Tag Archives: Covent Garden

St. Paul’s Covent Garden, the Actors Church

The tickets for all the walks of my new Limehouse walk sold out by Monday morning, so a very big thank you. The proceeds from these walks go towards the hosting, maintenance and research of the blog, so it is very much appreciated. I have had a number of requests for new dates, so have added two more, on the 31st of August and 10th September, which can be booked by clicking on the dates.

In 1951, my father took a couple of photos of the main entrance into St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

He was far better at timing the position of the sun and weather conditions than I am, however the view is much the same today, some 72 years later:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

A view of the main entrance to the church from the opposite side of the churchyard:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

And the same view in 2023:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

The church of St. Paul’s was one of the first buildings to be constructed as part of the development of the Covent Garden Piazza by Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford.

The Russell family were significant land owners, and within London this included the area around Covent Garden, along with significant holdings across Bloomsbury. The land at Covent Garden came into their position in 1552 when the first Earl was granted the land by the Crown.

Development of the Covent Garden Piazza and St. Paul’s Church commenced around 1630 when Inigo Jones designed the overall layout of the square. Construction of the church began in 1631 and it appears to have been completed and furnished by 1635, but was not consecrated until 1638 due to a dispute with the vicar of St. Martins-in-the Fields, mainly about the physical boundaries and the degree of independence of the new church. The Earl of Bedford had a family pew in St. Martin’s, but released this in 1635 when his new church in Covent Garden was ready.

The main entrance to the church is in Bedford Street, where the brick façade of the church can be seen between two pillars with ornate railings on either side, and providing a gate between the pillars:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

Through the gates and we are into the churchyard:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

The churchyard was closed to burials in 1853 and in the following couple of years all the tombstones were either removed or laid flat. The churchyard was renovated between 1878 and 1882, when the ground was also lowered and flattened.

Today, the churchyard has a wide path leading up to the entrance of the church, with seating along both sides of the path. To either side of the path are gardens and grassed spaces.

As can be seen in the above photo, the main body of the church and the churchyard are surrounded by tall terrace buildings along either side, and the church has long had a complex relationship with these buildings.

On both sides of the churchyard, there is a space between the wall of the churchyard and the adjacent buildings:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

The plaque reads: “This lightwell is part of the burial ground of St. Paul’s Church. Written consent must be obtained before any use is made of this lightwell.”

Originally, the churchyard ran up to the walls of the buildings, and doors and windows in these buildings which provided access to the churchyard were long a cause of concern for the church, as there was an issue with people getting into the churchyard and causing a nuisance, as well as the general issue about security where all the surrounding buildings provided access.

In 1685, any door in these buildings onto the churchyard was ordered to be blocked up, unless it had been given permission by the church, who also then sold licences for the making of windows that looked out onto the churchyard.

During the later half of the 18th century, the churchwardens also had concerns regarding the rising levels of the churchyard due to the many people being buried, which seems to have included large numbers of non-parishioners as well as “with the remains of multitudes of Paupers”.

In the 1870s, the lightwell shown in the above photo was built, with lightwells on the north, west and south sides of the church. These lightwells served a number of purposes. They provided light into the lowest floors of the surrounding buildings, they provide a degree of security for the churchyard to prevent the churchyard being used for “various and improper purposes”, and as a benefit for the houses, they prevented “soakage” from the graves into the houses.

London churchyards must have been appalling places in the 18th and 19th centuries, and no wonder that burials were stopped in the mid 19th century. The vast majority seem to have been overflowing with the bodies of the dead, and the rising levels of churchyards gave an indication of the many thousands that had been buried in such a small space.

If we walk around the church into the old piazza and market area of Covent Garden, we get a very different view of the church:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

This would have been the very visible side of the church on the new piazza that the Earl of Bedford was having built, and despite Bedford’s apparent request for a cheap church that would be “not much better than a barn”, Jones designed a grand Tuscan portico.

Whilst the portico is to the original designs, only the columns are probably original as the church was gutted by a fire in 1795, which required a significant rebuild.

The side of the church facing onto Covent Garden looks as if it should be the main entrance. When the church was built, Jones intended that it should have been the main entrance, with the altar being at the western end of the church.

