Tower Court, WC2
It’s hard to credit now but what is one of London’s most important tourist centres, Covent Garden, was once open field land, owned by the Worshipful Company of Mercers.
The area which is now occupied by Tower Court, a pedestrianised alley linking Earlham Street and Tower Street and running parallel with Monmouth Street, was part of a patch of land known as Cock and Pye Fields. It took its name from a local pub whose pièce de resistance was a peacock pie. I’ve never had peacock so I have no idea what it would have tasted like, but it was certainly a pie to tickle the eye if not the palate. The head and the tail of the unfortunate bird were displayed on the outside, above the pastry crust, at either end of the pie.
The pressure for living accommodation was such in the late 17th century that the Mercers saw that they could make more money from selling or leasing the freehold of the land to builders and developers than from allowing cattle to munch their way through the grass. There were two factors, however, that meant that the area now occupied by Tower Court was slower to be developed than other parts of Covent Garden. Firstly, it was a notoriously wet and boggy piece of land. A deep ditch, known as Cock and Pye ditch, ran down what is now Monmouth Street and St Martin’s Lane before hanging a left and emptying its contents in the Thames around where Embankment station stands.
The ditch was covered over in the 1670s as part of the construction of the Southampton Sewer. There was a bit of a stink shortly after the sewer was opened when a local builder, Richard Frith, after whom Frith Street was named, was discovered to have connected illegally the sewer from his development in the Soho area to the Cock and Pye ditch, causing an overload of effluent. Frith was forced to disconnect his pipes and start again.
The second problem was that the area was used as a laystall, an area where cattle were held prior to going to market and, by extension, and area where the dung from cattle, horses, and humans was collected. It is salutary to think that some of the elegant houses built during Thomas Neale’s development of the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden stood on what was once a dung heap.
Tower Court was built during the 1690s as part of Neale’s development of the area. It originally consisted of two streets, Lumber Court to the east and Lumber Street to the west. At some point it was renamed as Tower Court, although quite when I have been unable to determine. The buildings in the Court date from the late 18th century and today serve as housing. If you look carefully at Nos. 5 and 7 you will see the original wooden shop fronts, although, according to English Heritage, they have been altered for domestic use. Still, you can get a sense of what the area would have looked like a couple of centuries ago.
What was originally a Victorian school became the headquarters of The Really Useful Group, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company, although the building has now been converted into flats.
If nothing else, this little alley shows that you never quite know what you are walking on as you explore London’s warren of streets.