Anyone familiar with the life of Jane Austen will know that when she came to London in 1814, she stayed with her brother, Henry, in Henrietta Street. It was a very convenient location in Regency London, since it was situated close to the center of the metropolis. Though it was not in the much more fashionable area of Mayfair, Henrietta Street was considered a perfectly respectable residential street. There were also a number shops and a few public houses and taverns located along this street, so there was usually a bit of bustle there during the day. Regency authors might find that Henrietta Street would make an ideal setting for a London street scene, or even the residence of one or more of their characters.
A brief history of Henrietta Street through the Regency period . . .
Henrietta Street runs from Bedford Street, northeast to Southampton Street, where it forms part of the boundary of the southern tip of Covent Garden. The area of Covent Garden is located north of the Thames River near the center of London. This site has been inhabited by humans for millenia and was known to be a thriving settlement during Saxon times. During the Middle Ages, there was a large garden there, known then as the Covenant Garden, which was part of the Westminster Abbey complex. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, Henry VIII took control of the property, which he later granted to John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford. That large land grant included the area which would become Henrietta Street.
The tract of land which included Henrietta Street was not developed by the first earl’s decedents until the 1630s. The roadway was first laid out in 1631, and within the next three years, houses had been constructed along most of its length. However, it was not called Henrietta Street until 1627, when it was officially named in honor of the current Queen, Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I. Initially, the roadway of Henrietta Street ran only to the gardens of Bedford House, which marked its northeastern end. After the demolition of Bedford House in 1706, the street was extended to connect with Southampton Street, and the southern end of Covent Garden. Not long after the extension of the street, most of houses along it were demolished and rebuilt, so that the architecture was mostly in the Georgian style.
The majority of the tenants of the first buildings located along Henrietta Street in the seventeenth century were prosperous tradesmen, many of whom lived in the rooms above their storefronts. However, there were also a few members of the nobility who had town houses on that street during those early years. When the houses were rebuilt in the eighteenth century, a more diverse group of tenants took up residence along Henrietta Street. Though the noble residents had moved away, there were several very prominent tradesmen who lived in the street. In addition, at least one surgeon and three apothecaries had premises there, as did a couple of stockbrokers and at least one solicitor. Several artists also took rooms in Henrietta Street.
But there were more than just shops and residences along Henrietta Street. There were several coffee houses, taverns or public houses located on the street by the mid-eighteenth century. Perhaps the most famous of these was The Castle, located on the north corner of the intersection with Bedford Street. It was at The Castle, in 1772, the Richard Brinsley Sheridan fought the first part of his famous duel with Captain Thomas Mathews. Mathews had written an article maligning the honor and character of Elizabeth Linley, Sheridan’s intended bride. When the article was published in the Bath Chronicle, Sheridan immediately challenged Mathews to a duel. The duel was to be fought in Hyde Park, but it was found to be too crowded when the duelists arrived, so they sought an alternate location. Eventually, they retired to The Castle, where the duel was cut short when Mathews lost his sword and was forced to make an abject apology. Sheridan demanded that he sign a retraction of the article about Miss Linley. However, when the retraction was made public, Mathews became enraged and challenged Sheridan to another duel. This second duel took place near Bath, and was much more vicious. Both men continued to fight, battering each other even after each had broken their sword blades, and both were severely wounded. Though both men did survive, it is believed that this bloody and ferocious conflict led to the adoption of pistols instead of swords for duels in the later eighteenth century.
New construction and significant remodelling of existing structures was ongoing along Henrietta Street from the end of the eighteenth century right though the Regency period. Yet the roadway itself was never widened, and even today, is the same width it was when laid out in the seventeenth century. The original seventeenth century buildings were long gone by the Regency, and even some of the earlier eighteenth century structures were demolished or heavily remodeled. All of the buildings on both sides of the street were attached, presenting a solid front along the street side and leaving no open space except at the back of some of the houses. Coade stone and/or carved stone window and door surrounds were used to update the facades of the older buildings. During the Regency, many upper-floor windows were also given balconies of delicately scrolled ironwork which was fashionable during that period.
