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From Harry Potter to the Bucket of Blood: Covent Garden’s esoteric alleys

Before the advent of town planning, Covent Garden’s streetscape evolved in an organic way, which explains the higgledy streetscape.
A notable feature of this evolution are the alleyways, which are safe havens today, but in years gone by were also home to mischief and shadows.

Lazenby Court

This central alley of Rose Street, would have been plenty high enough for the men of 150 years ago to pass through without removing their hats, but, today, a gent of average height will have to stoop if he wants to get by. Architecturally, Lazenby Court serves no useful purpose in the middle of Rose Street but, that it remains, is testament to aesthetics triumphing
over functionality. Despite the relatively uncommon name, the identity of Mr (or Mrs) Lazenby seems to have been lost to history. If any reader knows otherwise, please do be in contact.

The most notable feature of Lazenby Court is the plaque which tall people bang their heads against after one too many beers. It tells the grisly story of a roughing-up that took place here, way back in 1679.

John Dryden was a celebrated poet and author who would often hold court in the coffee houses and taverns of Covent Garden. The cowardly ambush on Dryden happened on 18 December 1679 as he made his way from Will’s Coffee House towards his home in Long Acre. A group of three masked hooligans accosted him here and beat the famous poet most roughly, they didn’t attempt to steal his purse which would suggest they had been hired and paid in advance. The plaque attributes the crime to Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth (and also a mistress of Charles II). Modern scholarship questions whether The Duchess of Portsmouth was really behind the attack, suggesting instead that the perpetrator was the Earl of Rochester. A withering satire had been published in the weeks before which disgraced Rochester and he was alleged to have been seeking revenge for this blot on his honour. Dryden was widely believed to have authored the polemic but it subsequently emerged that he had only edited it and the hand had been of someone else.

Charles II was very goatish in his day: as well as famously servicing Nell Gwynne, he also kept de Kéroualle and nine other paramours. Both Nell and Louise popped out a little Fitzroy but they were not on good terms with each other. The power struggle between the two was often ferocious and Louise, who had ptosis in one eye, was humiliated that her rival called her “Squintabella”. As for the other claims made by the Lazenby plaque, these must be taken with some suspicion, much as Wikipedia can’t be trusted for accuracy today. The pub is indeed very old, first being documented in 1772 as the Coopers Arms (some other sources state 1688). By whichever reckoning, the Restoration “wits and gallants” couldn’t have supped here (unless they were prepared to wait many years to be served). The name Lamb & Flag was adopted around 1833 when a lawyer from nearby Middle Temple became publican and brought with him the other Inn’s heraldic coat of arms.

Before being bought by Fuller’s recently, The Lamb and Flag had a reputation for shenanigans, as well as having excessively nationalistic clientele, especially on St George’s Day. This ties in with a former nickname of the pub when it was jokingly called “The Bucket of Blood” due to the publican’s penchant for bare- knuckle fighing (both organised and impromptu). In any case, those who appreciate quirks of architecture will note that it is one of only a handful of timber- framed buildings to survive.

Brydges Place

This unassuming alley was known to 19th Century Londoners as a centre of the pawnbroking trade. Dozens of independent shops were to be found here but they didn’t deal in high-end goods, the throughput was very much more mundane: bed linen, curtains, crockery and the like. At the time, Brydges Place was the poorest part of a very poor neighbourhood. Many of the population lived a hand- to-mouth existence which is unspeakably bleak to the modern psyche. Hard-working folk would arrive at Brydges Place early in the morning and pawn their bed sheets for a few small coins. They’d spend this pledge on a handful of bruised fruit or wilting flowers from the market which they would hawk around the streets, hoping they might earn enough to buy back their bedding at the end of the day. On bad days, they might not be able to buy back their meagre possessions and would sleep on a bare bed.

Very occasionally, an object of great value would pass under the three brass balls of Brydges Place. When news spread of a fine item being pawned it caused quite a clamour and the locals would gather round for a good old nosey. The morning of Tuesday 18 February 1823 was most strange when an unknown teenager arrived with seven splendid pieces of gold. Word spread quickly of this and crowds gathered to witness the trade. The street’s senior pawnbroker, a Mr Lewis gave young Frederick Bolton 6 pounds and 17 shillings for his treasure but, smelling a rat, also alerted the authorities to this unusual transaction. It turned out that Bolton had been a stowaway on the trading vessel Traverse on her way back from the Cape of Good Hope. He had cracked the safe and stolen the gold which was intended for military payroll.

Luckily for Bolton, the ship’s captain was the philanthropist William Cobb who decreed that the boy should not be hanged but instead sent to hard labour in the plantations.

Goodwin’s Court

Of the four parallel alleys, Goodwin’s Court has recently become something of a tourist destination after J K Rowling identified it as her inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. After the obligatory photo opportunity at Platform 93⁄4, Potterheads from around the world visit this street, just to soak up the atmosphere. In years gone by, Goodwin’s Court was yet another place purportedly frequented by Nell Gwynne and her royal beau. Charles II would “visit” pretty, witty Nell who would welcome him into her bedchamber for “night-time pursuits”. Much of the exterior brickwork is still original and walking down here is like finding a wormhole into history.

As the real-life location for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, the street was dressed up in fancy finery for filming, and anyone who knows the series will be able to identify scenes where Harry, Hermione et al do all their shopping for wizarding essentials. In the scenes filmed here from the ‘Half- Blood Prince’ the facades will be recognisable, although you won’t find any wand shops or owl emporia, but maybe that is just because we are all muggles.

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