COMPARED with the allure of Paris and the gaiety that once was Vienna, London is frigid and aloof. It lacks the superficial charm of the feminine capitals of Europe. And yet there is an elegance about the principal thoroughfares of London that lingers on the palate like a vintage wine. Piccadilly is one of these.
It is utterly unselfconscious. Londoners take it for granted. Foreigners gravitate towards the Circus and take it to heart. In their eyes Piccadilly is the crystallized expression of contemporary England. The compliment at times is double-edged, but the fact remains that here is one of the world's termini. The ingredients are international. Colour . . . lights . . . the bedlam of traffic . . . crowded pavements ... a surge of humanity that never ceases. Only for a brief hour before dawn is there peace and silence. It is then possible to visualize something of its beginning. The shadows and low tones beloved by Whistler make objects two-dimensional. Buildings become obscure. Piccadilly is once more "the Waye to Redinge". As such it was known in the sixteenth century. A quiet lane meandering between hedges and fields. Corn was ground by a windmill still remembered by Great Windmill Street. The sounds of the country were heard beyond the city walls. Cattle grazed in Finsbury. St. Martin's Lane was a rustic walk. The proclamation of Henry VIII in 1 546 ordered the preservation of cc the games of Hare, Partridge, Pheasant and Heron" from the Palace of Westminster to St. Giles-in-the-Fields. Paddington was a sleepy village. St. Mary-le-bourxie slept by the quiet brook that was to know the chatter of Mayfair, Brook Street and Marylebone. In such a London and close to the windmill lived Robert Baker, a tailor who conducted a fashionable trade in the Strand. Contemporary writers ascribe the origin of the name Piccadilly to this tradesman's residence. His neighbours nicknamed it "Pickadilly Hall" as an allusion to the wares that he sold. At that time "Pickadels" were worn by fashionable men and women. They were ruffs or collars that can be seen on sculpture and effigies of that period. There is a reference by John Marston in 1 598 to the diligence of laundresses in "making bands and ruffles". It is therefore more than likely that the tradition is well founded.
The subsequent history of Piccadilly is eventful. It was engulfed by the tide of fashion as it swept westward. Its stones have known the whims of centuries. The canvas is crowded without regard to historical continuity. Buckled shoes . . . cocked hats . . . sedan chairs . . . horse-trams and halfpenny fares . . . hooped skirts . . . frock coats . . . snuff-boxes . . . bloomers . . . canes . . . coffee-houses frequented by the beaux . . . side-whiskers . . . Georgian port . . . Victorian champagne . . . flower girls . . . veils . . . urchins selling nine different evening newspapers . . , gold sovereigns . . . eccentric manners . . . architectural experiments. Piccadilly has a timeless background of hilarity and a thousand personalities. But the setting has changed with the centuries. Many a ghostly toper must look in vain for his former haunts. Even Vine Street has gone. The Criterion Restaurant absorbed the White Bear Inn that had known over two hundred years' hospitality. Its rival, the Black Bear Inn, disappeared in 1820. The Berkeley, once known as the St. James's Hotel, swallowed up the Gloster Coffee-house and Hotel. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Gloster advertised "good soups, dinners, wines, and beds".
Hatchett's succeeded the Three Kings, the original starting point of General Palmer's first mail-coach to Bath. Strype in 1720 described a house "well known to the public on account of the great number of stage-coaches which regularly call there. In a pleasant coffee-room passengers can wait for any of the stages and travellers in general are well accommodated with beds". That was the Old White Horse Cellar. It retreated before the Rit2. When Strype wrote these words the road opposite was blocked by a turnpike gate. It was removed to Hyde Park Corner in 1721. Winstanley's eighteenth century Water Theatre is but a memory. The Guardian of 1713 advertised the mechanical gadgets that attracted the credulous custom . . . "six sorts of wine and brandy, to drink the Queen's health, all coming out of the barrel, with bisket and spaw water; and, as peace is enlarged, there will be added Claret, Pale Ale, Stout and Water playing out of the head of the barrel when it is in the pulley".
Not even the London season can revive such nights, But there are buildings that those of previous generations would recognize. Hatchards is one. It is roughly 150 years since its founder paid 31 loj-. for the goodwill and 40 for the rent of No. 173, and launched out as a bookseller, primed by the training received from the eminent Tom Payne. There were two further changes ... to No. 190 in 1801, and later to No. 187. But the continuity has persisted. The original Hatchard graced his shop with taste. His appearance . . . "invariably dressed in black. His coat was of the style of a Bishop's frock-coat, waistcoat buttoning to the throat with an entirely plain front, and knee-breeches and gaiters" . . . must have blended with the background of sere volumes, oil lamps, and a clientele of innumerable celebrities, such as Zachary Macaulay with his little son, the future historian, searching for the book suggested by Hannah More, who, as a girl, longed "to go to London to see Bishops and booksellers".
