Bow Street and Russell Street Area: The former York Street

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

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'Bow Street and Russell Street Area: The former York Street', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, (London, 1970) pp. 196-199. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

In this section

The former York Street

Now Nos. 11–21 (odd) and 32–42 (even) Tavistock Street

This part of Tavistock Street, between Wellington and Catherine Streets, was laid out with the other original Covent Garden streets in the 1630's and was named after the infant Duke of York (b. 1633). Until the making of the original Tavistock Street in 1706–14 there was no western extension of the line of York Street beyond Charles (now part of Wellington) Street, and when Tavistock Street was made York Street retained its name and street-numbers (Plate 8). In 1835 three house-sites at the west end of the south side were absorbed into Wellington Street and the former No. 7 York Street became a corner site. In 1899–1900 the line of York Street was continued eastward beyond Catherine Street to Drury Lane by a street almost all of which lies outside the area described in this volume. This street, also, was called York Street until 1937, when it and the original York Street were renamed and renumbered as part of Tavistock Street.

In the parapet of Nos. 34 and 36 Tavistock Street has been inserted at an unknown period a stone name-tablet dating from the first years of the street and incised with the legend 'Yorke Street 1636'. The building leases, tabulated on pages 310–11, ran from 1631 and 1632, and many of the first inhabitants were in residence by 1636. (fn. 2) Apart from a house on the south side near the gate to Bedford House stables the houses did not attract people of note. At the other end of the south side, on the corner of Brydges Street, a tavern existed from the first and, under the name of the Fleece, became notorious (see page 200). Shops or stalls were probably an early feature of the street. An episode in the 1660's tells something of one of these rather unsubstantial erections. Since about 1647 a tailor, William Baxter or Barkstead, had occupied a house 'at the very Corner' of York Street and Charles Street (now the site of No. 11 Tavistock Street and No. 28 Wellington Street). This had 'a certaine Stall, Bulke or Shopp erected in the streete against the said house', which he let in 1659 to a poulterer, Mrs. Vertue, at £3 a year. Four years later Baxter sub-let the house to one Theophilus Fitz, gentleman. He, finding that Mrs. Vertue refused to give a fine for the renewal of her tenancy of the stall and paid her rent only 'by dribling somes and in poultry', let the shop to 'an exchange woman' at £5 a year. Mrs. Vertue took drastic countermeasures. She repaired to the Commissioners for Highways and Sewers, established in 1662 (see page 35), with a demand that they should demolish the shop as an encroachment on the highway. This they did in 1665 although, according to Fitz, it was 'an ancient shopp' which had, like all the other shops in the street, already been viewed and countenanced by the Commissioners. In any event a shop was again erected at Fitz's house by 1669. (fn. 3)

In 1714 one of the properties on the south side was let out to ten families: (fn. 2) this particular house had previously been licensed premises, of which there were about five in the street in 1720. (fn. 4)

By 1763 Mortimer's Universal Director indicates that the chief tradesmen were linen drapers or clothiers. One tradesman, however, was the bookseller, Samuel Baker, who since 1753 had occupied a site now taken into the roadway of Wellington Street. (fn. 5) (fn. 1) Here he established the first saleroom exclusively for dealing in books, manuscripts and prints, which passed to the partnership of his nephew John Sotheby and George Leigh: Leigh and Sotheby remained here until their removal to the Strand in 1804. (fn. 6) York Street continued to be associated with booksellers or publishers in the nineteenth century, notably H. G. Bohn at No. 4 from 1831. (fn. 7)

