People seem to think that a great deal of time and energy must be spent if they wish to see anything of historic London, and they pass by, unnoticed, many of the most interesting reminders of bygone periods, just because they may see them every day.
Buckingham Street, leading out of the Strand, is only a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross and it is full of historic memories. What stories the beautiful old water gate at its foot could tell of the days when the silver Thames washed up and down its grey stone steps, and of the famous people who used to take boat there!
It was built by my Lord Duke of Buckingham, that hated favourite of James and Charles the First, who cuts such a sorry figure in English history books and such a romantic one in the pages of Dumas. He was the father of the extravagant, erratic George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, whom Scott describes in Peveril of the Peak, and Pope more pungently:
Who in the course of one revolving moon, Was chemist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon.
Lely painted a wonderful portrait of the son. It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, but even more interesting is the Vandyck picture of him with his brother Francis, painted when they were boys, and lately bought for the National Gallery.
With his father murdered, and his property confiscated by the Commonwealth and given to General Fairfax, the duke solved his problem by marrying the General’s daughter and heiress, a solution for which Cromwell made him pay by a sojourn in the Tower, where he was an intermittent resident. But in spite of his wife’s fortune the man who, “was everything by turns and nothing long”was obliged to sell the magnificent mansion that his father had re-built in 1625 on the site of the old York House.
The earlier mansion had been the home of the Bishop of Norwich in Henry VIII’s time, of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, of the Archbishop of York, who gave the house its name, and of Sir Francis Bacon who loved the place and only left it for the Tower.
In 1672 the second York House was sold for L30,000, with the stipulation that the streets built on the site were to be given the Duke’s names. They are quite easy to trace: there is George Court, with the George Tavern, where you may eat your chop to the sound of an orchestra of singing birds; hard by are Villiers and Duke Streets; “Of”Lane has been rechristened York Place, and now we are back in Buckingham Street.
The new quarter soon had famous tenants. John Evelyn lived for a year in Villiers Street, and forty years later Sir Richard Steele had a house there. No. 14, Buckingham Street, has been much remodelled since Samuel Pepys lived there and walked down the steps of the water gate on his way to visit his friend Mr. Cole in Brentford. There is a tablet on the house to tell the passer-by that the Earl of Oxford, William Etty and Clarkson Stanfield, the marine painter, also lived here.
The house opposite looks far more modern, but within the very new outer walls of the offices of the Royal National Pension Fund for Nurses are preserved much of the exquisite carving, ceiling paintings, and elaborate stucco work that belong to the time when Peter the Great, Czar of all the Russias, came over to England in 1698 and lodged in these very rooms. David Hume, Rousseau, Fielding and Black all lived at No. 15, now incorporated in No. 16, but the Dickens lover will ignore these famous names and only remember that the rooms at the top of the house are the very ones taken by Miss Betsy Trotwood for David Copperfield.
With the exception perhaps of that Shah of Persia who spent a happy holiday in England in the reign of the late Queen Victoria, I suppose we never had a more eccentric royal visitor than Peter the Great. No doubt that is the reason why the memories of his brief stay here still seem to cling about so many parts of London. This strange being, half-barbarian, half-genius, had great ambitions and achieved them. As Voltaire says: “He gave a polish to his people and was himself a savage; he taught them the art of war, of which he was himself ignorant; inspired by the sight of a small boat on the river Moskwa, he erected a powerful fleet and made himself an expert and active shipwright, pilot, sailor and commander; he changed the manners, customs and laws of the Russians, and lives in their memory as the father of his country.”
Ships and shipbuilding were his passion. He went to Holland and worked in the yards there as a mechanic, calling himself Pieter Timmermann, until he had mastered the manual part of his craft. Then he came to England to study the theory of shipbuilding. King William III. placed the house in Buckingham Street, so conveniently close to the river, at his disposal, and invited him to Court when he felt inclined. But Pieter hated crowds and ceremonies and preferred to spend his days in hard work and his evenings drinking and smoking with boon companions.
At the end of a month, finding himself too far from the dockyards, he moved to Deptford, and put up at Sayes Court, kindly lent to him by John Evelyn. He was a dreadful tenant. We all know how Evelyn loved his garden, -but the Czar and his rough crowd trampled the flower-beds and spoilt the grass-plots, and trundled wheelbarrows through the diarist’s pet holly-hedge for exercise. “There is a house full of people right nasty! “wrote Evelyn’s indignant servant to his master. They ate and drank enormously,-eight bottles of sack after dinner were nothing to Pieter, and listen to this for a breakfast menu for twenty-one persons: half a sheep, a quarter of lamb, ten pullets, twelve chickens, three quarts of brandy, six quarts of mulled wine, seven dozen of eggs, with salad in proportion.
Much of his time, when he was not gathering the vast store of information that he afterwards used to such excellent advantage, the Czar spent sailing on the river, and in the evening he would repair with favoured members of his suite to a public-house in Great Tower Street. The old tavern has been rebuilt, but the name “The Czar of Muscovy,”and later “The Czar’s Head,”that it adopted as a compliment to its imperial visitor, is there to this day, and you may see it close to the city merchant’s house at No. 34 that is noticed in another chapter.
The “right nasty “people did not stay long, luckily for Evelyn’s peace of mind, but returned to London for another month or two. Then saying good-bye to King William, who had certainly treated him very well, the Czar pressed into his hand a little twist of brown paper, in ‘which was found a ruby valued at £1,000, and sailed away home for Russia, taking with him no fewer than 50o English captains, scientists, pilots, gunners, surgeons, sail-makers, anchor-smiths, coppersmiths and the like, all ready for adventure in the unknown, according to the tradition of their race.
To come back to the Strand. It is fairly certain that the rather heavy and unattractive stone archway and steps at the bottom of Essex Street (at the other end of the Strand) formed the water gate of old Essex House, once occupied by the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite.
It compares very badly with the water gate in Buckingham Street, which was designed by Inigo Jones in 1625, and built by Nicholas Stone the master mason, who carved one of the lions on its frontage. The London climate has blurred the outline of the arms of the Villiers family on the south side, and the motto “Fidei Coticula Crux”on the north, and the raising of the Embankment now prevents the waters of the Thames from swirling round the old stone steps. No monarch had passed through the water gate since the days of Charles II. until Queen Alexandra came to open the new building in Buckingham Street in 1908. Its glory has departed, but there it stands, useless, unnoticed and forgotten, yet how beautiful!