This approach did not accord with the usual placement of the altar at the eastern end of Christian churches, so the entrance facing onto the Covent Garden Piazza was blocked up, and the altar is now behind this eastern wall.

The portico does though provide an excellent place to photograph the performers in Covent Garden and the large crowds that gather to watch:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

The white building above the columns is the Punch and Judy pub, and Punch has an important link with Covent Garden as indicated by this plaque on the church:

Punch's Puppet Show Covent Garden

In the years after the restoration of Charles II, a number of Italian entertainers came to England, including the puppet showman Pietro Gimonde who came from the city of Bologna.

It was Gimonde who Pepys saw in Covent Garden. At the time a Punch puppet show used the form of a marionette, where strings tied to a figure were manipulated by rods above the figure’s head.

Pepys must have been impressed by the show as two weeks later he returned to show his wife, and Gimonde must have made an impression on London society as in October 1662, he was part of a Royal Command Performance for Charles II.

Punch and St. Paul’s, Covent Garden featured in the first book of the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, when the main character, Peter Grant meets the ghost of murdered actor Henry Pyke, who also takes on the personae of Mr. Punch, in the churchyard.

Whilst the Rivers of London series is fictional, some strange, violent and sad events have happened in St. Paul’s churchyard.

The London Bills of Mortality for the week of the 22nd to the 29th of January 1716 recorded that a person was “killed by a sword at St Paul’s Covent Garden”. Bills of Mortality also recorded a number of people who were simply found dead in the churchyard – possibly those who were sick, too poor, unable to find housing or food, or perhaps just found the pressures of life in 18th century London too hard to bear.

Time to take a look inside the church, away from the crowds around Covent Garden, and this is the view when entering through the main door from the churchyard:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

As with any building of such age, it has been through very many repairs and restorations that have changed the church from its original form.

In the years after completion, the roof seems to have been a recurring cause for concern, with repairs having to be frequently undertaken, with the gradual loss of the decoration and painting across the ceiling.

By the 1780s, the church was in such a state that extensive repairs were needed. The architect Thomas Hardwick was chosen from the three that put in bids for the work. The church was closed and then followed a major programme of works that expanded as more problems were found.

From an initial budget of £6,000, the final cost when the church reopened in 1789 was £11,723.

This could have been money very well spent, however just six years later in 1795, some plumbers were carrying out work in a bell turret. They left the church for a midday break and left an unguarded fire still burning.

The fire escaped to the surrounding fabric, and soon spread to rapidly to gut the majority of the church.

The church apparently looked like one of the City church’s after the bombing of the 1940s, with only the exterior walls standing, the roof collapsed and the interior gutted.

You can probably imagine the feelings of the churchwardens when they viewed the gutted church just a few years after the period of closure and expense of a major rebuild, and they were now faced with a much larger challenge, and the difficulty of trying to raise yet more large sums of money, not long after having sought funds for the 1780s restoration.

Thomas Hardwick was again appointed for the rebuild, and money to fund the project was raised by the levy of a rate of one shilling in the Pound, and by selling annuities based on the security of the local rates.

The church was rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1798.

The pulpit (on the left of the following photo) is possibly by Grinling Gibbons, or by one of his pupils. Above the altar, is a copy of the Madonna and Child by the artist Botticelli:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

There seems to have been an almost continuous programme of repair work to the church, along with occasional significant restorations, including one in the early 1870s by William Butterfield, which focused on the interior of the church, with an aim of making the interior a brighter and more pleasant place to worship. Butterfield’s work included the removal of the majority of the monuments on the internal walls.

Henry Clutton, who was architect to the Duke of Bedford made a number of proposals for restoring and improving the church in the late 1870s. Clutton’s view was that Inigo Jones had almost gone along with the original Earl’s requirement for a barn-like church, with a simple brick body to the church and with only the stone portico embellishing a simple brick barn.

Some of Clutton’s proposals were taken on by the architect A. J. Pilkington in the late 1880s. The major change to the church at this time was the replacement of the ashlar exterior (square cut stones used as a facing on a wall), by the red bricks we see today.