Hatchards was more than a bookshop. It was an institution. The Royal Horticultural Society came into existence on its premises. Among other societies was one of more specialized interest . . . the Outinian. This was a group of men and women banded together with an avowed objective . . . the promotion of marriages. Their gatherings were fortified by tea and buns, and specific enquiries were followed by investigations into the private affairs of the contracting parties. At the outset of his career, Hatchard specialized in the publication of pamphlets. It is interesting to read Sydney Smith's comment in this connection which appeared in the 'Edinburgh Review of 1810: "There is a set of well-dressed, prosperous gentlemen who assemble daily at Mr. Hatchard's shop, clean, civil personages, well in with the people in power, delighted with every existing circumstance, and every now and then one of these personages writes a little book, and the rest praise that little book, expecting to be praised in their turn for their own little books, and of these little books thus written by these clean, civil personages so expecting to be praised, the pamphlet before us appears to be one." Like the importunate widow, such individuals are still with us.
Piccadilly is haunted by memories. The Albany with the literary shades of Byron writing "Lara" in Lord Althorpe's chambers. Macaulay poring over his history. Gladstone preparing his speeches. Bulwer Lytton completing his novels. The faint echo of the Christy Minstrels coming from the St. James's Hall, which stood where now is the Piccadilly Hotel. The restored Church of St. James, legacy of Sir Christopher Wren, recalls those eighteenth-century days when it was the most fashionable church in London. Defoe records that a convenient seat cost more than a chair at a play, because "all the beauty and quality comes there". Somewhere beneath its shadow lies the mortal remains of Charles Coton, the scribe and friend of Lzaak Walton. Fortnum and Mason at first glance hardly suggests antiquity, yet, in point of age, it is older than Hatchards. Stewart's also has the imprimatur of the years. Burlington House is the guardian of the Sciences. The Royal Academy, graduating from Somerset House and part of the National Gallery, is known to a large public. Here also is the home of learned Societies appreciated by a limited coterie. The Royal Society is one. Founded by Charles II with the intention of "the improving of natural knowledge", the wishes of the founder have been observed to the extent of Dr. Wollaston's famous analysis of a lady's tear which he captured on her cheek. History is silent as to how it was induced.
Of all the figures associated with Piccadilly, the most forceful was Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Few characters in English history have been so dominating. He defied the House of Commons, browbeat the King, and overruled the State, Arrogant and avaricious, Clarendon's ambitions were fired by the secret marriage of his daughter to the Duke of York, which made it possible that his grandchild might one day rule the country. His nature was mirrored in Clarendon House, an extravagant mansion which he built where now is Albemarle Street. The sailing of the Dutch up the Thames marked his fall. Popular feeling was against him. A mob besieged his house in June 1667. Pepys records: "they have cut down the trees before Ms house and broke his windows, and a gibbet either set up before or painted upon his gate, and these three words writ: c Three sights to be seen, Dunkirk, Tangier, and a barren Queen.' "
The house perished soon after its owner. On i8th September, 1673, Evelyn "walked to survey the sad demolition of Clarendon House". It was sold to the highest bidder, and Evelyn continued: "it fell to certain rich bankers and mechanics, who gave for it and the ground about it 35,000; they design as it were a new town, and a most magnificent piazza". The prime-mover behind the purchase was Sir Thomas Bond of Peckham, Comptroller of the Household to the Queen Mother, Henrietta Maria, and a loyal supporter of Charles II. Bond drew up plans for building on the site. Thus came into existence Grafton Street, Dover Street, Albemarle Street, and Bond Street . . . that narrow thoroughfare of pretty faces, elegant clothes and well-gfoomed windows, which still lives up to the reputation given by Hatton in 1708 as "a fine new street mostly inhabited by nobility and gentry".
There is much that might be written ... of the glories that once were Devonshire House . . . of pleasures more ebullient than ours. Piccadilly has been London to successive generations. It still is. The effervescence of Piccadilly at night ... a touch of perfume . . . the blue smoke of a cigar . . . the feverish epileptic lights . . . and the spell returns.London Season, by Louis T. Stanley | [As Written]