When Covent Garden Theatre burnt down – 1808


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In 1808 the old Covent Garden Theatre burned to the ground. I was so taken by description of the event in the Covent Garden Journal by John Joseph Stockdale that I’ve posted it here, in its entirety.


Report dated April 28th 1810 – for George, the Earl of Dartmouth

THIS noble building, which was built in the year 1733, and enlarged, with considerable alterations, in 1792, was, on the morning of the 20th September, 1808, reduced, by a most tremendous conflagration, to a heap of shapeless ruins. The performance of the preceding night was Pizarro, a spectacle wherein all the creative powers of the machinists and decorators had been exhausted at both the theatres. It is supposed, that the melancholy catastrophe occurred in consequence of the wadding from a gun (fired in course of the performance) having lodged in some part of the scenery, which the prying eye of the strictest investigator, could not possibly have provided for. The portrait of Cervantes was the after-piece, and both performances were received with eclat by a crowded and elegant audience.

During the representation, which was over by eleven o’clock, nothing transpired indicative, in the least degree, of the mournful sequel. About twelve, Mr. Brandon paid his usual visit of circumspection to all parts of the house, and, conceiving that everything was perfectly secure, retired shortly after to rest. The same unsuspected tranquility prevailed at two o’clock in the morning, at which time the watchman sedulously “paid his sober round” and discovered naught whereon to ground alarm. About four, however, a poor frail sister of the Cyprian band perceived the flames bursting forth with concentrated impetuosity, and communicating her terrific tale to the guardian of the night, the latter instantly called up Mr. Brandon.

Now a dense volume of smoke, and, shortly after, wreathed columns of flame, were seen to issue from the ventilator, on the topmost part of the roof. Within the space of ten minutes, this portion of the building was, distinctly, observed on fire in different parts; and, in half an hour, the whole edifice presented to the view a fiery furnace, from which the flaming pillars rose, forming, in the most awful style of destructive elemental architecture, a truly worthy temple of the sun. Though it was then broad day, so intense and furious was the conflagration, that it was perceivable in many of the most distant environs of the metropolis. The alarm became universal. The engines of every fire-office in town, and of all the adjacent parishes, rattling through the streets, with busy din, awakened the inhabitants to the view of this scene, which rivaled, in ruddy splendour, the glory of the opening day.

Thousands presented themselves before the theatre, eager to manifest their zeal in arresting the baleful progress of the raging element. In vain; — for, the houses, which so deeply surrounded the building on every side, prevented the ardour of exertion from being attended with success. The roof fell in about six o’clock ; and, so unexampled was the progress of the consuming invader, that, before eight, the whole interior of this splendid building, audience-part, stage, different entrances, treasury, music-room, &c. were totally annihilated.

Perhaps there is no recorded instance of so complete a destruction, of similar extent, in so short a space of time. Every composite material of the building was, however, fuel to the fire, and the large area served to ventilate it to that unsubdued pitch at which it had arrived. All hopes of rendering service in this quarter be coming now unavailing, the firemen directed their efforts to prevent the increase of the calamity, as the houses which squared about the theatre were manifestly endangered. Owing to their height, it was found impracticable for the engines to play over them; but, the leather pipes being conveyed up the stair-cases to the third floors, and their ends being thrown down and fastened to the engines below, an ingenious facility of effective action was contrived. Nothing, however, could prevent the communication of the flames with the houses in Bow-Street, to which side the “Malus Auster” had an unfriendly inclination. Several of them were connected with the theatre, by a respective appropriation to different parts of the establishment. They, with some others, became victims to the manes of the mother-edifice.

The fire raged with more violence at the eastern side of the upper part of Bow-Street, where the house, No. 9, belonging to Mr. Paget; Nos. 10 and 11, attached to the theatre; No. 12, belonging to Mr. Hill; No. 13, the Strugglers Coffee – House, wherein Mr. Donne lost almost his whole property ; No. 14, belonging to Mr. Johnson, the fruiterer; and No. 15, the house of Mr. M’Kinlay, a book-binder ; were all completely destroyed, and scarcely ” left a wreck behind.” The three latter houses, with the exception of Mr. Donne’s part of the property, were insured in the Hope, for, £2650. Some of the others were entirely uninsured, and some only partially so. Nos. 16 and 17, in the same street, were seriously damaged. In Hart-Street, four houses opposite to the theatre attracted this firey magnet at the same instant, and were only, by the greatest activity on the part of the firemen, secured from farther damage than a severe scorching.