Following Pilkington’s work, the church has stayed much the same apart from repair and decoration work. There was some bomb damage to buildings around the church, but St. Paul’s survived the war without any damage.

The font in St. Paul’s church:

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

St. Paul’s Church is known as the Actors Church. The area around Covent Garden has long had an association with the acting profession. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane which was built by Thomas Killigrew in 1663, just thirty years after the church is nearby. Killigrew had received a Royal Charter from King Charles II allowing the theatre to be built.

In 1723, the Covent Garden Theatre was built. This is now the Royal Opera House.

The association with the acting profession can be seen in a number of ways. Performances are put on within the church and in the churchyard, and St. Paul’s has the Iris Theatre, its own professional theatre company.

Walking around the interior of the church and there are very many memorials to actors and those associated with the profession, including Gracie Fields:

Gracie Fields memorial

Dame Anna Neagle-Wilcox. Usually better known as just Anna Neagle, but on the memorial including the surname of her husband, Herbert Wilcox, and below is Flora McKenzie Robson who had a long career in film, theatre and the stage:

Anna Neagle memorial

Dame Diana Rigg, again another actress with a long and wide ranging career, and who was still working right up to the year when she was “Called to rehearsal”:

Diana Rigg memorial

Nicholas Parsons, again another long career, and probably best known for Sale of the Century on TV in the 1970s and the BBC long running comedy show Just a Minute:

Nicholas Parsons memorial

Three “Sirs” of the theatrical and film world who all died within 4 years of each other, Sir Terence Rattigan, Sir Noel Coward and Sir Charles Chaplin:

Charles Chaplin memorial

Memorial for Dame Barbara Windsor, with her well known line from the BBC soap EastEnders:

Barbara Windsor memorial Get out of my pub

In what is a brilliant bit of placement, which cannot be a coincidence, the memorial for Barbara Windsor is located behind the small bar in the church:

Barbara Windsor memorial

Memorials to actors Roy Dotrice, Edward Woodward, Sir Ian Holm, Geoffrey Palmer and John Tydeman, a former BBC Head of Radio Drama:

Edward Woordward memorial

There are very few early plaques remaining in the church, as mentioned earlier in the post, William Butterfield’s work on the church in the 1870s removed many of the monuments that lined the walls of the church. A few remain including that of Thomas Arne, who wrote the music for a large number of stage works between the years 1733 and 1776, including works performed at Drury Lane and the Covent Garden Theatre.

Thomas Arne also put the words of a poem by James Thomson to music, to create the song Rule Britannia, as is recorded on his memorial, which also records that he was baptized in the church and buried in the churchyard:

Thomas Arne memorial Rule Britannia

There are very few memorials to those outside of the entertainment industries. One though records the dreadful death rate of children. On the right is recorded John Bellamy Plowman, the father who died aged 67, however on the left is what must have been his oldest son, also called John Bellamy Plowman who died aged 17 and was buried in the vault under the vestry, along with six other children who all died in their infancy:

John Bellamy Plowman

View of the rear of the church, with organ and gallery.

St Paul's Covent Garden the Actors Church

There were once galleries down either side of the church which provided additional seating at an upper level. These must have made the church seem very crowded when full, and they were removed during an early restoration.

St. Paul’s Covent Garden will soon be 400 years old. Although it was rebuilt significantly after the fire in 1795, and restored and repaired many times over the centuries, it still is an Inigo Jones church, and goes back to the time before the market, and when the Piazza was first established.

It is also a church that connects to the profession that is still so important in this part of London.


London Postcards

Back in August, I published a number of London Postcards showing the city during the first decades of the 20th Century. For this week’s post I have another series of postcards from the same time period.

I find these fascinating as they show many different aspects of London and provide a tangible link with those who lived in, or were visiting London.

The first postcard is of a very wintry Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Taken at a time when this was still a working observatory. Very rare to see such snowfall in London today.

The postcard was posted at a very different time of year to the pictured scene, on the 31st August 1905. With a Greenwich postmark, posted to a child in Lowestoft with a birthday wish from his aunt and uncle.

