Goodwin’s Court: Step back in time in a quaint Georgian alley
Is this small passageway near Covent Garden the inspiration for Diagon Alley?
In between Covent Garden and Leicester Square, is one of London’s most interesting alleyways. Known today as a cut-through for busy Londoners or a destination for ‘Muggles’ in search of Harry Potter, Goodwin’s Court could be easily missed. The alley is about 280ft long, two metres wide and is accessed from St Martin’s Lane and Bedfordbury.
Goodwin’s Court was built in the old parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Following the dissolution of the Monasteries, King Edward VI (1537-1553) gave seven acres of land in the area to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford (1485–1555), in 1552. Subsequent earls started widespread building in the area, Covent Garden being one of their most famous creations. During the 17th century, lots of courts and alleys began to pop up on the fringes of the Bedford estate. One of these was Fishers Alley, which was in existence by 1660, at some point evolving into Goodwin’s Court.
The existing houses on the south side of Goodwin’s Court were built in 1690, although feature late 18th century shopfronts. One of the rumoured early residents of the Court was actress and royal mistress Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), who was linked to Covent Garden and the Parish – along with many other London spots – during her short life. However, we’ll likely never know for certain if she was a Goodwin’s resident.
Walking down Goodwin’s Court is like stepping back in time. Ignoring the more modern creations on the north side of the alley, your eye is drawn to the Georgian terraces of No.s 1-8. The two-storey, brick buildings feature shiny, black front doors with brass knockers and knobs. The wooden bowed shopfronts were added in the late 18th century and certainly give the Court a real Dickensian vibe. You can easily imagine the shopkeepers of the time displaying their wares in a bid to attract the eye. One tenant of Goodwin’s Court in 1792 was button warehouseman James Ruel at No.1. Dotted along the façades are three mid-19th century gas lamps, which are restored and still working today. No.1 Goodwin’s Court still has its original window, front door and some fairly old looking steps.
Unsurprisingly, it was not the most prestigious address, with directories and censuses of the 19th century giving an insight to the tough lives for those who lived at Goodwin’s Court. Records show piece brokers (who traded in shreds of cloth) doing business at 2, 3, 4 and 7 from at least the 1820s until the 1850s. One broker and tailor, Robert Burrows was trading from No.3 in 1819-1821. A few decades later, the 1881 census showed a lot of people were crammed into the small terraces, with many different families sharing a house. Among the professions of the residents included tailors, a coach body maker (likely working at one of the coachmakers on nearby Long Acre), waiters, clockmakers, an oysterman, a printer and an upholsterer. Victorian author and journalist George Augustus Sala (1828-1895) described the alleys off Bedfordbury as “reeking courts”. Amazingly, Goodwin’s Court managed to survive destruction when the Metropolitan Board of Works demolished the east side of Bedfordbury during a slum clearance plan in 1890.
Although the censuses generally showed a high turnover of residents in Goodwin’s Court, one family didn’t go far. In 1881, waiter Gilbert Orme Snr lived at No.5 with his wife Mary and their children. The couple were still there in 1891, although their eldest son, chemist Gilbert Orme Jnr, was living a few doors down at No.2. Gilbert Snr may have died or moved on by 1911, as Gilbert Jnr had moved into No.5 with his wife and three children. Meanwhile, Gilbert Jnr’s brother, hotel cook Herbert was living at No.8 with his wife and three children. Despite the family spending so long in Goodwin’s Court, they can’t have been well off as had many lodgers (or fellow tenants renting rooms) living at the same address.
The early 20th century saw Goodwin’s Court becoming more cosmopolitan as migrants set up home there (here’s a photo of the court in 1906). While many residents were from elsewhere in London, there were also Italians, Welsh, Irish, Germans and French. One who lived at Goodwin’s for over 10 years was German tailor Robert Battle (or Brattl). With its prime location near the markets of Covent Garden and the theatres and new-fangled cinemas of the West End, many of the residents were employed by these venues. The 1911 census shows ‘picture palace attendant’ Ernest James Darling lodged alongside market porters Charles Best and Thomas Cale at No.7 Goodwin’s Court. Theatre dressmaker George Veal and a theatre worker named George Farmer had rooms at No.4, while electrician Hugh Savage at No.3 worked at the nearby Coliseum. The female residents of Goodwin’s Court clearly had to work as well to either supplement their husbands’ income or themselves if widowed or single. Many of the women had jobs such as laundresses, charwomen, book folders and housekeepers.
With the buildings’ increasing age, and the poor residents not having the funds to maintain their homes, Goodwin’s Court continued to deteriorate (see a photo in 1925). By the 1930s, authorities condemned the court’s terraces as unfit for human habitation and rehoused the residents elsewhere. It is believed the buildings on the north side of the court may have been taken down around this time. Fortunately, a man named Mr Sympson bought the court and restored some of the houses, convincing authorities it could be saved. Paul Ibell writes of the Sympson family in his 2009 book ‘Theatreland: A Journey through the Heart of London’s Theatre‘: “Leslie Sympson, children of the saviour of Goodwin’s Court, used to live at Bedfordbury end and would host Sunday lunches for elderly women from theatrical background.” Meanwhile, his brother Tony (1906-1987) was an actor and is commemorated with a plaque at St Paul’s Covent Garden church.
With the buildings restored, the court was reborn as a business district. The original shops became offices, with many theatre and entertainment agents moving in. In February 1958, No.s 1-8 were Grade II* listed by Historic England. One of the businesses based at Goodwin’s Court was literary agent Peggy Ramsay (1908-1991), from the 1960s-1990s. Her clients included Alan Ayckbourn, Eugène Ionesco, JB Priestley, Stephen Poliakoff, Joe Orton and David Hare. Today, talent and literary agent Dawn Sedgwick has an office on Goodwin’s Court, while bespoke fashion label Maggie Semple is next door.
With its Georgian shopfronts still in existence, Goodwin’s Court has attracted film and TV crews over the years. Recent blockbuster Mary Poppins Returns shot the scene where the nanny (Emily Blunt) and the Banks children visit Cousin Topsy’s (Meryl Streep) shop in the Court, while Jules Dassin’s film noir Night And The City was also filmed there back in 1949 (check out a film still in Goodwin’s Court here.)
One of the court’s big draws these days appear to be Harry Potter fans in search of Diagon Alley. Goodwin’s Court is one of several locations believed to have inspired J.K. Rowling’s wizarding high street. Cecil Court, Leadenhall Market and Goodwin’s Court have all been touted as inspiration – perhaps its a combination of all three?
- Goodwin’s Court, off St Martin’s Lane and Bedfordbury, WC2N. Nearest stations: Leicester Square or Covent Garden.
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