The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Six

Cecil Court, WC2N

One of the famous people to lay their head down in Cecil Court was an eight-year-old music prodigy by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Mozart family rented three rooms between April 24th and August 27th 1764 from a barber, John Couzin, in the Court, although, according to Leopold, the rooms were not as commodious as they would have liked and had no cooking facilities. It is almost certain that Wolfgang composed his first symphony. The composer and music historian, Charles Burney, visited the Mozarts there and after the boy had wowed him with his musical abilities, “he played at marbles in the true childish way of one who knows nothing”. The insouciance of youth!       

A pub, The Angel, in Cecil Court gained some notoriety as a hotbed of radicalism, hosting a public debating society in the 1790s where anyone who had paid the weekly entrance fee could get on their hind legs and spout forth, often views that were considered dangerous if not subversive. The government, fearing an imminent French invasion, cracked down hard on dissidents, passing several Gagging Acts. In February 1798 the authorities raided the Angel and, according to The Gentleman’s Magazine, “the landlord was obliged to find extraordinary sureties, and informed that the licence of the house should certainly be withheld in the future”.

The pub, nevertheless, soldiered on only to find itself implicated, in 1803, in the treason trial of Colonel Despard, the last man to be sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered, a fate later commuted to just hanging and beheading. Despard was supposed to have headed a desperate plot to capture the Tower of London and the Bank of England and to assassinate George III. The Angel was to be the rebellion’s command centre, but, as the plot was foiled, it became just a footnote in London’s radical history.

Cecil Court is now known as Booksellers’ Row. Although the first bookselling transaction that can be definitively dated and traced to the Court was made in 1704, the street really became a centre for books at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the employees of Unicorn Press around 1901 was Arthur Ransome, he of Swallows and Amazons fame, who recorded in his autobiography that the Cecil Court firm was always on “very thin financial ice” and “lived under an almost continual threat of disaster”. Also to be found there was Greening Ltd, publishers and stockists of novels of a sensational kind, and at No. 21, Watkins, the oldest bookshop in London devoted to theosophy, spiritualism and the like.

In 1904, the brothers, William and Gilbert Foyle, opened a shop at No. 16 and were so successful that the premises were raided by the police on the suspicion that they were operating an illegal bookmaking operation. They grew to employ their first member of staff, who promptly ran off with the week’s takings, and in 1906 moved to Charing Cross Road.

The Court also became the centre of Britain’s nascent film industry, the newly built office space following redevelopment of the area in 1894, hosting the likes of Gaumont, Hepworth, Nordisk, Globe, Tyler and Vitagraph. The Court brought new industries to London, new skills and the proximity of so many pioneering firms meant that knowledge and expertise was spread around. From around 1907 what were originally one-stop establishments became specialised as the film industry grew in sophistication and popularity. Flicker Alley, as the Court was nicknamed, hosted over 40 film-related companies in the period up until the First World War.   

As the centre of power in the film industry moved during the course of the 20th century, Cecil Court was more often the backdrop to a film or advert. That said, it has a unique place in the development of the British film industry, and the book trade, for that. More importantly, to echo Graham Greene, “thank God, Cecil Court remains Cecil Court”.         

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