My recent absence from this blog has been due to a sojourn in the Channel Islands. Naturally, as ever, I wondered what connections I could draw with London and its street names. This may be cheating slightly, as we didn’t go to Jersey (our island-hopping took in the Isle of Wight, Alderney, Guernsey and Herm Island) but I know that Lillie (or) Lily Langtry, who was born on Jersey, has London connections. I have written about her before on this blog but that was a while ago, so I’ll revisit that particular post, which was inspired by hearing The Who’s song ‘Pictures of Lily’ on the radio.
Lillie, born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, was an actress and socialite and, perhaps most famously, the mistress of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (Bertie), later Edward VII. They would dine privately upstairs in Rules restaurant in Maiden Lane, the oldest restaurant in London.
Maiden Lane, says Isaac Disraeli in his book Curiosities of Literature, takes its name from a statue of the Virgin Mary which once stood on the corner of the lane. Far more probable, albeit less glamorous, is that the name actually derives from the ‘middens’ – dung heaps – that proliferated in the area.
There are many literary and artistic connections with the lane. The poet Andrew Marvell lived here in 1677; Voltaire, the French poet and satirist, lived here for a year and the artist JMW Turner was born here where his father had a barber shop. Rules has also had an impressive list of famous literary clients over the years, including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Galsworthy and H G Wells. Many actors of stage and screen have also graced the tables here, such as Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin, and it has appeared in many a novel.
More gruesomely, a celebrated actor of the 19th century, William Terriss, was murdered as he was entering the Adelphi Theatre through the stage door in located in Maiden Lane. His killer was a mentally unstable actor, Richard Archer Prince, who bore a grudge against Terriss for having him dismissed. Prince was found guilty but not responsible for his actions and was sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum where he lived the rest of his life.
Pont Street and Inverness Terrace also have Lillie connections: she lived at number 21 Pont Street, now the Cadogan Hotel, for five years from 1892 to 1897. The building became a hotel in 1895 but she always stayed in her former bedroom. The hotel was also where, shortly after it opened, Oscar Wilde was arrested. Pont Street features in John Betjeman’s poem, ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’:
To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,
Pont Street takes its name from the word pont, the French for bridge; the street was built to bridge the river Westbourne. This river formed the Serpentine in Hyde Park after Queen Caroline (George II’s wife) suggested it be dammed up to form a 40-acre lake. People have offered up the theory that Bridge Street might not have sounded upmarket enough to properly developers.
There is also a hotel in Inverness Terrace, off Bayswater Road, where Lillie is supposed to have performed in a theatre when she was the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. However, the Theatres Trust, a National Advisory Public Body for Theatres in the UK, declares icily that:
“There is a persistent tradition that the theatre was created for Lillie Langtry by her Royal patron. Their affair was notorious twenty years earlier when he was Prince of Wales but by 1905 he was king. No evidence has been found to support the story but without positive disproof it is likely to go on running.”