Directions to the Cook for March

Shivering as the snow is whirled round the house by winds of over 40mph I’ve turned to my Georgian cookery books for inspiration for today’s blog in the hope of something warming.

The New London Family Cook or Town and Country Housekeeper’s Guide by Duncan MacDonald “Head Cook at the Bedford Tavern and Hotel [on site of present Maple Leaf, Maiden Lane], Covent Garden, and Assistants” is probably the most comprehensive cookery book I own. My copy, dated 1812, is battered and without its covers or any of the index after “Daffy’s elixir, old receipt for…” but it has a large section of “Instructions for Marketing”, monthly guides to what is in season and several suggestions for entire dinners and recipes and carving instructions. The “Family Recipes” section provides solutions for everyday problems – thinning and falling hair, cramp, scorched linen – and “restoring the life to drowned persons.”

You can see Duncan MacDonald in the damaged frontispiece above surrounded by the tools of his trade. He looks a good advertisement for his recipes!

Many of these recipes and receipts occur in other cookery books – trying to work out who was stealing whose recipes – or copying wholesale, come to that – is a work of archaeology.

For March, Mr MacDonald informs us, beef, mutton, veal “house-lamb” and pork are the meats in season. The poultry and game are turkeys, fowls, capons, chicken, duckling, tame rabbits and pigeons. (I’m not clear what the difference between a fowl and a chicken is.) A wide range of fish is in season including oysters, flounders, eels, roach, crab, turbot and mackarel [sic]. The vegetables he lists are mainly roots and the cabbage family including borecole – what we now call Brussel Sprouts – plus mushrooms, tansy, parsley, fennel and celery. Lettuce and cucumbers are listed – presumably grown under glass – and a wide range of herbs.

The list of fruit is sometimes baffling – “Golden pippins (an apple variety dating from the 17thc), rennetings (one of the group of apples called reinettes now), love (no idea – unless it is ‘love apple’ ie tomato), pearmain and John-apples (there are a number of apples whose name includes ‘pearmain’ but I can’t trace John-apples), the bon-chretien (nowadays usually known as the Williams pear) and double blossom pear, oranges and forced strawberries.

Here is the menu and table layout for the first of his suggested March dinners. This is service à la française – the dishes are brought out all together in two or more ‘courses’ for the diners to help themselves and each other to whatever combination they like, as opposed to service à la russe, the modern method, where each dish is served separately by a waiter or footman.

Given how cold the weather is, I’ll give the two soup recipes – and a warning – I haven’t tried these, so I cannot vouch for what they’ll taste like if you try them at home!

Soup Sante or Gravy Soup

“Take turnips and carrots, shred them small with celery heads about two inches long; wash and steam them separately in a little water until nearly done; when quite done, cut the white of the celery small, likewise a small quantity of leeks, cabbage, cos lettuces, endive and chervil; put all the vegetables to boil til quite tender, with three quarts of cleared brown consumes [presumably consommé]; if in season, add green peas, tops of asparagus, and button onions, stewed, etc.

You may put in a small piece of bouille beef stewed; but dry it with a cloth, and put it in the soup with the vegetables when you serve it. This, however, is not very general.”

Rice Soup

“Put a pound of rice and a little cinnamon [stick, not powder] into two quarts of water. Cover close, and let it simmer till the rice is quite tender. Take out the cinnamon, sweeten it to your taste, grate in half a nutmeg, and let it stand until cold. [This sounds more like a cold rice pudding than a soup.]”

“Another way

Wash a handful of rice in warm water, put it into a stewpan, with as much stock as it is wanted to make, and let it simmer slowly for two hours. Season it to your taste, and serve it up.”

I’m now going to go off and try out the recipe for Portable Soup…

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The Story of a Square 6: Queen Square

Today I’m visiting Queen Square, built in the first decades of the 18th century and named for Queen Anne. The first image shows it in 1786 in a painting by Edward Dayes. [Yale Center for British Art. Public domain image, US]. This is the view from the south.

The second image is from Ackermann’s Repository for September 1812 and the artist is standing in Guilford Street on the northern, open edge.

