Though it only runs a few blocks to the northeast, from Tottenham Court Road to Huntley Street, the history of Capper Street runs back more than three centuries. There have been many changes along this street, so much so that none of the buildings which lined it during the Regency are still standing. However, the street itself still exists, though it no longer retains the name it was given in the eighteenth century. The same name it had during the Regency. Its most recent name came more than half a century later, when it was named for the family who had farmed the acreage for many years. There may not have been much of great historical consequence occurring along Pancras Street during our favorite decade, but some curious events from its earlier history might be of interest to Regency authors.
Some tales from Pancras (Capper) Street . . .
Long before there was a Capper Street in that area, there was a Capper Farm. Records show that by 1693, on what was then the outskirts of London, Christopher Capper was farming substantial acreage north of Westminster and Hyde Park. Described in his widow’s obituary notice in 1739, as "a great Cow keeper," throughout his life, Capper regularly pastured a number of cows on his farm land. He also raised several crops, the produce of which he sold in the London markets in order to support his growing family.
Records show that Christopher Capper and his wife had at least one son and two daughters who survived to adulthood. The Capper’s son did not become a farmer, but rather, he entered the church. Young Mr. Capper eventually became a lecturer at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury. However, the Capper’s daughters, Esther and Mary, continued to live in the family’s farmhouse after the passing of their parents. The two sisters also continued run the farm until at least 1768, though it appears they concentrated more on growing crops and less on raising cattle. In particular, they raised hay which they could sell to the many Londoners who kept horses and ponies in the city.
In 1756, along the northern boundary of the Capper Farm, the Duke of Grafton built a new road on his land for the purpose of driving sheep and cattle to the Smithfield Markets. Named Euston Road, this new roadway would provide him with a direct route to the markets by which he could avoid both Holborn and Oxford Street. However, the Duke had not counted on the strong resistance which he encountered from the Capper sisters. They petitioned the House of Commons to prevent the construction of the new road on the grounds that the great clouds of dust raised by all the animals driven along it would spoil their valuable hay crops. Eventually, the Duke and the Capper sisters came to an agreement, and the Act of Parliament which granted the Duke of Grafton permission to build Euston Road specified that no buildings could be constructed within fifty feet of the new road. Euston Road was laid out in May and built later that year. It opened to the public in September of 1756.
Despite the fact that their brother was a clergyman, the Capper sisters were not in the least bit demur or quiet and retiring women. Both Esther and Mary typically wore riding habits and men’s hats and rode their horses astride as they went about their business on the farm. After the construction of Euston Road, many boys in the area often used the roadway to sneak onto the Capper Farm. Some came to swim in the pond, while others flew their kites in the fields. Mary and Esther strenuously objected to the antics of these boys and took vigorous steps to discourage them. The sisters periodically patrolled the area around their pond, and they immediately confiscated any clothing they might find which had been left on the shore while boys were swimming in their pond. They also carried a large pair of shears with them as they rode though their fields. They used their shears to cut the strings of any kites which were being flown on their property. Even as they got older, the Capper sisters continued to patrol their farm, doing their best to discourage swimming and kite flying by local boys.
The Capper sisters had both given up their family farm by 1770, and it was acquired by Hans Winthrop Mortimer. During the latter decades of the eighteenth century, the farmland began to be developed for other, more urban purposes. The stipulations of the 1756 Act of Parliament which had authorized the construction of Euston Road and prohibited the construction of any buildings within fifty feet of the road were increasingly ignored. The side street laid out between Tottenham Court Road and Huntley Street in the last decade of the eighteenth century was originally called Pancras Street. Despite the fact that it ran near the Capper family farmhouse, when the street was named in 1795, at least a quarter of a century since the Capper sisters had passed away, no mention was made of the family. Perhaps the authorities who chose the name remembered the infamous Capper sisters, who had staunchly defended their pond and fields from swimmers and kite flyers, and did not wish to memorialize them with a street name. Pancras Street was finally changed to Capper Street in 1886.
What is believed to be the Capper family farmhouse remained standing near the Tottenham Court Road end of Pancras (Capper) Street right through the Regency. It is not clear how the building was used during that time, but it was no longer part of the farm. The old farmhouse was finally demolished some time around 1917, to make way for more development. But the street named for the family who owned the house still remains today. And, perhaps, since the reputation of the remarkable Capper sisters had faded by 1886, it was only the name of their family farm on an old map which inspired the new name of the street during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Dear Regency Authors, though the Capper sisters had given up their farm decades before the Regency began, and the side street off Tottenham Court Road had yet to be named for their family farm in that decade, they had not yet passed out of living memory. There were still a number of people living during the Regency who remembered them, particularly many of those young boys whose clothes were confiscated while they swam in the pond on the Capper farm, or had their kite strings cut while they were flying them in the fields there. Perhaps one of your older characters will share their memories with others in your story about what the Capper sisters did to them in their youth? Or, will you use the colorful Capper sisters’ vigorous defense of their farmland as inspiration for one of your own characters or an amusing situation in your story? Though the Capper family name is remembered by London’s Capper Street, it seems a shame to let the story of those remarkable sisters be lost to history.