Monday, 26 August 2013

5 and 7 Tower Court, WC2

At the back of Ambassador's Theatre in Covent Garden sits Tower Court, a small terrace of former shops.

The buildings date from the late 18th century but today are all houses. However, the original wooden shop fronts have survived on numbers 5 and 7. Here's number 5:

And here's number 7 (should've moved the beercan):

Number 8, which was under scaffolding when I visited, also has a wooden shop front but it's a 20th-century reproduction. Number 10 also used to be a shop, but lost its shop front sometime after 1973.

English Heritage says all the windows have been altered for domestic use. I wonder how different they are to the originals? Based on my limited knowledge, the shop front styles on 5 and 7 are pretty much in keeping with the late 18th-century date of the buildings.

Neither are elaborate, just bracketed entablature and cornices (the best on number 7, below). Despite these shops' ages, I can't imagine they get much attention - there was only a council road sweeper having a fag break in Tower Court when I took a look.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

1-8 Goodwin's Court, WC2

Strolling down St Martin's Lane in Covent Garden, it's easy to miss the narrow opening into Goodwin's Court. But duck down it into this gas-light lit alley and you'll find one of London's most-intact rows of 18th-century shops.

The houses were erected in 1690, but the wooden bowed shopfronts from numbers 1 to 8 were added in the late 18th century. They're typical late 18th century, when window displays were becoming more eye-catching yet the shopfronts still had little architectural elaboration.

The London Building Act of 1774 restricted protruding bows to ten inches or less - these ones look well in keeping with that...

Look closely at some of the shopfronts and there are holes at the bottom of some of the frames, which often on old shopfronts is evidence of the wooden shutters that were used before the introduction of iron roller shutters in the 1840s. Pins holding the bottom of the shutters were inserted into the holes.

The original gas lights are 19th century.

The shops are offices now - the street has a more recent history of being home to theatre and entertainment agents (Dawn Sedgwick at number 3 represents Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate, among others). The Post Office Directory of 1855 lists numbers 2, 4 and 7 as occupied by piece brokers, who bought off-cuts or shreds of cloth and other materials to sell on, so it was clearly not a lucrative street. The long-gone shopkeepers, such as a tailor and piece broker at number 2 called Frederick Bartens, who was in court for insolvency in January 1855, were probably left to rue the St Martin's Lane shoppers who strolled on by...

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street WC2A

It would be nice to believe the claim painted on the front of this shop - that it inspired Charles Dickens - but like his novel, it's fiction. It was renamed The Old Curiosity Shop in 1868 when it was a bookshop, 30 years after the novel's publication and no doubt to cash in on Dickens' fame.

Nevertheless, this is a rare 17th-century timber-framed house and shop, with overhanging first floor and tiled roof.

Some say it's London's oldest shop, but there's no evidence it's always been a shop since it was built. Its current occupant, Japanese designer Daita Kimura, told me it was originally two small houses, which were later knocked through to make a shop. At various stages it's been a dairy, a bookshop, and a stationer and waste paper merchant.

Alterations were made in the early 19th century, but the wooden-framed shop windows appear to be mostly 17th century or early 18th century. The glazing is early 19th century. Kimura told me that when he moved in 21 years ago, he had to pull up many layers of lino to uncover the wooden floor, which he says is about 150 years old.

Since 1992, it's been leased by Kimura. He uses the downstairs as a shoe shop - you have to ring a bell to be let inside - where he sells beautiful handmade shoes, hats and accessories, some of which are made upstairs. Kimura says most of his business is wholesaling to overseas, although he does have a handful of UK stockists, including Dover Street Market. He also has a long-running collaboration with English shoemaker Tricker's.

English Heritage has The Old Curiosity Shop listed as Grade II* due to its literary associations, so whether it's true or not, we must thank the man who renamed it - apparently a "chatty fellow" named Palmer (the bookshop owner) - as otherwise the shop wouldn't have survived the demolition of Clare Market, of which it was part, when it was cleared in 1900 to make way for Aldwych and Kingsway.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

124-126 Cheapside, EC2

I can't think of anywhere better to kick off this blog than Cheapside, centre of London retailing for centuries until the 19th century. In Medieval English, 'cheap' roughly translated as 'market, and the street was originally called Westcheap to differentiate it from nearby Eastcheap. Early food traders occupied booths in the middle of the street - at night traders often slept under their stalls. In 1274, butchers' and fishmongers' stalls were moved away (to Smithfield and Billingsgate respectively).

Traditionally, sellers of the same product were clustered on one street, a practice which is remembered in some of the street names running off Cheapside.

Through the middle ages, Cheapside was the Oxford Street of its day (and was much wider - it was narrowed during the 19th century), the city's retail centre, shopped by rich and poor. Nothing remains of the shops that once lined the street, apart from a lone 17th-century survival on the corner of Wood Street - 124-126 Cheapside.

Built in 1687 following the Great Fire, each shop has one room below, one room above. The building has been much altered and the shop fronts are 19th century and later, but this is a trace of what Cheapside once looked like.

The corner shop has shop front fittings dating from 1902, when the row was shortened during the widening of Wood Street. The shops' narrowness (see below) is due to the proximity of St Peter's Churchyard behind - on the site of St Peter Cheap, which burned down in the Great Fire. The tree behind the shops marks the site of the church and old records show that later leases on these shops forbid the addition of an extra storey or removal of the tree.

The tree achieved a measure of fame - Wordsworth mentioned it in a poem, The Reverie of Poor Susan. A verse from the poem is on a sign nearby.

Walter Thornbury in 1878 said the tree "has cheered many a weary businessman with memories of fresh green fields far away", and was nested by rooks in the 19th century until the birds decided the City was no longer a desirable residence.

Here is an undated illustration of the tree and the shops, which looks 19th century. There are four shops rather than the three that stand there today, but otherwise it's remarkably similar. And maybe those are the rooks up there in those nests...

Shopping shifted to the West End in the 19th century, meaning Cheapside lost its retail prestige and became a street of offices. However, the opening of shopping centre One New Change has at least put it back on the retail map, and it's apt that One New Change sits directly opposite the street's only retail relics.