Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
The part of this street lying within the parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden, was built under leases granted in 1631 and 1632, which are tabulated on pages 308–9. It was fully inhabited by about 1637. A splendidly broad street, it commanded a fine view of the church directly opposite across the Piazza, and afforded access to the latter from Drury Lane via the narrower (Little) Russell Street, which had been built a few years earlier beyond the third Earl of Bedford's brick wall of c. 1610. (fn. 2) Both parts bore the name of Russell from the beginning.
Almost as soon as it was built all the south side of the street, between the Piazza and Brydges Street, and some of the north side east of Bow Street, was settled on the fourth Earl's younger son Edward by the family agreement of 1640–1. (fn. 3) He sold these parts to John Athy, a haberdasher, probably in 1663, (fn. 4) and they were only partially regained for the Bedford estate by purchases in the nineteenth century.
An early resident in the street in 1644–5 (probably at one of the corners with Bow Street) was the notorious Earl of Somerset, father-in-law of the fourth Earl of Bedford's daughter, in the last year or so of his life. (fn. 5) But despite its good position and generous width Russell Street did not prove attractive to Covent Garden's more aristocratic residents and hardly any other people of title appear among its ratepayers.
The first occupants probably included at least three victuallers or vintners. One had the house later numbered 6: another, William Clifton, was in c. 1633–4 the proprietor of the Goat tavern at the north-west corner with Bow Street, (fn. 6) which was at that time sufficiently well known to be made the resort of riotous characters in Richard Brome's topical comedy, The Weeding of the Covent Garden (see page 322). A longer-lived tavern, the Rose, was situated at the east corner of Brydges Street, where it also became very well known (see page 200). The north side of the street near the Piazza contained some lodging-houses of good reputation. The Verneys had favourable reports of Mrs. Dubber's house at No. 18 in the 1650's; and next door at No. 17 (the Three Feathers) Evelyn took rooms for the winter of 1659–60, (fn. 7) when John Cosin, Bishop of Durham, was evidently a fellow-lodger. The bishop, however, although prepared to stay there again in the following autumn, would have preferred somewhere about Tothill Street as 'more private and more commodious for me than this in Russell street wilbe, which is a thoroughfare for all company', (fn. 8) and perhaps it was the stir and bustle of its location between the Piazza and Drury Lane that told against Russell Street as a place of settled residence. In 1668 it had twelve shops assessed in the ratebooks, a higher proportion than in most of the Covent Garden streets. (fn. 2)
The western and more consequential part of the street contained a coffee house by this time, the Turk's Head at or near No. 20, (fn. 9) and it was with its coffee houses that the name of the street was to be most closely associated. Apart from the Rose on the corner of Brydges Street (see page 200), and Will's on the corner of Bow Street (see page 185), the two most famous were Tom's and Button's. The former was established at No. 17 between 1698 and 1703 and continued (after about 1768 as a subscription club) until 1814. (fn. 10) Button's was established about 1712 and appears to have died out by the 1730's. Its location is not certain, except that it was on the south side more or less opposite Tom's: Johnson in his life of Addison said it was 'about two doors from Covent-garden', (fn. 11) which would correspond well enough with No. 10, where Daniel Button, who had formerly kept Button's coffee house, died in 1731 in a penurious condition: Button was not, however, the ratepayer here before 1720. (fn. 12)
Strype spoke of Russell Street as 'a fine broad Street, well inhabited by Tradesmen' (fn. 13) and Mortimer's Universal Director of trades in 1763 listed nine residents—an engraver (William Ryland), (fn. 14) a music-master, a printer, a clockmaker, a distiller, a metal-button maker, two apothecaries and a grocer. The eastern end of the street, towards the boundary of St. Martin's parish, was more disreputable: the ratebooks list a 'gaiming house' at No. 24 in 1722, and it was at this end of the street that the late eighteenth-century parish officers contended with disorderly taverns, and ratepayers who absconded or retired to gaol. (fn. 15)