The ” proximus ardet Ucalegon,” and the ” tua res agitur,” were promptly attended to with respect to Drury-Lane Theatre, which, it was apprehended, from the number of flakes carried thither by the wind, would share in the sacrifice to the god of fire, and receive the Salmonean punishment for a priority, in imitative effects, to outshine the enraged deity. A great number of people had mounted the roof of the Theatre of Drury-lane, in order to open the large cistern of water there in case of necessity. The windows of that building were also stopped with wet cloths, to prevent the entrance of the flames, — a precaution by no means unnecessary. All the people in the immediate vicinity kept their servants employed on their respective roofs to pick up the flakes of fire as they dropped on them.

This has been the whole extent of injury sustained in the neighbourhood; but as to the theatre itself, it was totally consumed; and even the walls on the Hart-street side were not left standing. In that angle of the edifice, the Ship- tavern and part of Mr. Brandon’s, the box-keeper’s, office, are the only remains. The amount of the insurances did not exceed 60,000/. and the savings from the Shakespeare premises amounted to about 3500/. the entire being but one-fourth of the sum necessary to replace the great loss sustained. In addition to the usual scenic stock was a great quantity of beautiful new scenery for a melodrama which was to be shortly forthcoming.

Of the original pieces of music of Handel, Arne, and many other celebrated composers, no copies had been taken; and of many others, which had also been destroyed, only an outline had been given. Several capital dramatic productions, the property of the theatre, were for ever lost. The organ, left by Handel as a bequest to the theatre, which was valued at 1000 guineas, and never played but during the Oratorios, was likewise consumed. Mr. Ware, the leader of the band, lost a violin worth 300/. which for the first time in ten years he had left behind him. Mr. Munden’s wardrobe, which cannot be replaced under 300/. shared the general fate; as did Miss Bolton’s jewels, and other performers’ property, in the aggregate amounting to a very considerable sum.

We now come to the most painful part of the narration, — the dreadful havoc committed on human life by the falling of the burning roof. At an early stage of the fire, the great door under the piazza in Covent-garden was broken open by a party of firemen, and an engine belonging to the Phoenix fire-office, being introduced within the passage, was directed towards the galleries where the flames raged most fiercely : horrid to relate, the burning roof of that same passage, in which they were, fell in with a tremendous crash, burying the unhappy and too daring firemen, with others who had rushed in along with them, under its ruins. A considerable time elapsed before the rubbish, which now obstructed the doors of this fatal pas sage, could be removed. When effected, a scene of horror was presented to the view. The mangled bodies of dead and dying appeared through the rubbish, or were discovered in each advance to remove it. At twelve o’clock that day, eleven dead bodies had been carried into the church-yard of St. Paul’s, Covent-garden. Some miserably mangled creatures, with broken limbs and dreadful bruises, were conveyed to St. Bartholomew’s, and some to the Middlesex, hospital. It would shock humanity to draw a faithful picture of the situation of those wretched persons who were dug out of the ruins alive; they were, in general, so much burned as scarcely to be recognized by their nearest relatives; and in many instances their flesh was literally peeled from the bones. The dead bodies taken from the same place were nearly shapeless trunks. The strictest examination, for the purposes of identity, was vain, in those who came to claim the “sine nomine corpus.” The coroners for London, Middlesex, and Surrey, sat on 19 bodies destroyed at the fire; viz. 12 at Covent-garden, 3 at St. Bartholomew’s, 2 at the Middlesex- hospital, and 2 at St. Thomas’s.

