The Bedford Estate outside the Parish of St. Paul

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

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'The Bedford Estate outside the Parish of St. Paul', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, (London, 1970) pp. 266-270. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]

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The Bedford Estate outside the Parish of St. Paul

The lands which the Earls of Bedford acquired in the vicinity of Covent Garden in the sixteenth century were (from 1542) all in the parish of St. Martin in the Fields. In 1646, when the new parish of St. Paul was formed out of part of St. Martin in the Fields, the nucleus of the Bedford estate, comprising the Piazza and the adjacent streets together with the curtilage of Bedford House, was transferred to the new parish, which formed an enclave almost entirely surrounded by the remaining portions of St. Martin in the Fields. Most of the outer portions of the Bedford estate remained in St. Martin in the Fields, and their history is therefore only described in outline in this volume. (fn. 1)

These outer portions of the estate formed four strips of land bounded on their outer sides, on the north by Long Acre, on the east by Drury Lane, on the south by an irregular line shown in fig. 1, and on the west by St. Martin's Lane. All of these strips were outside the brick wall with which the third Earl enclosed the central nucleus of his estate in c. 1610. They were haphazardly developed for building some years before the planned layout of the centre of the estate began in the 1630's, and by 1700 a large proportion of these outlying parts had been granted away in fee farm subject to the payment of small perpetual ground rents. By so doing the Earls and Dukes of Bedford lost almost all control over these areas, and by the twentieth century even the ground rents had in most cases been extinguished by a lump sum payment from the owners of the fee farms.

The effect upon Bedfordbury (in the western strip) of this absence of all restraint over either building or the mode of occupation was described in 1887 by the steward of the ninth Duke of Bedford's London estates: 'Every grantee became his own freeholder and his plot of land was under his own absolute control, with this result: that Bedfordbury commenced its career by every man doing what was right in his own eyes in the way of building. A number of alleys came into existence, and instead of a single house being put upon a single plot … a man would put two or three or four on it, may be half-a-dozen houses, or cottages, or anything he pleased upon it, and that went on in perpetuity; and from the time those grants were made until a few years ago … Bedfordbury gradually became one of the worst dens in London.' (fn. 4) These remarks could almost equally well be applied to the strips of fee-farm land on the other three sides of the Bedford estate, though on the north and south sides the decline did not proceed to quite such depths as in Bedfordbury. A glance at the maps reproduced on Plates 7, 8, 9 reveals the contrast between the layout of the four fee-farm strips and the central leasehold area, and even now, after a century of rebuilding and street improvement, much of the original uncontrolled seventeenth-century street pattern still survives in the courts between St. Martin's Lane and Bedfordbury, and between Floral Street and Long Acre.

West Side: St. Martin's Lane, Bedfordbury, New Row

The east side of St. Martin's Lane, from Long Acre to a point south of William IV Street, formed the western boundary of the convent garden and, later, of the Bedford estate.

The frontage to St. Martin's Lane was possibly built up soon after the Russells acquired the estate but at the close of the sixteenth century most of the area between St. Martin's Lane and the pales surrounding the central portion of Covent Garden was still open ground, albeit divided by fences into garden plots let to various tenants. One of the early leases has survived. It was made in 1598 and the lessee, William Dawson, a joiner, covenanted to plant three stocks of fruit trees in the garden and a quickset hedge on his eastern boundary. (fn. 5) In 1609 two garden plots, at the northern end near Long Acre, were sold in fee farm by the third Earl of Bedford to Robert, Earl of Salisbury, (fn. 6) and a range of stables was built there. The accounts suggest that this was a sizeable building, for Simon Basil, the King's Surveyor, certified one bill, (fn. 7) Robert Lyming, the architect of Hatfield House, designed at least part of the building, (fn. 8) and Richard Ryder performed some of the carpenter's work. One of Ryder's tasks was to make a door 'into the Comon garden for the groomes to goe to watter their horses in the Long acr'. (fn. 9)

At some time before 1627 Bedfordbury, a passage of 17 feet 6 inches in width, was built parallel with St. Martin's Lane. (fn. 10) As in the case of Hart Street and Long Acre a few years later, the creation of the new street, parallel with the old, encouraged the building of narrow alleys between them. Little Chandos Street, Dawson's Alley and King's Arms Stable Yard were in existence by 1627 (fn. 11) and Goodwin's Court, Hop Garden, Kynaston's Alley, Mays Buildings and Turner's Court were added subsequently. Some of these alleys still exist.

