The Piazza: Nos. 1-3 (consec.) Great Piazza

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

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'The Piazza: Nos. 1-3 (consec.) Great Piazza', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, (London, 1970) pp. 84-86. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

In this section

Nos. 1–3 (consec.) Great Piazza

Plate 44. Site of Bedford Chambers

Bedford Chambers occupies the sites of three portico buildings and also of the former No. 32 James Street. The westernmost house (No. 1), which consisted of two bays, was built by Daniel Charlewood, bricklayer, under a lease commencing on Lady Day 1635. (fn. 4) It ceased to be occupied as a private residence in 1761 when it was let to John Inge, a City wine merchant, who established a refreshment house here known as the Wine Vaults. (fn. 5)

In 1779 Inge's Wine Vaults were taken over by Samuel Wood, another vintner, and renamed Wood's Hotel. (fn. 6) Wood appears to have retired from active participation in the business about 1788. (fn. 7) Richard Corsbie, who paid rates for the house in 1794 and 1795, was licensed in the latter year for a coffee house, but it is not clear whether the licence applied to Wood's Hotel or to another house on the east side of the Piazza (see page 91).

In 1796 the hotel was taken over by Charles Richardson, another coffee-house keeper, who was already occupying part of the premises next door at No. 43 King Street. (fn. 8) Richardson's coffee house and hotel was continued by his son, and then by Thomas Clunn and his successors, Thomas and Alfred John Clunn, until 1876. (fn. 9)

No. 2, which contained three bays, was built under a lease granted to Thomas Barnes, carpenter, in 1636. (fn. 10) It was occupied privately until 1731 when John Cox, upholsterer, became the tenant and converted the ground floor into a shop. In 1757 Andrew Braint became the tenant, and thereafter, until 1876, the building was used for a carpet warehouse and shop, subsequently owned by Thomas Drury and latterly by Richard Burnet and then Boyd Burnet. (fn. 11) The front of Burnet's house was the least altered in the north-west range, although it had been dressed with a composition by Thomas Drury in 1802. (fn. 2)

The corner house of this group (No. 3) was also let to Thomas Barnes, whose term began at Lady Day 1635. (fn. 12) Barnes erected a house with three bays facing the Piazza and a return front to James Street. The James Street face, north of the portico walk, was rebuilt in grey stock bricks by the tenant, Matthew Pearce of St. Martin's, bricklayer, in 1754. (fn. 1) The Piazza face was renewed in a plain style at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

By 1777 the premises were in the occupation of Thomas Starling (Stirling, or Sterling) who established a licensed hotel known as the Gordon. (fn. 13) On the ground floor in the part of the premises facing James Street a public house was established, probably by George Belshaw, victualler, who became the tenant in 1805. (fn. 3) This was called the Britannia Tavern. In 1847 Belshaw's widow assigned the lease of the Gordon Hotel and the Britannia to G. F. Webber, another victualler, who employed a Mr. Harrison, surveyor, and William Cubitt and Company, builders, to dress the front of the Britannia with compo. The Gordon Hotel and the Britannia survived until 1876. (fn. 14)

Bedford Chambers (Plates 45a, 45b, 49a)

For some time prior to 1876 the future of Clunn's Hotel, Burnet's warehouse and the Gordon Hotel had been under consideration at the Bedford Office. Repeated alterations to the fabric over the past 240 years and the increase in vehicular traffic had probably contributed to the weakening of the structure. By 1873 the main portico wall had become 'a source of some anxiety' and it was decided that the whole range would have to be reconstructed. The question then arose as to whether the new building should copy the original elevation or depart from it. The steward, T. J. R. Davison, when referring the matter to the ninth Duke for his consideration in 1876, wrote 'In a utilitarian and commercial point of view, I am disposed to consider that the reconstruction of the Piazza [i.e. in its existing form] is undesirable—but I am not without misgivings that the destruction of any portion of this distinctive feature in Covent Garden Architecture will provoke a considerable amount of unfavourable public criticism'. (fn. 15) There is no evidence that the ninth Duke cared about public criticism, but he was certainly in favour of retaining the portico walk. The estate surveyor, W. S. Cross, therefore prepared a design for the restoration of Jones's elevation but the Duke evidently regarded the task as being beyond Cross's capabilities and turned to Henry Clutton, the architect whom he had engaged in the previous year to restore St. Paul's Church, for the rebuilding of the north-west range of the Piazza.

