Sunday, 29 July 2012

Covent Garden & Sir John Baber, the Plague and a vanished monument

Fig. 1. Covent Garden in 1737 by Balthazar Nebot 
[Please click on image for larger version.]

The following blog is written in the hope that it might attract the attention of somebody with a deeper knowledge of events in Covent Garden during the period between 1650 and 1700 than I currently have, or who may have had access to records or accounts that I have yet to find.

My interest in Covent Garden stems from the discovery that one of my great x 8 grandfathers, Sir John Baber was a doctor living in Covent Garden at the time of the 1665 Plague and the 1660 Great Fire of London.

At the time he was one of three Physician's to King Charles II, and it is clear that he played a leading role in events during the plague of 1665.

That his role had been very important is demonstrated by the gratitude of the local community expressed in the erection of a stone column that once stood in the centre of the Plaza at Covent Garden, and which can clearly been seen in Balthazar Nebot's painting and several other paintings from the period.

The column was erected in 1668-9 and stood there until about 1750.  It was erected by a Mr. Tomlinson, a churchwarden using funds raised by the parishioners of Covent Garden.

Fig. 2. Extract from Nebot's painting showing the column.

“The churchwardens of St Paul's Church accounts record that 

"Upon due consideration of those many signall services, that the Honorable Sir John Baber hath don this Parish from Time to Time Wee thought it good to affix his Coate of Armes, in one of the Sheilds belonging to the Colume, as a Perpetuall acknowledgement of our gratitude, and to Refuse any present from him that should be tendered Towards the Charge thereof.” [1]

Fig3. Photo of a miniature of Sir John Baber by Gibson.

By 1665 Sir John Baber had been Physician to King Charles II for about four years. He was one of three Physician's who took it in turn to attend at court on the King, for which he was promised payment for 112 days per year.

In October 1667, Sir John petitioned “for a warrant for payment from the Exchequer of 954l 4s. arrears of his pension of 12s a day, from 1st December 1662 to 16th April 1667, there being no fund at the Green Cloth from which it can be paid.”.  He annexed a “Note of monies due to Sir John Baber; for 1597 days, total., 958l 4s.”[2]

It is thought that he had obtained this post through the recommendation of a near neighbour, Dr. Manton, rector of St. Paul's Covent Garden, who with other Presbyterian divines, had taken prominent part in the restoration Charles II. He had however had the honour of Knighthood being also bestowed on him 19 March 1660 at the Restoration, immediately after the King had returned from exile, which suggests that he had played some part in those events.

I have no real idea what this role was?

Can anybody point me in the direction of any accounts that cover his involvement, or which might have clues in them?

It is a great pity that no account seems to have survived of Sir John’s role during the Great Plague.
That he did play a significant role is however clear from the following document, which describes arrangements that were made so that the Court could return to London, from it’s self imposed exile to Oxford made to avoid becoming caught up in the epidemic.

December 19th 1665. Westminster.

Edm Godfrey to Fras. Lann.  Memoranda to be imparted to Mountjoy Earl of Newport.

            The workhouse in the New Churchyard is finished, and the vault made the largest burying place in England.  The Lords Chamberlain’s letter, published by the King’s order in all churches near Whitehall, has been of great use to prevent the swarming of rascally lodgers, who, if they have not occasioned, have greatly spread the plague there, and brought more charge on the inhabitants than they are able to support.

            All the common Sewers and watercourses have been cleaned against the return of the King and Court.  Has paid Dr. Innard at the pest house 200l, for services till All Hallow’s Day.
            Since which he pretends to higher terms, on some agreement with Sir John Baber.  He and all his regiment are to be dismissed the pesthouse, except three warders and a nurse or two, to prevent its being pulled down as formerly.

            Has met Mr. Warcupp twice a week in Convent Garden Vestry Meetings; they have agreed well, and the people seem satisfied with there government, except some poor, who cry out through dearness of fuel, and want of employment because King & Court are away, and some of the nobility and gentry forget their debts as well as their charity.  They have ordered all churchyards where many have been buried to be filled up with fresh mould, and earth a yard high laid on the graves etc. etc.[4]

From the above text it would appear that Sir John must have been one of those people in authority, who had remained in London to battle with the disease amongst those who could not flee. 

