The Piazza: The Social Decline of the Piazza

Pages 82-84

Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.

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The Social Decline of The Piazza

The portico buildings were designed to attract 'Persons of the greatest Distinction', and among the first residents there were many persons of title, including at least three earls. Entries in the ratebooks reflect the troubled times which followed the development of Covent Garden and in the early 1640's several occupants who had Royalist sympathies left the square. During the second half of the seventeenth century the number of occupants who possessed titles and/or who held public office declined rapidly and their places were taken by artists, tradesmen and, probably, by lodging-house keepers. The first of a succession of famous painters who lived in the square was (Sir) Peter Lely; he became the tenant at No. 10–11 in about 1651. Later occupants included two other court painters, Sir Godfrey Kneller and Sir James Thornhill. The notable private residents in the Piazza are listed on page 96.

Shops begin to appear in the Piazza at a very early date. The earliest reference to commercial activity there occurs in February 1643/4 and relates to a small booth in the portico walk. (fn. 2) Several illustrations of the Piazza show stalls and booths standing against the piers of the portico walk. Those for which there is documentary evidence were all situated at the corners of James Street and Russell Street and were associated with the corner houses, where shops are known to have existed. Andrew Bayley, a goldsmith, who became the tenant of the house on the south side of Russell Street in the Little Piazza in 1651, also had two little shops in the portico walk. (fn. 4) No. 3 in the Great Piazza was let in 1692 to two tenants, one a mercer and the other a haberdasher, (fn. 5) and there were sheds or stalls associated with this house in the portico walk in the eighteenth century. A lease of No. 4–5 in 1698 included 'all shopps Stalls and Ereccons' in the portico walk. (fn. 6) In the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the permissive attitude of the Bedford Office towards the clutter in the portico walk changed and in 1774 the steward recommended that the five shops at the corners of the walk should be pulled down. (fn. 7) This was probably done, for in 1775 the lessee of No. 3 was ordered to remove the three sheds in front of his house and another fronting James Street. (fn. 3) Stalls, being less likely to damage the structure of the piers, were still permitted, but James Gubbins, surveyor to the fifth Duke, was commended because he 'did away with that abominable nuisance, the picture-stall' at the corner of Russell Street— possibly the stall where a shopkeeper called Rich displayed obscene prints 'attracting the idle'. (fn. 8) During the nineteenth century estate policy became much stricter and tenants were forbidden to erect any 'Bulk Stall or Stand' in the portico walk.

Some of the other portico houses were also being used for business purposes in the first half of the eighteenth century. No. 6–7 was let to a potter in 1727, (fn. 9) No. 2 was adapted for an upholsterer's business in 1731, (fn. 10) and in the same year Christopher Cock established his auction rooms at No. 9–10. (fn. 11)

In the first half of the eighteenth century a few persons of title still lived in houses in the Piazza, the last being Lord Archer whose occupancy came to an end in 1757. (fn. 12) (fn. 1) The social decline of Covent Garden had begun shortly after the Restoration, when the building of Soho, St. James's and Leicester Squares—all acknowledgments of the success of their prototype in Covent Garden—had drawn the fashionable world away to the new western suburbs nearer to the Court. With the establishment of the market in 1670 and its removal to the centre of the square in 1705–6, the Piazza gradually lost much of its original beauty. William Maitland, writing in 1756, commented sadly that the market had 'proved so very prejudicial to the magnificent Buildings [in the Piazza], that instead of their being inhabited by Persons of the greatest Distinction as formerly, they are now obliged to take up with Vintners, Coffeemen, and such other Inhabitants'. (fn. 14)

Until the 1720's tenants in the Piazza were forbidden, unless they first obtained permission, to permit their premises to be converted into public ordinaries or victualling houses, or to allow them to be used for the sale of coffee, chocolate, tea, beer or any liquor whatever. So far as is known the first coffee house in the Piazza was the Bedford, established at No. 14 in 1726. Coffee houses were soon increasing in number, probably because of the growth of custom from the patrons and hangers-on of the two neighbouring theatres. The Piazza Coffee House was in fact founded by the actor, Charles Macklin, in 1754.

The second half of the eighteenth century was the heyday of the coffee houses in the Piazza and many famous writers, artists and actors of the time became their habitués. They were not all respectable and the reputation of the Piazza suffered in consequence. A writer of 1776 proclaimed that Covent Garden 'is the great square of Venus, and its purlieus are crowded with the votaries of this goddess … . The jelly-houses are now become the resort of abandoned rakes and shameless prostitutes. These and the taverns afford an ample supply of provisions for the flesh; while others abound for the consummation of the desires which are thus excited. For this vile end the bagnios and lodging-houses are near at hand.' (fn. 15)

There were at least three bagnios in the Piazza, and not all of them, apparently, deserved imputations of this kind. The oldest, and probably the most respectable, was the Hummums, opened in 1683 by Richard Lasinby at a house in the Little Piazza. The second was Haddock's bagnio, which occupied No. 8 from 1742 until 1798. The third was Lovejoy's, situated next door to the Hummums and established at some time prior to 1769. In addition to the 'Sweating and Bathing' facilities which they provided the bagnios were commonly licensed for the sale of tea, coffee, wine and spirits, and lodgings could also be had in them.

During the nineteenth century some of the coffee houses, taverns and bagnios shed their disreputable associations and evolved into flourishing hotels. Richardson's (or Clunn's), the Piazza, the Bedford, the Russell, the Hummums, and the Imperial Hotels originated in this way. Two of the major building projects carried out in the Piazza during the second half of the nineteenth century were for hotel proprietors—the New Hummums on the east side and the Tavistock on the north. Both these hotels outlived the demand which had created them. The lease of the New Hummums was bought back by the eleventh Duke of Bedford in 1909 and although the building still survives it has subsequently served chiefly as premises for market tenants. The Tavistock closed in 1928 and was demolished shortly afterwards to make way for Piazza Chambers and Mart Street.


  • 1. When William Hunter, the surgeon, took the house next to Lord Archer's in 1749, his lease contained a clause that if Lord Archer disturbed his 'anatomical Lectures and operations', Hunter could give up his tenancy at six months' notice.43
  • 2. Evans's Music and Supper Rooms, Covent Garden, N.D. (copy in B.M., pressmark 11794 c 4).
  • 3. Ibid., Piazza, lease of 20 Nov. 1775 to J. Bunn.
  • 4. P.R.O., C10/473/26; R.B.
  • 5. E/BER, Piazza, lease of 20 June 1692 to W. Dawes and H. Granger.
  • 6. Ibid., Piazza, lease of 6 May 1698 to T. Hughs and J. Collins.
  • 7. B.O.L., Correspondence, Wynne to Palmer, c Jan. 1774.
  • 8. Bedfordshire Record Office, Russell Papers, Correspondence, R1499, 4 Dec. 1793 to Beaumont.
  • 9. E/BER, Piazza, lease of 30 June 1727 to A. Lewis.
  • 10. Ibid., Piazza, lease of 21 March 1731/2 to J. Cox; R.B.
  • 11. Ibid., Piazza, lease of 11 March 1731/2 to C. Cock; R. B.
  • 12. R.B.
  • 13. E/BER, tenancy agreements, 12 Sept. 1749 with W. Hunter.
  • 14. William Maitland, The History and Survey of London, 1756, vol. 11, p. 1347.
  • 15. An Eighteenth Century Journal, ed. John Hampden, 1940, p. 334.