Now there are buildings on the plot of land enclosed by the iron railings but, according to the text with this print, The north side formerly commanded fine views of Hampstead and Highgate. This view can be clearly seen in the Dayes painting and on Roque’s map of 1738 with, to the north-east, Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital. Fanny Burney, the novelist, playwright and diarist, lived in the square 1771/2 with her father and wrote of,  A beautiful prospect of the hills ever verdant of Hampstead and Highgate. Dr Burney was visited here by Captain James Cook, just before his second voyage.

By the time of the 1812 print, Richard Horwood’s map (below) shows the extensive development over what had been Lamb’s Conduit Fields to the north and the private garden in the foreground of the image. Originally the site was an ancient reservoir, part of the waterways that formed the water source for Lamb’s Conduit and which supplied water to the Greyfriars in Newgate Street. If you look at the paved area at the southern end on StreetView you can see a black iron water pump, the late Victorian replacement for the original, which taps into the same source.

Number 31 (east side), now replaced by the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, was a school for young ladies, sometimes referred to as “the ladies’ Eton”. Deportment was clearly of great importance and the young ladies would travel by coach to attend the church of St George the Martyr, just a few metres away on the south-west end of the square. This meant they could practice getting in and out of a carriage in the correct manner and, according to the London Encyclopedia, when the carriage became too ancient to move it was installed in one of the schoolrooms so they could use it there.

St George the Martyr was built at the same time as the square as a chapel of ease, a subsidiary of St Andrew, Holborn. As London expanded these chapels sprang up in all the fashionable new developments and this one was created when (to quote Ackermann’s) several of those who resided at the extremity of the parish [of St Andrew] having proposed to erect a chapel for religious worship, Sir Streynsham Master [a prominent member of the East India Company] and fourteen other gentlemen were appointed trustees for the management of the building. Along with two houses it cost £3,500 and it was intended to recoup the cost by the sale of pews. However, by 1733 the density of new building was such that a new parish was created and the church, bought from the trustees, was named St George’s in honour of Master’s governorship of Fort St George in Madras (Chennai). Originally it was a plain brick building without steeple, and destitute of any pretensions to elegance, though convenient and well lighted. It was remodeled twice in the 19th century, a bell tower was added and the original exterior brickwork covered up, presumably adding some much-needed elegance. The 1786 painting at the head of this post shows the church in its original brick in the left foreground.

When George III first became unwell in 1788 he stayed for a short time in Queen Square with Doctor Willis before being treated at the White House at Kew. The King’s apparent recovery made Willis famous, fashionable and rich. Coincidentally, the statue of George’s wife, Queen Charlotte, that still stands in the square, was erected about 1775.

[Photograph by Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10043271%5D

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The Georgian Muff

I wanted to write this blog last week when the blizzards were howling, but I couldn’t get across the back garden to my studio and my print collection. Now the need for a muff has reduced I’ve managed to wade across and retrieve the volume covering 1795-1805. I found it was absolutely stuffed with illustrations of muffs.

For the early history of muffs, and the origin of the name, I can’t do better than refer you to this interesting post by The Costume Historian (snufskins anyone?). During the 17th and 18th century men used muffs too (Samuel Pepys borrowed his wife’s last-season muff and had to buy her a new one) but by the end of that period they were coming to be seen as effeminate and positively French (Horrors!).

Muffs could be made of fur, swansdown or padded fabrics, although all the ones in the prints in my collection look like either fur or the skin of very long-haired sheep, with the occasional one that might be feather. Infuriatingly, even when I have the description with the image they don’t describe the muff. Even if lined with silk and padded with down these vast muffs must have weighed a great deal and it is difficult to see how one could have put both hands into the biggest ones without your elbows sticking out like jug handles. There would certainly be room inside for other things – it was even possible to buy muff pistols, although confronted by a foot-pad it might have been more effective simply to smother him with the muff itself. In one or two images you can see that they are being held by the rim – the idea of a loop handle or strings around the neck doesn’t seem to come in until they reduced greatly in size with the Victorians.

The image at the top of this post is from Heideloff’s The Gallery of Fashion for February 1799 and show large, long-haired fur muffs, the brown one with walking dress and white one used inside. This next plate is from Phillip’s Fashions of London and Paris (February 1800) and shows two Full Dresses, one accessorized by a vast fluffy white muff. Presumably this was simply carried for effect – or would cold rooms have made it necessary?