As both one of the local doctors and also a Justice of the Peace, I expect that he must have been amongst those who attended the meetings of the St. Paul’s Vestry which had taken place twice a week. I expect Sir John had had to promise Dr. Innard and his brave staff a great deal, in order to get them to remain at their post in the Pesthouse.

Inhabitants of Yaverland to Sir W. Oglander
The Humble desire of ye Inhabitants of yaverland August the 30th (65)
These few lines are to entreate yor worpp for to send to Bradinge yt they might sett a watch & ward to keepe out all newport people out of the towne wee are resolved to keepe a gard day & night att yarbridge & wee have beene with Major Holmes att the fort & he hath promise that none shall come that way & we doe understand that the Lady Richards is minded to come to Yaverland too morrow but we are resolved for to stop her & not to lett her come in & wee are fearfull if she might come in thorough Brading & soe to come over the wall by ye sluce therefore we thought fitt to acquainte your worshipp with it hopeinge that yor worshipp will send to Bradinge that they might secure that way 

In much of Europe there was a tradition of building ornamental columns to celebrate a city or towns deliverance from the Plague.  The Piazza at Covent Garden when it was originally laid out had an empty square.  At some point in the 1630’s a single solitary tree was planted in the centre of the Piazza surrounded by some wooden railings.  In 1668 it was decided by the parishioners that a column be erected to replace the tree which was not growing very well.  A Mr. Tomlinson, who was probably Richard Tomlinson, a churchwarden, proposed the erection of the column.  In 1668 he informed the vestry: -

“that he and his gentlemen had a desire to erect a Doricke columne of polished marble, for the support of a quadrangular dyall in the midst of the railes where now the trees are, it being very improbable that they should ever come to any maturity.” [6]

The Churchwarden’s accounts for 1668-9 record the receipts of gifts “towards the Erecting of the Columne - £20 from the fifth Earl of Bedford, and £10 each from Sir Charles Cotterell, master of ceremonies, and Lord Denzil Holles. 

£90 was paid to “Mr Keizar at the Sculpture of the Pallas for the Columne”, 8s. 6d. to Mr Wainwright for the four gnomons, and £2to Mr. Browne, “the mathematician, for his paines about the dial.”

10s. was paid for “ Drawing A Modell of the Columne to be presented to the Vestry.”

Then the churchwardens accounts go on to record that “Upon due consideration of those many signall services, that the Honorable Sir John Baber hath don this Parish from Time to Time Wee thought it good to affix his Coate of Armes, in one of the Heilds belonging to the Columne, as a Perpetual acknowledgement of our gratitude, and to Refuse any present from him that should be tendered Towards the Charge thereof.” [7]

John Baber had lived in the area from at least 1655.

The following entries in the cover page of the Overseers of the poor record that he was paying contributions for the poor, along with his neighbours.

Handberrye Overseers

For the Poore of the Parrish

Of Convent Garden [8]
Anno Dm


Page 1

Poore of the Parrishe of Convent
Garden Anno Dm 1655.

West Division

Henretta Street


Right Honoble Earles of Bedford
Jerfox Braves

Honoble Lady Wootton

Will Lord Munson

Samuel Cooper

Mary Norfolk

John Jerman

Richard Doe

Abr Soaudebrug

Ralph Snillorke

Hugh Sharpington

John Baber

John Bradshaw

John Share

Edward Wallinger

Solloman Moore

John Staley

Fig. 4. An engraving dating from 1690 showing
A bonfire next to the column in the Piazza at Covent Garden [9]

As Sir John did not die until 1704, it is very possible that he saw the events portrayed above in 1690. He was buried in the St Paul's Church and the family erected a large monument to his memory. Sadly the church burned out in the 19th Century destroying the interior and the monument.

Fig. 5. John Rocque drew the Piazza in 1742 when
 the monument can still be clearly seen.