By 1635 little open space survived. A survey of that date shows that most of the area was covered by houses, shops, sheds, workshops and stables. Many houses were entirely of timber, although some had brick fronts, and one or two had exterior staircases. (fn. 12) The fourth Earl made no attempt to include the area in his scheme of development for the central part of Covent Garden, and instead he virtually abandoned his interest in it by granting away all the former garden plots between Salisbury stables and Little Chandos Street in fee farm in 1635 and 1636. (fn. 13)

The only influence which the central development exerted over this outer western area was the building of New Street (now New Row) between King Street and St. Martin's Lane. This was begun in 1635 or 1636, but in June of the latter year the Privy Council ordered the fourth Earl of Bedford to stop building there. (fn. 14) Over six months later the Earl wrote to the Council, explaining that he had ordered the workmen to desist, and had no knowledge that the ban had subsequently been broken. He had in any case sold the ground, and the 'handsome' new street conformed with his licence to build in Covent Garden, was 24 feet broad and replaced 'a noysome Alley' which had had an entrance only 4 or 5 feet wide. (fn. 15) What he did not point out was that it was the only street providing reasonable access between St. Martin's Lane and the Piazza, and that the person to whom he had sold the ground was his own agent, John Trenchard. About fifteen months later Trenchard obtained the Privy Council's permission to finish New Street under the authority of the letters patent granted to the Earl for Covent Garden. (fn. 16) The street was eventually completed and, no doubt, provided a stimulus for the building of Rose Street in defiance of the Privy Council (see page 268).

By the latter part of the nineteenth century the absence of the controlling influence of a single ground landlord had reduced the Bedfordbury area to such squalor that in 1876 the Metropolitan Board of Works decided to promote a scheme for its renovation. A report presented to the Board in that year recorded that many of the courts off Bedfordbury were less than 4 feet wide and the houses were so dilapidated that in some instances the roofs had fallen in. 'The passages in the houses were so narrow that the raising of one's elbows would cause them to touch the walls on each side, and so dark that even when the morning sun was shining brightly outside it was necessary carefully to feel every step taken.' The terrible sanitary conditions were made worse by 'the filthy habits of the occupants', and one house of six rooms was occupied by thirty-three persons. In 1877 the Board obtained the royal assent to a clearance scheme and the area east of Bedfordbury was razed three years later. Bedfordbury and the narrow part of Chandos Street were widened to 30 feet and 45 feet respectively and a new street 30 feet wide was made connecting Bedfordbury to Bedford Court. The net cost to the Board was £75,510. Most of the remaining land was sold in 1880 to the trustees of the Peabody Donation Fund and dwellings for 720 persons were erected by 1881. (fn. 17)

North Side: Long Acre

Long Acre takes its name from the field which became attached to Covent Garden in the Middle Ages (see page 19) and marks the boundary between the Bedford estate and the estate of the Mercers' Company. It was laid out in about 1615 between the two estates, 24 feet being given up for the roadway by the third Earl of Bedford. Some 134–140 feet to the south stood the brick wall erected in c. 1610 by the Earl around the central part of Covent Garden, that is, along the line now occupied by the north side of Floral (formerly Hart) Street. The area between the street and the wall was let out in garden plots, the tenants being required to pitch, pave and clean Long Acre and, if they built houses, to do so 'substantiallie and stronglie and in a convenient decent and comelie forme, and three stories in heigth (yf not above) and the forepart or front thereof at the Least of brick'. (fn. 18) One large parcel of ground was sold in 1618 to the Earl of Pembroke by Francis, Lord Russell, later the fourth Earl of Bedford (fn. 19) (and was acquired in 1650 by the Earl of Salisbury. (fn. 20) ) In 1630 the development of the street was still incomplete and its unsatisfactory condition attracted the attention of the Privy Council. The outcome was the licensing of the fourth Earl's whole building enterprise in Covent Garden (see page 26). In Long Acre a number of building leases were granted in the early 1630's by the Earl under agreements similar to those operating on the rest of the estate, (fn. 21) and Hart Street was laid out along the south side of the third Earl's brick wall, with James Street in the centre linking it with Long Acre. Both new streets are mentioned, but not by name, in deeds of 1632 and 1633. (fn. 22) By 1635 the ground between Long Acre and Hart Street had been covered by a variety of brick and timber buildings—stables, sheds, workshops and houses—and only one plot, 'handsomely plainted with trees and flowers', remained undeveloped. (fn. 12)