Davison, Clutton and, presumably, the Duke all agreed that it was essential to have this 'important and somewhat difficult work carried out in a first class manner, both as regards soundness of construction and attention to artistic detail'. They also agreed that 'the peculiar nature of the construction' made it imperative that building should be 'entrusted to one building firm … of high repute'. The normal practice of the estate was to offer a building lease to the sitting tenants, but in this case it was thought that they would decline to undertake the necessary care and costly outlay, so it was therefore decided to offer a lease or leases to a single trustworthy builder. (fn. 16)

The firm of William Cubitt and Company agreed to undertake the project and negotiations began in the spring of 1876. In April Clutton was at work 'with a view of reproducing in this block the Piazza as originally designed by Inigo Jones'. (fn. 16) The tenancies of the three old portico buildings were terminated at Michaelmas and they were demolished in 1877, together with No. 32 James Street also. (fn. 3) This extension of the site of the intended building, like the inclusion of an attic storey, was meant to improve the prospects of the speculation for the lessees, and involved changes to Clutton's elevations. On 1, 3 and 4 March 1879 three building leases were granted to Cubitt's in the persons of George Plucknett, William R. Rogers, Thomas Robinson and William M. Dunnage. All three leases were for eighty years from 29 September 1877: rent was charged for the first year, but the second year was at a peppercorn rent. (fn. 17)

Bedford Chambers was designed to incorporate a hotel yet again on part of the site, but was also to include residential 'flats', an innovation that the new steward, J. R. Bourne, thought should be regarded as an experiment. The ground floor contained shops and there were warehouses in the rear. Difficulty was experienced in finding tenants and the hotel premises were converted into more shops and warehouses. (fn. 3) In consideration of Messrs. Cubitt's great outlay on the building and the long time it remained unlet, the charge on the premises in lieu of redeemed land tax was not collected during the lives of the ninth and tenth Dukes. The eleventh Duke also remitted this charge until the estate was sold. (fn. 18)

The Bedford Chambers block was one of the first of six buildings erected around the Piazza between 1876 and 1890, the elevational drawings of which were either supplied (as in this case) by Clutton, or in some degree related to his designs (see pages 81–2). Like the much-altered portico building which it replaced, Clutton's block as finally designed has a front to the Piazza with an open arcade of eight arches, and an upper face appropriately divided by pilaster-strips into eight bays, each one window wide. The east front to James Street varies this treatment with a middle bay, three windows wide, and an arcaded bay on either side. As the increased height and larger scale of the new building precluded a replica of the original portico building, even had that been desirable, Clutton produced a design which is sufficiently reminiscent of Jones—de Caus and yet has its own considerable merit. To admit more light within the portico, Clutton increased the size of the arches and consequently reduced the width of the piers from 4 to 3 feet. These piers are raised on plain granite plinths and consist of eight channel-jointed courses. Above the projecting plain impost, each arch rises with seven voussoirs on each side of the projecting keystone. A moulded stringcourse finishes the arcade, but the stonework is carried up to form a plinth for the upper face. The channel-jointed stonework is continued across the wide middle bay of the return front, where there are three doorways dressed alike with a rusticated architrave, the triple keystone breaking into the pulvinated frieze and bedmouldings of the cornice. Above the doors are three mezzanine windows, having moulded architraves broken in at the sides. In the two-storeyed face above the arcade, stone is used for the pilaster-strips of eighteen channeljointed courses and a plain capping block, for the bold mutule cornice, and for the moulded architraves of the windows, which are set in fine red brickwork of six courses to the foot. A balustraded balcony of stone projects below the middle three first-floor windows of the return front, recalling the original 'purgulas' of the Piazza. Above the main cornice is an attic storey, where the brickwork forms panels between the narrow margins of channel-jointed stonework flanking the window architraves, above which the plain stone frieze and cornice bedmouldings are broken forward. Above the dentilled attic cornice rises a pitched roof of slates, its surface broken by a series of tall oval lucarne windows, and chimney-stacks of brick fronted with coursed stonework and capped with entablatures.