I have a number of plates from The Lady’s Monthly Museum which are notable for their rather plain ladies and decided lack of elegance! Here is a pair of Morning Dresses for February 1800.

And for December that year two more Morning Dresses with very shaggy muffs. In the descriptions details right down to stockings are described – but not the muffs.

For March 1801 The Lady’s Monthly Museum has a charming pair of Morning Dresses with a poodle who seems to think the large white muff might come from a relative of his and an Afternoon Dress with the muff discarded on the sofa while the very nattily-dressed gentleman makes intense eye-contact.

For February 1802 here are two ladies from a very lovely Gallery of Fashion plate with below it Morning Dresses from the much less exclusive Lady’s Monthly Museum.

For March 1805 The Lady’s Magazine has a London Walking Dress with a very curly muff and a feather to match and The Ladies’ Monthly Museum a figure in Full Dress with a positively enormous white muff.

And finally, here is a rare plate from Le Miroir de la Mode by the mysterious Madame Lanchester. I blogged about her here with some more examples from my collection. In this example of a Walking Dress from January 1803 the muff is so large that it seems almost as long as the wearer’s legs!

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Bringing Spice to the Kitchen – Or the British and ‘Curry’

The British in India, from the 17th century onwards, cheerfully lumped the many and varied styles of cooking, and the subtle differences in dishes they encountered, under the term ‘curry’, a word copied from the Portuguese. Pietro della Valle (died 1652) described as ‘caril’ or ‘carre’ the ‘broths… made  with Butter, the Pulp of Indian Nuts… and all sorts of Spices, particularly Cardamons and Ginger… besides herbs, fruits and a thousand other condiments [which are] poured in good quantity upon … boyl’d Rice.’

The British in India ate ‘curry’ with every meal, using the term to cover anything in a spicy sauce. No British lady would dream of undertaking her own cooking, so she would have no idea about how the dishes her Indian household served up were made. Eventually curry powder came to be considered a spice in its own right, completely ignoring the infinite varieties and combinations that might be used. Anglo-Indians might think they were immersing themselves in local culture – like the young East India Company employee above, listening to Indian musicians amongst his European furniture – but they seemed to have no appreciation of the subtleties of the cuisine.

As East India Company officials came back to Britain they brought their taste for curry with them and often they brought their Indian cooks with them. These men had learned to create the first Anglo-Indian cookery style to suit their employers and soon curry began to appear in ordinary household cookery books.

One enterprising India entrepreneur, Sake Dean Mahomed [Sidi Deen Mahomet in some sources], opened the first Indian restaurant in Britain in 1810. I discovered it (or, rather, where it had been) when I was researching for Walking Jane Austen’s London. It was located on the corner of George Street and Charles Street, just North of Portman Square, a fashionable area and one that was home to many retired Anglo-Indians.  The Hindostanee Coffee House even had a smoking room where patrons could smoke hookahs. Despite serving ‘Indian dishes in the highest perfection… allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequaled to any…ever made in England’ the business became bankrupt the following year. Possibly his choice of location was unfortunate and many of the Anglo-Indians could eat curry at home made by their own Indian cooks or they preferred to combine business with curry by patronising the various City coffee houses that served curry alongside English food. Norris Street Coffee House on Haymarket had been serving curry since 1773 when its ‘Mistress’ advertised in The Public Advertiser ‘true Indian curey paste.’ ‘At the shortest Notice [she would send] ready dressed Curey and Rice, also Indian Pilaws, to any Part of the Town.’ East India Company merchants had created almost a club for themselves at the Jerusalem Coffee House on Cornhill. No specialist Indian restaurant appeared again in Central London until the 1920s.

Sake Dean Mahomed (right. Painted by Thomas Mann Baines c.1810) had far more success with his bathing establishment in Brighton. “Mahomed’s Baths. These are ascertained [sic] by a native of India, and combine all the luxuries of oriental bathing. They are adapted either for ladies or gentlemen, and the system is highly salutary in many diseases, independently of the gratification it affords, particularly to those who have resided in the East.”  [W. Scott. The House Book or Family Chronicle of Useful Knowledge (1826)] The ‘luxuries of oriental bathing’, I learned when I was researching for The Georgian Seaside, included shampooing – not of the head, but of the whole body in a foaming massage.

