Tag Archives: Great Fire of London

Berners Street – speculators and a famous hoax

Theodore Hook – the Berners Street Hoaxer

When Robert Cooper Lee returned to England from Jamaica with his family at the end of August 1771, they lived for a short time at Old Bond Street in London. But within a very few weeks Robert found a house in Berners Street on which he signed a lease for thirty years. Today in Britain anyone who can afford to buy a house also buys the freehold and therefore owns both the house and the land on which it stands. In 18th-century London such a situation was uncommon. Even the very wealthy would sign a lease on a house for anything from a few months (to attend the London social season) to a period of years. Thirty years was common but it could be anything up to ninety-nine years.

The London to which the Lee family returned had expanded hugely in the two decades since Robert had left. There were two new bridges across the Thames – Westminster Bridge which had been under construction when he left was opened in 1750, Blackfriars Bridge opened in 1769. London Bridge had finally lost its jumble of medieval houses and shops in 1757 and acquired a new and elegant Italian balustrade.

In addition to the development of new bridges, London was spreading rapidly outwards, covering areas that had been just fields in Robert’s youth, and the population had grown from about half a million in 1750 to three quarters of a million two decades later. Once fashionable areas like Covent Garden had gone downhill and were now the haunt of thieves and prostitutes. Their former inhabitants moved westwards, and large areas to the north and south of Oxford Street saw the development of elegant streets and squares, many of which still retain at least some of their Georgian houses.

Berners Street runs at right angles to Oxford Street, then still sometimes known as the Oxford Road, and while it later acquired a reputation as a location for artists and writers, there were a number of families with Jamaican connections who settled there and its occupants were generally wealthy and well connected.

The houses were new – elegant, Georgian terraces with rear access to their stables via Berners Mews. The Lee’s house at number twenty-six was described as having lofty airy bed chambers of good proportions, servants rooms and numerous closets, lofty capacious drawing room with an elegant chimney piece and stucco cornice, a large dining room and sideboard recess, library, lofty entrance hall, and suitable attached offices well arranged, and supplied with water; standing for two carriages, stabling for five horses and dry arched cellaring.

The history of the development of this area goes back to the middle of the previous century when, in 1654, Josias Berners bought an estate in the parish of St Marylebone for £970 from Sir Francis Williamson of Isleworth. Substantial development was carried out in the first half of the eighteenth century by William Berners, and so the family gave their name to the street.

The Berners family were connected to Jamaica three times over through the Jarrett family. Three of William Berners’ grandchildren married Jarretts of Orange Valley, Trelawny – Maria Berners married Herbert Newton Jarrett (the third of that name), her brother William married Rachel Allen Jarrett (the second of that name) and their brother Henry Denny Berners married Sarah Jarrett. Sarah and Rachel were sisters, Herbert was their father’s much younger half-brother. But to return to Berners Street!

The usual pattern of development in the eighteenth century was for the land owner to lease out parcels of land for development to speculative builders who would erect a group of houses and then lease these on to tenants. Sometimes the builder would merely erect a shell and the interior finishing would be carried out by someone else, often under the direction of the intended tenant. There was no requirement for consistency in the appearance of the houses, although the fashion for classical proportions to some extent encouraged it.

Unlike today no planning permission was required and there were effectively few building regulations to control the quality of the build. There were some regulations relating for example to the materials of construction and the width of streets that had followed from the Great Fire of London in 1666. It is for this reason that these elegant Georgian houses were generally constructed of brick, the brick earth being dug from the very substantial clay deposits which surround London. For example the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire had substantial brick fields and a good line of transport for the bricks into London by barge down the Lea navigation (at the end of which today stands the Olympic Park).

Among the owners of land in Marylebone were the Dukes of Chandos, of Devonshire and of Portland whose names are commemorated today in its streets and squares. You can read a contemporary description of the area’s development written at the end of the 18th century by Daniel Lysons whose Environs of London is a wonderful source of information on 18th century London.

The extent of settlement in the area by members of the Plantocracy is evidenced by the numbers of records in the parish registers of St Marylebone, for their baptisms, marriages and burials. Later in the century these wealthy occupants moved gradually northwards as development continued over the old Marylebone Gardens, once an elegant walking place but now overtaken by the profits to be made from development. Even Robert Cooper Lee moved on. Though he retained the lease on the Berners Street house, he moved to the newly completed Bedford Square, also occupied by Jamaican ex-pats such as Marchant Tubb, and members of the Hibbert family.

Although Bedford Square (above) remains largely unchanged, Robert Cooper Lee’s Berners Street house is long gone, along with much of 18th century London, replaced by Victorian apartments, flattened by wartime bombs, rebuilt after the war and replaced again by glass and steel tower blocks. To see some of those original houses, and architectural features such as mentioned in the description of Robert Cooper Lee’s house, visit the Collage website and put Berners Street into the search option.

