The 400-Year Russell Dynasty Begins;(page 4)
This was the start of a long land-owning dynasty in what was to become the heart of London. Within a hundred years, the meadows where cattle grazed behind the straggle of small houses on the Strand had disappeared beneath a warren of streets lined with blocks of terraced buildings and houses four storeys high. Instead of cowpats, the 40 acres of Covent Garden were producing enormous annual rents. As Russell Street and Bedford Street remind us, the Russell family continued to own this property for nearly 400 years and only severed its connection with Covent Garden after the Second World War.
The fourth Earl of Bedford (1593 - 1641) being a shrewd property owner, recognised the opportunity for developing his land, and prospered as one of London’s first great speculators and property developers. He was quick to clear his Covent Garden holdings of the clutter of outbuildings and poor hovels, which had accumulated there, and to clean out the open sewer, which bisected it. He commissioned the architect Inigo Jones to design a Piazza with arcades and a church as a complete unit. So impressive was the original design for this area that, but for the Civil War, there is no doubt that a great deal more of London like Lincoln’s Inn Fields to the north, would have been developed in the same way.
The Civil War Takes it’s Toll
The Civil War, which began in 1642, and the Commonwealth, which followed, was an almost non-productive period of some eighteen years during which many fine London buildings were destroyed. The city had in fact supported the Cromwellian cause, having been soured by what it had regarded as unwarranted interference in its affairs and undue taxation by the Stuart kings. It was a decision it learned to regret, for it found in due course that the monarchy had been replaced by a regime, which, while thinly disguised as a parliament, became a dictatorship even more repressive than that of the kings it, had executed.
Most of the residents of Covent Garden were Royalist sympathisers and fled during the Commonwealth when the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell came to live nearby in Long Acre and the area started the long, slow slide into raffish decline.
After the Restoration some families with Royalist sympathies drifted back but the convulsions of state and society did not encourage the lengthy aristocratic tenancies that would later determine the character of St. James’s and Mayfair. Artists such as Sir Peter Lely (1619-80) and Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) took up residence during the second half of the seventeenth century. But many fine houses surrounding the Piazza were left empty and vulnerable to vandalism and deterioration.