The Epicure’s Almanac (1815) has a section on seasonal foods and for July mentions that ‘various preparations of curry afford a delectable repast to those who have acquired a taste for this Indian diet.’ Ready-made curry powder could be bought alongside other spices and was first mentioned in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery (1747).

Here is a recipe for curry made with curry powder from The New London Family Cook (1811) by Duncan McDonald, head cook at the Bedford Tavern and Hotel, Covent Garden. The Bedford Tavern and Hotel was a large establishment on the Great Piazza. It opened in 1726 and continued in business throughout most of the 19th century.

And this is from A New System of Domestic Cookery (1807)

curry 2

curry 3 For a fascinating history of Europe’s love affair with curry, try Lizzie Collingham’s Curry; a biography (2005).

 

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Two Hundred Years Ago – the Birth of Circus in England?

The Sunday Times newspaper on 7 January mentions the celebrations planned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Astley’s Amphitheatre as the beginning of circus in England. This reminded me that I own a playbill for Astley’s for November 10th 1813  which features a tightrope act “being  justly allowed the First Performer in the United Kingdom”. The Unparalleled Wilson’s act was complete with Wonderful Somersets (somersaults) and Surprising Leaps. Philip Astley, a six foot tall cavalryman, rose to the rank of sergeant major and left the army in 1768. With two horses he began to give unlicensed shows of horsemanship and riding lessons on open ground in Southwark. According to the London Encyclopedia he obtained a licence with the patronage of George III after subduing an out of control horse near Westminster Bridge. This enabled him to open ‘The Royal Grove’, a canvas-covered ring close to the southern end of Westminster Bridge in 1769. Today if you stand on the bridge and look towards St Thomas’s Hospital on the far bank you can see a patch of trees where the hospital gardens are. This is approximately the location of Astley’s, shown below in 1777.

Astley’s fame spread rapidly and in 1772 he performed before King Louis XV at Versailles. Patty, his wife, was also an accomplished rider. At first she assisted by beating out rhythms on a large drum but she soon joined in with horseback tricks including riding with a “muff” of swarms of bees over her hands and arms. Her husband began to incorporate comedy into his tricks, including his most famous act, The Tailor of Brentford.

As the popularity of his shows increased Astley gathered other acts, scouring fairs and going as far afield as Paris to find good street performers. The shows began to incorporate many of the circus acts we would recognise today – acrobats, jugglers, rope-dancers, clowns, strong men and, of course, the equestrian acts. The arena was roofed by 1780 so that he could continue to give shows year-round.

Astley is credited with discovering that the ideal size for a circus ring is 42 feet in diameter, allowing the optimal use of centrifugal force to keep him on the horse’s back as he galloped round the ring. However, Astley did not use the name ‘Circus’ for his show as this had been appropriated by Charles Dibden whom opened The Royal Circus nearby in 1782, stealing many of Astley’s ideas.

When The Royal Grove was destroyed by fire in 1794 he rebuilt in splendid style, this time calling it Astley’s Amphitheatre. By now it was so established, eclipsing Dibden’s Circus, that he could attract famous performers such as the clown Grimaldi and he added melodramas, comic sketches such as the one entitled ‘Honey Moon’ in the poster and dramatic sword fights. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on 23 August 1796 that she had arrived safely in London and that “We are to be at Astley’s tonight, which I am glad of.” Unfortunately there is no letter describing what she saw, but she sends lovers Harriet Smith and Robert Martin to Astley’s in Emma and Harriet “could dwell on it all with the utmost delight.”

As well as the ring  the Amphitheatre had a stage with a proscenium arch linked to it by ramps allowing dramatic gallops from ring to stage. By the time the building was destroyed by fire again in 1803 Astley could afford to rebuild on a far more impressive scale as the print of 1803 [“*57-1633, Houghton Library, Harvard University”] shows.