In 1635 and 1636 the fourth Earl granted in fee farm several sites between Long Acre and Hart Street (so far as can be judged, excluding those on which building had taken place recently) and thus abrogated control over their subsequent development. (fn. 23) One such development attracted the attention of the Privy Council in 1638 and was referred to Inigo Jones. The property concerned was the 'handsomely plainted' garden between Long Acre and New Street (now New Row). After being granted in fee farm in 1635 it had changed hands and been parcelled out. Several persons were concerned (including Richard Harris, a Covent Garden chapelwarden, and Nicholas Stone, master mason of the King's Works) but John Ward, citizen and girdler, was singled out by the Privy Council. (fn. 2) According to Inigo Jones, Ward had designed to make a communication from Long Acre towards Covent Garden by means of an alley about 9 feet wide extending south (to be called White Rose Street), which was to open into a second alley extending east, about 18 feet wide (to be called Red Rose Street), and, if possible, to continue the second alley southwards over ground which did not belong to him. (fn. 25) Jones thought that Ward would not be able to buy the land which he needed, and complained about 'the pestering of such places with Allyes of meane houses having but one way into them, and no other to goe out', and the Privy Council, 'disliking the desine', ordered Ward 'to disist'. (fn. 26) However, the northern and east-west arms of what is now Rose Street had already been built, and were allowed to remain. The scheme was finally completed in 1640, by Richard Harris, who had bought the land he needed from Ward in the previous year. (fn. 27) Harris's development required the collusion of the Earl of Bedford, who 'did condiscend' that Harris should build the southern arm of Rose Street to connect with the recently opened New Street. (fn. 28) It evidently proved an ill speculation for Harris, who in 1647 was complaining that he had entered into it 'most unfortunately … with two Thousand pounds Losse, to the utter ruyne and undoeing of [him], his wife and Children'. (fn. 29) The contorted remains of Rose Street still survive as a monument to speculators' folly, and the ineptness of Charles I's Privy Council. (fn. 3)

Rose Street was not the only 'pestering' in this northern part of the estate. Whereas before the formation of Hart Street and James Street there was no communication at all between Long Acre and the rest of Covent Garden, thereafter numerous alleys were cut through between Long Acre and Hart Street, some on land granted in fee farm by the fourth Earl or his successor the fifth Earl (later the first Duke) in the 1650's. (fn. 32) Those shown on Rocque's map (Plate 7) include Conduit Court (named after Leonard Cunditt, a speculator, and by the side of which stood a bagnio), (fn. 33) and St. John's Court (named after a lessee, Mary, Lady St. John). (fn. 34) Several of these alleys still survive. Bow Street, however, remained shut off from Long Acre until 1792–3, (fn. 35) and the opening which was then formed was very narrow, the present width at the northern end dating only from 1835. (fn. 36)

By 1660 only a few houses in Long Acre remained within the Bedford estate. When some of these were rebuilt in the 1670's and 1680's the Earl of Bedford's leases stipulated that they should conform to the standards which had been laid down for 'second-rate' houses in the Act of Parliament of 1667 for the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire. (fn. 37) At the time of the sale of the estate in 1918 the only houses in Long Acre which still belonged to the eleventh Duke of Bedford were all east of James Street.

East Side: Drury Lane

No part of Drury Lane lies within the parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden, but the west side between Long Acre and Aldwych, which is in the parish of St. Martin in the Fields, was the eastern boundary of the Bedford estate. The street marks the line of an ancient thoroughfare first recorded in 1199, when it was described as an 'old' way. (fn. 38) During the thirteenth century it was known as 'Aldewichstrate' (fn. 39) but by the early sixteenth century it was called 'Foscue' or Fortescu Lane (fn. 40) in allusion to the Fortescus, who had held adjoining lands (i.e. the convent garden, Long Acre and the Mercers' Company property called Elmfield). (fn. 41) The present name of the street came into use in the latter part of the sixteenth century, when the Drury family lived at Drury House on the east side of the street. (fn. 42)

The development of the Earl of Bedford's ground between Drury Lane and the central great pasture of Covent Garden followed the same pattern as on the north and west sides in Long Acre and St. Martin's Lane. The frontage to Drury Lane began to be built up in the early years of the seventeenth century, and plots in the rear were let to tenants for gardens. (fn. 43) Although there were one or two fine houses fronting Drury Lane, and a few built entirely of brick facing Little Russell Street, the majority of buildings were small and of poor standard, built of timber or timber and brick, on very confined curtilages. There were also many stables. (fn. 44)