Postcards from London 2 7

As well as scenic views, early postcards are also populated by Londoners. This postcard shows Covent Garden with some fantastic detail of a very busy street scene. This was at a time when wearing a hat was almost mandatory, with the type of hat indicating your position in the social structure of the day. The scene is also piled high with baskets ready to transport goods to and from the market.

Postcards from London 2 8

The following postcard shows Regent Street at a time when almost all shops had awnings or shop blinds. The shop on the right is the London Stereoscopic Company. Formed during the 1850s, the company started selling stereoscopic photos and viewers and then went into the general photographic business selling cameras, photographic paper and other photography supplies. The company lasted until 1922.

The bus in the foreground is the number 13 covering Finchley Road, Baker Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross and Fleet Street. The number 13 bus route today covers many of the same locations.

Postcards from London 2 2

Another street scene, this time Holborn (posted on the 18th September 1913).

Postcards from London 2 3

All these photos show the main street lamps on islands in the centre of the road. When electric lighting was introduced to the streets of London, the centre of the road was found to be the best location to spread light across both sides of the road. These lighting islands also had other benefits. A report presented to the Vestry of St. Pancras in 1891 covering the use of public lighting by electricity claimed that one advantage of central street lighting in busy thoroughfares is that they regulate the traffic. The report stated:

“Your committee are informed that the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police has suggested that there ought to be a rest at that point to prevent the numerous stoppages and accidents that occur there. The Police seem to be strongly of the opinion that the fixing of rests assists very materially in the regulation of the traffic, and your Committee feel therefore that although at first sight many people may think the lighting from the centre of the road would tend to obstruction, it really assists in facilitating the traffic and preventing obstruction in crowded thorough-fares.”

“Rests” refers to the islands built in the centre of the road where a street lamp could be installed and protected from traffic. They also provided a safe stopping point, or rest, for pedestrians trying to cross the road. The report was written as part of the planning for the installation of electric arc lamps in Tottenham Court Road. The following postcard shows Tottenham Court Road taken looking north from the junction with Charing Cross Road. The buildings on the left, along with the pub are still there.

Postcards from London 2 9

The above postcard was sent by a visitor to London from North Wales who “has been seeing the sights and are now going to the zoo.”

Perhaps one of those sights was Leicester Square, much quieter than it is today, possibly a weekend in winter when sitting in, or running through the square was the ideal way to pass the afternoon. The building in the background with the large flag is the original Empire Theatre. Opened in 1884 and demolished in 1927.

Postcards from London 2 5

It was not just central London locations that were popular subjects for postcards. The following card, postmarked 1912, shows Clapham Junction. Although the type of traffic has changed, the scene looks remarkably similar today, although the Arding and Hobbs department store on the corner is now a Debenhams.

The sender of the card wrote “On back is the new Arding & Hobbs. Old building burnt down a few years ago.” The new building shown in the postcard was completed in 1910.

Postcards from London 2 15

At first glance, the following photo looks to be of Charing Cross Station, although, as the name across the building confirms, it is the original Cannon Street Hotel, forming the entrance to Cannon Street Station.

Postcards from London 2 11

To show how similar they are, the following shows Charing Cross Station. This is no coincidence as they were both designed by Edward Middleton Barry who also designed the replica Queen Eleanor Cross which stands in the forecourt of the station. The hotel at Cannon Street has long gone, and the station entrance now looks very different. Charing Cross provides a physical reminder of what once stood in Cannon Street.

Postcards from London 2 10

The next postcard is of the Monument, however what I find more interesting about the scene are the people, and also the large amount of advertising on the building to the left. The postcard was posted at the station at Walton on Thames by someone who had just moved into a new house in Weybridge. Perhaps a City worker who had bought the postcard in London.

Postcards from London 2 6The posters include adverts for, Nestles Swiss Milk, Bass beer, the Royal Military Tournament, Regie Cigarettes, Allsopp’s Lager and Triscuit, which if it is the same thing is a cracker produced in America and is still in production today. The building on the corner on the right is the Monument Tavern.

London’s bridges have always been popular subjects for postcards, and the following view is of London Bridge. The bridge shown is that designed by John Rennie and opened in 1831. It was sold in 1968 to make way for the current London Bridge and rebuilt in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Both the buildings on either side of the end of the bridge are still there, Adelaide House on the right and Fishmongers Hall on the left.