Almost all of York Street had by then long ceased to be part of the Bedford estate. The family compact of 1640–1 had settled both sides of the street (except the extreme western end of the south side) on Edward Russell and by c. 1671 he had sold his property here (probably in 1663) to John Athy, a haberdasher. (fn. 8) The rights in the Athy property came to be divided among a number of different interests, and although Athy's descendant, John Hemingway Athy (who lived successively in Russell Street and Charles Street), (fn. 2) was responsible for some rebuilding in York Street in the 1720's and 1730's, the multiplication of rights in the property no doubt militated against thorough redevelopment. (fn. 9) The dispersion of some of the freehold interest deriving from John Athy by sales in the 1820's (fn. 10) seems to have had a similar tendency and both sides of this part of Tavistock Street exemplify (as does the whole block of which the north side forms a part) the comparatively unmodernized aspect of property which passed from the Russell family at an early date. On the north side No. 11 (with No. 28 Wellington Street) is probably still basically the house built in 1752 for a wine merchant, Thomas Langley. (fn. 11) The handsome but now vanished shop front, which resembled that formerly at No. 62 Brewer Street, St. James's, (fn. 12) can be seen on Plate 53 b. By 1763 the house was licensed to Langley as the Bunch of Grapes. Some reconstruction took place in 1792 for the occupants, licensees of the 'Wine Vaults' here. (fn. 13) The adjacent house, No. 13, was probably built in 1785. (fn. 2) No. 15 dates from 1729 (see below), and Nos. 17 and 19 are perhaps in carcase the houses built in 1753 by a local carpenter, John Tinkler. (fn. 14) On the south side the plain and slightly altered house at No. 32 is contemporary with the adjacent buildings in Wellington Street and like them was evidently erected under the supervision of the architect, Samuel Beazley (see page 228).

Ratepaying occupants of York Street include: William, Viscount Monson of Castlemaine, 1635–6, member of the Long Parliament; Francis Beale, 1636–9, ? author; Robert Scawen, 1637–43, member of the Long Parliament and servant to the Earl of Bedford; Dr. Gibbs, 1637– c. 1645; William Jesson, c. 1647–52, member of the Long Parliament; Captain Maxfeilde, c. 1647; Ulick De Burgh, fifth Earl and Marquis of Clanricarde, 1654–6; Dr. Walter Charleton, c. 1672–91, physician; Samuel Baker, 1753–77, bookseller, succeeded here by George Leigh, 1778, and by George Leigh and John Sotheby, 1779–1804; Major Payler, 1775–7; Henry George Bohn, 1831–67, bookseller and publisher; Joseph Zaehnsdorf, 1873–86, bookbinder.

No. 15 Tavistock Street

Formerly No. 13 York Street

This house was erected in 1729 by Caleb Waterfield, a carpenter of St. Anne's, Soho, under a fifty-one-year building lease granted to him by the freeholder, John Hemingway Athy. (fn. 15) It is a conventionally planned house containing a basement and four storeys (Plate 81b). Above an altered shop front it retains the original front of yellow-brown brickwork, fine red brick being used for the gauged arches of the three segmentalheaded windows evenly spaced in each storey, and for the bandcourse of two fascias extending below the attic. All the windows have exposed segmental-headed box-frames, dressed with mouldings and containing small-paned sashes. The ground storey has recently been altered, the fluted Doric pilasters flanking the house door surviving from a four-bay shop front of early nineteenthcentury date.

The narrow passage-hall on the east side of the shop leads to the panelled compartment containing the dog-legged staircase, which has a railing of simply turned balusters and Doric columnnewels, rising from moulded closed strings to support moulded handrails. The large front room of the second storey is lined with raised-andfielded panelling in two heights, the ovolomoulded framing being finished with a moulded dado-rail and a box-cornice. On the south side of the chimney-breast is a cupboard, its segmentalheaded door of raised-and-fielded panels being framed by Doric pilasters and an appropriate entablature. The embrasures of the three windows are furnished with panelled shutters, with matching soffits. The back room, with an angle chimney-breast, is lined with plain rebated panelling below a box-cornice. Similar panelling lining the third-storey rooms is finished with a box-cornice on the partition wall and a reduced cornice elsewhere.

Nos. 34–38 (even) Tavistock Street

Formerly Nos. 5–3 (consec.) York Street

These three buildings were originally erected in 1733. (fn. 2) No. 34 appears to have been built by one James Walker (fn. 16) although the first occupant was Thomas Walker, in 1734–7. (fn. 2) Nos. 36 and 38 were erected by Robert Umpleby of St. George's, Hanover Square, carpenter, under two fifty-one-year building leases granted to him by the freeholder, John Hemingway Athy: (fn. 17) the first occupants were Peter Webb and Company (1734–7) and Hannah Calbeck (1734–6) at No. 36, and Lucy Harris (1734–8) at No. 38. (fn. 2)

In the autumn of 1821 Thomas de Quincey lodged in a room formerly behind No. 36 (then No. 4 York Street) while writing his Confessions of an English Opium Eater. (fn. 18) The bookseller and publisher, H. G. Bohn, occupied No. 36 from 1831 and No. 34 also from 1839, until 1867. (fn. 2) He was perhaps responsible for the insertion of the matching shop fronts.

