A Jacobean tavern, waxwork museum and Victorian barbers | The many guises of Prince Henry’s Room
The history of 17 Fleet Street, a 17th century building that survived the Great Fire of London.
Standing on a Fleet Street is a rare piece of Jacobean London. Thanks to the Great Fire of London of 1666, hardly any buildings originating prior to the mid-17th century exist within the confines of the Square Mile. Among the few exceptions are 41 – 42 Cloth Fair in Smithfield, a handful of City churches, the Tower of London and St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse. Another one of these survivors is a Jacobean townhouse at 17 Fleet Street.
The site was originally part of an estate owned by the Knights Templar, an order of Catholic soldiers. Following their dissolution in 1312, the land passed to their rivals, the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Among their tenants were lawyers, who established the legal district of Temple which still exists today. With its origins as a Roman route, Fleet Street was named and established as a residential road in the Middle Ages. By the early 16th century, one of the Hospitallers’ tenants was the landlord of an inn called The Hand at 17 Fleet Street. After the Hospitallers was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1540, a lot of the Temple district passed into the hands of the Crown and other landowners.
In 1610, the owner of 17 Fleet Street rebuilt the tavern, by then named the Prince’s Arms. Some have claimed the tavern was named in honour of the investiture of Henry Frederick Prince of Wales (1594-1612) – son of King James I of England – while others claim the tavern’s name dates back to before his birth. Another theory suggests No.17 was built for the Council of the Duchy of Cornwall and that first floor had been reserved for Prince Henry’s use. The building features a three feathers motif on the façade – the symbol for the Prince of Wales. This symbolism appears again in the large room on the first floor, which boasts one of London’s best examples of Jacobean ceiling plaster. It contains the three feather motif, along with the initials P.H.
About 30 years later the inn was renamed The Fountain, with one of its regular customers being the diarist Samuel Pepys, who refers to it several times in his diaries. It was this inn which survived the Great Fire, which started over a mile away in Pudding Lane. In 1671, it was purchased by James Sotheby. The building remained in the ownership of the Sotheby family until it was sold to the London County Council in 1900. In 1696, No.17 (or No.15 next door) was the site of Nando’s Coffee House, which was popular with the local legal profession for at least 70 years. In 1748, the building was altered to incorporate the Inner Temple Gatehouse – one of the grand entrances to the Temple legal district.
From the forerunner to Madame Tussaud’s to the Victorian Vidal Sassoon
From 1795 to 1816, 17 Fleet Street was used by two different business. The front half was home to an exhibition called Mrs Salmon’s Waxworks, while the back remained a pub. Mrs Salmon was the forerunner to Madame Tussaud’s, a museum of waxworks bringing entertainment to Georgian Londoners. Among the wax creations on display were King Charles I (1600-1649) on his execution scaffold and the Iceni leader Boudica (d. 60/61AD). Two of the exhibition’s many visitors were artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Scottish diarist James Boswell (1740-1795). Other 19th century businesses at No. 17 were bookseller William Reed, legal bookseller and publisher Edward Peall and hairdresser-perfumer Skelton Walker.
At some point in the latter half of the 19th century, the Carter’s business of barbering and hairdressing moved in, remaining at the premises for several decades. It catered to both genders, with the ladies’ cutting saloon being set up in Prince Henry’s Room, with the mens’ services on remaining floors. Taking over such a large space, John Carter was clearly successful and employed between 15-20 hairdressers and barbers. Carter seems to be the Vidal Sassoon of the late Victorian age, and was well respected by his peers, having been elected as Master of the Hairdressers’ Guild for three successive years, as well as becoming the President of the Hairdressers Provident and Benevolent Institution. Along with haircutting, Carter also described himself as a parfumier and hatter. Among Carter’s services on offer were ‘hair brushed by steam power charge’, the first cutting saloon in London to offer such a service. It was originally invented by a Bristolian hairdresser Edwin Gillard Camp in 1862 (read The Quack Doctor’s blog post on the Victorian technology). In 1893, the Illustrated London publication boasts of Carter’s speciality lotion, ‘Threxaline’, for ‘training the moustache’. During Carter’s tenure, various signs were erected on the top floor façade, showcasing the business’ services as a ‘Hair Cutting Saloon’, as well as claiming the building was “formerly the palace of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey”, despite little evidence to back this up. Check out these London Metropolitan Archives photographs of the saloon’s exterior in 1880 and ladies’ cutting saloon in 1890.
In 1900, the London County Council bought the building for £20,000, but granted Carter a lease to trade from the lower-ground floor in 1906, which was renewed to his heirs in 1926. The LCC discovered the original façade had been covered up by a false frontage of eight carved panels (some of which included the three feather motif), dating from the 19th century. Inside, the original Jacobean oak panelling only survives on the west side of Prince Henry’s Room, while the remaining panels and chimney date back to the Georgian era. During the LCC’s restoration, the current stained glass, oriel windows were fitted, representing the LCC, the City of London, the Honourable Society of Inner Temple and the Duchy of Cornwall. (See a London Metropolitan Archives photo of Prince Henry’s Room following the LCC’s restoration in 1908). A staircase dating back to the late 17th century also remains in the building. The LCC also removed Carters’ sign referring to Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey from the top storey, which is now exposed to show the recessed attic windows and balcony.
In 1950, the building’s future was secured when it was Grade II* listed by Historic England. Various businesses came and went from the building during the council’s ownership, including a photography shop called Fermaprint in the 1960s. In 1969, the ownership of Prince Henry’s Room was transferred to the City of London from the Greater London Council, who had replaced the LCC. In 1975, the Samuel Pepys Club acquired the first floor to set up a museum dedicated to the diarist. Pepys was born on Fleet Street and lived in the area for many years, frequently visiting the various establishments on the road, including the Fountain inn at No.17. Around a decade or so later, the Pepys museum was closed and the building is now being used by a Catalonian political office so is off-limits to the general public.
- Prince Henry’s Room, 17 Fleet Street, Temple, EC4Y 1AA. Nearest station: Temple or Blackfriars. NB: The building is private and is not open to the general public.
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