Postcards from London 2 12

And the following postcard shows Blackfriars Bridge. The large curved building at the left of the bridge is De Keyser’s Royal Hotel which was opened on the 5th September 1874 by Sir Polydore de Keyser who came to London as a waiter from Belgium and eventually became Lord Mayor of London. The Uniliver building is now on this site.

Postcards from London 2 14

The following postcard is titled “The Hanging Gardens of London, Selfridges Water Gardens Looking West”. The roof of the Oxford Street department store, Selfridges, had gardens and cafes during the 1920s and 30s and were a popular location after shopping. The roof gardens were damaged during the last war and never reopened.

Postcards from London 2 13

The following postcard shows the London County Council Millbank Estate, and judging by the condition of the streets, this must be soon after construction of the estate finished in 1902. The building halfway down the road on the left is a school. The estate and the school are still in existence and the buildings today look much the same although there is now parking lining most of these streets. The Milbank Estate is Grade II listed. The people in the photo are probably some of the first occupants of the estate.

Postcards from London 2 4

Although the Tower of London is the subject of the following postcard, I find the background of more interest as it shows London when the height of buildings was relatively low compared to the City we see today. This postcard has a 1931 postmark and was sent to Belgium by a visitor to London.

Postcards from London 2 16

The following photo taken from Bankside shows the north bank of the river with the original wharfs.

Paul’s Wharf in the centre with St. Paul’s Pier in front, the London & Lisbon Cork Wood Company (the smaller building towards the right with the white upper part), and Trig Wharf to the right. The Millennium Bridge now crosses the river here, roughly at the site of the London & Lisbon Cork Wood Company.  The Bankside location has always provided a superb view across the river and has a fascinating history which I wrote about here, mainly involving the transport of coal and other goods on the river hence the lighters on the river in the foreground.

Postcards from London 2 1

In the days before the personal ownership of portable cameras, postcards were about the only means of sending a message showing where the author lived or was visiting and as such they provide a fascinating insight into early 20th century London.


The Ghosts Of London

I first started walking London in the very early 1970s when as children we had family walks exploring the city. We were too young to appreciate exploring a London that would soon be changing so dramatically, so probably to try and keep our interest my father would tell stories of some of the myths and legends of where we walked, including tales of the ghosts of London that haunted many of the locations we passed.

Many of the locations that would be expected to have ghost stories associated with their history do not disappoint. The Tower of London has several reported apparitions. Lady Jane Grey seems to be the most frequent having been seen in the Bloody Tower as a long-haired woman dressed in a long black velvet dress with white cap and in the Salt Tower where she was seen as a white shapeless form. Anne Boleyn has been allegedly seen in the White Tower and on Tower Green. A bear has also been seen by some of the military inhabitants of the Tower, perhaps a survivor of the time when the Tower was used as a menagerie. Sir Walter Raleigh’s ghost has also been reported near the Bloody Tower.

Westminster Abbey has the ghost of a monk gliding some distance above the floor, presumably due to changes in floor level due to alterations to the Abbey over the centuries. In the Deanery the ghost of John Bradshaw, president of the court which condemned Charles the 1st has been seen.

There are also many stories of ghosts in the more unexpected locations.

So, as we reach the shortest days of the year, when the long cold nights open the imagination to the more mythical aspects of London, join me on a walk across the city to hunt down some of the ghosts of London. Characters that do not make much of an appearance now with the bright lights, noise and pace of the city crowding out the more fleeting visions of past lives.

Belgravia is our first stop. Find Wilton Row, just off Wilton Crescent and almost at the end of this hidden street is the Grenadier.

Grenadiar 1

The Grenadier has been a pub since 1818 but was originally the Officers Mess of the First Royal Regiment of Foot Guards and was built-in 1720.

The pub is proud of its supernatural heritage, allegedly being haunted by the ghost of Cedric, a young Grenadier who was apparently beaten to death by his comrades after being found cheating at cards. Apparitions, footsteps, noises and an icy chill have all been reported by both landlords and visitors to the pub over the years.

