Georgian shop life and slum makeovers at 23 and 24 Bedfordbury
The history of Bedfordbury, which dates back to the 17th century.
Due to widespread slum clearance and redevelopment over the centuries, there aren’t many Georgian shop buildings left in the West End. However, two such shops have managed to survive for over 200 years, despite previously standing in one of the most notorious slums in central London.
Bedfordbury is a short road of only about 500ft, linking New Row to Chandos Place. The name Bedfordbury comes from the Earls of Bedford, who acquired the seven acres of land in the 16th century. As Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford (1572-1627), focused his energies on developing the centre of estate, the fringes became a magnet for haphazard building. A series of small alleys linking Bedfordbury to St Martin’s Lane, including May’s Buildings, Hop Gardens, Turner’s Court, Goodwin’s Court, and Brydges Place, started to pop up. By 1700, the Earls and Dukes of Bedford had practically lost control over the buildings. The lack of landlord control meant the buildings’ standards were far from adequate and the area started to disintegrate into slums, with large groups of families being squashed into upper storeys above the shop levels. In 1887, the steward of the 9th Duke of Bedford’s London estates, wrote: “Every grantee became his own freeholder and his plot of land was under his own absolute control, with this result: that Bedfordbury commenced its career by every man doing what was right in his own eyes in the way of building. A number of alleys came into existence, and instead of a single house being put upon a single plot … a man would put two or three or four on it, may be half-a-dozen houses, or cottages, or anything he pleased upon it, and that went on in perpetuity; and from the time those grants were made until a few years ago… Bedfordbury gradually became one of the worst dens in London.”
No. 23 and No. 24 are likely to be the oldest existing buildings today on Bedfordbury. Built in late 18th century, the terraced houses incorporate the entrance to Goodwin’s Court. Both buildings stand tall at three storeys and have dormered mansard roofs. However, No.24 is slightly wider and features two dormers, with the entrance passage to the Court on the left. The current ground floor shop fronts are not original. No.24’s shop dates back to around the first half of the 19th century, while No. 23 has a mid-century bowed shop window to complement the similar styled windows of Goodwin’s Court.
From the late 18th century to the present day, there has been a high turnover of businesses in the shops at No. 23 and 24. In 1791, a man named Barnard Baker sold household upholstery and hardware, followed by chandler and coal dealer Richard Davis in 1798. Next door at No.21 was a pub called the Cock & Bottle, which stood on the site for over 100 years, but has long been demolished. In 1833, a miniature and jewel case maker William Fuller, of No.23, was declared insolvent at the debtors’ court. By 1842, 23 and 24 were the premises for surgeon JN Walters and hairdressers Cowan & Co respectively.
Moving into the 19th century, the turnover of shops and residents continued to be high – no doubt many were keen to move on when finances allowed due to area’s reputation as a slum. Among the businesses at 23 and 24 in the mid 19th century were greengrocer Michael McNallay and hairdresser/perfumier Reuben Clamp. In 1859, Victorian author and journalist George Augustus Sala (1828-1895) wrote of his disgust of Bedfordbury, describing it as a “wretched little haunt”. He elaborated: “A devious, slimy little reptile of a place, whose tumble-down tenements and reeking courts spume forth plumps of animated rags, such as can be equalled in no London thoroughfare save Church Lane, St Giles. I don’t think there are five windows in Bedfordbury with a whole pane of glass in them. Rags and filthy loques are hung from poles, like banners from the outward walls.” In April 1871, No.24 made the newspaper after one of its residents, John Pencott, was hospitalised after being bitten by his girlfriend in the cheek.
By 1876, the area had garnered the attention of the Metropolitan Board of Works, who were responsible for maintaining the rapidly growing capital’s infrastructure. It received a report on Bedfordbury and its courts, stating the latter were in severe states of disrepair, with some roofs having caved in. The report mentioned the “filthy habits of the occupants”, pointing out one house of six rooms included 33 residents squeezed in together. A year later, the board obtained permission to enact a slum clearance scheme and the east side of Bedfordbury was demolished in 1890. Bedfordbury was widened to 30 feet and a new street was laid out connecting Bedfordbury to Bedford Court.
The 1881 census shows the variety of professions of the residents in the upper floor housing of 23 and 24 Bedfordbury. Among the tenants were carpenter Joseph Cove and his aunt Martha Hutton; stone mason John Armitage and his machinist wife Emma; gas fitter William Lewin and his dressmaker wife Maria with their three children; cellarman Edward Francis and his vestmaker wife Minnie; and Irishman Owen Rock and his wife Margaret – a midwife – with their daughter. Meanwhile, downstairs, greengrocer Arthur Gooch had a shop at No.23 in 1885-1890, while a succession of hairdressing businesses were based at No.24, including Charles Doughty in 1885 and George Soames in 1890.
Social reformer and author Charles Booth (1840-1916) noted some improvement by the time he visited in 1898 for his Poverty Map on London. Giving the road a ‘blue’ rating, he said Bedfordbury’s residents were mostly ‘poor’ on an average income of 18-21 shilling a week. He noted: “Surrounded by middle class housing. Shops and public houses on the west side. West side is mixed – “some poor living on the top floors, but not rough.”
Three years later, a horrific murder rocked the street. ‘The Bedfordbury Baby-Batterer’ saw James John Richardson brutally attack Thomas James Mills in September 1901. Salesman Richardson had been living with the baby’s mother Lavinia Mills at No.3, who had left her son under his care while she went out. Neighbours rushed to the scene after hearing the baby’s screams, but his injuries were sadly fatal. Richardson was found guilty of murder, but insane and was imprisoned (see the Old Bailey records of the trial).
The same year, the census showed over-crowding was continuing with 12 people living at No.23, with a whopping 24 people living at No.24! By 1911, the street was acquiring even more cosmopolitan residents. No.23 was home to tailoresses Agnes and Elizabeth Sullivan; Covent Garden market porter James Swallow, his wife Lucy and son Frederick; barman Benjamin Cason and his wife Mary Ann; and kitchen porter Charles Hodges and his wife. Next door at No.24 were oysterman Arthur Charles Wright and his Italian wife Emma, Spanish cook Nicaise Villatata and his French wife Louise; and theatre attendant Kathleen Hope. The 1901 and 1911 census shows that most of these couples and families were living in one room so were obviously low-paid workers.
In the early 20th century, a variety of businesses came and went at the shops – including Francis Flanagan’s laundry, Mary Teresa Bryne’s newsagent, bootmaker Walter Dear, marine store dealer Alfred Chapman Jnr, sign-writers the Torode Brothers, butchers Bryant & Velvin, refreshment rooms Gambril & Burrell and butcher William Henry Smith. More recently, a photo of No. 24 in 1972 shows a stamp shop.
Today, No. 23 and 24 are surrounded by many younger buildings, having survived slum clearance and a World War II bomb in Bedford Court across the road. Today, the ground floors are not used as shops and one is utilised as an office for a counselling company. Goodwin’s Court has been linked to the Harry Potter phenomenon as a potential inspiration for Diagon Alley so is a popular stop-off for guided Potter tours.
- 23 and 24 Bedfordbury, Covent Garden, WC2N 4BN. Nearest stations: Covent Garden, Charing Cross or Leicester Square.
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