Survey of London: Volumes 31 and 32, St James Westminster, Part 2. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1963.
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The modern thoroughfare known as Beak Street extends from Regent Street to Lexington Street, and for historical purposes may be divided into three parts. Its western extremity, between Regent and Warwick Streets, is clearly marked on the plan of 1585 (Plate 1), and formed part of the ancient highway which led (in terms of the modern street layout) from Piccadilly to Oxford Circus. This part of the street formed the boundary between Mulghay Close on the south (Chapter XX) and Six Acre Close on the north (Chapter XI). At some time between 1673 and c. 1685 all of the ground on the north side between Swallow Street (whose site is now occupied by Regent Street) and King (now Kingly) Street came into the possession of Thomas Beak(e), later described as one of the Queen's Messengers, from whom the street takes its name. Beak Street first appears by name in the ratebooks for 1689, and in 1691 the Justices ordered that it should be paved with stone. (fn. 1)
The main or central portion of the street, eastward of King Street on the north side and of Warwick Street on the south and extending as far as the line of Bridle Lane, formed part of Gelding Close and was called Silver Street (a name probably derived from Golden Square, which was itself derived from Gelding Close) until 1883, when all three sections of the street became known as Beak Street.
Within the section which formed part of Gelding Close the ground on the south side between Warwick and Upper John Streets was leased by Martha Axtell in August 1684 to Richard Tyler for fifty-one years, (fn. 2) while that on the north side between King and Carnaby Streets was also granted at about the same time to Tyler, but for nine hundred years, it being 'in a narrow back street incommodiously situated.' (fn. 3) All of the remainder of the ground on both sides of this section of the street formed part of Isaac Symball's moiety of Gelding Close (fig. 18), and in 1685–9 was granted by him to individual tradesmen on ninehundred-year leases. Lessees included Richard Eyles, (fn. 4) John James the elder of St. Martin's, carpenter, (fn. 5) John James the younger and Abraham Bridle, both of St. Martin's, carpenters, who were in partnership, (fn. 4) Samuel Levinz, mason, (fn. 6) Richard Naylor, of St. James's, yeoman, (fn. 7) and Richard Tyler. (fn. 8) The original lease of No. 41 has survived, and there the lessee, John James the elder, covenanted to build a house 'uniforme in front to the best of the tenements fronting the said Silver Streete', and 'answerable to the sayd building assigned for the patterne thereof'. (fn. 5)
Nevertheless the houses were probably not impressive, for in 1720 Strype refers to Silver Street merely as 'another small Street'. (fn. 9) Sutton Nicholls's engraving of Golden Square shows that then, as now, most of the houses were singlefronted and four storeys high, with roof garrets. All the surviving evidence of early building suggests that the construction was cheap, though not shoddy, and the finishings were simple, befitting houses intended for tradesmen and lower middle-class occupation. Several original houses, much altered and generally refronted, survive on the north side between Carnaby Street and Lexington Street, but the whole of the south side has been rebuilt, the individual house-plots being combined to form sites for commercial buildings and warehouses.
Nos. 21, 23 Beak Street
No. 21 occupies a wider plot than its neighbour and commands a view into Golden Square. The back wall with its flush-framed windows is evidence of an early eighteenth-century date, although the front appears to be of the 1840's. The ground storey contains a shop to the east of an open passage, and the upper face of three storeys, each having three windows, is of brick now painted white, the first- and second-floor windows having stucco architraves and cornices. The open passage leads north through a small court to Kingly Court, a large oblong yard surrounded by galleried buildings which appears on Horwood's map of 1792–9 as a 'Repository for Carriages', replacing the 'Nailer's Yard' shown by Rocque.
No. 23 has a simple and well-designed Regency shop-front, with a window of many panes between doorways, the divisions effected by narrow fluted pilasters supporting an entablature. The two first-floor windows have Grecian balconies of cast iron.
The ratebooks show that 'James Amicony', probably the artist Jacopo Amiconi, occupied a house on or near the site of the present No. 23 from 1732 to 1734. (fn. 10)
No. 41 Beak Street
In November 1687 Isaac Symball leased the site of this house to John James the elder of St. Martin's, carpenter, for nine hundred years. As has already been mentioned, James covenanted to build a house 'uniforme in front to the best of the tenements fronting the said Silver Streete', and 'answerable to the sayd building assigned to the patterne thereof'. (fn. 5) The existing house (Plate 131a) is slightly larger than the average in Beak Street, and like No. 21 has a passage leading to an internal court on the ground storey. The three windows in each upper storey look down Upper James Street into Golden Square.
The Venetian painter, Antonio Canaletto, lodged here from at least 1749 to 1751, his stay being interrupted by a journey to Italy in the winter of 1750–1. (fn. 11) A newspaper advertisement of 26 July 1749 states that 'Signor Canaleto hereby invites any Gentleman that will be pleased to come to his House, to see a Picture done by him, being A View of St. James's Park, which he hopes may in some Measure deserve their Approbation. The said View may be seen from Nine in the Morning till Three in the Afternoon, and from Four till Seven in the Evening, for the Space of fifteen Days from the Publication of this Advertisement. He lodges at Mr. Richard Wiggan's, Cabinet-Maker, in Silver-Street, Golden Square.' (fn. 12)
The ratebooks show that Wiggan's house was afterwards numbered 16 Silver Street and is now No. 41 Beak Street. A similar newspaper advertisement of 30 July 1751 announced that Canaletto had 'painted the Representation of ChelseaCollege, Ranelagh House, and the River Thames', and that this picture might be seen at the same address. (fn. 13)
Until shortly before 1921 a studio or workshop with a skylight stood in the garden at the back of the house. (fn. 14) Canaletto's stay here is now commemorated by a plaque erected on the front of the building by the London County Council.
The Crown Public House, Beak Street
The Crown public house, which stood on the eastern corner of Beak Street and Upper James Street until 1921, was mentioned by Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby. It was much frequented by Newman Noggs for, as a corner house, it had the advantage of 'a bar door both ways'. (fn. 15)
Police Section House, Beak Street
This building was erected in 1909–10 for the Metropolitan Police; the architect was the police surveyor, J. Dixon Butler. (fn. 16) It is an austere building reflecting something of the influence of C. R. Mackintosh. The walls are of grey brick above a base of brown glazed bricks, and there are plain stone surrounds with cyma-moulded labels to the arched doorway and the three-light windows of the ground storey. A large segmentalbowed window, divided by stone mullions and transoms, lights the staircase.