Many persons were conveyed, in the most hope less situation, to their own houses. The waste of human life, on this lamentable occasion, falls not short of thirty persons. From the evidence of William Addicote, one of the stage-carpenters of the theatre, and William Darley, one of the firemen belonging to the Eagle Insurance-Office, and one of the jury, an eye-witness of the falling in of that ceiling by which the unfortunate men were burnt to death, — it appeared that the firemen and others who perished had been employed in endeavouring to extinguish the flames at the room called the Apollo, which had fallen in upon them. The surmises with respect to barrels of gun-powder having exploded were proved to be unfounded, no more of that article being ever kept in the house than was sufficient for the consumption of a single night.

On the next day, another Victim was added to the list, by the fall of the wall in Hart-street; several others were bruised severely, though they had all been warned of their danger to no purpose. The names of the deceased sufferers, as well as could be collected, are: — Mr. T. Harris, jun. Mr. R. Davis Musket William Ricklesworth George Kilby John Seyers James Stewart Samuel Stevens Richard Cadger T. Holmes James Hunt William Jones James Evans J. Crabb T. Mead T. James Richard Rushton Mr. Hewitt J. Beaumont Richard Bird James Philkins John Oakley Optician,of Hydcstreet,Blooms- bury, Serjeant of the Bloomsbury Volunteers. A Gentleman lately from Wales to London on a visit. Firemen belonging to Phoenix-Office.

Another person, a private in the guards, was taken to the Military Hospital, where he died in three or four hours. These were the names as nearly as could be gathered. Several were still missing. Mr. Richards, clerk to Messrs. Shaw and Edwards, St. Paul’s Church-yard, was so dreadfully scalded by the water falling from the burning materials, that he died about 12 o’clock the same day. The firemen and others were employed for some days in pulling down the tottering ruins which threatened destruction to the passengers in Bow-street. On the following Saturday two more bodies were dug out of the ruins. The books of accounts, deeds, and the receipt of the preceding night, were fortunately preserved by the exertion of Mr. Hughes, the treasurer. Though a considerable number of engines were in constant and prompt attendance, yet, owing to the main pipe having been cut off with the intend of laying down a new one, more than an hour elapsed before some of them could be supplied. During this defect in the supply of water, the neighbours derived the most essential assistance from the pump of the Bedford Coffee-house and Hotel. The utmost effect was perceived from the playing of the engines for about an hour, when all hope was lost by the crash which announced the falling-in of the roof, and the consequent destruction of the elegant interior.

The Bedford and Piazza Coffee-houses owed their preservation to a wall, some time since erected for the purpose of insulating the theatre from the back of these premises. Among the other losses sustained, the Beef-Steak Club, which held their meetings at the top of the theatre, and has existed for many years, lost all their stock of old wines, valued at 1500/. beside their sideboard, and other implements. Pieces of scenery and other decorations were carried through the air to immense distances. A fragment of carved wood, all on fire, fell near St. Clement’s church, in the Strand. The figure of Apollo, on the dome of Drury-lane Theatre, was a strikingly-illuminated object, as the fiery shower fell around it. Great praise is due to the volunteer corps and the detachments of horse and foot guards who attended. Several miscreants, taking advantage of the confusion, attempted to plunder, but were held in custody. The whole property destroyed amounted to considerably more thau 100,000/. and, at the utmost, was covered by insurance to the amount of 75,000/. The dark prospect of the proprietors may yet be cheered by light, but “when shall it shine on the night of the grave?” A subscription was opened for the relief of the sufferers. The King’s Theatre was very liberally offered to Mr. Harris by Mr. Taylor; and the Covent- garden Harris by Mr. Taylor; and the Covent- garden Company played there till the commencement of the Opera-season. The plan of a new theatre on the site of the old one, to be completely insulated, was ordered and accepted by the proprietors.


Shall I, unpaid, to bed?