Well worth a visit, even if you are not lucky enough to witness one of Cedric’s manifestations.

Now take the short walk up to Hyde Park Corner Underground Station and take the Piccadilly Line to Covent Garden Underground Station where as you queue for the lifts, or regret the decision to take the stairs, you may meet the ghost of the actor William Terriss who was murdered outside the Adelphi Theatre in 1897, but for some unknown reason started haunting the underground station in 1955.

covent garden 1

In November 1955 the foreman ticket-collector was in the staff room of the station. He recalls that:

“the door was open and in the other section of the room there appeared the figure of a tall man, grey of face and wearing white gloves”

He assumed it was a passenger and asking if he could help, the figure silently turned and disappeared behind a partition. A week later, another station employee was found shaking with fear announcing that he had seen a ghost, claiming ” he stood in front of me and put his hands on my head”

A séance was later held at the station and the ghost claimed to be the Victorian actor William Terriss. He was seen many times later on the platforms, passageways and emergency stairs of the station, along with station workers hearing phantom footsteps and feeling an icy chill.

covent garden 2

William Terriss was stabbed by a fellow actor as he entered the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre. The murderer, Richard Prince was jealous of the popularity of Terriss. Whilst he was found guilty, he was also diagnosed as insane and died in Broadmoor.

There is a plaque to William Terriss at the rear of the Adelphi in Maiden Lane.

adelphi 1
The rear of the Adelphi, it was here that William Terriss was murdered. He is also said to haunt the theatre, but why he should be haunting the Covent Garden Underground Station rather than just the scene of his murder remains a mystery.

adelphi 2

The next stop is the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, (which although includes the name Drury lane, the main frontage is actually on Catherine Street) which has no less than three possible ghostly inhabitants. The first, and perhaps best authenticated is a “man in grey” who appears between the hours of 9am and 6pm, not the typical hours for a ghostly appearance. The ghost has been seen many times over the years by actors working at the theatre including Harry Secombe who was appearing in The Four Musketeers in the early 1960s. He said “the whole ruddy cast saw him once. He always made his appearance before 6pm and then popped off again. Haunting to rule, I suppose.”

The identity of the man in grey is a bit of a mystery. Possibly that of the actor Arnold Woodruffe who was killed by Charles Macklin some 200 years ago in a burst of anger. When the theatre was rebuilt around the 1850s a small room was found which contained the skeleton of a man with a dagger in his ribs. His identity was never found, and he is also one of the possible candidates for the man in grey.

Other ghostly appearances at the Theatre Royal have been a man with a long white-painted face who was occasionally seen sitting behind people in the boxes. He was thought to be the famous clown Joe Grimaldi.

The comedian Dan Leno was also allegedly seen at times, but was one of the more infrequent ghostly visitors to the Theatre Royal.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, frontage on Catherine Street:

drury lane 1

A theatre has been on the site of the Theatre Royal since 1663. The theatre went through several phases of demolition and rebuilding until the present theatre which was built-in 1812.

The colonnade walk alongside the Theatre Royal:
drury lane 2
Now we head into the City of London. Walk up Ludgate Hill and just before reaching St. Paul’s turn left into Ave Maria Lane. A short distance along, on the left is Amen Corner and Amen Court. At the far end, through the gateway in the following photo can be seen a wall, the old city wall built on Roman foundations.

amen court 1

This wall separates Amen Court from Dead Mans Walk where those hanged at Newgate Prison were buried in quick lime. This is a possible explanation for a “Thing” that has been seen at night creeping along the top of the wall. No one has been able to see this vision close enough to identify what it may be.

So when out in London during the dark nights of winter, keep an eye out for the ghosts of London, shadows from London’s past who may still retain a fleeting presence in today’s city.

The sources I used to research this post are:

  • Memories from walking London with my father in the early 1970s along with 60 years of notes he kept in the book Unbidden Guests – A Book of Real Ghosts by William Oliver Stephens published in 1949. He kept notes on London covering subjects such as architectural, historical as well as ghost stories in a wide range of books about London. One of the many reasons I much prefer books to eReaders.
  • Our Haunted Kingdom my Andrew Green published 1973