The Bedford Estate: From 1641 to 1700

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

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'The Bedford Estate: From 1641 to 1700', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, (London, 1970) pp. 34-37. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

From 1641 to 1700

About a year before his death, Francis, fourth Earl of Bedford, executed a deed which settled certain parts of his estates on his four sons then living—William, the eldest, who succeeded as fifth Earl, Francis, John and Edward. The fourth Earl died without having altered the settlement, although his son Francis had predeceased him. Thereupon the three remaining sons and the Earl's widow came to an amicable agreement for sharing the family's estates; this was ratified by an Act of Parliament and became effective on 20 June 1641. So far as Covent Garden was concerned, the arrangements were as follows. The fourth Earl's widow was to receive the profits from two portions during her lifetime, but after her death they were to revert to her son William. John Russell took as his portion, firstly, the block of property between Long Acre, the west side of James Street, Hart Street and the Earl of Pembroke's freehold ground, and secondly, the houses on the west side of James Street between Hart Street and the portico buildings. Edward Russell's share comprised four blocks in the south-east corner of the estate, on the north and south sides of Russell Street, and on the north and south sides of York Street (fn. 1) (see fig. 1). All the rest of the estate passed to William, to whom his mother's portion reverted after her death in 1657.

In the same year as the dowager Countess's death, the Commonwealth Government passed an Act 'for the preventing the multiplicity of Buildings in and about the Suburbs of London', the chief purpose of which was to raise money by fining occupiers and owners of houses built, on new foundations and having less than four acres of ground, since 25 March 1620. (fn. 2) As the Exchequer had already received £4,000 from the estate in Covent Garden during the fourth Earl's time, it must have seemed hard to his son that he should now be faced with yet another governmental exaction, and in May 1657 he submitted a petition to the House of Commons praying for exemption from the fines for himself and his brothers. (fn. 3) The petition was discussed at some length in the House. Captain Baynes saw no reason why the Earl of Bedford should have preferential treatment and thought that the building of the church, which had been urged as a reason for the abatement of the fines, had only been undertaken by the fourth Earl in order to 'advance his houses' rents'. But on the whole the House was favourably disposed towards the request and among those who spoke in support of the Earl were Colonel Sydenham, Sir John Hobart and John Trenchard. Hobart said that 'These buildings have been chargeable to him, only for ornament sake, and least profit to him. Such buildings and such a church is the honour of the nation'. Trenchard, who had been the fourth Earl's agent, appealed for mercy to be mixed with justice. (fn. 4) The Earl's friends prevailed and the Act was passed on 26 June with a clause 'That in regard of the great charges that Francis late Earl of Bedford hath been at, in building a Church in Covent Garden … and in the Endowments of the same Church, and other publique charges, in and about the Parish …, there be abated unto William Earl of Bedford, John Russel, and Edward Russel Esqs; … out of the Fines which shall be payable by them by force of this Act, in respect of the buildings in the said Parish of Covent Garden, the sum of seven thousand pounds … proportionably'. (fn. 2) The total fines appointed to be paid on the Covent Garden property were assessed at over £10,000, (fn. 5) that is, nearly ten times the amount which the estate then produced in annual rents, (fn. 6) but they were to be paid proportionately by the Earl, the lessees and the occupants. For example, one property consisting of two houses, for which the lessee paid the Earl £8 per annum, (fn. 7) was assessed for a fine of £79 10s.—£37 10s. 4d. to be paid by the Earl, £27 16s. 5d. by the lessee and £14 3s. 3d. by the occupants. (fn. 5) Consequently, although the lessees and occupants were presumably still liable, the fines due to be paid by the Earl and his brothers were amply covered by the abatement of £7,000.

The fifth Earl's ownership of Covent Garden, from 1641 to his death in 1700, lasted far longer than any other Russell's, before or since. The chief events of his time were the creation of the parish in 1646, the building of Drury Lane Theatre in 1662–3 and the grant of market rights in 1670. Perhaps by the Earl's contrivance the new parish boundary excluded nearly all the outer parts of the estate where building had preceded the development of the 1630's and where so many properties had been granted away by the fourth Earl in fee farm. In this last respect, the fifth Earl followed his father's example, and between 1641 and 1668 he sold at fee-farm rents many of the remaining properties in the neighbourhood of Long Acre, Drury Lane and Chandos Street. (fn. 8) The establishment of Drury Lane Theatre probably contributed to the raffish nature of the area in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but above all, it was the founding of the market which had the most farreaching effect. The market spoiled the appearance of the Piazza, filled the surrounding streets with noise and traffic, and although for more than two hundred years it earned an everincreasing income for its owners, it eventually became such a heavy political liability that in the early twentieth century the eleventh Duke of Bedford decided, partly at least for this reason, to sell both it and the whole of the Covent Garden estate.