Each of the three houses, containing a basement and four storeys, is planned on conventional lines, Nos. 34 and 36 having a mirrored arrangement of rooms. Above the shop fronts the houses share a plain front of yellow-brown stock brickwork, its only ornament being the moulded cornice of painted stone or stucco extending below the attic (Plate 81a). Nos. 34 and 36 each has three windows to each storey and No. 38 has two, all with sashes recessed in openings having plastered reveals and flat arches of gauged brick, probably yellow. At Nos. 34 and 36 the attic has been largely rebuilt, the windowopenings with segmental-arched heads. A plain sill-band of painted stone or stucco still underlines the second-storey windows of No. 38, and the attic windows of No. 36 are furnished with Gothick guard-railings of cast iron.

The attractive early nineteenth-century shop fronts of Nos. 34 and 36 are divided into four bays by Doric pilasters supporting entablatures. No. 36 has the least changed example, with the house door on the left and two small-paned display windows flanking the shop door.

No. 34 has the most interesting and best preserved interior (Plates 80c, 80d, 81c). The hallpassage and dog-legged staircase are on the east side of two rooms, now united by a wide opening framed by a flattened elliptical arch rising from fluted pilasters. Regency Grecian decoration enriches the arch, an egg-and-dart moulding on the arrises and acanthus scrollwork in the spandrels, while above it extends a frieze modelled with classical figures, women bringing offerings to an altar and boys riding horses. A similar frieze extends above the French window in the south wall. The wooden staircase has from ground to second-storey level a railing of turned and twisted balusters, two to each tread, rising from cut strings ornamented with carved scrollbrackets, to support moulded handrails terminating above plain Doric column-newels. Here the walls of the compartment are fully lined with plain panelling in ovolo-moulded framing, and the staircase soffits are similarly panelled. The upper flights are more simply treated, with moulded closed strings, turned column-and-urn balusters, and a dado of plain rebated panelling.

Except for the chimney-breast, the front room on the second storey has retained its original lining of raised-and-fielded panelling in ovolo-moulded framing. Here an enriched plaster cornice has replaced the wooden original, which survives above the panelling in the back room. The second-storey front room has been altered, but the back room has its original plain rebated panelling and a typical early-Georgian chimneypiece of veined white marble, its wide flat jambs and elliptically arched head being panelled with recessed channelling. The angled chimney-breast has a plain rebated panel for a chimney-glass, below a large raised panel framed with a bolection moulding. A recess to the right of the single window was probably the entrance to a closet, no longer existing.


  • 1. Baker had previously had premises on the site of No. 5 Russell Street since their erection in 1738.
  • 2. R.B.
  • 3. R.B.; P.R.O., C10/80/96.
  • 4. G.L.R.O.(M), LV(W), 1708, 1719–21.
  • 5. R.B.; W.P.L., H.805, p. 156.
  • 6. R.B.; D.N.B.
  • 7. R.B; P.O.D.
  • 8. P.R.O., C5/236/22, C6/298/96.
  • 9. P.R.O., C5/236/22, C6/298/96, C8/587/92, C8/609/11.
  • 10. M.L.R. 1822/4/792–3, 1822 5 439–40, 1822/ 7/339–40; sale particulars of 2 March 1821 in 'Collection of Posters' etc. (B.M., pressmark 747 c 23).
  • 11. R.B.; M.L.R. 1752/2/151.
  • 12. Survey of London, vol. XXXII, 1963, Plate .
  • 13. G.L.R.O.(M), LV(W), 1763, 1795; R.B.
  • 14. R.B.; M.L.R. 1753/3/338.
  • 15. R.B.; M.L.R. 1729/4/205.
  • 16. M.L.R. 1733/5/126.
  • 17. Ibid., 1733/3/148, 1733/5/126.
  • 18. Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, ed. Malcolm Elwin, 1956, pp. 59, 63.
  • 19. R.B.; W.P.L., H.805, p. 124.