The street retained in the early nineteenth century an attraction for lovers of the busy life of central London. In 1817 Charles and Mary Lamb took rooms at No. 20, and in letters to Dorothy Wordsworth described the appeal of Russell Street for them: 'We are in the individual spot I like best in all this great city', Charles wrote, 'The theatres with all [their noises; Covent Garden,] dearer to me than any gardens of Alcinous, where we are morally sure of the earliest peas and 'sparagus; Bow Street, where the thieves are examined, within a few yards of us. Mary had not been here four and twenty hours before she saw a Thief. She sits at the window working, and casually throwing out her eyes, she sees a concourse of people coming this way, with a constable to conduct the solemnity. These little incidents agreeably diversify a female life.' Mary called it 'a place all alive with noise and bustle, Drury Lane Theatre in sight from our front and Covent Garden from our back windows. The hubbub of the carriages returning from the play does not annoy me in the least—strange that it does not, for it is quite tremendous …' They stayed for six years, then moved to Islington. (fn. 16) (fn. 1)
The development of the adjacent market in the nineteenth century no doubt enhanced the value of sites here, and a good deal of the property alienated by the fourth Earl in the seventeenth century was re-acquired in the nineteenth. (fn. 17) The market's expansion is now very evident in the street, not least on the north-west side where Nos. 13–16 were pulled down in 1887 and the wooden sheds subsequently erected remain to this day. (fn. 18) On the south side of the street between Catherine Street and Wellington Street the small and very unpretentious houses at Nos. 1–4 probably date in carcase from a rebuilding of 1775–6, (fn. 19) and at No. 9 the site of the Market House public house has, under other names, been in the hands of licensed victuallers since at least 1708. (fn. 20) The most notable surviving house, however, by reason of its associations, is next door, at No. 8.
Ratepaying occupants in Russell Street include: Richard Ryder (II), carpenter, 1631–63, in several houses, at least two of which were outside the parish in (Little) Russell Street, the last adjoining the newly building Drury Lane Theatre (see Survey of London, vol. XXXV); Dr. Nicholas Phiske, 1633–58, astrologer and physician; Lady Follard (Fulwood), 1635–6; Dr. Eglyn (Egling), 1636; Joseph Taylor, 1637–41, ? actor; Captain Adams, 1638; Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, 1644–5 (who with his wife had been involved in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury); Dr. Nesbeth, 1647; Dr. Bever, 1651; Lady Beltemon, 1654; Nicholas Burt, 1663–7, actor; 'Major Moone', 1665, probably Michael Mohun, actor; John Bancroft, 1691–c. 1694, dramatist; John Smith, 1693–1717, mezzotint engraver; George Kelly, 1722, ? Jacobite; Dr. Butler, 1733–4, 1741–6; Captain Thomas Baker, 1737–42; Henry Holcombe, 1748, musical composer; Thomas Hudson, 1754–6, ? portrait painter; John Kirk, 1756–68, medallist; Thomas Davies, 1760–85, bookseller; William Ryland, 1763–5, engraver; William Norris, c. 1787–91, ? secretary of the Society of Antiquaries.
No. 8 Russell Street
In his Life of Johnson James Boswell noted that since the Doctor's death he had never passed this house without feelings of 'reverence and regret', for it was here on a spring evening in 1763 that the two had met for the first time. (fn. 21) No. 8 was then in the occupation of Thomas Davies, a friend and contemporary of Johnson's, who after a chequered career as an actor had resumed in this house his former trade of bookseller and publisher. (fn. 14)
The house itself was then recently built, having been erected (together with the two houses eastward) in 1759–60 (fn. 2) (Plates 55a, 55b). The site did not belong to the Duke of Bedford and the circumstances of the building of the house are not known, nor exactly what kind of tenure Davies had. Wrangling letters which passed between him and Garrick in August 1763 imply, however, that he had not acquired the freehold, which had been sold, he says, for 'near 1100l.'. (fn. 22) Nevertheless he remained here until his death in 1785. (fn. 2)
Davies, who had hospitable inclinations and a pretty wife, was visited by many of the litterateurs of his day here. Topham Beauclerk quipped that he 'could not conceive a more humiliating situation than to be clapped on the back by Tom Davies', and Johnson, who knew that the book seller had abandoned the stage partly from fear of Charles Churchill's criticism, tempered his fondness for Davies with some contempt: perhaps he also had an inkling that Davies was the most accomplished of his mimics. But he admired Davies's erudition, and their easy relations persisted until Johnson's last illness. (fn. 23)
