The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Eight

Angel Court, SW1

I have a bit of an affinity with Angel Courts as I lived in one when I was at University. This Court, though, is to be found in the St James’s district and links King Street with Pall Mall. Quite when it was constructed is not certain. It certainly appeared in Richard Horwood’s Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster Shewing every House, a Google Maps of its time, an ambitious project, which occupied him from 1792 and 1799, and one not repeated again until the 1930s. In Horwood’s map it is a dead-end rather than the thoroughfare linking two streets that it is today.

The long, tall, thin pub, with its richly decorated late Victorian frontage, guarding one side of the Court at the King Street end, the Golden Lion, was built in 1762. I haven’t been there for a while but I seem to recall that it was a bit pokey at ground level but there was more space upstairs. One of its more famous drinkers was Oscar Wilde and, being a boozer, it naturally has its own resident spirit, a barmaid who was murdered by the landlady in 1823.

There is a record from the archives of the Old Bailey of a fatal stabbing in the alley on December 7, 1692. Knife crime is not a new phenomenon in the metropolis. Having accused the defendant, J-K, of lewd conduct in the alley, the unfortunate and interfering Richard Towers was run through with a rapier. As St James’s was developed in the late 17th century for the aristocracy to reside in, it seems reasonable to assume that the Court was part of the original development of the area.         

Horwood’s map shows a house with a garden at the end of the Close. This may well have been a hotel called Nerot’s which had long since been abandoned and was in a poor state of repair. It was demolished in 1835 to make way for the St James’s Theatre. It was the brainchild of John Braham, an operatic star of the time, and the project was described in Old and New London in 1878 as “one of those unaccountable infatuations which stake the earnings of a lifetime upon a hazardous speculation”.

It seemed ill-fated from the beginning. Braham sunk £28,000 of his money into the project, quarrelled frequently with his architect, and struggled to get it licensed. As a piece of architecture, it was impressive, with a neo-classical exterior and an interior modelled on a Louis XIV style, three storeys high, with three bays at the front with shops on the ground floor. For Braham, though, it was a money pit and after three years, he retired, seriously out of pocket.

The theatre changed hands frequently, gaining a reputation as unlucky, and not prospering until the 1880s. Under the stewardship of the actor-manager, George Alexander, from 1891 to 1918, it grew a reputation for putting on cutting-edge plays including premieres of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. Following Alexander’s death the theatre went through a succession of hands until, in 1950, Lawrence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, took over its management. In 1954 Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables ran for 726 performances in 1954, a record for the theatre.

But disaster struck in 1957 when a property developer acquired the freehold from under Olivier’s feet and obtained permission to demolish it and replace it with an office block. Despite protests at this rather underhand behaviour, the theatre closed in July and was demolished in December. Some decorated panels were preserved and were affixed to the frontage of the office block but when it too was demolished, in 1980, they were moved into the alley where they remain today.

Many a street in our metropolis has a tale or two to tell, it seems.

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