The Piazza

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

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'The Piazza', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, ed. F H W Sheppard( London, 1970), British History Online [accessed 13 July 2024].

'The Piazza', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Edited by F H W Sheppard( London, 1970), British History Online, accessed July 13, 2024,

"The Piazza". Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Ed. F H W Sheppard(London, 1970), , British History Online. Web. 13 July 2024.

In this section


The Piazza

The building of the Piazza may be said to have started with the erection of St. Paul's Church, which was begun in July 1631, and to have ended when the lease of the last house was granted, in 1637. As first laid out it contained some twenty-two domestic buildings. (fn. 1) The earliest to be completed was probably that on the site let to Sir Humphrey Foster (No. 4 Henrietta Street) but although this house faced the Piazza, it was built as the easternmost of the range of houses on the south side of Henrietta Street, for which leases had been granted in 1631. (fn. 4)

The next two houses to be built were those which flanked the portico of the church and terminated the ranges along the south side of King Street (No. 1) and the north side of Henrietta Street (No. 37). The former was let in 1633 to Thomas Turney, bricklayer, (fn. 5) and the latter in the same year to Edward Palmer, citizen and girdler of London. (fn. 6) Some special requirement was evidently made for the building of these two houses, for Turney warranted in his lease that he had erected his house in the same way as had Palmer. They were certainly built to a Jonesian pattern (see page 70) and are illustrated in the views reproduced on Plates 11, 12, 13a and 26.

In 1634–5 another two houses were built on the south side of the Piazza, squeezed in between the east wall of Bedford House garden and the east range of the portico houses. The western house (numbered 2–3 on fig. 45) was let to Robert Hope of St. Giles in the Fields, tailor, in 1634 or 1635. (fn. 7) There is no evidence to show what sort of house Hope built, but the house on the east (numbered 1 on fig. 45) was two storeys high, with a basement and garrets. It was built by Robert Scawen, gentleman, a servant to the fourth Earl of Bedford, under a lease granted in 1634. (fn. 8) Scawen's site was awkwardly situated in the corner of the square, but a passage was made in front, leading from the Piazza into Charles Street (Plate 3), and he was given liberty to open a door and windows into the south end wall of the eastern portico walk.

None of the houses so far mentioned formed part of the most celebrated feature of the Piazza, the superimposition of houses over arcaded portico walks. Of these houses (which in this account are distinguished as 'portico houses') there were seventeen in all, built between 1633 and 1637, and ranged in groups of four and six on the north side of the Piazza and of three and four on the east side. The ranges on either side of James Street and north of Russell Street became known as the 'Great' Piazza and that to the south of Russell Street as the 'Little' Piazza. (fn. 2) The houses in the Great Piazza, except those which stood at or adjoining the corners of James Street and Russell Street, had large gardens which extended back to Hart Street, where their stables and coachhouses were situated. The houses in the Little Piazza backed on to the houses in Russell Street and Charles Street and thus had somewhat smaller gardens.

Not all of the original leases of the portico houses have survived, but it appears that the earliest was granted on 24 June 1633 to George Hulbert for the site on the east side of the Piazza which abutted south on Scawen's, (fn. 9) and the last was granted on 1 April 1637 to Lord Paget. (fn. 10) Hulbert's term was an exceptionally long one, being for fifty years, and Lord Paget's was for forty-six years, but the commonest term was forty-one years.

The total number of individual lessees was thirteen. Three (Lord Paget, Edward Sydenham and Sir Edmund Verney) obtained their leases for specified sums of money (fn. 10) or for 'divers good causes' (fn. 11) (presumably also monetary): their houses were already built and were thereupon occupied by them. The other lessees, including an 'esquire', a 'gentleman', a scrivener, a girdler and six building tradesmen, (fn. 12) were evidently speculators, and all their leases which survive were granted in consideration of building: none of them occupied the houses they built, except for the 'esquire', George Hulbert, who lived in one of his two houses.

Unlike the earlier Covent Garden leases (see page 29), those which were granted to speculators for the portico houses do not have articles of agreement attached to them. They do, however, have a common formula in the consideration clause which states that the lessee, or some other person for him, had erected a fair building intended to be finished for a 'Piazza howse', with a portico walk underneath and 'according to agreement and contract in that behalf made'. Unfortunately, not one of these contracts has survived, but there can be little doubt that the speculators were required to erect their portico houses conformable with the three houses which the fourth Earl of Bedford had caused to be erected by direct labour at his own expense.

These three houses stood on the east side of the Piazza north of Russell Street. The most northerly (No. 13–14) was let to (Sir) Edward Sydenham on 1 November 1634 for a term of four years and the other two (Nos. 16–17, 18–19) were let together on one lease on the same day and for the same term to Sir Edmund Verney. (fn. 11) The annual rent was £150 for Sydenham's house and £160 for Verney's two houses.