At the beginning of the 19th century Berners Street became famous, or infamous, for a complex and well organised hoax perpetrated by Theodore Hook on the unsuspecting Mrs Tottenham who lived at number fifty-four. I cannot do better than refer you to the account on the Museum of Hoaxes website which describes how Hook fulfilled his bet to make an unassuming dwelling the most talked about house in the kingdom. Hook was an engaging but not entirely admirable character. He was a talented composer of comic operas and a writer, but after being given the appointment of Accountant General in Mauritius (as a result of the influence of the Prince Regent) where he was the life and soul of the party for several years, he was held responsible for the embezzlement of  about £12,000 by a deputy and recalled to England. He spent time in a sponging house, wrote prolifically and fathered six children with Mary Ann Doughty but eventually died deeply in debt.

What happened to his children and their mother, to whom he was not married, I do not know. One has to hope that his relations, who were well connected, made provision for them.





Great Fires of London and the West India Docks

The River Thames and the new West India Docks

From Ordnance Survey First Series 1805

Jamaican sugar planters sometimes struggled to get their produce back to England. Freight rates were often high, ships sometimes in short supply and of course they could be lost at sea. Along with a developing banking industry, the eighteenth century saw the growth of insurance, and new companies sprang up that would insure a cargo against loss. If you have London ancestors you may find them in the Sun Fire Office records, which are held at the Guildhall in London, and indexed on the National Archives online.

Fire was, and is, an ever present risk and it was especially so for warehouses storing Jamaica’s main exports of sugar and rum which are both highly flammable.

I remember stories in my childhood of how the bombing of the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery at Greenock in the second World War caused a fire that could be seen from many miles away. Two decades later a fire in a bonded whisky warehouse in Glasgow remains Britain’s worst peacetime fire services disaster. Wooden barrels stored on wooden racks in an old building with a high wood content burned furiously, and the vapourising alcohol caused an explosion that blew out the sides of the building and cast debris and barrels of flaming liquid onto the firefighters below. Both sugar and alcohol explode at high temperatures, scattering fiery material to start further fires.

Such was the nature of two disastrous London fires in the eighteenth century. You may remember I wrote a while ago about Captain Stephen Blanket who sailed supply ships to Jamaica and ended his life with a comfortable fortune as a merchant, living in Princes Street Rotherhithe, which ran at right angles to the river Thames. There, shortly after his death, a kettle of molten pitch, used for caulking ships and other waterproofing jobs, boiled over and caught fire. The fire spread and destroyed over 200 buildings along the river front at Rotherhithe. The buildings would almost all have been built of wood, many old and dilapidated and many containing flammable materials arriving from abroad or waiting to be despatched. Such fires could be difficult to put out and were sometimes long lasting – after the Great Fire of London in 1666 materials smouldered in cellars for many months afterwards, bursting into flame again when air reached them.

An even more disastrous fire happened at the end of the eighteenth century on the opposite side of the river at Ratcliff. In July 1794 another pitch kettle fire, at Cloves barge builder’s yard, ignited a cargo of saltpetre, an ingredient of gunpowder, in a riverside barge. This sent exploding fragments high in the air over a wide area and before it was finally put out the fire had destroyed 453 private houses, more than 20 warehouses and other large buildings and several ships on the river. The buildings destroyed included offices of the East India Company. Although largely forgotten now, it was London’s worst fire between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz.

Add these risks to the constant threat to merchants’ profits from the pilfering of their cargoes as they were unloaded on to smaller boats in the overcrowded river Thames and rowed ashore to be manually handled into storage, and you can understand the pressure for a new solution to London’s booming international trade.

The need for new docks had been mooted for some time and in the end a large number were built on both sides of the river, but the most brilliant of these were the West India Docks which utilised a bend in the river at the Isle of Dogs to create an industrialised cargo handling system on a scale that had not been seen before. Ships coming up river entered the docks from Blackwall Reach, unloaded their cargoes directly into huge brick built warehouses and then left via Limehouse Reach having loaded a new cargo. The whole site was secured by a continuous high brick wall.

This view of the proposed West India Docks and City Canal is by W. Daniell and was painted in 1802 when construction had already begun. It looks west towards the City of London. In fact the final layout of the docks was rather different, with three broad docks rather than two docks and a canal, and it was further modified later in the nineteenth century to make use of the new railway technology and steam powered cranes.

A survey sponsored by English heritage and published in 1994, when the docks had reached the end of their useful life, can be viewed on British History online and it shows the vast scale of the eventual project.

One spin-off of the West India Dock Company was the founding of the Imperial Insurance Company, ever mindful of the risk of fire.

Little now remains of this huge and wonderful feat of civil engineering and mercantile ambition – replaced by London’s Docklands offices and tower blocks, the symbol of a different age of ambition. Its history is preserved in the Docklands Museum, housed in these few remaining buildings.