Gerrard Street, W1
Running from north-east to south-west, parallel to the western stretch of Shaftesbury Avenue, and joining Wardour Street at its western end, Gerrard Street these days is right in the heart of Chinatown. If you want a (reasonably) cheap meal before sampling the cultural delights that the centre of our metropolis boasts, a restaurant on Gerrard Street is as good a place as any to go to.
It takes its name from a military leader, the 1st Earl of Macclesfield, Charles Gerard – quite where the extra r came from is anybody’s guess. Prior to its development as a residential area, the land which is now occupied by Gerrard Street was slap bang in the middle of what was known as the Military Ground, used by the Military Company of Westminster who were formed in 1615. They were granted permission by the Privy Council at the time to exercise under the direction of the Commissioners of Muster for Middlesex “in anie place neere the suburbs of the citie.”
The Military Company secured two parcels of land for their purposes, the western portion, some two acres in size and on which Gerrard Street now runs, leased and the eastern part, one and a half acres, purchased from Susan Lamb and Thomas and Elizabeth Garland in 1619. A nine-foot brick wall was built around the perimeter of the grounds and an Armoury House, at a total cost of £294, which was a two-storied brick building with two wings and a tiled roof.
Quite what the Military Company actually did, other than parade up and down and enjoy convivial evenings in the Armoury House, is unclear. They do not warrant a mention in the annals of the Civil War and their only formal duty, which has survived in any records, was that they supplemented the forces of law and order each Shrove Tuesday to keep an eye on the apprentices of London who enjoyed their day off with some gusto.
However, what is certain is that by 1656 the Company had fallen on hard times and entered into a lease-back arrangement with Edward Haynes, a cook, who bought the land and occupied the Armoury House. Then, in 1661, Gerard enters our story.
A royalist and a soldier who had spent time in the United Provinces and, following the Restoration of Charles II, a gentleman of the bedchamber, Gerard paid Haynes £500 for his land. His attempts to gain possession of the whole of the Military Ground was frustrated by a gardener called Browne, who refused to vacate the land he had leased. Gerard resorted to threats, vowing to “Cutt the Members of the said Military Company in peeces if ever they came on the said Ground.” Gerard even dismantled part of the Armoury House and the library but it was not until 1676 that he eventually got legal title to the whole of the Military Grounds.
On 5th July 1677 Gerard leased the land to the physician, Dr Nicholas Barbon, and a timber merchant, John Rowley, and they, taking advantage of the permission “to erect and build in or upon any part or parts of the said Military Ground any houses and buildings whatsoever leaveing a convenient way and passage for Coaches and Carriages,” started building residential properties. Gerrard Street, in its modern incarnation, took shape between 1677 and 1685. One of Barbon’s houses was occupied by Gerard, until he had to flee, having been convicted of treason for his part in the Rye House conspiracy, an attempt to assassinate Charles II and his son, James.
The poet, John Dryden, lived at number 43 for a while and Edward Burke spent some time at number 37. A plaque outside number 9 commemorates the formation of a dining club, in 1746, following a meeting between Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds at the Turk’s Head. And in Great Expectations, Mr Jaggers lived on the south-side of the street in “rather a stately house of its kind, but dolefully in want of painting.” But by the middle of the 18th century, the street was better known for its coffee houses than its residential properties and nowadays you can substitute Chinese restaurants for coffee shops.
Of the streets that formed Barbon’s development of the Military Ground, only Gerrard and Macclesfield Streets bear their original name.