Astley died in 1814 but the Amphitheatre continued to be wildly popular and would include crowd-pleasing shows recreating the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Astley also contributed to the development of the circus  by taking shows on tour in the summer months to wooden amphitheatres he’d had constructed throughout Britain and in eighteen cities on the Continent. He died in Paris and is buried there. The 1803 building lasted until a third fire in 1841. Charles Dickens describes it in Sketches By Boz as “delightful, splendid and surprising.” It was rebuilt in 1862 as the New Westminster Theatre Royal, but demolished in 1893.

 

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The Story of a Square 5: Golden Square – or ‘Do Come Up & See My Etchings, Miss Austen.’

Today Golden Square is a pleasant area to sit – paved, planted, shaded by trees and liberally supplied with benches. It sits just South of Carnaby Street, East of Regent’s Street, a good place to rest from shopping and sightseeing, surrounded by corporate buildings housing mainly media companies.

It is a late 17th century construction, still showing as fields on William Morgan’s map of 1682. The London Encyclopedia suggests that its name is a genteel corruption of ‘gelding’ because Gelding’s Close, a field in the area, was used to graze geldings. It seems more likely to me that it was owned by a Mr Gelding – a genuine, if unfortunate, surname. However it began, by the early 18th century it was a popular place to live for aristocrats including the Duchess of Cleveland, the Duke of Chandos and Viscount Bolingbroke. By about 1715, however, the aristocrats seem to have moved out and professional men such as surgeons and artists of the top rank moved in. It was still very respectable. and in 1720 in his Survey of London John Strype described it as “a very handsome place railed round and gravelled with many very good houses inhabited by gentry on all sides.” None of the 17th century houses remain but four of the 18th century replacements do. (Numbers 11, 21, 23, 24). Below is a detail from Roque’s map of 1747. Warwick Street, to the left, remains, but Great and Little Swallow Streets vanished under Regent’s Street

Anastasia Robinson (c.1692-1755), was a singer for whom Handel created many pieces, beginning in 1714 when he wrote Ode For the Birthday of Queen Anne for her. Her father owned a property in Golden Square and that was where her first private recitals were held. She was the secret wife of the Earl of Peterborough, unacknowledged until shortly before his death. Another performer of Handel’s works was Elisabetta de Gambarini (1731-65) who was also a composer, conductor and skilled keyboard player on a range of instruments. She lived at number 13 from 1753 to 1763.  Artist Angelica Kauffman, a leading Society painter and one of the two female founding members of the Royal Society, lived at number 16 between 1767 and 1781. Artist Martin Archer Shee, later President of the Royal Society, lived at number 13 between 1795-6. Mrs Jordan the actress who became the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, had three daughters by Edward Ford who lived at number 4. In 1803 she took number 30 to house the girls.

Diplomats also moved into the Square with the legations of Genoa, Russia, Bavaria, Brunswick and Portugal. A Blue Plaque on number 23 marks the location of the Portuguese Embassy, occupied 1739-44 by the eminent statesman the Marquess of Pombal. The Bavarian Legation took over 23 and 24 and both houses were bought in 1788 by Bishop James Talbot so that the Roman Catholic church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory could be built in the gardens. Number 24 became the presbytery. The church can still be seen with its entrance on Warwick Street.

Doctor James Stanier Clarke, Domestic Chaplain and Librarian to the Prince Regent, lived at number 37. He had met Jane Austen on November 13 1815 when she had visited Carlton House by invitation of the Prince Regent. Doctor Clarke’s role was to hint, heavily, that Miss Austen should dedicate her next work to his employer. Jane was no fan of the Regent, being a supporter of his estranged wife, Princess Caroline, and tried to wriggle out of it. Two days later she wrote to Doctor Stanier Clarke asking for clarification – had she received a suggestion, a request or an order? “I shd be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or Ungrateful.” Eventually her publisher, John Murray, and her family persuaded her that she had no option and a presentation set of Emma, respectfully dedicated, was dispatched to Carlton House in December 1815.

