The Bedford Estate: From 1700 to 1802

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

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'The Bedford Estate: From 1700 to 1802', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, (London, 1970) pp. 37-40. British History Online [accessed 24 April 2024]

From 1700 to 1802

During the eighteenth century there were four Dukes of Bedford. In 1694 the fifth Earl had been raised to the dukedom as a mark of honour for his eldest son, William, Lord Russell, who had been beheaded in 1683 for his supposed complicity in the Rye House Plot. The first Duke died in 1700 and was succeeded by his grandson, Lord Russell's son, Wriothesley, who died in 1711 and was followed by his son, another Wriothesley. The third Duke died without issue in 1732, and his brother, John, became the fourth holder of the title. His eldest son predeceased him, and he was succeeded, in 1771, by his grandson, Francis, the fifth Duke, who died in 1802.

In the seventeenth century Covent Garden had been the centre of gravity of all the Russell estates which, although managed from day to day by resident local officers, had been governed by the Earls' chief agents from Bedford House in the Strand. In the first decade of the eighteenth century all this changed, and the focus moved to Bloomsbury. This property had been acquired in 1669 by the marriage of William, Lord Russell, to Rachel, daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Wriothesley, fourth Earl of Southampton. Lord and Lady Russell lived at Southampton House, the mansion built on the Bloomsbury estate by her father, to which Lord Russell's body was taken after his execution in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In 1695, whilst still a minor, their son Wriothesley, who as his grandfather's heir was then styled Marquess of Tavistock (the secondary title conferred with the dukedom), was married to Elizabeth Howland, aged thirteen, daughter and heiress of John Howland, a successful City merchant who owned large estates in Essex and Surrey. On the death of the first Duke in 1700 the couple became Duke and Duchess of Bedford and took up residence, with Lady Russell, at Southampton House. The new Duke is said to have been 'the richest peer in England, worth upwards of £30,000 per annum'. (fn. 4)

Soon afterwards the second Duke decided to demolish Bedford House. A scheme was prepared for the development of its capacious site by speculators and for the improvement and expansion of the market which the demolition of the house would permit. The Duke's 'proposals' required a 'Modell or Scheme' to be made describing the intended streets, namely, a 'great street' from the Mount in the Piazza to the Strand, 50 feet wide, a linking street, 30 feet wide, westwards to Maiden Lane and another, eastwards to Charles Street, 20 feet wide. The building plots were to be so devised as to bring in a total annual rent of £1,100. The undertakers, or speculators, were to give security for carrying out the development to the Duke's satisfaction, and, when the houses were finished or covered in, would receive leases for terms of sixty-one years at a peppercorn rent for the first two years. Alternatively, they would be permitted to nominate 'Responsible Tenants' to receive leases in their stead, under the usual covenants operating elsewhere on the estate. The whole undertaking was to be completed by midsummer 1707.

The Duke also proposed to let the existing fruit and vegetable market in the Piazza for seven years at an annual rent of £300, rising at a rate of £2 per annum for every £100 which he might spend in improvements. Furthermore he undertook to use his influence to obtain a patent for a 'new generall Market' for 'Flesh, Fish & Fowl', which was to stand 'in such part of the stable yard and back ground [of Bedford House] as shall be agreed on', and to let this new market to the undertakers for whatever period remained of the sixtyone years term at a peppercorn rent only, the undertakers being responsible for the cost of obtaining the necessary patent. (fn. 5)

Not all the proposals were carried out. Bedford House site was not completely cleared until 1707 (fn. 6) and, although the market shops in the Piazza were rebuilt (see page 131), the 'Flesh, Fish & Fowl' scheme came to nothing. Nor were the streets built exactly as proposed. (fn. 7) Southampton Street, the designated 'great street', named after the Duke's maternal grandfather, the Earl of Southampton, was built 50 feet wide, but it narrowed at the southern end, purposely to create a bottleneck. Tavistock Street, which took its name from the Russells' marquessate, was not made so narrow as originally intended, its width being 35 feet. At its eastern end it opened into Charles Street, and on its north side was a narrow passage 12 feet in breadth, called Tavistock Court, which led into the Piazza (see fig. 32 on page 208).