The character of Henrietta Street inhabitants changed yet again by the turn of the nineteenth century. More artists took rooms along the street, including painters and engravers, as well as musicians and actors. Several banks opened offices there. The Castle public house, and the adjoining alehouse known as the Bedford Head, were joined together a few years after Sheridan’s duel and became the warehouse and showrooms for the Royal Crown Derby china manufacturer, William Duesbury. The Prince of Wales selected William Duesbury & Company to provide the porcelain when he furnished his new home at Carlton House. There were still a few taverns and public houses along Henrietta Street, as well as a coffee house. The best-known coffee house was Rathmell’s, which had been opened in the early eighteenth century. By the Regency, the coffee house was located at No. 25, on the north side of the street. It was at Rathmell’s that a group of artists met in March of 1754, that meeting leading to the foundation of the Royal Society of Arts. William Cornelius Offley opened a popular upscale tavern and eating house at No. 23, also on the north side of the street, in 1807. Offley’s remained at that location through the Regency and into the Victorian period.
Even before the Regency began, one of the banks on Henrietta Street was the bank of Austen, Maunde and Tilson, founded in 1804, by Jane Austen’s favorite brother, Henry, and his two partners. It was generally known as Tilson’s Bank. When Henry’s first wife, Eliza, died in the spring of 1813, he soon thereafter moved into rooms over his bank, then at No. 10, near the middle of Henrietta Street, on the south side. It was there that his sister, Jane, stayed with him when she came to London in the spring of 1814, to prepare her most recent manuscript, Mansfield Park, for publication. The central location of Henry’s rooms made it convenient for messengers to deliver galley proofs to the author for review. It was also an ideal location from which Austen could venture out to shop and take in the sights of London when she was not proofreading and editing the galleys for Mansfield Park. [Author’s Note: Sadly, this is the bicentennial of the year in which Henry’s bank failed, and he left his rooms in Henrietta Street. Later that same year, 1816, he took Holy Orders and became the curate of Chawton, the village where his mother and sisters lived.]
During the Regency, Henrietta Street was still part of the Bedford family holdings. The head of the family during those years was John Russell, the Sixth Duke of Bedford. Politically, Bedford was a Whig, and like a number of prominent Whigs, was a staunch supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, and opposed the war with France. His income from his London properties helped him to underwrite a number of anti-war and pro-Bonaparte publications. However, it does not appear that the political leanings of their landlord was of any particular interest to the Henrietta Street tenants. As had been the case since time immemorial, the single most important factor when it came to real estate was location, location, location. And Henrietta Street was a very convenient and respectable location in central London for shops, offices and residences during the Regency.
Dear Regency Authors, would Henrietta Street be a suitable location for one or more scenes in an upcoming romance? Might one or more of your characters have rooms, or an apartment, in one of the buildings there? Might they even bank at Tilson’s Bank? (Before 1816, or course!) Several artists had studios in Henrietta Street, at least one of which was a miniaturist. Will the heroine secretly visit an artist’s studio on Henrietta Street to have her miniature portrait painted as a gift for her beloved, soon to depart with his regiment for the Peninsula? Will she be seen by someone who knows her, who happens to be shopping in Henrietta Street when she enters or leaves the artist’s studio? How will that play out? The hero and a group of friends might stop for a meal at Offley’s tavern and eating house. Perhaps before going on to Covent Garden, just up the street, for a night at the Drury Lane Theatre? Do remember that during the Regency, though it was perfectly acceptable for gentlemen to enjoy a meal at a place like Offley’s, no respectable lady would consider entering a public eatery, let alone taking meal there, even in the company of a gentleman. How else might Henrietta Street figure in a novel set in Regency London?