Two centuries ago, the Royal Cockpit on Birdcage Walk, in London, which had been established by King Charles II, lost the lease for the ground on which the building stood. By the end of the year, the building had been demolished. With the exception of one set of steps, that is. Those steps survive on that very same site in London, to this day.
The rise and demise of the Royal Cockpit in London . . .
Birdcage Walk, where the Royal Cockpit was located, had a long association with a wide array of birds. The street was originally laid out to provide access to the Royal Aviary, part of the Royal Menagerie, which was first established by King James I. When his grandson, Charles II, was restored to the British throne in 1660, the new king expanded the Royal Aviary complex to house a large number of exotic birds, as well as falcons and hawks, since he enjoyed hunting with those birds of prey. This expansion occurred at about the same time that Charles II ordered a redesign of St. James’s Park along more formal lines. Though Birdcage Walk, which ran along the southern edge of St. James’s Park, was made wide enough to accommodate carriage traffic, seldom was a carriage seen to pass along it until nearly the end of the reign of George IV. From the seventeenth century and right through the Regency, only members of the British Royal Family and the Hereditary Grand Falconer, the Duke of St. Albans, had the right to drive their carriages along that roadway. All others had to walk, hence the name, until 1828, when the street was finally opened to public carriage traffic.
Sometime after the redesign of St. James’s Park, Charles II, who enjoyed cockfighting almost as much as he enjoyed hunting with hawks and falcons, established a Royal Cockpit near the eastern end of Birdcage Walk, just south of the park. Cockfighting has a history going back at least six thousand years, but its popularity in England had become widespread during Tudor times. By the time Charles II became king, there were a number of cockpits located in London and its immediate environs. But the majority of those establishments were frequented by men of the lower classes. King Charles II’s new Royal Cockpit was intended for the enjoyment of the members of the royal family and the aristocracy. The high price of admission tended to discourage attendance by the riff-raff and hoi-polloi.
By the mid-eighteenth century, attendance at the Royal Cockpit on Birdcage Walk was no longer limited to the royal family and the aristocracy. Admission prices had remained about the same (five shillings), but those in attendance now came from all walks of life, except from the very poorest classes. One observer in the later eighteenth century described the crowd at the Royal Cockpit as "a collection of peers and pickpockets, grooms and gentlemen, bon vivants and bullies." Nevertheless, records from that period suggest that the majority of birds matched against one another in the Royal Cockpit were considered to be of the highest quality, right into the early nineteenth century. This made it one of the most popular cockfighting venues in the metropolis, despite its relatively high admission fee. Very large sums of money were regularly wagered on these fights. There were also quite a number of men who brought their own cocks to match against the birds of others who were in attendance.
William Hogarth’s well-known engraving of a cockfight, published in 1759, is believed to be set in the Royal Cockpit on Birdcage Walk. John Bluck’s aquatint, Royal Cock Pit, published in May of 1808, was set in the same venue, almost a half century later. If one looks closely at the background in each image, one can see the royal crest in relief, on the back wall, behind the pit. It is clear in both images that all of those in attendance were male, cockfighting not being considered an activity appropriate for women.
Though most blood-sports were going out of fashion in Britain by the turn of the nineteenth century, there were still a significant number of men who attended cockfights, even in London. Some because they were drawn to the savagery of the fights, even more because they hoped to win a substantial sum by wagering on the winning cock. The Royal Cockpit on Birdcage Walk was still in regular use for the first half of the Regency. However, over time, the land on which it stood had become the property of Christ’s Hospital, which had been set up as a charity school in the sixteenth century. Christ’s Hospital School was also known as the Bluecoat School, due to the distinctive blue frock coat worn as part of the uniform by all of the students at the school. In 1816, the Governors of Christ’s Hospital School came to the conclusion that any cockpit, royal or otherwise, was not in keeping with the aims of their school. Therefore, when the lease on the land on which the Royal Cockpit stood came up for renewal, they refused to renew the lease.
Without a valid ground lease, the Royal Cockpit was forced to close its doors. Though it was still marginally profitable, public sentiment in the Regency was increasingly turning against blood-sports, particularly cock fighting, though it would not be officially outlawed until 1835. Many people considered the practice extremely cruel, and it had the reputation of drawing a very rowdy crowd. Therefore, there was no one in London who was willing to make land available for the relocation of the Royal Cockpit. Thus, cock fighting came to an end on Birdcage Walk in 1816, and by the end of the year, most of the building had been demolished. The only survivor was one set of stairs which had once wrapped around the inside of the building and led down to the cockpit. Known then, and now, as Cockpit Steps, this set of stairs serves as a convenient passageway which connects Birdcage Walk and Old Queen Street, if one knows where to look for them. [Author’s Note: For those of you who might be in London and seeking the Cockpit Steps, the upper entrance is across the street from the Two Chairmen public house, near the intersection of Dartmouth Street and Old Queen Street.]
Though the steps of the Royal Cockpit were not exposed until 1816, with the demolition of the building, that area of Birdcage Walk had already had a resident ghost for more than twenty years by the time the Regency began. According to legend, a soldier who was stationed at nearby the Horse Guards barracks, in the late eighteenth century, lured his wife to St. James’s Park late one night. There, he murdered her, with such force that he decapitated her. However, while he was attempting to dispose of her body in the lake in the middle of the park, he was seen and apprehended by members of his own regiment, some say, the Coldstream Guards. In January of 1804, The Times reported that two soldiers in the Coldstream Guards saw a headless woman wearing a heavily blood-stained red-striped dress, walking along Birdcage Walk. According to the report, the two young soldiers were so distressed by the sight that they had to be hospitalized and were declared unfit for duty for several days.
Since the demolition of the Royal Cockpit in 1816, there have been several more sightings of this headless female apparition, who, from that time, included the steps in her perambulations. Sometimes she is seen rising out of the lake in St. James’s Park. But more often, she is seen descending Cockpit Steps and drifting along Birdcage Walk. In a more recent instance, in 1972, a motorist driving past Cockpit Steps at night slammed into a lamp post. He was adamant that he had swerved to avoid hitting a headless woman in a red-striped dress who had walked into the street in front of his car. The man was actually acquitted of driving dangerously.
Dear Regency Authors, how might you make use of this area of London in one of your upcoming romances? Perhaps in a story set before 1816, the heroine, in the style of the Grand Sophy, drives her carriage down Birdcage Walk to the Royal Cockpit, having learned that her younger brother is attending a cockfight there. Will the hero come to her rescue, disentangling her young brother from his execrable friends in the cockpit, and also preventing the heroine herself from facing charges for driving a carriage along Birdcage Walk? Could it be that an animal-loving heroine has a very poor opinion of the hero, but then learns that he is one of the Governors of Christ’s Hospital School and has voted not to renew the lease on the land used by the Royal Cockpit? Perhaps she cannot let him know that she knows. How will that affect their relationship? And, do not forget the ghost. Could that headless lady apparition make an important appearance in one of your stories?