Before his meeting with the Doctor, Boswell had already met Oliver Goldsmith for the first time here, at a Christmas dinner in 1762. 'It was quite a literary dinner. I had seen no warm victuals for four days, and therefore played a very bold knife and fork. It is inconceivable how hearty I eat and how comfortable I felt myself after it. We talked entirely in the way of Geniuses.' (fn. 24) The encounter for which Davies is now chiefly memorable occurred a few months later, on 16 May 1763, about seven in the evening. 'When I was sitting in Mr Davies's back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us,—he announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, "Look, my Lord, it comes" … . Mr Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, "Don't tell him where I come from"—"From Scotland", cried Davies, roguishly. "Mr Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it". … [Johnson] retorted, "That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." This stroke stunned me a good deal, and when we had sat down I felt myself not a little embarrassed and apprehensive of what might come next. He then addressed himself to Davies: "What do you think of Garrick? He has refused me an order for the play for Miss Williams because he knows the house will be full and that an order would be worth three shillings." Eager to take any opening to get into conversation with him, I ventured to say, "O, Sir, I cannot think Mr Garrick would grudge such a trifle to you." "Sir", said he with a stern look, "I have known David Garrick longer than you have done, and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject."' (fn. 25)
Davies's fortunes in his shop were as chequered as on the stage. He put out attractive editions of the English poets, but by 1778 had 'unfortunately failed in his circumstances', when Johnson and others helped him with a benefit at Drury Lane Theatre. (fn. 26) A belated success came to him, however, with his own Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick Esq., which he published from Russell Street in 1780.
No. 8 Russell Street is a conventionally planned terrace house containing a basement and four storeys. The front, little changed above the ground storey, is three windows wide and built in plum-coloured stock bricks. The windowopenings, now furnished with Victorian sashes, have stone sills and flat arches of gauged red brick, and a block cornice of stone extends below the attic storey, where the parapet has been rebuilt with yellow stock bricks. The original staircase, with turned balusters, survives in a compartment lined full height with plain panelling. Some more panelling remains in the back second-storey room, but the historic back parlour no longer exists.
Nos. 11 and 12 Russell Street: Russell Chambers
See pages 91, 93.
No. 17 Russell Street
This building occupies the site of Tom's coffee house and of an earlier house where John Evelyn lodged in 1659. It was erected in 1866 under an eighty-year Bedford building lease granted to a grocer, T. A. White, the sitting tenant. (fn. 27) Like the contemporary Nos. 8 and 9 James Street, the Grecian style adopted for the stucco-faced front was rather belated for its date, and has been made to seem more so by the removal of the chamfered quoins and main cornice, and by the present scheme of painting. (fn. 28)
This building was erected in 1925–7, as the Temple Bar Telephone Exchange, to the designs of J. H. Markham of the Office of Works. The contractors were Messrs. A. Roberts and Company. (fn. 29)
Built of Portland stone and dark red brick to a mannered Georgian Renaissance design, typical of the 1920's, the lofty four-storeyed front is composed of four similar units, each three windows wide above the ground-storey shop front (Plate 63b). One unit is on the west side and three are on the east of an octagonal turret feature that rises above the vehicle entrance and marks the break in the frontage line. The shop fronts, and the groups of second-storey windows, are set in a stone face. The former have voussoired straight-arched heads, and the latter are separated by recessed panelled piers and framed in bandarchitraves. The red-brick face of the third and fourth storeys forms a plain ground for the prominent tabernacle-frames of stone that emphasize the middle third-storey window of each unit. Massive block-trusses, projecting from a stepped stone apron extending below each group of windows, carry the free-standing Doric columns that flank the window and support an open triangular pediment. (This curious motif, resembling a midGeorgian porch, was probably derived, through E. Vincent Harris, from Sir Robert Taylor.) An architrave and cornice of stone underline the attic storey, where the three windows of each unit, wide between narrow, are framed by bandarchitraves of stone. The crowning entablature has a pulvinated frieze and a cornice of shallow profile.