The opening to Maiden Lane (hitherto blocked at the east end by the west wall of Bedford House garden) was made much narrower than at first proposed, and narrower even than Maiden Lane itself, being only 18 feet wide. It was named Southampton Court. The row of houses built along the south side of the Piazza was thought of as a continuation of the south side of Henrietta Street and was so called at first. Those houses to the east of Southampton Street were eventually renamed Tavistock Row. The new streets were described by Macky in 1714 as being 'very Noble'. (fn. 8)

Among the first houses to be built were the five at the north end of the east side of Southampton Street (Nos. 15–17 and 19–20 on fig. 32 on page 208), and one in Tavistock Street (No. 24 on fig. 32). These six were insured for £1,950 in March 1707 (fn. 6) and five of them were let for short terms in 1707–8. (fn. 9) They were built by tradesmen in the employment of the Duke himself, (fn. 1) at an estimated cost of £2,950. (fn. 10) The Duke's surveyor at this time was (Sir) William Ogborne, citizen and carpenter of London, who supplied some of the necessary carpentry work and certified other workmen's bills. (fn. 6) Ogborne was a competent architect who built the almshouses at Mile End for the Corporation of Elder Brethren of Trinity House in 1693–7. He was assisted as surveyor by Nicholas Launce, who measured the work performed by the builders and in 1710 succeeded Ogborne as surveyor to the Duke. (fn. 11) John Prince, junior, bricklayer and speculative builder, was also employed by the Duke to 'draw severall Designes for the New buildings … And laying out grate part of the ground', in particular, the 'Expeditious opening [of] the passage into Charles Street' (i.e. Tavistock Street). (fn. 12)

With the exception of the six houses mentioned above, the whole of Bedford Ground, as the site and curtilage of Bedford House was now called, was laid out by speculators who first entered into contracts to build and were then granted building leases. Only one contract has survived and that, in the form of articles of agreement, is a late one, dated 1 March 1710/11. (fn. 13) William Long of Marylebone, gentleman, was the speculator concerned and his plot was on the south side of the Piazza, in what was later known as Tavistock Row. Long contracted to build a 'uniform' house of well burnt bricks and good mortar, to pay a proportion of the costs of making a sewer, to pave the street in front of the house and to set up posts as directed by the Duke's surveyor. The materials which he was required to use were grey stock bricks with rubbing bricks for the returns and the flat gauged arches to openings; the timber was to be yellow fir throughout, but oak for sills, and the lead was to weigh 8 lbs. to the foot. The rainwater pipes were to be square and the modillions, cornice and other ornaments were to answer a pattern for making the front uniform. The specified storey-heights and timber scantlings correspond very closely with those prescribed in the Act of Parliament for rebuilding the City for houses of the 'third sort', that is, four-storeyed houses fronting 'the high and principal streets'. In some particulars, however, the house which William Long was required to build would have been superior, the second and third storeys being, respectively, 6 inches and 1 foot loftier than the heights prescribed in the Act. Assuming that Long's house was not the only one of its type, it may be concluded that the Duke's policy was to have a better quality of building on Bedford Ground than elsewhere on the estate, where houses were still being built according to the second or lesser sort. Long's house must also have differed from others completed before 1709, both on Bedford Ground and on the rest of the estate, in displaying features which had been made obligatory in London and Westminster by two recent Acts of Parliament. The first of these Acts, passed in 1707, prohibited the current practice of building timber cornices under the eaves and required that, from 1 May 1708, the front walls of new houses should be carried up 2½ feet above the garret floor and coped with stone. (fn. 14) The second Act, which was passed in 1708, forbad houses built after 1 June 1709 to have their window and door frames set closer than 4 inches to the outside wall face. (fn. 15) As several houses on Bedford Ground were erected before the Acts came into force, the house fronts did not present a uniform face (see Plate 29b). Two examples of the earlier type are Nos. 26 and 27 Southampton Street (Plate 76), the only survivors of the original buildings on Bedford Ground. They preserve some original window-frames, set nearly flush with the wall face, and although their attics have now been altered, they were presumably built without parapets.

Another factor which must have contributed to a variety of styles is implied in John Prince's statement, mentioned above, that he was engaged to make designs for some of the new houses. Other builders who took leases may have been given as free a hand, within the given framework of established storey-heights, materials and scantlings.