The building of the Earl's three houses presumably began at least a year before they were let, possibly in 1633. The surviving accounts are dated 20 June 1635 and contain clear indications that the original design was varied slightly in execution and altered after completion, partly by the intervention of 'Mr. Decause' and partly to suit the incoming tenants. The total cost of the work, as shown in the accounts, was £4,703 16s. 5¾d. The builders whom the Earl employed were John Taylor, bricklayer, plasterer and tyler; Richard Vesey, carpenter; Thomas Thorneton and John Rider, glaziers; James Davis and Robert Linton, joiners; William Mason and Thomas Styles, masons; Edmund Johnson, painter; Thomas Hunney and William Knight, paviours; James Avis and Martin Es(t)bourne, plasterers; Thomas Charley, John Embree and William George, plumbers; and Samuel Clarke and Thomas Seabrooke, smiths. (fn. 13) Some of these tradesmen were also employed at the church, but only one, Richard Vesey, took a lease for building a portico house.

Besides building the three houses on the east side of the Piazza the fourth Earl was probably also responsible for setting out the foundations of the other portico buildings. The leases granted to speculators all stated that the Earl had made the brick vaults which lay under the portico walk. These vaults were arched over in order to support 'a pair of stairs'—presumably a reference to the two steps which led up to the portico walk from the open square. In 1933 building excavations in the Piazza uncovered some of these brick arches (fn. 14) (Plate 45c); previous encounters with them, when alterations below ground were being carried out, probably explain the stories of the existence of 'convent' foundations in the Piazza.

The vaults were always included when the portico houses were granted on lease. The portico walk itself, on the other hand, was always excluded, although the original speculators were required to finish the walk with 'seeled arches' and to pave it with 'broad stone comonly called Michells' and subsequent tenants were required to maintain the paving, piers and arches. The walk was excluded from all leases in order to preserve its use for the 'free passage walking and recreation of all persons whatsoever'. The early tenants were, however, at liberty to 'expell putt or dryve awaye or out of the sayde Walke any Youthe or other person or persons whatsoever which shall play or be in the sayde Portico Walke [an] offence or disturbance'. By the 1720's this clause had been reduced to the right to expel 'disorderly' persons, (fn. 15) and the engraving made in 1768 of Thomas Sandby's drawing of the portico walk (Plate 32a) depicts a woman with a fruit stall and a sleeping chairman as well as boys at play and servants cleaning shoes.

In the treatment of the south side of the Piazza it was probably never the fourth Earl's intention to allow building other than at the east and west extremities, for any houses there, of whatever design, would have greatly reduced the area of the garden of Bedford House and deprived the remainder of the garden of any privacy. In the early nineteenth century, however, a tradition current among members of the Russell family related that the Earl had originally intended to build portico houses there to match those on the north and east sides of the Piazza, but the payment in 1635 of an additional fine in the Court of Star Chamber for infringement of the building regulations (see page 33) had 'vexed him so much that he would not proceed'. (fn. 16) But the leases of at least two of the houses actually built on the south side of the square at its western and eastern extremities antedate the raising of the fine, and one of these houses, moreover, was required to be built on a smaller scale than the portico houses. Even if he had intended to build houses along the entire length of the south side, which seems extremely unlikely, it is therefore certain that the Earl was not envisaging portico buildings there.

Later critics, so far from seeing the unbuilt south side as an imperfection, considered that Bedford House garden provided one of the pleasant features of the square. (fn. 17) It contributed to the airiness of the Piazza and the 'small Grotto of Trees' with the domed roofs of the two classical banqueting houses, which could be seen rising above the top of the garden wall (Plate 46a), supplied a decorative feature which the centre of the square lacked.

According to a petition presented to the King by the inhabitants of Covent Garden in 1638, the Earl of Bedford had promised to pave the Piazza and to erect a 'beautiful Structure' in the middle, to be surmounted by a brass statue of Charles I and enclosed with a 'faire Iron gate'. (fn. 18) If this were indeed true, it is possible that the Earl proved unable, or unwilling, to bear the extra cost, after the heavy fine which he had had to pay in 1635. Thus in the early years of the Piazza's history the only adornment of the centre of the square, which was enclosed with a simple fence of wooden posts and rails, was a small tree, fitted round with benches (Plate 11). The gravelled enclosure was often referred to as the 'Mount', and presumably sloped gently up to the centre to provide for the drainage of surface water. Outside the enclosure a wide thoroughfare was left for pedestrians and carriages. This 'street' was eventually laid with 'Pebble Paving'. (fn. 19)

The benches round the tree were probably provided by the parishioners. They also paid for the column which was erected in place of the tree in 1668–9 and which stood in the square until 1790. The erection of this column was evidently proposed by a Mr. Tomlinson— presumably Richard Tomlinson, a churchwarden, who lived in the house facing the Piazza on the south side of the church. In 1668 he informed the vestry 'that he and his gentlemen [sic] had a desire to erect a Doricke columne of polished marble, for the support of a quadrangular dyall in the midst of the railes where now the trees [sic] are, it being very improbable they should ever come to any maturity'. (fn. 20) The churchwardens' accounts for 1668–9 record the receipt of gifts 'towards the Erecting of the Columne'—£20 from the fifth Earl of Bedford, and £10 each from Sir Charles Cotterell, master of the ceremonies, and Lord Denzil Holles. £90 were paid to Mr. Channel(l), mason, for erecting the column itself, while 5s. were paid to 'Mr. Keizar at the Sculpture of the Pallas for the Columne', (fn. 1) 8s. 6d. to Mr. Wainewright for the four gnomons, and £2 to Mr. Browne, 'the mathematicien, for his pains about the dial'. 10s. were also paid to an unnamed recipient 'For Drawing A Modell of the Columne to be presented to the vestry'. The churchwardens' accounts also record that 'Upon due consideration of those many signall services, that the Honorable Sir John Baber hath don this Parish from Time to Time Wee thought it good to affix his Coate of Armes, in one of the Sheilds belonging to the Columne, as a Perpetuall acknowledgment of our gratitude, and to Refuse any present from him that should be tendred Towards the Charge thereof.' (fn. 22)