Doctor Stanier Clarke (portrait c.1790 left) proved to be not just a fan of Miss Austen, but also a rather annoying groupie. He so irritated her with suggestions for plots and characters (“to delineate in some future Work the Habits of Life and Character and enthusiasm of a Clergyman—who should pass his time between the metropolis & the Country . . . Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature—no man’s Enemy but his own”) that she eventually wrote the satirical Plan of a Novel, according to Hints from Various Quarters in 1816. In December 1815 Doctor Stanier Clarke invited  Miss Austen to visit his house in Golden Square to use his personal library. This was a quite shocking thing for an unmarried gentleman to do, although he assured her that a maid would be in attendance. Whether he was simply too star-struck to care or too insensitive to realise the impropriety or whether this was an invitation along the lines of, “Come up and see my etchings,” Jane did not accept.

One feature of the Square that Doctor Stanier Clarke would recognize today is the battered statue at the head of this post. It is a full-length standing figure in Roman military garb, generally considered to be George II  (although some insist it is Charles II). In the quote from Dickens below it is described as “mournful” and is reputed to have come from the roof of the Duke of Chandos’s seat at Canons Park.

By the mid 19th century the Square had gone down in the world and Dickens described it in Nicholas Nickleby:

“Although a few members of the graver professions live about Golden Square, it is not exactly in anybody’s way to or from anywhere. It is one of the squares that have been; a quarter of the town that has gone down in the world, and taken to letting lodgings. Many of its first and second floors are let, furnished, to single gentlemen; and it takes boarders besides. It is a great resort of foreigners. The dark-complexioned men who wear large rings, and heavy watch-guards, and bushy whiskers, and who congregate under the Opera Colonnade, and about the box-office in the season, between four and five in the afternoon, when they give away the orders, all live in Golden Square, or within a street of it. Two or three violins and a wind instrument from the Opera band reside within its precincts. Its boarding-houses are musical, and the notes of pianos and harps float in the evening time round the head of the mournful statue, the guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs, in the centre of the square. On a summer’s night, windows are thrown open, and groups of swarthy moustached men are seen by the passer-by, lounging at the casements, and smoking fearfully. Sounds of gruff voices practicing vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air. There, snuff and cigars, and German pipes and flutes, and violins and violoncellos, divide the supremacy between them. It is the region of song and smoke. Street bands are on their mettle in Golden Square; and itinerant glee-singers quaver involuntarily as they raise their voices within its boundaries.”

You can take in Golden Square in Walk 5 (Soho to the British Museum) in my Walking Jane Austen’s London

 

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Story of a Square 4: Leicester Square – From Common Land to Fashionable Residence to Popular Entertainment Centre

For Jane Austen the Leicester Square area was the location of some of her favourite shops. Until 1630 it was Leicester Fields, common land available for parishioners of any class to dry clothes and to pasture their livestock after Lammas Day (12th August). But London was moving out from its old centres and the Earl of Leicester acquired the area in 1630 in order to build Leicester House. That occupied, more or less, the area between today’s Lisle Street and the Northern edge of the Square. To the East it finished more or less where Leicester Place is and to the West on a line where the edge of the Empire cinema stands. Lisle Street ended at the Western edge of its gardens.

The parishioners were, naturally, unhappy about this incursion on their land and rights and Charles I had to appoint a Privy Council committee to arbitrate. His lordship was ordered to make compensation and he had a high brick wall built along the Southern boundary (the current pavement line, more or less) and, in accordance with the committee’s instructions, had the rest of the land – the present Square – turned ‘into Walkes and planted with trees along the walkes and fitt spaces left for the Inhabitantes to drye their clothes there as they were wont, and to have free use of this place.’ As the other sides of the open area were built on the contractors railed off the centre and planted elms. The map at the top is a detail from Roque’s map of 1740.

In 1670 Leicester Square was laid out for ‘the benefit of the family, the advancement of their revenue, and the decency of the place before Leicester House.’ This was an indication that fine houses were being built around the Square. By the early 18th century there was a brick wall with iron railing and in 1784 a statue of George I in armour and on horseback was moved from the garden of the Duke of Chandos’s house to the centre. The gardens gradually deteriorated and so did the statue which lost a leg. It was finally sold for scrap for £16 in 1872.