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Visit Covent Garden today and you are surrounded, not only by history, but also by tourists intent on pleasure. From chic eateries to Opera House, boutiques to flagship Apple store, clubs to coffee shops, this magnificent square has long been a hedonist’s dream destination. Built as a 16th century aristocratic Italianate piazza, by the mid-17th century the nobility had moved to pastures new.  Over time, the magnificent houses became places of trade. Prostitutes of every description lingered beneath the porticos, danced in the inns, sported themselves in bagnios, brothels and Turkish hummums. They formed a ‘whores’ club and they were listed on Jack Harris’s Guide to Covent Garden Ladies. One street to the East of Covent Garden, the Magistrates’ court played host to the foremost detective agency in the land: Sir Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners paved the way for the Metropolitan Police service in this, the most vice-ridden area of London. Fielding called it the ‘Square of Venus’.

When Sir Henry Fielding died, in 1754, his brother, Sir John, stepped into his shoes. Covent Garden’s glory days were over. Now the aristocrats mostly took their pleasure in Soho or St. James. By the end of the 18th century, they were travelling even further – to newly built Marylebone. Although Covent Garden’s hay-day had passed, there were still brothels aplenty. The Hummums Turkish bath, in the Little Piazza, still welcomed the unwashed gentry. The Shakespeare’s Head still played host to Jack Harris and his harem. The Covent Garden Theatre (now the Opera House) and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (today, in its fourth incarnation) still drew crowds. Covent Garden was by no means dead. It had just become a seedy neighbourhood—down-at-heel, and treacherous.

Dan Cruickshank states in his book The Secret History of Georgian London that a staggering one in five women living in London during the 18th century were prostitutes.  Given that the population ranged from seven hundred and fifty thousand, mid-century, to one million souls at the turn of the 19th century, Cruickshank’s figures, on first consideration, seem rather high. Elsewhere the statistics appear more realistic. The Universal Daily Register, published in 1786, suggested that one sixth of the population lived off the proceeds of thievery and whoring, whilst the German traveller, Johann Wilhelm Von Archenholz, claimed that fifty thousand prostitutes occupied London.  Whatever the actual figure, the fact remains that women had few ‘career’ choices: they could be wives, widows, mothers, servants or whores.  Of course, they were also street vendors, milliners, dressmakers, and actresses, but prostitutes plied their trade within all of those occupations. Add into the mix the idea that domestics often turned to whoring to supplement their scant income, and Cruickshank’s one in five might not be so far from the mark.

A Girl Wearing Pearl Drop Earrings And A Black Lace Choker, Lying Back In A Chair, Holding A Sprig Of Blossom. Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707-1762). Oil On Canvas.

In the early years of the 18th century, Covent Garden’s licentious reputation waxed, and bawds such as Mother Needham gained notoriety for providing the very best ‘gentry morts’ to a clientele of such a high standing, she could count Dukes and Earls amongst her patrons.  When the bawd of renowned prostitute Sally Salisbury died, she gave her services to Needham’s stable.  Here, older whores procured from other establishments, combined with a continual influx of sweet young girls, fresh from the country and free from disease, meant customers were never short on choice.  It was a commonly held belief that a young virgin could cure syphilis. A disturbing report, made by Michael Ryan in 1839, claimed that around 400 people made their living by kidnapping children to feed the common desire for child sex partners.  Present day statistics tell us that a staggering 75% of prostitutes began their careers as children.


Two hundred and fifty years or so ago, as fast as the pretty young things were snapped up by avaricious bawds, they aged and died. A whore’s life was short. Few reached their thirties. There was no cure for ‘dripper’ or the ‘French pox’, other than to take mercury. Men of course, were not considered the repository of such diseases. It was all the women’s fault. Foreigners to our shores called English women ‘foul and fetid under cover’ (Lobcock 1795, p.94), and with this description, and the end of the 18th century, Covent Garden’s hay-day waned.

Nowadays, this popular tourist locale straddles the Boroughs of Westminster and Camden.  Historically, the Northern boundary was Long Acre, but in recent times it has expanded and now  encompasses all streets as far north as High Holborn, as far east as Drury Lane, down to the Strand in the South, and St Martin’s in the west. Whilst the fruit and vegetable stalls have gone, and the soliciting prostitutes banished to online seraglios and telephone kiosks, an echo of the 18th century still lingers in the cries of the ticket sellers greeting tourists outside the tube station, the harangues of the clowns and buskers, and the ever-constant chime of the clock on the square’s old Church.

