Steam engines, Dickens, and television

Today’s post follows on from yours truly having read and enjoyed Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovich’s delightful and quirky novel. One area that features heavily in the book is Covent Garden, in particular Long Acre, so let’s take a brief look at them. Covent Garden (or the convent garden) was an area of seven acres of land that once belonged to the Abbots of Westminster and may have been used for both of the seemingly at odds purposes of kitchen garden and burial place.

The first purpose seems obvious from the name; the second was presumed following the 19th-century discovery of human bones. Part of the Abbots’ land was Long Acre; this, like Bow Street, was named for its shape, which was long and narrow. It was originally called The Elms, Elm Close, and then The Seven Acres, and an avenue of tall elms was reported to have stood on the line taken by the current road.

Building began on Long Acre in the early 17th century, and, like the Covent Garden area in general, the street became a fashionable place to live. One of its residents was Oliver Cromwell, who lived there from 1637 to 1643.

The aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was baptised at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, also lived there; according to a newspaper of 1731, “A few days ago the Right Hon. the Lady Mary Wortley Montague set out from her house in Covent Garden for the Bath”.

Long Acre was also key to some important industries: it was once a centre for coach makers, one of whose customers in 1668 was Samuel Pepys, and it was later the home of Merryweather & Sons, builders of steam fire engines and steam tram engines. St Martin’s Hall, a theatre with an entrance in Long Acre, is where Charles Dickens made his first appearance as a public speaker; he appeared on behalf of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.

More recently, the first television broadcast in Great Britain was made from Long Acre on 30 September 1929. It was a triumphant moment for John Logie Baird, after experimenting with a television set that consisted of projection lamps in an old biscuit tin and a motor in a tea chest.

Opera, price riots, and Bow Street Runners

Royal Opera House exterior
The modern-day Royal Opera House. Photo credit: ROH2012

This day in London’s history: on 7 December 1732 Covent Garden theatre opened on Bow Street on what was the site of an ancient convent garden, and remained a fruit and vegetable market until 1974.

John Rich, actor/manager at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was responsible for the building of the first Opera House: in 1728 he commissioned The Beggar’s Opera from John Gay. This was successful enough to provide the funds to build the first Theatre Royal at Covent Garden, designed by Edward Shepherd and completed in 1732.

In 1763 the interior was substantially damaged when rioting broke out amongst would-be theatregoers who were refused half price admission in the third act. They stormed the theatre, tearing out benches and breaking chandeliers.

Original Opera House
The Opera House before the 1808 fire

More serious damage occurred in 1808 when fire destroyed the theatre, which was rebuilt virtually immediately, reopening less than a year later.Seat prices were raised to help cover the rebuilding costs, but once again the theatregoers resisted this move, and, says the Opera House’s official site, “disrupted performances by beating sticks, hissing, booing and dancing”.

These ‘Old Price’ riots lasted nearly three months before the audience won their battle.

In 1856 fire struck once more, and the theatre was again completely destroyed. Rebuilding took a little longer this time, largely due to financial considerations, but the third – and current – theatre opened on 15 May 1858.

Bow Street, the home of the Royal Opera House, owes its name to the shape of the street, which runs “in the shape of a bent bow”. As well as the Opera House, Bow Street is perhaps most famous for the Bow Street Runners.

Henry Fielding lived in Bow Street when he was writing Tom Jones and was appointed magistrate for Westminster. It was in 1749 that he established the Bow Street Runners, the precursor to the modern London police force, and many of his ideas were developed by John. There were originally only a handful of these Runners, but they caused the crime rate to drop almost immediately.

EAS_4072During Victoria’s reign, the police station in Bow Street was unusual in that it was provided with a white lamp, rather than the traditional blue one. It is said that Victoria did not like seeing the blue lamp when she visited the theatre because it reminded her of her beloved Albert, who had died in the Blue Room of Windsor Castle.

There is also a Bow Lane, EC4: it is the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, located here, that determined whether or not someone is a Cockney: traditionally someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of those bells. (This, however, begs the question as to how Dick Whittington managed, as tradition has it, to hear the bells all the way from Highgate. Certainly people born between in Highgate are not considered Cockneys.) The name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches, which are shaped like bows, upon which it was built.

The church of Mary-le-Bow