Two other events affected the estate in the latter part of the seventeenth century although they took place outside the Russells' own property. Firstly, access to the estate from the south-east was greatly improved in 1673 by the demolition of the White Hart Inn and the formation of Catherine Street, which joined the south end of Brydges Street with the Strand. In 1662 an Act of Parliament had established Commissioners for repairing and cleansing the streets of London and Westminster, and also 'for the enlarging of several strait and inconvenient Streets and Passages', of which 'the Passage through the White Hart Inn from the Strand into Covent Garden' was one. (fn. 9) The freehold of the White Hart belonged to Brasenose College, Oxford, and negotiations between the Commissioners and the college and their tenant, Henry Browne, for the purchase of the property, lasted for eleven years. The college was reluctant to sell the whole site and suggested that a passage 20 feet wide would be adequate, since the passage by the Half Moon Tavern into Covent Garden was no wider. In July 1668 Henry Browne thought the Commissioners had abandoned the scheme, 'because there are wayes enough to goe into the Comen Garden besides', but in August the King sent a message to the Commissioners ordering them to proceed forthwith. Eventually, after arbitration on the purchase price, the college conveyed the property to the Commissioners in May 1673 for £1,700. (fn. 10) The White Hart and the ancillary buildings were demolished and a new street, nearly 50 feet wide, was cut through the site. It was named Catherine Street in complimentary reference to the Queen.

Secondly, the formation of Catherine Street greatly benefited Lord Burghley, the owner of the adjacent land to the west, and in 1671 (when the negotiations with Brasenose College were still in progress) he petitioned the King for permission to build streets on his estate there. (fn. 11) John, Lord Burghley (or Burleigh), was the son of the fourth Earl of Exeter, to whom this land had descended from Sir William Cecil. In 1559 Cecil had purchased a house on the north side of the Strand. (fn. 12) He had subsequently purchased all the property eastward of this house as far as the White Hart Inn, (fn. 13) enlarged the house and built another on its east side for his son, Sir Robert Cecil. (fn. 14) He had also extended his estate westward by the purchase of land in Friars Pyes from the second Earl of Bedford (see page 22) and also northward by the purchase in 1561, again from the second Earl of Bedford, of a long strip of Covent Garden, 481 feet in length and 78 feet in width. Cecil added the latter to the garden of Cecil House and built a brick wall to enclose it, from which projected three banqueting houses, one at either end and one in the middle. (fn. 15)

Lord Burghley's petition to the King in 1671 was accompanied by a plan for the layout of three new streets on his estate (Plate 10). The plan was referred to (Sir) Christopher Wren, the Surveyor General of the King's Works, who recommended its approval on condition that either the Earl of Bedford would allow a passage to be cut from the south end of Charles Street, across Bedford stable yard, to meet a new street leading into the Strand, or that an alternative passage should be opened from the east end of the proposed Exeter Street into White Hart Yard, (fn. 11) where the new Catherine Street was about to be formed. The licence was granted on 24 January 1672/3, (fn. 16) the King having urged the Earl of Bedford to permit the opening to be made across his land. (fn. 11) The Earl, however, was evidently unwilling to allow his stable yard to be cut in half and the proposed southward extension of Charles Street to the Strand was abandoned. It was eventually made, at much greater cost, when Wellington Street was laid out in the nineteenth century.

Exeter Street was built across the strip of Covent Garden which had been added to Cecil House garden, and at its eastern end it opened into the new Catherine Street. Burleigh Street was built across the part of Friars Pyes which had been attached to Cecil House.

