Sunday, 5 January 2014

13 Rugby Street, WC1

The best known address on Rugby Street is number 18, where Ted Hughes was living when he wooed Sylvia Plath. But across the road, the shop at number 13 is more stimulating than the memory of dead poets.

Its mid-19th century wooden shop front has a covering of attractive blue tiles, with dentil entablature and a pair of lion mask consoles, atop flat pilasters. There is just the one, large window – still with pin holes above for wooden shutters – which has an odd post, maybe for structural support, just inside to the right.

The terraced house was built around 1721, and when the shop was added in the 19th century it wouldn't have stretched back so far. Hidden beneath the wooden floor of the newer part of the shop at the rear is a medieval conduit head, made from white marble and scribbled with 16th-century graffiti. It originally supplied water to Greyfriars Monastery in Newgate Street.

Now a jeweller's, number 13 was for many years a dairy shop – hence the 'Dairy' lettering on the tiled stallriser – run since 1887 by the Davies family. The shop name was French's Dairy – why I don't know – and the fascia was only recently changed by the current occupier, Maggie Owen.

The Davies's name suggests it was a Welsh dairy. During the Victorian period many Welsh-owned dairies sprung up close to the Marylebone and Euston Roads, which offered easy access from Paddington Station, the terminus for trains from South Wales. Demand for milk brought by rail rocketed in the late 1860s, following an outbreak of rinderpest among the cows stabled in London, from where most supplies previously came. Hence the influx of Welsh dairy families, and the growth of dairy shops selling products that were previously sold from dairy stables in the city (see An Economic History of London 1800-1914, Professor Michael Ball & David T Sunderland).

I did have a quick look to see if I could find out whether the shop had a pre-dairy life, but couldn't find Rugby Street in the Post Office Directory. However, I've since realised Rugby Street was until 1936 or 1937 called Chapel Street (after the Chapel of St John, which was demolished in the mid-19th century), and when renamed the street numbering system was changed too, so no wonder I couldn't find it. The name Rugby Street comes from Rugby School, which owned this area of Bloomsbury. Here's a map of the area in 1752, from the British Library (it spells Chapel Street with a double l):

Post-dairy, by the 1980s number 13 was a general store, still run by the Davies family, then in the 1990s was taken over by Rennies, a gallery-cum-shop specialising in original posters and graphic design. Interviewed by The Observer in 2003, Rennies owners Paul and Karen Rennie said the cellar of number 13 was still stacked with milk bottles.

Eight years ago Maggie Owen moved in. Her range of contemporary jewellery and accessories from various designers is well worth a look if you're passing by.


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  4. Was there not so long ago looking for the Conduit.