Part of the Leicester estate, including the Fields and surroundings was acquired by the Tulk family in 1808. By this time all four sides of the Square were built up with fine houses and no commercial development had been permitted although by 1782 there was a linen draper by the name of Gedge operating at the corner with Cranbourn Street (running from the top Eastern corner of the Square). Six earls had residences in the Square and several artists, writers and men of business lived there. Hogarth created Marriage à la Mode, Rake’s Progress, Industry and Idleness and Gin Lane at no.30 and Joshua Reynolds lived at no.47 from 1760 to 1792. All the fine 17th and 18th century houses have gone now, replaced by buildings of the late 19th century onwards.

By the end of the 18th century the area had become rather less select and had taken on the form shown in the second map above. The Earl of Rockingham had lived at no.27 until his death. It became a bagnio – technically these were bathhouses, but more usually were brothels. This was the location for the great hoax of 1726, the place where anatomist Nathaniel St Andre brought Mary Tofts, a poor women from Surrey whom, he claimed, had given birth to a litter of 15 rabbits after being frightened by one when walking through a field. The story attracted George I’s surgeon who was taken in and claimed to have delivered her of part of another rabbit. Sir Hans Sloane, President of the Royal Society arrived to view the birth of yet more rabbits. Eventually she was caught buying rabbits and the scam was exposed.  The bagnio and the sensational hoax perhaps mark the beginning of Leicester Square as a centre for popular entertainment, although as this print of 1812 (from Ackermann’s Repository) shows, it was still a very smart area.

The view is from Leicester Place down to the North-East corner of the Square. If you stand there today you can still see the indentation in the street on the right hand side – I love how landholdings like this are reflected years later in the modern building line.

Jane Austen came to the area to shop, especially when she was staying with her brother Henry in Covent Garden. Prices were slightly lower than those in the Mayfair area and she patronised Isaac Newton the linen draper in Leicester Place whose unimaginative approach to window dressing can be seen in this print. Next door is a doorway with a sign over it “Rome Malta” which was the entrance into Barker’s Panorama, opened in 1793. It was a rotunda of 27 metres in diameter. It’s two rooms, one above the other, displayed perspective views of famous scenes and locations which could be viewed ‘in the round’ from the centre

of each room. Jane Austen also shopped for bonnets and caps in Cranbourn Alley.  On a snowy day in March 1814 she wrote to her sister Cassandra,

‘Here’s a day! The Ground covered with snow! What is to become of us? We were to have walked out early to near Shops, & had the Carriage for the more distant… Well, we have been out, as far as Coventry St; Edwd escorted us there & back to Newtons, where he left us, & I brought Fanny safely home.’ On that snowy shopping trip she saw, ‘A great many pretty Caps in the Windows of Cranbourn Alley! I hope when you come, we shall both be tempted.’ Intrigued, I set out to find Cranbourn Alley which runs between Cranbourn Street and Bear Street. It is still there – and a horrible little passageway it is now. I wouldn’t want to walk down it in daylight, let alone at night!

By the mid 19th century the ‘garden’ in the centre of the Square was so derelict that it had the Great Globe, a vast ball-shaped panorama built on it in 1851. Later it became a wasteland with occasional circuses, poor quality stalls and was used as a waste tip. It was surrounded by high wooden hoardings covered in advertisements  until in 1873 the Master of the Rolls had them removed and ordered that the area be returned to use as a garden. It was rescued in 1874 when it was bought by the flamboyant, and very rich, MP for Kidderminster, Albert Grant, who was created a baron by the King of Italy. He had the garden laid out much as it is today with a fountain and bust of Shakespeare in the centre. It was refurbished in 1992.

It seems difficult to see anything of the Georgian and Regency periods in Leicester Square today with its vast crowds of tourists queuing for theatre and cinema tickets, its souvenir shops and its endless food outlets. However, when I researched the area for Walking Jane Austen’s London and Walks Through Regency London I found plenty of fascinating reminders within a short distance. There’s Freibourg & Treyer’s shop, the oldest surviving in London,  in Haymarket. In Gerrard Street you can climb the stairs that Doctor Johnson and Joshua Reynolds would have used in the days when no.9, now a Chinese supermarket, was the famous Turk’s Head coffee house. The area has numerous Regency-era shopfronts too, especially in Lisle Street. Then you can have a drink and sandwich in Tom Cribb’s pub on Panton Street and escape the crush around the Square!

 

 

 

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