The first building leases were granted in December 1706; the last, for Tavistock Row, were dated November 1714. Thus the development begun by the second Duke continued after his death in 1711. The majority of leases were for sixty-one years, the first two years being held at peppercorn rents, as originally proposed.

For slightly shorter terms (the lowest was fifty-eight years) the period at a peppercorn rent was reduced. Of the eighty building leases for Bedford Ground, twenty-six were granted to persons unconnected with the building trade, doubtless as nominees of the undertakers who actually built the houses. These undertakers, to whom the remaining leases were granted, were builders, (fn. 2) some of whom had been engaged to build the Duke's own houses in Southampton Street. Two taverns are known to have been built, the Bedford Head on the south corner of Tavistock Street and Southampton Street, and the Salutation in Tavistock Street. (fn. 16)

The covenants contained in the leases were to a large extent stereotyped. They concerned the making of sewers and the paving of the streets; the Duke's, or his officers', right to view the building to see that it was built according to the pre-lease contract; the payment of rates; the obligation to repair during the term, and a ban on the practice of certain trades without the Duke's licence. The prohibited trades mentioned in the leases varied slightly from one lease to another; by 1714 the complete list comprised the trades of smith, farrier, tallow-chandler, soapboiler, butcher, baker, fruiterer, brewer, victualler, vintner, pipemaker, pipeburner, dyer, brazier and pewterer—the last three being relatively recent additions.

When the second Duke died of smallpox in 1711 his eldest son, Wriothesley, was only three years old, and so until he came of age in 1729 the estates were managed by trustees, one of whom, until her death in 1724, was his mother, the dowager Duchess of Bedford. The trustees completed the development of Bedford Ground and were responsible for permitting the first important deviation from the architectural unity of the portico buildings in the Piazza. The third Duke was in control of Covent Garden for only three years, for he died in 1732, but the building of the first Covent Garden Theatre took place during this short period.

Wriothesley's brother, John, the fourth Duke, was in possession of Covent Garden from 1732 until 1771. He was active in politics and served as Principal Secretary of State (Southern Department) from 1748 to 1751 and as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1756–61. His careful husbanding of his estate is reflected in the rebuilding of old and decayed houses in accordance with detailed specifications. A number of houses were thus rebuilt in King Street in 1748–54 and in Russell Street in 1759. In addition, Broad Court, suitably named, replaced the cramped and narrow Red Lion Court in 1745–7. Here, building leases were granted to several craftsmen who figured prominently in speculative building in the more fashionable areas west of Covent Garden. (fn. 3)

A letter written in 1744 by Robert Butcher, the Duke's steward, when Henry Flitcroft was the estate surveyor, to William Perritt or Perrott, a plasterer looking for work, refers to the Broad Court scheme. Perritt was informed that 'his Grace is come to a Resolution to employ no Workmen but such as are his Tenants'; but as the Duke was 'unprovided with a Plaisterer upon the Covent Garden Estate' and 'is willing to employ you upon Mr. Flitcrofts Recommendation', Butcher went on to suggest that Perritt should obtain the necessary qualification by taking some of the plots in Broad Court. Even then, however, the Duke would not bind himself to offer work to a particular workman except under the same terms as those already accepted by Mr. Spencer and Mr. Barlow, and 'so long as you do it well, at proper Times, and for such Prises as Mr. Flitcroft shall think reasonable, according to the Goodness of the work'. (fn. 18) Perritt evidently complied with these conditions, and was subsequently granted two building leases in Broad Court (Plates 52b, 59a).

Francis, the fifth Duke, a close friend of Charles James Fox and the Prince of Wales, succeeded his grandfather in 1771, and died in 1802. In Covent Garden the chief events of his time were the renovation of St. Paul's Church in 1788–9, its rebuilding, after a fire, in 1797–8, the rebuilding of Drury Lane Theatre in 1791–4 and the northward extension of Bow Street to Long Acre. His contribution to the church rebuilding fund was made partly for a political quid pro quo (see page 11 on.), but the Bow Street opening was a long intended improvement which had been much delayed.