By the mid 1650's the building leases granted by the fourth Earl were nearing the end of their terms, and in 1656 his son began to grant reversionary leases for terms beginning in 1662 or later and lasting for twenty-one years. (fn. 17) They were granted in return for a fine (i.e. a lump sum payment), usually to the sitting tenant, and contained the customary clauses concerning maintenance and payment of rent. From the end of 1657 tenants were also required to pay their proportions of two local rates; one, to be levied by the parish officers, was for the maintenance of the rector, his assistant and/or curate and other church officers, while the second, to be levied by the Earl and his successors, was for the maintenance of the wooden railing 'round the place Called by the name of the Mount', i.e. the centre of the Piazza. By the 1660's the Earl was forbidding tenants to sub-let their premises to any person carrying on the trade of smith, farrier, soap-boiler or butcher, without his licence first obtained, and in 1664 a tenant who was an apothecary covenanted not to annoy his neighbours 'by Smoke or any noysome or Stinkeing Savours'. Other 'noysome' trades were subsequently added to the list until it eventually reached the proportions referred to below on page 46n. Tenants of houses in the Piazza were, in addition, forbidden to allow their premises to be used, without the Earl's licence, as a public ordinary (i.e. inn) or victualling house, or for the sale of coffee, chocolate, tea, mum (a type of beer), cider, ale or beer. Similar leases, usually for twenty-one years, were also granted for the remaining old properties outside the line of the brick wall.

Besides these ordinary leases the fifth Earl also granted a number of building leases, both within and without the wall. A few of these were for filling in vacant sites. In the 1670's, for example, part of the former garden of the Earl of Anglesey, which lay on the east side of the brick wall at the north end of Bow Street, was let for building under terms similar to those which had been granted to the builders in the 1630's. Unlike those used in the 1630's, the one surviving example of the articles of agreement for this development specifies the dimensions of all the timber pieces to be used: it also contains a clause that 'the Plott or Modell for the said building shall before the foundation thereof [be] Shewne unto the Agents and Surveyor of the said Earle to be by them consented unto'. The lessees promised to pay an additional rent if, and when, Bow Street was extended north into Long Acre.

The majority of the building leases, however, were for the replacement of existing buildings, and in these cases the lessees had to pay fines for renewal. The greatest rebuilding seems to have been in Chandos Street between 1667 and 1699, where Richard Brigham had been responsible for the development. One house needed the back rebuilt, one needed repairs costing £60, and others had to be demolished entirely and rebuilt, usually at a cost of not less than £200. Some old premises at the back of the houses on the north side of the street were also entirely demolished and Bedford Court laid out over the site in 1688–9.

The content and form of the fifth Earl's rebuilding leases are sufficiently varied to suggest that his estate policy was fairly flexible. For new building the term granted was most commonly forty-one years; occasionally the term granted was a much shorter one, as in the case of two leases for rebuilding on the south side of King Street in the 1670's. Here, where two houses were said to be 'very ruinous', the sitting tenants were granted only a seven-year extension to their leases in consideration of new building. As in the case of the Bow Street agreement, the leases for King Street also contain references to the Earl's surveyor, who had to approve the scantlings of the new 'firme and Strong Brick Messuage'. But by the 1680's the Earl's surveyor is no longer mentioned. Instead, the lessees were usually required to build according to the standards laid down in 1667 for the second rate of houses by the Act of Parliament for rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire. This clause is not invariably found, however, and in 1698 the lessee of a portico house in the Piazza was required to do no more than 'New build or otherwise Repaire' and to have the sum ordered to be spent certified by workmen's bills. Again, the sum to be spent is sometimes inserted in the leases and sometimes omitted.

To sum up, the evidence points to a general policy on the part of the Earl (or the first Duke as he became in 1694) to obtain the best building he could from his tenants, and to increase the revenue from the estate by the promotion of improvements. He, at least, did not object to the din and stink of the market beyond his garden wall, for he continued to live at Bedford House until his death there in September 1700.


  • 1. 16 and 17 Car. I, c. 8, private (House of Lords Act no. 30).
  • 2. Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, vol. 2, pp. 1223–34.
  • 3. Sir John Summerson's notes on MSS. formerly at Woburn Abbey.
  • 4. Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq., ed. Towill Rutt, 1828, vol. 11, pp. 180–2.
  • 5. E/BER, Valuation, 1657.
  • 6. Bedfordshire Record Office, Russell Papers, box 355, rental, 1652.
  • 7. E/BER, Bedford Street, lease of 13 March 1634/5 to R. Clayton.
  • 8. B.O.L., Muniment Register 11, passim.
  • 9. 14 Car. II, c. 2, public.
  • 10. Brasenose College Muniments, London, b 24, 27, 28, 33, 34, 43.
  • 11. P.R.O., PC2/63, p. 341.
  • 12. Burghley House MSS., 5/17.
  • 13. Ibid., 25/1.
  • 14. Hatfield House, Cecil family and estate papers, legal 196/1, deed 184/5.
  • 15. E/BER, Muniments of Title, Middlesex, E, no. 1.
  • 16. P.R.O., C66/3140, no. 16.
  • 17. This account of the fifth Earl's estate manage ment is based on leases in E/BER.