Pickering Place, SW1
If you walk down St James’s Street towards the point where it meets Pall Mall and look at the last opening on the left you will see a marvellous 18th century oak-panelled tunnel with a number three above the entrance. If you walk through the tunnel, stopping to admire the panelling, you will reach a small square, Pickering Place, said to be the smallest courtyard in London. It is easy to miss but as you might anticipate its original gas lighting has many a tale to tell.
Despite it now being an oasis of calm and tranquillity, it once had a racy history. The area was notorious for its gambling dens and was also where you could go to watch a bit of bear baiting. As it was even then slightly off the beaten track, it was a venue for duels. The proximity of many gentlemen’s clubs where immense fortunes were won or lost on the throw of a dice or a hand of cards, meant there were doubtless many scores to be settled amongst the young bucks of the time. Beau Brummell is said to have fought a duel there and the Place, or Court as it was known until 1812, hosted the last public duel in the capital. Alas, my researches have been unable to unearth who the contestants were or what the outcome was.
Our court was described in the rate books of 1736 as a new court and was probably built by James Pickering, son of William, a wealthy trader, who secured the lease on the land from Sir Thomas and Lady Hanmer in May 1732. William died in 1734, leaving the business and land to James and his brother.
The family business was Berry Brothers and Rudd, still trading, the entrance to what is thought to be the oldest extant wine and spirit merchant is on St James’s Street just before Pickering Place. It was established in 1698 by James’ mother-in-law, the widow Bourne. Berry’s was originally a purveyor of coffee to the fashionable coffee houses in the area and by 1765 at the Sign of the Coffee Mill as it was known had added another string to its bow, weighing customers on the giant coffee scales. Records of the mass of such illuminati as Lord Byron, William Pitt and the Aga Khan exist to this day. Apparently, this rather unusual service is still available to customers. Their extensive wine cellars, containing some 200,000 bottles of vino run underneath Pickering Place and down into Pall Mall.
The square also contains an interesting plaque, bearing the legend, “In this building was the legation for the ministers from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St James, 1842 – 1845”. The Republic of Texas covered what is now Texas as well as parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming and was created on March 2nd 1836 after successfully revolting from Mexican rule. Unlike the French the Brits never officially recognised the Texan state due to their then friendly relations with the Mexicans but, nonetheless, Sam Houston established an embassy there. The independent state ceased when the territory was annexed by the United States on December 29th 1845.
For such a small square it has a fascinating history.