The conflicting evidence contained in contemporary descriptions and illustrations makes it impossible to give an exact and detailed account of the sundial column. John Strype, for example, writing in 1720, states that the sundial was 'fixed on a Pillar of black Marble, after the Corinthian Order', but on the next page he refers to it as a 'Stone Pillar or Column'. (fn. 23) Taking all the evidence into account, a picture emerges of a fluted column, most probably of an enriched Doric order, standing on a pedestal having a panelled die, rising from a square plinth formed of three wide steps. The cube bearing the four sundial faces appears to have rested on a group of consoles or carved ornaments above the abacus of the column's capital, and was in turn surmounted by four diagonally placed consoles supporting a sphere, probably gilded.

From 1657 the parishioners contributed towards the upkeep of the posts and rails 'round the place Called by the name of the Mount'. The contributions were collected annually on behalf of the Earls and Dukes of Bedford from their lessees, but the maintenance was carried out under the supervision of the parish officers. (fn. 24) Contributions continued to be collected from lessees until 1705–6, when the market, which had hitherto occupied the roadway on the south side of the square, was moved inside the rails. Thereafter the market gradually encroached further and further over the central area until it became the dominant feature of the Piazza and its revenues the main consideration of Bedford estate policy.


  • 1. The sites of the houses in the Piazza are shown on fig. 45 in the end pocket of the volume. Most of these original sites have been amalgamated by rebuilding, and the house numbers marked on fig. 45 and referred to in the text are those used in an estate plan of 1795, when nearly all the original building sites were still distinguishable. The original leases of the sites in the Piazza are presented in tabular form on pages 304–9. The architecture of the first houses to be built in the Piazza is discussed in Chapter III.
  • 2. This is the usage found in the Bedford estate records and followed in this volume. The term 'Little Piazza' is elsewhere occasionally applied to the range on the north side west of James Street.
  • 3. Mr. Keizar was perhaps Willem de Keyser, son of the Amsterdam sculptor and architect, Hendrick de Keyser. Willem is known to have been in England at this time.
  • 4. E/BER, Rental, 1637; Henrietta Street leases.
  • 5. Ibid., King Street, lease of 3 March 1632/3 to T. Turney.
  • 6. Ibid., Henrietta Street, lease of 19 July 1633 to E. Palmer.
  • 7. Ibid., Rental, 1637; Charles Street, lease of 20 Feb. 1634/5 to R. Hope.
  • 8. Ibid., Piazza, lease of 14 Jan. 1633/4 to R. Scawen.
  • 9. P.R.O., C7/57/103.
  • 10. E/BER, Piazza, lease of 1 April 1637 to William, Lord Pagett.
  • 11. Ibid., Piazza, lease of 1 Nov. 1634 to E. Sydenham; Archaeologia, vol. XXXV, 1853, pp. 194– 196.
  • 12. E/BER, Piazza leases of 19 May 1636 to H. Sparkes, 5 July 1636 to T. Barnes (bis), 1 April 1637 to Lord Pagett, 20 Nov. 1635 to R. Vesey, 24 Feb. 1636/7 to E. Keyser; Bow Street, lease of 16 Nov. 1631 to J. Ward; Rental, 1637; P.R.O., C3/409/81.
  • 13. E/BER, Accounts, A Booke of the perticuler charge for the Portico Buildings . . ., 1635.
  • 14. The Daily Telegraph, 7 April 1933.
  • 15. E/BER, Piazza leases, passim.
  • 16. Evans's Music and Supper Rooms, Covent Garden, N.D. (copy in B.M., pressmark 11794 c 4).
  • 17. [Samuel Sorbière], Relation d'un Voyaye en Angleterre, 1664, p. 34; John Strype, A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720, vol. 11, bk. VI, p. 89.
  • 18. P.R.O., SP16/402, no. 75.
  • 19. E/BER, Piazza, lease of 2 Dec. 1754 to M. Pearce.
  • 20. B.M., scrapbook entitled 'Gleanings relating to the Parish of Covent Garden Westminster' (pressmark 1889 a 20).
  • 21. E. Bénézit, Dictionaire . . .des Peintres, 1911; Margaret Whinney, Sculpture in Britain 1530 to 1830, 1964, p. 240.
  • 22. C.WA.
  • 23. Strype, op. cit., vol. 11, bk. VI, pp. 88–9.
  • 24. CWA, disbursements, 1673–83, passim.