According to The Builder, Bedford Chambers was planned by the leaseholders and builders, William Cubitt and Company, to contain in its east part an hotel 'of the second class', one part of which was to be 'so arranged on every storey as to admit of being let as a family residence or a large set of rooms'. The entrance archway in James Street, corresponding to the archway into the portico walk, gave access to a spacious court, 40 by 30 feet, which was covered in with a glazed roof at first-floor level but still afforded ample light to the back of the shops. These were entered from the portico walk, each shop being self-contained, with ample cellars and a mezzanine floor. The court entrance also gave access to a block of warehouses 'complete in themselves, one on each storey'. At the west end of the portico walk was another entrance, with a staircase serving several 'superimposed residences' or flats, the internal divisions of which could be arranged to suit the individual tenant. The walls were strongly constructed of stone and brick, with iron stanchions embedded in the brickwork; the floors and staircases were of iron and concrete, and therefore fireproof, and the building was so well built and excellently finished that The Builder prophesied that it 'will be likely to endure a hundred years after the lease has run out'. (fn. 19)


  • 1. E/BER, Piazza, lease of 2 Dec. 1754 to M. Pearce.
  • 2. B.O.L., Correspondence, Drury to Beaumont, 21 April 1802.
  • 3. R.B.
  • 4. 46. E/BER, Piazza, leases of 5 July 1636 and 1 April 1637 to T. Barnes and William, Lord Pagett respectively; Rental, 1637.
  • 5. Ibid., Piazza, lease of 20 Aug. 1761 to J. Inge; G.L.R.O.(M), LV(W) 79/851.
  • 6. M.L.R. 1792/4/798; R.B.
  • 7. M.L.R. 1792/6/122; R.B.
  • 8. E/BER, Piazza, lease of 29 March 1802 to C. Richardson; R.B.
  • 9. E/BER, Piazza, leases and tenancy agreements of 19 Dec. 1822–2 June 1876 to C. Richardson and A. J. Clunn; R.B.
  • 10. E/BER, Piazza, lease of 5 July 1636 to T. Barnes.
  • 11. Ibid., Piazza, leases of 21 March 1731/2 to J. Cox, 2 June 1876 to B. Burnet; The Universal Director. . .by Mr. Mortimer, 1763; R.B.
  • 12. E/BER, Rental, 1637.
  • 13. G.L.R.O.(M), LV(W), 1795 transcript; R.B.
  • 14. E/BER, Piazza, leases of 6 Nov. 1822–2 June 1876 to G. Belshaw and F. Harrison; G.L.R.O.(M), LV(W), 1810; R.B.
  • 15. B.O.L., London Reports, 9 Dec. 1873.
  • 16. Ibid., London Reports, 18 Jan., 12 April 1876.
  • 17. Ibid., Annual Report, 1877, vol. 2, p. 3; London Reports, letter book, pp. 36–7; E/BER, Church Papers, H. Clutton's bill, 18 April 1879; M.L.R. 1879/8/285–7.
  • 18. B.O.L., Annual Report, 1877, vol. 2, p. 2; London Reports, 30 May 1893; information kindly supplied by the Bedford Settled Estates; R.B.
  • 19. The Builder, 24 Aug. 1878, p. 875.