Today (December 7) in London History – information that we needed and some that’s more than we needed

The first theatre in Covent Garden opened on December 7th, 1732. The backstory and sides pack a wallop. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

December 7th. In American history it is of course the Day of Infamy. December 7th, 1941. The day the Japanese mounted their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress a day later. The first line of his speech was: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy.” It was a lapidary way of putting it and it took.

But December 7th – well, any date, really – is like one of those polyhedrons, a ball made up of many plane faces, usually squares. When they’re shiny polyhedrons they make good decorations, reflecting the light differently off each plane face.

And the December 7th plane faces – I’ve picked out a couple of them, so that makes this podcast a double feature – anyway the December 7th plane faces I’ve picked out for this podcast are a whole lot prettier than the day of infamy one. 

And it goes without saying, they’re over here, on the island called Great Britain as opposed to the Hawaiian island called Oahu. They’re literary and dramatic and biographical. One of them is very London important.

So let’s roll.

This first one is just a bit of fun. 

It’s the great Romantic poet Lord Byron’s diary entry for December 7th, 1813.

Here it is:

“Went to bed, and slept dreamlessly, but not refreshingly. Awoke, and up an hour before being called; but dawdled three hours in dressing. When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation) – sleep, eating, and swilling – buttoning and unbuttoning – how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.”

Well, actually dormice can live for up to five years, which is a long time for a small rodent. But what Byron had in mind was that the dormouse hibernates for six months or more each year. That’s a serious sleep indeed. The thought chain he runs out here is one that we all have but he puts it so well, so arrestingly. We’re asleep for a third of our lives – but he didn’t sleep well. Then he dawdled dressing – three hours it took him. Had he been alive today and amongst us – well, he is in a sense – he would have said ruefully, “three hours of my life I’ll never get back.” When I read or hear that phrase I always think “going to the trouble of trotting out that hackneyed phrase is another three seconds you won’t get back – and what’s the point of that ‘never’ – we never get any hours back – it’s not like taking a ticket to a cloakroom to get your coat back.” And here’s a useful timing tip for you – this is from my days as a television journalist. I said three seconds you won’t get back. Three seconds because the average rate at which we speak this tongue of ours is three words per second. So you’re doing a 55-second piece for the Evening News you know you’ve gotta tell that story in 165 words. A little less than that actually, because you need to allow a three-second run-in and a three-second run-out. Anyway, “three hours of my life I’ll never get back” is nine words: Nine words at three words per second, that’s three seconds. That may be the most useful thing you’ve learned all year from this podcast. 

Anyway, Byron. There are a couple of other choice delicacies in that diary entry. Describing infancy as vegetation for example. Try to tell that to a two-year-old for example. “You enjoying your vegetation?” 

It’s outrageous of course. But fun. And swilling is good as well. Given that it’s Byron I think we can safely assume that it’s ruthlessly honest.

And finally that buttoning and unbuttoning. That’s awfully close to “a little bit more information than we needed.” But it sure is vivid. 

And to be commended for being so.

Finally, it’s just so Byron. He after all called William Wordsworth Wordy for short. When he wasn’t calling him William Turdsworth. 

Anyway, that was just the warm-up act of the double feature. The cartoon if you prefer. 

For the main event, we have the first production of the first Covent Garden Theatre. It’s December 7th, 1732 and for the grand opening – they’ve plumped for a surefire hit: William Congreve’s The Way of the World, the greatest of Restoration dramas. It wasn’t new. The Way of the World had debuted 32 years previously, on March 5th, 1700. Congreve was the Shakespeare of Restoration dramatists and The Way of the World was his masterpiece. Renowned for its sheer verbal wit, its complex design and some half dozen brilliantly written and actable scenes. 

Anything else? Yes, for sure. Especially at this time of the year.

The mover and shaker behind that first Covent Garden Theatre was John Rich. A producer, director, theatre manager, and pantomimist, he’s an important figure in the history of eighteenth-century English theatre. And for our purposes today, what a fit! Because it was John Rich who brought that much-loved genre, pantomime, to the English theatre.

There’s more. The best seats for that first production of that first Covent Garden Theatre were on the stage. We know that from the advertisements for the show. Being in the audience, it must have been like being a cross-eyed boy at a three-ring circus. What do you look at? You’ve got the performers but you’ve also got the fops, dressed in their finery, lolling about, presumably pulling faces and putting on airs, doing everything they can to make sure they’re noticed. I mean, talk about being upstaged. Must have been hellacious for the actors. 

And then finally – and this is so London, this is what those of us who are in thrall to this city feel again and again – knowing that the first ever theatre in Covent Garden, the most luxurious theatre of its day, was in Bow Street, the very street that today boasts the Royal Opera House, London’s grandest theatre of our era, well, that’s just satisfying to know. And to it you can add of course the Bow Street Runners, the forerunners of the present-day police force. And that the greatest English actor of them all, David Garrick, lived on Bow Street. As did Congreve’s great fellow playwright William Wycherley. And that the great woodcarver Grinling Gibbons had premises on Bow Street. And that the most famous coffee house of all, Will’s, was on Bow Street. And that at one time it had eight pubs that concealed a number of brothels. Oh and the very powerful Oscar Wilde connection. The name of the game is knowing that stuff. It very much enriches a walk along Bow Street. It gives you a kind of 3-D vision. You see what’s there. But you also see what was there, you see with your mind’s eye. That London knowledge, well, it’s a little bit like having a property on the Monopoly board and loading it up with houses and eventually a hotel. Knowing that stuff – putting those houses on Bow Street – makes it much richer. London knowledge – it pays to have it, it’s dividends.

And a Today in London recommendation. Has to be: go to a Christmas panto. Maybe Jack and the Beanstalk at the Palladium. Or Sinderfella – they’re billing it as “filthy adult panto fun at the Prince of Wales Theatre.”

A further bit of advice, if you don’t know what a panto is, get a Brit to explain the phenomenon. Or read yourself in.

I’ll see if I can find time to get a bonus podcast up here on London Calling, the London Walks podcast chariot of London Fire. Get one of our actor guides to fill you in. Stand by. Watch this space. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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