For all that prostitution is no longer as visible in Covent Garden as it once was, more prostitutes operate in Westminster than any other London borough. In June 2013 the Mayor’s office commissioned a survey called Capital Exploits: A Study of Prostitution and Trafficking in London in which authors Julie Bindel, Ruth Breslin and Laura Brown stated that, “London continues to have a thriving sex industry, both on and off-street, with thousands of women involved in prostitution, a proportion of whom have been trafficked. There is clear evidence of this industry in the vast majority of London boroughs.” The authors went on to identify “2,103 ‘businesses’ in London where sex was for sale, and estimated that 5,299 women were involved in off-street prostitution.” When one compares these figures against those of the London population as a whole (currently standing at 8.6 million), and then look again at those of the 18th century, what becomes evident is that today, far fewer women choose prostitution as a way of life. Some of that may be to do with the welfare state, but some of may be down to society’s changed attitude towards women. That said, prostitution is still a significant problem for many who fall on hard times.

Whilst in the past women were described as the weaker sex and, at one time, were effectively owned by their fathers and husbands, it was never in doubt that women were as capable as men, of giving and receiving sexual pleasure. The Victorians might have repressed these sensibilities, but the Georgian man of the 18th Century was a robust sort, given to accosting the domestics, soliciting on street corners, and taking mistresses with no thought to the diseases they might pass to their unwary wives.  A certain class of women responded in a likewise, licentious fashion. Some might say, nothing has changed.

As to the whores themselves, they were frequently of a lowly sort and given to drink. Gin was a particular craze, after all. They were less frequently addicted to opium, which was traded in China by the East India Company in exchange for tea, but almost everyone had a penchant for coffee and cups of rich chocolate. Confection aside, 95% of today’s prostitutes are drug users; with heroin coming top of the list. Back in the day, many were educated country girls, enticed into the trade by promises of money and fine clothes. Just as girls are trafficked today across international borders, only to end up as sex slaves with no hope of escape, so in the 18th century prostitutes could do little to break away from their tawdry lives. It is a trade that has changed little. Few women avoided the control of their ‘beardsplitter’, who gave a roof and food with one hand, whilst taking away the means to independence with the other.  It can be argued that even the whores of highest renown relied on the income they had from being ‘kept women’, and that even though they appeared to be free agents, their escape came by way of an early death, or marriage. The much celebrated Sally Salisbury, for instance, was imprisoned for stabbing a man, and died of syphilis whilst in Newgate prison. The idea that these women retain their independence by whoring is a fiction that has long remained with us.

As to the criminal aspects of prostitution in Georgian England, as today, opinion was divided. Whilst there were laws against keeping a disorderly house, few bawds were charged, and streetwalkers suffered arrest for theft more frequently than they did for solicitation. Whilst Sir John Fielding had given the men in his charge power to apprehend whores, and had the backing of laws passed mid-century, more frequently than not they simply maintained the status quo. This led to accusations that the Bow Street Runners operated ‘protection rackets’. Complaints were more frequently laid at the door of those policing the streets, than the trouble-makers themselves. Not that anyone really ‘policed’ 18th century London. Prosecutions were brought, not by the Crown Prosecution Service, as is the case now, but by the victim of a crime, or, in the case of a murder, by someone with a close association to the victim. The early Bow Street Runners had been recruited from the ranks of ‘thief-takers’; they were essentially, professional thugs.

The Disorderly Houses Act of 1751 placed restrictions on brothel keepers, but it was not until the Vagrancy Act of 1824 that prostitutes themselves were criminalised. Further laws in the 1840s, 1860s and in 1880s increased the difficulties. The Street Offences Act of 1959 made it an offence for women to “to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution”, and in 1985 the Sexual Offences Act criminalised the kerb crawling clients. Over the last two centuries, the law appears to have dealt firmly with prostitution, yet the oldest profession remains a scurrilous reminder of our base nature.
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