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.

The legacy of Peter Pan

This day in London’s history: on 6th November 1897 Peter Pan opened at the Empire Theater in New York. The connection with London? Barrie moved here in 1885 when he was 25 and his literary career developed here.

There is a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, where Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family; he developed the character of Peter Pan to amuse George and Jack, two of the five young brothers. Barrie remained friends with the family – the story of this relationship was made into a movie in 2004, starring Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp.

Peter Pan Kensington Gdns

Barrie gave the rights to the Peter Pan works to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, which receives royalties every time a production of the play is put on, as well as from the sale of Peter Pan books and other products. (Coincidentally, Johnny Depp was said to have given one million pounds to the hospital when it saved the life of his daughter whose kidneys had failed following a bout of e coli.)

There is a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which was supposed to have been modelled upon old photographs of Michael, another young Llewelyn Davies, dressed as the character. However, a different child posed for the sculptor, and Barrie was disappointed with the statue.

There is a Blue Plaque at 100 Bayswater Road, where Barrie lived.

Paddington: 100 Bayswater Road
Photo courtesy of Open Plaques