The story of Cecil Court: Arson, Mozart, movies and books on London’s literary lane
In centuries gone by, hundreds of roads in the capital used to be pedestrian only. When the car wasn’t even a twinkle in Henry Ford’s eye and not everyone owned a horse, walking was the dominant form of transport. In the past 100 years, war and technological advances (e.g. the motor car) have caused many of these alleys and other pedestrianised lanes and roads to be destroyed or built upon. However, one such road has managed to remain throughout history and is a charming little passage in the bustling West End.
Cecil Court is a 300ft long street linking Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane. While today is it known as Booksellers’ Row, it has a long and varied history dating back to the 17th century. The land encompassing Cecil Court and the surrounding streets were bought by Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612) in 1609. He served as Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth I and King James I and was the principal discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot. He built the family seat, Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire in 1611. The Jacobean mansion continues to be the home for the Cecil family and the current Marquess of Salisbury, who still owns a lot of the land around Cecil Court. The first Earl of Salisbury bought four acres on the west side of St Martin’s Lane, from Newport Street to the south-west corner of the lane. It didn’t take long before the Earl built houses there to lease out. Cecil Court is believed to have been laid out in the 1670s by one of his descendants.
By the 18th century, Cecil Court housed some pretty unsavoury characters with residents appearing in court for various crimes. One particular character was an Irish Catholic woman, Mrs Elizabeth Calloway, who ran a brandy shop and alleged brothel in Cecil Court. In early 1735, she had taken out a £150 fire insurance policy with the Royal Exchange Assurance. In June 1735, she bought kindling, emptied her brandy barrels and was drinking locally with friends when a fire broke out at her shop. The blaze spread quickly and damaged 16 houses in neighbouring St Martin’s Court and four in Cecil Court. Mrs Calloway was charged with arson, but was later acquitted because she appeared to have genuine reasons for insuring her property. She testified at the Old Bailey: “The cook’s shop joining to mine, the wainscot of my closet was often so very hot that I was afraid it would some time or other be set on fire and for that reason I insured my house.” Witnesses also testified that Mrs Calloway was often concerned her drunken lodgers could set the house on fire with their candles. The fire inadvertently resulted in the death of local resident Anne Hogarth, the mother of famous satirical artist William Hogarth, who lived in nearby Cranbourn Alley. Her cause of death was deemed to be ‘shock’ from the fire.
Cecil Court quickly recovered with new properties being erected on-site. In 1764, a young child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and his family lodged with barber John Couzin at No.9 Cecil Court. Tickets for Mozart’s first London concerts were sold at Couzin’s shop. During his time there, the eight-year-old composer played twice for King George III. In 2011, a plaque was unveiled at the site to commemorate Mozart’s time in the capital.
By the late Victorian era, the buildings of Cecil Court were looking rather shabby, so landowner and Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903) had them rebuilt. While he was serving as PM, he had some bad press after a roof on Cecil Court caved in. The news even spread to the United States with the New York Times writing: “The dilapidated, rickety, unsanitary tenements in Cecil-court have at last reached such a stage of decay that they can hold together no longer.” By 1894, new buildings were erected on the realigned Cecil Court, which remain today.
Around the time of the rebuild, the new technology of film was beginning to grow in popularity. After the first film-related company set up shop in 1897, more followed and by the Edwardian era, Cecil Court was nicknamed ‘Flicker Alley’. Wealthy Edwardians who wanted to capture home movies or get into this new business would flock to Cecil Court to buy or hire their equipment. Big names from the burgeoning industry, such as Cecil Hepworth, James Williamson, Gaumont, Nordisk, Globe, Tyler and American Vitagraph, had offices on the street.
After World War I dampened the British movie industry, the film companies started moving out and booksellers started replacing them. Brothers William and Gilbert Foyle, who started their Foyles bookshop in Peckham in 1903, established their central London store at No.16 Cecil Court in 1904. Two years later, they moved to the Charing Cross Road, where Foyles continues to trade over a century later. By the 1930s, Cecil Court was dominated by bookshops and became known as ‘Booksellers’ Row’.
In a link to the road’s film history, Cecil Court has been used many times as a location for movies and TV shows. You may recognise the shops in scenes from Miss Potter (2006), 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) and The Human Factor (1979). Meanwhile, Cecil Court is one of the main contenders believed to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
Today, Cecil Court is still a destination for booklovers. As well as antiquarian and second-hand bookshops, you can also find shops selling maps, antiques and prints. as well as an art gallery. Nearby on St Martin’s Lane is the Salisbury Pub, a Victorian pub named after the long-time land owners. The landowners are also linked to neighbouring Cranbourn Street, which was named after the Earl of Salisbury’s country estate of Cranborne, Dorset.
- Cecil Court, Westminster, WC2N 4EZ. Nearest station: Leicester Square. For more information about Cecil Court, visit its website.
To read about the history of nearby Brydges Place, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.