Until the early part of the nineteenth century the area to the right of London’s Charing Cross Road – then in its previous incarnation as Castle Street – stretching across St Martin’s Lane over to Bedford Street in the heart of Covent Garden, was a much finer gauze of alleys and passageways than the present day street grid. Cecil Court is one of a handful of thoroughfares surviving from that period, and this year became the setting for a new plaque to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Last week I went there to meet the man behind the campaign to get the plaque, Tim Bryars, who runs an antiquarian map and topographical print emporium. Inside his compact premises surrounded by stunning old maps and prints Tim told me over a coffee how the plaque came to be put up by Cecil Court Traders Association and unveiled by Simon Callow in September 2011, after attempts to get Westminster Council to support the project failed. Perhaps if they hadn’t done it themselves the celebrations that ensued mightn’t have been on such an operatic scale (see this video for more details).
In turn Tim shed light on the fascinating history of Georgian Cecil Court and the story of the 8-year-old Mozart’s three and a half month stay there as a lodger over John Couzin’s barber shop; a time when the young composer was already coming to the peak of his fame as a performer. Listen to the interview to get the lowdown…
Two things from our conversation really struck me – one covered in the interview and one in our long chat afterwards. The first was the effort he went to trace the exact whereabouts of the building Mozart had stayed in. The street was demolished and rebuilt in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and in the 1760s house numbers were not widely in use. The presence on a small street of a barber shop – perhaps with a barber’s pole outside – would suffice to denote the building’s whereabouts in most if not all despatches from that era.
Tim had to sift through a disparate series of old maps, documents and many rolls of microfiche of the parish rate books in the Westminster Archives and elsewhere before working out from the accumulated references to people and places a discernable pattern that finally pinpointed where the former building housing John Couzin’s barbers would be on the newer street layout (see the series of old London maps covering the vicinity). So the plaque is also tribute to an assiduous act of discovery and some serious pattern recognition was at play in the required detective work.
The other indelible remark Tim made was that he doesn’t want Cecil Court to become a museum piece. In other periods gone by it’s been a hotbed of radical reformism as the key meeting place of the London Corresponding Society, and was at the start of the last century the hub of innovation in the emerging Brtitish film industry (more on that in a future post). Yet despite the pedestrian walkway’s undeniable historical importance and character, Bryars is more concerned it shouldn’t become a rarified island of architectural interest and retail diversity. It’s currently a high-density hotspot of specialist bookshops, whilst the bookstores and other independent businesses of the adjacent Charing Cross Rd have dwindled in recent years.
A great thing about London is its always been a living patchwork of history and local particulars, he added. His remark didn’t stem, I felt, from a narrow zeal to preserve or artisan special pleading but from an appreciation of commercial and civic openness, and the losses incurred (which we can’t recover) once that context is erased.
You can find Cecil Court on Twitter and Facebook. Tim Bryars is always updating the History of Cecil Court webpage – if you have any new information about the street, please contact him via the email address listed at the top of that webpage. Tim also writes a fantastic antiquarian maps blog Unto the Ends Of the Earth.