ST. JAMES'S STREET has about it a lasting charm of character and expression. It is a unique thoroughfare, yet not many of those who walk down it are aware of the part it has played for several centuries in our social and political life.
To the general public the name of St. James's Street is synonymous with Clubland and the association is appropriate, for here is a street made famous by lineal descent with the coffee houses and taverns of former days. It might be argued that Pall Mall and Piccadilly have prior claim on the grounds of numerical superiority, but on the score of antiquity the contention fails. Neither can point to formation earlier than the beginning of the nineteenth century, whereas St. James's Street is venerable by comparison. It is only necessary to recall some of the earliest dates such as White's (1697), The Cocoa Tree (1746), Boodle's (1762), Brook's (1764), Arthur's (1765), The Conservative (1840), The New University (1863), The Thatched House (1865), The Devonshire (1875), and the Royal Societies (1894).
The club tradition is therefore almost as old as the street itself. Evidence put forward by topographers lends support to the view that the street of St. James came into being in the year 1659, a bald statement that by itself is colourless since it gives no indication of what the street looked like, who lived there, or anything about the multitude of people, famous and infamous, ordinary and eccentric, whose way of life linked them with this thoroughfare. An attempt to recapture something of the background atmosphere of the beginnings of this street is interesting, but by no means straightforward. Sources like rate books and the calendar of state papers give quite a lot of detailed information, but generally speaking contemporary writers had little interest in streets of comparatively recent development. Their remarks are largely confined to ecclesiastical buildings and structures of interest from the antiquarian point of view. It is therefore inevitable that the early history of St. James's Street is somewhat fragmentary in character.
The earliest reference I could find is dated 1638. It comes from Sieur de la Serre who, visiting this country in the suite of Marie de Medicis, adds a general comment on St. James's Palace: "lts great gate has a long street in front, reaching almost out of sight, seemingly joining to the fields." Other sources of information suggest a country roadway stretching from the Palace gate to the Way to Redinge, as Piccadilly was then known. Flanked with hedges, it made a typical rustic setting in keeping with Norden's description of St. James's Palace in 1592: "It standeth from other buyldinges, about [?]z furlonge, saving a ferme house opposite agaynste the north gate." Thackeray used to say that Hogarth had succeeded in preserving The RA&E's Progress something of the atmosphere that then existed by St. James's Palace gate. He declared: "You may people the street, but little altered within these hundred years, with the gilded carriages and throning chairmen that bore the courtiers, your ancestors, to Queen Caroline's drawing-room more than a hundred years ago." But time brought many changes. The tradition remained the same, but the outward appearance had many alterations.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that only the famous knew St. James's Street in those early days. The records suggest that all sorts and conditions of men forgathered in the thoroughfare. The east side of the street presented a curious mixture. In 1793 we find Messrs. Lock, the hatters, established at No. 6 with a rival named Caterer at No. 16. A perfumer by name of Walker was his neighbour at No. 7. Berry, a grocer, occupied No. 3. Crellins, a tailor, was in No. 4. No. 8 had Osrnan Giddy. No. 19 was a glass manufacturer. Nos. 18 and 20 were tailors. Nos. 26 and 27 sheltered William Banting, who was an undertaker and upholsterer. The occupant of No, 33, a tailor and habitmaker named G. Walker, must have been an enterprising gentleman. According to one of his advertisements he has to his credit the distinction of introducing a new method of making trousers. ..."Trousers on a New Principle Walker, 33, St. James's Street, has discovered an entirely new principle of Cutting Trousers, and offers to furnish the Nobility, Gentry, and the Public, with this important article of dress, admirably adapted to the display of the figure, and at the same time affording such comfort in all exercises as to insure the highest satisfaction to those who honour him with orders. If Art can give ornament to Nature, if anything can surpass her in the contour of a limb, it is when cloth is made elegantly to fit the same, then it may fairly be admitted that Art has added a charm even to Nature. G. Walker begs to add, that he continues to supply Uniforms for Officers of the Army and Navy, also Deputy Lieutenants' and Court Dresses, in the most tasteful style and at moderate charges for Ready Money."
Faith in private enterprise found full expression in those days. At No. 41 a watch and clock maker by the name of M'Dowall informed the world that he was the inventor of the "Helix Lever and Revolving-Endless Gravitating Time Piece, without springs, chains, barrels, fuses, and keys, and Quiescent Armillary Escape." No. 36 bore the edifying title of "Patent Wire Cartridge Warehouse", with an explanatory footnote that "Ely's patent wire cartridges, for shooting game, etc., at long distances, are warranted to make all guns kill from twenty to forty yards farther than a loose charge". There was indeed variety of choice. Even the west side of the street, which lacked something of the normal character, had its quota. About 1699, No. 63 was known as Pierault's Bagnio, where jaded humanity could have a cold bath for two shillings and sixpence, whilst a warm one cost twice as much.
So much for the tradesmen who plied their wares for over two centuries in this London thoroughfare. It was the permeation alongside the taverns and coffee houses and clubs, of an assorted sprinkling of perfumers, booksellers, silk-mercers, hatters, carriage-builders, confectioners, tailors in fact, cheek by jowl almost every need of man was anticipated. And these indeed have been varied. It is only necessary to think of those who have resided or been associated with St. James's Street to realize that here is the meeting-ground for all walks of life. Habitues included statesmen and painters, politicians and poets, roues and men of letters. It is possible to throng the street with the shades of the great of three centuries. Human frailties and trivialities are self-evident. The appearance of St. James's Street today is sober grey compared with the relaxations of the eighteenth century, a period when this street was at its zenith. Vignettes picked at random indicate something of the richness of the association. It was at No. 8 that Lord Byron confessed he "awoke one morning to find himself famous". The occasion was the publication of the second and third cantos of Childe Harold. It was from this same house that Byron left to take his seat in the House of Lords for the first time under singularly unhappy and lonely circumstances. No. 63 was the abode of that celebrated character "Betty", or to give her her real name, Elizabeth Neal. Immortalized by Walpole's 'Letters., her fruit shop was the recognized rendezvous of fashion and politics, wit and beauty, scandal and gossip.
Charles James Fox lodged next to Brook's. Rarely has a man of public affairs been such an inveterate gambler. 154,000 left by his father soon disappeared. Then there was Thomas Wirgman, an eccentric goldsmith and jeweller, whose devotion to Kantesian philosophy led to such extravagances as publication of books on the subject, a feature of the works being carefully graded colours on each page. The process was so expensive that a volume of 400 pages is said to have cost over 2,000. It is impossible to name those who have strolled down this street in search of convivial company enriched by good wine and food. It has known all the whims of fashion. The days of Brummell, Victorian crinolines, peg-top trousers, swords and patches. Presiding over all has been the warm brickwork of St. James's Palace, which though no longer the seat of the sovereign, nevertheless graces the street of a thousand memories and adds the dignity peculiar to the Court of St. James.---London Season, By Louis T. Stanley [As Written]