Alleys soon began to be built between the street frontage and the line of the brick wall which enclosed the central area of Covent Garden. The southernmost, known as White Hart Yard and later as White Hart Street (Plate 53c, 53d), marked the estate boundary and was older than the others; during the Middle Ages its eastern end probably marked the site of a gate leading into the convent garden (see page 19). White Hart Yard must certainly have been in existence by 1586, the date at which Bedford House was built, for it provided the only means of access to the stables of the house. It also communicated with the back premises of the White Hart Inn in the Strand, which had been in existence since at least 1550. (fn. 45)

Vinegar Yard is first mentioned in 1635 (fn. 46) when it had evidently been in existence for some years. Little Russell Street originated as a passage leading into the central pasture; there was a gate at its west end in the brick wall built in c. 1610 to enclose the central area. (fn. 47) Red Lion Court (on the site of Broad Court) probably originated, at some time before 1618, as the stable-yard of a tavern. (fn. 48)

Many plots on the east side of the estate, between Bow Street, Brydges (now Catherine) Street and Drury Lane were granted away in fee farm by the fourth and fifth Earls of Bedford between 1635 and 1659. Their successors therefore had no control over these properties, which quickly degenerated in much the same way as Bedfordbury. In the first half of the eighteenth century the Drury Lane neighbourhood was a dangerous place to visit by night, empty houses in the locality of the theatre being often taken by the professional gamesters and sharpers who battened on unsuspecting playgoers. (fn. 49) By the end of the nineteenth century some of the worst social conditions in the whole of London existed in the streets to the east of Drury Lane, but on the west side too there was a good deal of poverty. (fn. 50) The social regeneration of the area between Drury Lane and Bow Street and Catherine Street was not achieved until c. 1899–1900, when the eleventh Duke of Bedford bought back a number of properties which his predecessors had sold more than two centuries previously. The street layout was then improved by the closure of half-adozen courts and the extension of York (now Tavistock) Street eastward to Drury Lane. Rehousing was undertaken by the London County Council, which erected several blocks of flats here.

South Side

The southern boundary of the Bedford estate coincided for much of its length with the southern boundary of the convent garden, but in the middle it included Friars Pyes and projected south as far as the Strand (see fig. 1 on page 20). The history of Friars Pyes, on which Bedford House and part of Cecil House were erected, is discussed on pages 21–2.

Most of the property on the south side of the estate to the east of Cecil House, where Exeter Street was later built, was sold in 1561 to Sir William Cecil to enlarge his garden. (fn. 51) South of White Hart Yard, only a small piece of the estate adjoining Eagle Court was retained, the rest being granted away in fee farm between 1638 and 1657. (fn. 52)

West of Bedford House, the property on the south side was let as additional garden ground during the latter years of the sixteenth century to the occupants of houses on the north side of the Strand. (fn. 53) These garden plots were at first divided from the rest of the Bedford estate by a fence and, from c. 1610, by the brick wall which was erected around the central pasture, and which extended along the south side of the line of Maiden Lane.

Vine Street, a lane 12 feet wide, parallel with and to the south of Chandos Street (see Plate 7), was in existence by 1627. (fn. 11) By 1635 the buildings on either side of Vine Street were in a dilapidated condition and included many stables and workshops. (fn. 12) The greater part of this neighbourhood was granted away in fee farm between 1635 and 1658.

When the parish of St. Paul was established in 1646 part of Cecil House garden, the curtilage of Bedford House, the ground on the south side of Maiden Lane and part of that on the south side of Chandos Street were transferred to the new parish.


