottle of ‘plague water’ as a prophylactic against the disease. Plague water was an interesting concoction, produced by macerating handfuls of leaves and roots in white wine and brandy. (An adventurous distillery in Minnesota has recently launched its own version of the beverage, using a 17th century recipe sourced from a pamphlet called ‘The London Distiller’ of 1667.) I suppose that any alcohol would have better than drinking straight London water, which remained a hazard to life well into the 19th century.

The plague peaked in September, after which a cold autumn shrivelled the contagion. The king finally returned to London on 1st February 1666. All told, somewhere between 68,000 and 100,000 Londoners had died: roughly a quarter of the capital’s population. If I was writing this in more normal times I would now be suggesting that curious topers should investigate the pubs of St. Giles. There’s The White Hart, a neat Edwardian pub occupying a spot that has been associated with drinking for 700 years; or The Angel, a pub next to St.Giles-in-the-Fields, and which is associated with the ‘one for the road’ custom. Both are welcoming and interesting and God knows when you or I will be able to drink in them again. However, it is worth mentioning that the period after the Great Plague saw a boom in the growth of taverns and hostelries, so perhaps there is hope for a 21st century revival for London’s pubs; they have, as we all know, been closing at a distressing rate over the past few years.

Modern St Giles seen from the saloon of The Angel

As of today, Tuesday 24 March 2020, all of Britain has, along with most of the western world, been placed under lockdown. Hard to know what’s going to happen next but, if supermarkets are any guide, many familiar brands of alcohol will be in short supply. But consider this: if Prohibition gave us the Gin Rickey, the Southside, and other sticky concoctions designed to mask the taste of raw ethanol, then maybe our own grim times will find expression in a new generation of ‘artisan’ cocktails. For example, the ‘Quarantini’ could consist of any remaining dregs of booze you’ve got left in the house after two weeks’ isolation (e.g. a mouthful of grappa, a half-drunk bottle of Nigerian Guinness, an in-flight Beefeater miniature, an ex’s Tia Maria gift set), mixed and chilled as appropriate, and gently imbibed in front of re-runs of Porridge, Poirot, Bargain Hunt, etc. Happy Hour can be whenever you like: I’m synchronising mine with Star Trek – The Original Series, but I wouldn’t judge if you opted for the breakfast showing of Minder.

The Drinker.