Jermyn Street History

I have this idea — not original, not new, but still, an idea that feels so deeply my own that I can’t shake it and have to act on it.  Yet I’ve had the idea for over eight months and am only now getting around to clearing the decks and saying to myself, “It matters enough to you to do this and do little but this until it’s done.”  So, yeah, I guess there’s a been a real ambivalence, a sort of sheepishness about putting it and myself forward.  But here it goes. 

I have to tell the story of one street in London, Jermyn Street.  It’s not a long street and it’s not by London standards a very old street.  We’re talking late seventeenth century, 1680s roughly.  But when it came to life, it did so fairly quickly, again, by London standards.  I suddenly had a vision of Main Street in a Wilde West town, built over night with shoot-outs at noon the next day.  No, nothing like that for Jermyn Street.  The street let itself be filled by those seeking to serve the slightest needs, desires and whims of the wealthy, be they members of Court or the aristocracy who began to populate the grand houses of St James’s Square.  The finest wines, the best cigars, the sweetest perfumes could be found on Jermyn Street, and hotels sprung up for those who couldn’t get enough of the ambience of the place.  Sir Christopher Wren designed its beautiful church and, uniquely for Wren in London, had the land space to design it exactly as he wished without being cramped by neighbouring properties.  There were prostitutes round the corner on Bury Street, and the enviable doings of the Court and the gentlemen’s clubs nearby, and, as the centuries passed, all this activity resulted in Jermyn Street acquiring an interesting cachet.

Along with all the shirt shops and shoe shops and hatters, the street drew to it Turkish baths and entertainers, hotels, cigar shops, perfumeries, art dealers, restaurants, and, most important of all for me but so often forgotten by Jermyn Street’s frequenters — a theatre.  As part of my work for Jermyn Street Theatre, I am digging up and integrating all this history into a series of talks on the street that I am hoping to give to anyone willing to listen in the near future.  A lot of famous people have had sex on this street (including many of the bibulous guests of Rosa Lewis’s Cavendish Hotel)– or tried to (like Rock Hudson, before he was thrown own of the Savoy Baths in 1952); slept on this street (like Isaac Newton and Walter Scott); and many have died on the street (including the 1930s crooner Al Bowlly from a 1941 German bomb).  And somehow, when the street becomes the focus of the tale, their lives serve as a kind of tribute to the evolving, open personality of the place.

Its great church, St. James’s, allows homeless people to sleep in its pews.  It is filled with fashionable mensware shops spouting the finest quality of clothing and accoutrements imaginable.  It can all feel very expensive and distant for those of us walking down the street with little or no money to spend.  Basically, you walk to admire but don’t feel you can walk in, really, or are a little reluctant to.  Working on this history, “working the street”, as it were, is helping me overcome that reluctance.  I walk into shops, have these odd little chats promoting our odd little theatre, and walk out, having enjoyed being for a few moments surrounded by shirts and ties of every design and colour arranged in the most satisfying manner possible.  Everyone is very kind.  And somehow the humanity and wide tolerance of the place that comes from its history comes through in these not-too-awkward moments.

To hear the whole story of the street, you’ll have to find a way to come to one of my talks, scheduled to begin in April 2014 on Friday afternoons (watch this space).  But suffice it to say for now that it all began with one Henry Jermyn, who may well have been the father of Charles II, and who was without doubt much beloved by Henrietta Maria.  Jermyn was the Queen’s closest companion, her stalwart during the Civil War and the Commonwealth, and he was rewarded well, with a huge grant of land from which he had carved out St. James’s Square and its surrounding streets.  Scandal had surrounded his name for years, but in the end he was fabulously wealthy and able to get Christopher Wren to build his grand church while he lived close by in suitably grand style.  Needless to say, the church became the most fashionable one in London with a congregation so well dressed that, in the eighteenth century, many attended services solely to see and be seen.  There’s nothing puritanical about this street, nothing dry or condemning, and, in knowing that, the fact that there’s a lot of beautiful stuff on sale that most of us cannot afford doesn’t seem to matter quite so much.  At least we can go in the shops, look at those costly goods, touch, taste, smell and admire many of them, delight in the atmosphere much as we might in a public art gallery — except that on Jermyn Street, there is this zing of exclusivity.  And we can feel, I guess, a little privileged, even a little blessed, for having simply walked in, out and around.