The fifth Duke should also be remembered for the lead which he gave in the adoption of precautions against fire. Shortly after the burning of the Pantheon in Oxford Street in 1792 the Association of Architects 'took into consideration the causes of the frequent fires' in London 'and the best means that can be adopted for preventing the like in future.' The leader of this enquiry was Henry Holland, the Duke's own surveyor, and in 1793 the Association published a pamphlet containing the results of their enquiries and advocating the practice of carefully specified preventative measures. The Duke ordered these measures to be employed in all new houses built on his estates, and in all houses let on repairing leases where the repairs included the relaying of floors or the resetting of wooden staircases. His adoption of the Association's recommendations was prominently announced in the pamphlet in order to encourage other landlords to do likewise. (fn. 19)


  • 1. Bricklayers, John Phillips, John Prince, junior; carpenters, Thomas Hall, James Staggers; glazier, Thomas Harriott; joiner, John Chaplin; masons, Robert Barrett (and Mrs. Barrett), Chapman; painter, John Pincke; paviour, John Mist; plasterer, John Blenco; plumbers, George Devall, Richard Smith; slater, John White; smiths, Anthony Ireland, Thomas Winter; turner, Abraham Lewin.
  • 2. Bricklayers, John Curtis of St. Martin's, William Diamond of St. James's, Thomas Martin of St. Martin's, John Phillips, citizen of London, John Prince junior of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, and of St. Giles's; carpenters, Thomas Barlow of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, John Foltrop, Abraham Jordan, Benjamin Payne, citizens of London, Thomas Rathbone of St. Marylebone, William Sudbury of St. Mary le Savoy; glazier, Thomas Harriott of St. Anne's; joiners, John Chaplin of St. Anne's, citizen of London, Thomas Sams of St. Clement Danes; painter, John Pincke of St. Paul's, Covent Garden; plasterer, John Blenco, citizen of London; plumber, Gray Sambach of St. Paul's, Covent Garden. The surveyor, Nicholas Launce, took two leases in which he was described as of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, gentleman.
  • 3. The lessees were George Gillingham and Richard Stenton of St. James's, bricklayers; John Spencer and William Timbrell of St. George's, Hanover Square, carpenters; John Devall of St. Marylebone, Edward Prestige and Peter Vandicum of St. James's, masons; Israel Russell of St. George's, Hanover Square, painter; and William Perritt of St. George's, Hanover Square, plasterer.
  • 4. G.E.C.
  • 5. B.O.L., Estate Papers, Proposalls on the behalf of … the Duke of Bedford; W.P.L., box 27, nos. 14a, b.
  • 6. E/BER, vouchers, 1700–6.
  • 7. Ibid., Bedford Ground leases, passim.
  • 8. J. Macky, A Journey through England, 1714, vol. 1, p. 117.
  • 9. E/BER, Southampton Street, leases of 26 Nov. 1707 to E. and M. Ridley, 31 Dec. 1707 to J. Wells, 10 March 1707/8 to C. Whitaker, 10 June 1708 to C. Steffkin, 19 Nov. 1708 to R. Shelton.
  • 10. B.O.L., Estate Papers, An estimate of the Charge of building of six houses in Bedford Ground.
  • 11. Ibid., 'that houses are to be renew'd in Covent Garden', 5 Oct. 1710; E/BER, vouchers, 1700–6.
  • 12. B.O.L., Estate Papers, petition of J. Prince.
  • 13. E/Ber, tenancy agreements and building con tracts.
  • 14. 6 Anne, c. 31, public.
  • 15. 7 Anne, c. 17, public.
  • 16. E/BER, Tavistock Street, lease of 14 May 1708 to W. Holmes; Southampton Street, leases of 10 April 1708 to F. Oakeley, 14 May 1708 to W. Holmes; R. B.; G.L.R.O.(M), LV(W) 12/9, 16.
  • 17. E/BER, Broad Court, leases of 1745–7.
  • 18. Ibid., letter of 26 June 1744 in vouchers of c. 1660–1728.
  • 19. Resolutions of the Associated Architects; with the Report of a Committee by them appointed to consider the Causes of the frequent Fires, and the best means of preventing the like in future, 1793 (copy in B.O.L.).