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|The Reputation Implications of the Bedford Tavern
Written by JulieW
(4/12/2006 12:53 p.m.)
Know him! There are few people much about town that I do not know. I have met him forever at the Bedford; and I knew his face again today the moment he came into the billiard–room. One of the best players we have, by the by; and we had a little touch together, though I was almost afraid of him at first: the odds were five to four against me; and, if I had not made one of the cleanest strokes that perhaps ever was made in this world — I took his ball exactly — but I could not make you understand it without a table; however, I did beat him. A very fine fellow; as rich as a Jew. I should like to dine with him; I dare say he gives famous dinners. But what do you think we have been talking of? You. Yes, by heavens! And the general thinks you the finest girl in Bath.”
In the above passage John Thorpe is boasting about being an habitué of the Bedford Coffee-House and Tavern in Covent Garden.( this picture, which I used in the Sedan Chair post below, is taken form the vantage point of the Bedford Coffee-House)
Now ,IMHO, JA does nothing without reason. Why did she pick this particular meeting place for these two particular chaps?
Let’s have a closer look at it and the area where it was situated……..
Covent Garden, as you probably know, derives its name (shortened from"Convent Garden") from the presence there in the Middle Ages of a garden belonging to Westminster Abbey.
In the sixteenth century this land was acquired by Henry VIII and granted to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. The Bedford family determined to develop the site, which remained in family possession until 1918. The Dukes created a fashionable housing area , including the Piazza, site of the famous market for nearly three centuries.
As you can probably guess, The Bedford Coffee house was so named because of the Duke of Bedford’s interest in the area.
However, by the eighteenth century the tone of the area had changed. The aristocracy moved to more fashionable and new housing developments, such as Mayfair to the West, and Covent Garden developed into a more bohemian area for the artists, journalists and writers who frequented its many coffee houses and taverns.
The theatre also played an important part in the development of the character of the area, for both Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane were(and still are) to be found in the area.
At this time., the painters John Zoffany and Richard Wilson lived in the Piazza and Tavistock Row (now demolished) respectively, while numerous references to the district appear in the works of Otway, Killigrew, Shadwell, Congreve and Fielding.
In fact, Fielding, Goldsmith and Hogarth were members of a gaming club which met in the parlour of the 'Bedford'.
So far we have gaming and drinking to contend with then at the Bedford: nothing exceptional.
Another view of the character of the Bedford Coffee – house is given here by Dr Doran ( a Victorian theatre Historian,) in his book Table Traits (1854): I will quote , if you don’t mind from the chapter entitled The Old Coffee-Houses:
Of all the Coffee- houses of the second order the Bedford in Covent Garden was probably first , but for good fellowship it was the equal of any of the more exclusive houses; for Garrick, Quinn, Murphy and Foote ( actors and theatrical proprietors-JW)were of the company. Wit was the serious occupation of all its members and it never gave them any serious trouble to produce it in abundance
So far so good, perhaps, if slightly damming………but , I ought properly to add that the area was very well known for its brothels and for “Ladies of the night” plying their wares.
One of the most notorious of the brothels was next door to the Bedford Coffee-house…….
I will quote this from The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rumbold…..
“The Shakespeare’s Head Tavern ..reputed to be the finest tavern in the Piazza…did a handsome trade and was, along with the Bedford Coffee house, one of the most profitable places of resort with which to be connected...when the private rooms were to let out to society members intent on satiating themselves with beef and beer, individual patrons might be permitted to do the same with any number of Covent Gardens Luminary whores……The Shakespeare was very much a no holds barred type of establishment, where no one asked questions and punters did as they pleased”
In fact, John Harrison who was employed to manage the Shakespeare’s Head Tavern , was more notoriously and famously known as Jack Harris .It was under this pseudonym that he published the infamous “ Harris’s List”, which was a directory of prostitutes( and their attributes and tricks) .He worked from this tavern, and not for nothing was he also know as the” Pimp General”.
Next door, to the south of the Shakespeare’s Head is the Bedford Coffee house, a slightly more respectable establishment., although only just. Its distinguished dramatic and literary clientele bestow on it a certain fashionable cachet, which barely saves it from sharing its neighbours dubious stigma. On the opposite side of the Shakespeare, to the north, are the elegant premises of the infamous bawd, Mrs Jane Douglas…...
At this time the Bedford Coffee House also employed one of the area’s most violent figures, Tiger Roach ,as their “bully boy”( who provided security without any restraint, if you like)
So…it was not the most exclusive of establishments, had a theatrical clientele( a profession with its own troubled reputation), was situated next to one of the most infamous brothels in the country let alone the area, and was considered to be only slightly better in repute….
Not exactly a place one can imagine Mr Knightley, Mr Darcy, or , indeed, Henry Tilney ,is it?
I’m sure JA, along with most of her contemporaries knew of its reputation, and used the fleeting reference to it to illuminate the characters of both John Thorpe and General Tilney. Its one of those little details that her early 19th century readers would have registered immediately , but unless it is pointed out to us, I fear the true implications of the reference ( that John Thorpe and the General might not be quote the thing-we shall have to see!)are lost today.
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