Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.
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The present Exeter Street was built partly on property belonging to the Cecil family and partly on ground formerly belonging to the Bedford estate which had been granted away in 1617. Only the north side of the street is in the former parish of St. Paul.
As laid out by Lord Burghley in 1673 Exeter Street was blocked at its west end (some 100 feet beyond the corner of Burleigh Street) by the boundary wall of Mr. Bagley's garden (not, as stated in Strype's Survey, by the wall of Bedford House garden (fn. 2) ). (fn. 1) The street was subsequently extended westward, at some time before 1708, over the site of Bagley's garden as far as the back wall of a house on the east side of Southampton Street. Until c. 1831 this westward extension was known as (Great) Denmark Court. Rocque's map (Plate 7) shows that Denmark Court was linked to the Strand by a narrow passage which was also known as Denmark, or Little Denmark Court.
In May 1826, while the Bill for improving Charing Cross and the West Strand area was before Parliament, the Commissioners of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues published a plan for widening the Strand which also showed a proposed westward extension of Exeter Street as far as Southampton Street. (fn. 4) This proposal for Exeter Street was not adopted: instead the Commissioners built a north—south street from the Strand to the west end of Exeter Street over the site of Little Denmark Court. (fn. 5) It was opened in c. 1831 and took the name of Exeter Street. (fn. 6)
In 1720 Strype described the street as 'well inhabited' (fn. 2) although from the first the residents appear to have been mainly tradesmen. Dr. Johnson, who lived here in 1737, lodged with a staymaker—Richard Norris. (fn. 7) The site of Norris's house, which was on the north side, has been taken into the roadway of Wellington Street. (fn. 8) During part of the eighteenth century the vestry of St. Paul's leased two houses on the north side for use as a parish workhouse. (fn. 9)
The inaugural meeting of the London Corresponding Society was held in January 1792 at the Bell Tavern which stood on the north side of the street (on part of the site now occupied by the Old Bell public house, see page 228). Thomas Hardy, the shoemaker who was the founder and first secretary of the society, described the meeting: 'They [the founder-members] had finished their daily labour, and met there by appointment. After having had their bread and cheese and porter for supper, as usual, and their pipes afterwards, with some conversation on the hardness of the times and the dearness of all the necessaries of life, which they, in common with their fellow citizens, felt to their sorrow, the business for which they met was brought forward —Parliamentary Reform'. They arranged to meet weekly and the Bell probably continued to be their venue for several weeks, for a broadsheet setting out the aims of the society was issued from there in April. (fn. 10)
Most of the original houses were rebuilt in 1732 but none earlier than c. 1820 survives today. Several houses collapsed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and their sites were left unbuilt. One nineteenth-century building which does not survive was a short-lived public exhibition room at the north-west corner of the street erected in 1848–9 by Edward Marmaduke Clarke, an optician. It is listed in the Post Office Directory for 1851 as the Royal Panopticon Institute of Science, which later removed to Leicester Square. (fn. 11) By 1856 the Panopticon's building in Exeter Street had been taken over by The News of the World printing house. (fn. 12)
During the latter half of the nineteenth century the Dukes of Bedford acquired the freehold of most of the sites on the north side, west of Wellington Street. (fn. 13) These purchases were made partly to facilitate the northward extension of Burleigh Street (fn. 14) but they also provided new buildings on the south side of Tavistock Street, where sites had hitherto been rather restricted, with a rear frontage to Exeter Street. Today much of the frontage of Exeter Street is taken up by the rear and side elevations of buildings in other streets, notably the Strand Palace Hotel.
The social character of the street during the first half of the nineteenth century is indicated in a protest from the vestry clerk, on behalf of the ratepayers, to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests in 1834. This described how the tradespeople 'who had lived in Exeter Street for many years in comfort and respectability' had been seriously inconvenienced by the long delay in completing the building up of Wellington Street. According to the clerk some of the inhabitants 'have been reduced to poverty and have been compelled to seek charitable or parochial assistance'. (fn. 15)
A few years later, in 1842, a complaint from the ratepayers themselves shows how difficult, from another cause, housekeeping in the street had become; indeed they asserted that it would be 'impossible for respectable families to continue residents if surrounded by so gross an immorality' as then prevailed. The complainants were particularly critical of Mrs. Crutchley's house, 'where scenes of the grossest infamy are daily exposed. The house appears to be the resort of women of the lowest description whose screams throughout the greater part of the night keep the neighbourhood in a constant state of annoyance. Cries of murder have made it necessary frequently to call in the Police. Women in a state of almost perfect nudity and drunkenness are constantly exposing themselves in the yard of the said premises over which the windows of our houses look to the constant annoyance of ourselves, our wives and families.' (fn. 16) Their complaint seems to have had no immediate effect. Whether Mrs. Crutchley's nuisance was abated or not the householders were to have no respite, for a year or two later an infants' school was established among the much-tried inhabitants of this street. (fn. 17)