A walk through Cecil Court’s history

Following on from my earlier post about filming scenes in London’s iconic Cecil Court, I thought I should expand a little upon the history of this extraordinary location.

Cecil Court (1892) by F. Calvert, ©Westminster City Archives

While today the street is famed for its bookshops, this reputation only blossomed over the last century. Prior to Cecil Court’s late-Victorian renovation (which saw the facades smartened into their current incarnation) the street was in a rather more rundown state. In 1888, as the Ripper murders gripped the international press, all eyes were on London, and the New York Times described Cecil Court as comprising “dilapidated, rickety, unsanitary tenements.”

It was an area with a colourful history of crooks and crimes. In 1735, the mother of the famous satirical artist William Hogarth died in the aftermath of a fire which swept from Cecil Court through nearby St Martin’s Court. The cause of the fire was found to be arson, committed by the owner of Cecil Court’s bawdy brandy shop, Elizabeth Calloway. She is said to have over-insured her stock, emptied her brandy barrels, stocked up on kindling, and gone off drinking elsewhere, leaving her tenants to run for their lives as the flames took hold.

A mere 30 or so years later, Cecil Court was to have its most famous resident. Amazingly, the child genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived in Cecil Court during his eighth year. Indeed, there is currently a campaign underway for a plaque to recognise the fact. Between April 24th and August 6th 1764, the Mozart family was lodged with Cecil Court’s barber, John Couzin at a cost of 12 shillings a week.

In April and May of that year, the young prodigy Mozart set off from this humble ramshackle street to perform for King George III and Queen Charlotte. Even more strikingly, it was at this time that Mozart composed his first ever symphonies, so it appears he did so in Cecil Court.

In more recent history, once Cecil Court’s shabby appearance was revised by the late Victorian improvements, the street would go on to gain fame as an important centre of British film industry. In that hopeful embryonic period beginning in the 1890s and ending as the Great War trampled over the ambitions of European cinema, Cecil Court came to acquire the quaint nickname of Flicker Alley, as the address witnessed an explosion of early film companies.

And so it is doubly apt that we should produce our own independent short film here, where so many independent producers long ago distributed their silent shorts; and that our independent short film should acknowledge Cecil Court’s other great reputation, of bookselling. Of the various atmospheric bookshops in Cecil Court, two in particular are glimpsed in The Last Bookshop. Namely, Goldsboro Books and David Drummond’s Pleasures of Past Times.

The latter shop (as seen here crowding our seated Shopkeeper played by Alfred Hoffman) is a delightful cavern of theatrical ephemera bursting with “books, playbills… Victoriana and postcards.” David Drummond himself is notable for being the longest-serving shopkeeper still operating in Cecil Court today. His bookshop opened here in 1967, and over the last 40-odd years its emphasis has shifted from children’s literature into becoming a physical manifestation of David’s considerable accumulated knowledge of the performing arts.

Meanwhile, a few doors down from David Drummond, this image of our Shopkeeper descending a staircase is from a sequence we filmed in Goldsboro Books, at 23/25 Cecil Court. Originally two shop units, now knocked into one, this premises has a more grisly recent past. In 1961, number 23 was an antique shop, and it was here that 53 year old shop assistant, Elsie May Batten was murdered. A customer enquiring after ceremonial blades stabbed her on the morning of 3rd March 1961. Her body was discovered soon afterwards by the shop’s owner, Louis Meier.

For the first time ever, British police implemented the new Indentikit system to build up an impression of the suspect’s face. He was correctly identified as 21 year old Edwin Bush, who had been in the shop the day before the murder, when he was served by Mr Meier. This landmark case resulted in Bush becoming the second-to-last criminal to be executed in London, and the Identikit becoming a standard tool of British policing. You can read more about the historic case on the Metropolitan Police website.

But enough of such macabre memories. Given The Last Bookshop’s theme of a child discovering his love of books, I can think of no better way of concluding this short history than with a very special version of one of the most perfect children’s books ever written: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The really magical thing is that this short silent film was distributed from 17 Cecil Court, by the shop’s owner (and the film’s co-director) Cecil Hepworth. It is the first ever film version of Alice, and was made in 1903, when Lewis Caroll’s classic was a mere 37 years old, and it is really rather beautiful…

For a more in depth look at the history of Cecil Court, from the 1600s through to recent times (including a selection of fascinating historic maps) you are well advised to consult the source of much of the above, namely the sterling research of Tim Bryars on the History page of the official Cecil Court website.

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