  • 1. Survey of London, volume XX, The Parish of St. Martin in the Fields part III, 1940, also contains accounts of these areas.
  • 2. Ward and Harris were evidently a troublesome pair, for both had recently been imprisoned in the Fleet for failing to remove rubbish which they had deposited in Covent Garden, and they were then said to 'deal very fraudulently among their neighbours'.
  • 3. Nicholas Stone's part in this affair was a small one. He occupied a piece of land on the east of White Rose Street on which stood a two-storey brick house, one timber and one brick 'workhouse'. In 1636 he obtained a grant of this property in fee farm. Three years later he contracted with Richard Harris for a piece of ground between his house and the alley called White Rose Street where he agreed to build a house over the passage entrance with a 'faire and lardge stone Arche of Twelve foote in height and Eleaven foote in widenes'. It appears that he did build it, for his descendant, John Stone, described as a stone-cutter, was in possession of a messuage called 'the Arch house' in 'Whitecrosse' (i.e., White Rose) Street in 1661. Other masons who occupied houses in Long Acre in c. 1624 were Baernert Janson (Barnard Johnson) and James White, tombmakers, and John Medhurst.
  • 4. P.P., Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Town Holdings, 1887, vol. XIII, p. 575.
  • 5. E/BER, St. Martin's Lane, lease of 1 April 1598 to W. Dawson.
  • 6. Hatfield House, Cecil Family and Estate Papers, deed 214/11.
  • 7. Ibid., accounts 9/8.
  • 8. Ibid., general 3/15.
  • 9. Ibid., accounts 160/1.
  • 10. E/BER, Surveys, 1627, 1635.
  • 11. Ibid., Survey, 1627.
  • 12. Ibid., Survey, 1635.
  • 13. Ibid., plan, 1771; B.O.L., Muniment Register II, pp. 1019–21, D, bundle 10, nos. 4–20.
  • 14. P.R.O., PC2/46. p. 284.
  • 15. Ibid., SP16/344, no. 109.
  • 16. Ibid., PC2/49, P. 49.
  • 17. London County Council, The Housing Question in London 1855–1900, 1901. pp. 126–30.
  • 18. E/BER, Long Acre, leases of 16 March [? 1615] to R. Boys, 17 Feb. 1616/17 to H. Anslow and 26 Nov. 1618 to Sir H. Fane.
  • 19. Ibid., Rental, 1618; Muniments of Title, Middlesex, E, no. 5.
  • 20. Hatfield House, Cecil Family and Estate Papers, legal 189/1.
  • 21. E/BER, James Street, lease of 4 May 1632 to R. Scawen; Long Acre, leases of 27 May 1631 to W. Chapman, 9 Aug. 1633 to J. Reade and 18 Oct. 1633 to S. Shelton.
  • 22. Ibid., James Street, lease of 4 May 1632 to R. Scawen; King Street, lease of 10 July 1633 to M. Aubert.
  • 23. Ibid., plan, 1771; B.O.L., Muniment Register II, pp. 1015–16, D, bundle 8, nos. 2, 3, 5.
  • 24. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1634–5, p. 488; 1635, p. 60.
  • 25. P.R.O., SP16/400, no. 100; C8 84/53.
  • 26. Ibid., SP 16/400, no. 100; SP16/410, no. 132.
  • 27. Ibid., C8/84/53; C9/12/77.
  • 28. E/BER, Solicitors' Papers, Hilary 15 Car. I.
  • 29. P.R.O., C6/5/171.
  • 30. Ibid., C8/84/53; C6/148/5; E/BER, Survey, 1635; B.O.L., Muniment Register II, p. 1016, D, bundle 8, no. 3.
  • 31. E/BER, Long Acre, deed poll, Jan. 1623/4.
  • 32. B.O.L., Muniment Register II, pp. 1016–17, nos. 6–12.
  • 33. P.R.O., C10/281/47.
  • 34. E/BER, Long Acre, lease of 1 Nov. 1664 to Lady St. John.
  • 35. Bedfordshire Record Office, Russell Papers, R.1521, R.1593.
  • 36. E/BER, Muniments of Title, Middlesex, D, bundle 8, no. 2.
  • 37. Ibid., Long Acre, leases of 1 April 1675 to J. Barnes, 20 Dec. 1675 to T. Apthorp, 3 July 1683 to R. Wood, 18 June 1684 to M. Fiske.
  • 38. English Place-Name Society, vol. XVIII. The Place-Names of Middlesex, 1942, p. 166.
  • 39. Westminster Abbey, Muniment 17086.
  • 40. P.R.O., C66/845.
  • 41. Ibid., C54/302, m. 3d; C66/845; Westminster Abbey, Register 1, f. 56b.
  • 42. A Survey of London by John Stow, ed. C. L. Kingsford, vol. 11, 1908, p. 98.
  • 43. E/BER, Rental, 1618.
  • 44. Ibid., Survey, 1635; Drury Lane, leases of 13 Dec. 1614 to Sir W. Slyngisbye, 1 June 1652 to Sir R. Kinge.
  • 45. Brasenose College, Oxford, Muniments, London b2, deed of 22 Feb. 1549/50.
  • 46. E/BER, Muniments of Title, Middlesex, B, bundle 6, no. 1.
  • 47. Ibid., Brydges Street, lease of 14 June 1635 to J. Hargrave.
  • 48. Ibid., Rentals, 1618, 1637.
  • 49. M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century, 1925. p. 83.
  • 50. Charles Booth, Labour and Life of the People, Appendix to vol. 11, 1891, pp. I, 19.
  • 51. E/BER, Muniments of Title, Mddlesex, E, no.I.
  • 52. Ibid., Estate Plan, 1795.
  • 53. Ibid., Rental, 1595.