Conspiracies, Romans, and a thirsty playwright

Cato Street plaque
Photo: Simon Harriyott

Yesterday, 23 February, marked the anniversary of the exposure in 1820 of the Cato Street Conspiracy, a plan to assassinate all the British cabinet Ministers and the Prime Minister. There is a plaque at 1a Cato Street to mark the spot where the conspirators were arrested.

The street was named for the Roman statesman, and there is also a Homer Street nearby. Following the scandal of the conspiracy, Cato Street was changed to Horace Street, in keeping with the Roman theme, but the original name was restored in 1937.

Drury Lane 1808
Interior of the Drury Lane theatre in 1808

On 24 February 1809, the Drury Lane theatre, owned by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, burned to the ground. Walter Thornbury, in Old and New London, writes:

“Sheridan, at the time of the conflagration, was at the House of Commons, which voted an immediate adjournment when the disastrous news arrived; though Sheridan himself protested against such an interruption of public business on account of his own or any other private interests. He went thither, however, in all haste, and whilst seeing his own property in flames, sat down with his friend Barry in a coffee-house opposite to a bottle of port, coolly remarking, in answer to some friendly expostulation, that it was ‘hard if a man could not drink a glass of wine by his own fire!’”

Sheridan as sherry
Caricature of Sheridan as a bottle of sherry being uncorked by William Pitt

The road now called Drury Lane was recorded in 1199 and was called both Aldwychestrate and Fortescu Lane before taking its current name from a 16th century Knight of the Garter, Sir William Drury. who built a house there. The house is where Queen Elizabeth’s one-time favourite, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, made the mistake of plotting against her – a mistake that led to his execution.

Back to Sheridan, whose supping of wine as his theatre burned is an indication of his fondness for alcohol: he was a regular patron of the Adam and Eve pub, which gave its name to a mews in Kensington. He would run up extensive bar bills, which his friend Lord Holland often to paid off. The Holland Estate has been the source of many London street names, more of which another time.

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