Fig. 6. Covent Garden by Samuel Scott showing . Scott lived on the east side
of the piazza until about 1758 when he moved to Twickenham. 
[Click on image for a larger version] 

It is not known when the column finally came down, or what became of it. I don't suppose that anything survives, but it would be fun to find it hidden away like Temple Bar.

If you can add any thing to the information above, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted at

[1] Survey of London, page 79, Covent Garden Churchwarden's Accounts
[2] C.S.P.D. Volume CXCVII paragraph 93
[3] C.S.P.D. Volume CXXXIX 1665-1666 paragraph 68
[4] Source: (OG/89/11) from
[5] See “Survey of London, Volume XXXVI, page 79, and 331, originally from British Library scrapbook
[6] See “Survey of London, Volume XXXVI, page 79, and 331, originally from British Library scrapbook entitled “Gleanings relating to the Parish of Covent Garden Westminster” pressmark 1889 a 20
[7] Covent Garden Churchwardens Accounts, Westminster Records Office.
[8] House of Commons Journal Volume 7: 10 March 1660', Journal of the House of Commons: volume 7: 1651-1660 (1802), pp. 868-71
[9] See Survey of London, volume XXXVI, page xv.  Original is part of the Crace Collection in the British Museum, Views portfolio xviii.

[5]  entitled “Gleanings relating to the Parish of Covent Garden Westminster” pressmark 1889 a 20.

Holne August 1853. [Please click on images for larger versions.]

 The water colour shows Holme Church and Church House Inn.  This house has changed very little since the water colour was done as can be seen from the following photograph.

Church House Inn Holne.[1]

By comparing the water colour, photos and Google Earth it is possible to work out the approximate location from which the water colour was drawn. It appears that a house and the farmyard would probably block any modern artist from capturing this view, but it is still possible to find several of the buildings shown in the picture.

A Google Earth Image marked to show the approximate view point
from which the water colour was drawn.

The view point must have been on the lane to the east of the village.
The blue arrows show the artists view point.

It is not entirely clear who the artist was, but it is very probable that it was Sarah Nicholson sister of William Nicholson, who was the Rector of Corscombe in Dorset.  

At letter from William Nicholson to his sister Sarah Nicholson.  The letter is written in a cross pattern.  This way of writing was used to limit the number of sheets sent, in the days before the Penny Post, because postage was paid by the sheet.

The letter written to Sarah Nicholson reads as follows:

                                                                                                                                Holne, Ashburton.
My dear dear Sarah,
                I hope by this you are snug and comfortable at Folkestone.  The weather is broken up here, and I fear will not be much better with you.  May the change be of benefit to you both!  Take as much air as you can without risk or over fatigue.
                Your present is most acceptable, it is decidedly the right article, for which I have long been on the look out.  How very busy you must have been.  I sometimes feel disposed to bewail my hard lot that I cannot witness your energetic proceedings.
                We hope to hear tomorrow of your safe arrival with good accounts of dear Mother.  Do you think it necessary to return to meet the Travellers?
                I will give you some account of our proceedings yesterday we heard that Prince’s Town and its prison , you have looked at from Benjay Tor, were well worth a visit.  So off we set.  The day proved gloomy, but rain did not come down till some hours after our return.  The greatest incident was that we completely lost our way on the desolate moor and for an anxious hour were wandering about, without even the track of a cartwheel to guide us, amidst huge boulders, rocks and unwished for bogs, only admired by such specimen hunters as yourself.  However even Eliza forgot to hunt for the bottle beauties, our eyes being directed far and wide for some traces of a trodden path, and John’s confidence began to grow pale.  I resolved to preserve in a straight forward direction, knowing that at the worst we could always return, at length we found ourselves on the borders of an oasis in the wilderness, a well managed model farm in the midst of the desolation of the barren moor.  For this point all went on horrid enough.
                The horses behaved well only Eliza complained of bumps behind, I mean the back part of the carriage.  I greatly wished you had been with us, and as we were returning homeward, John very much regretted that Miss Sarah had not seen what we had seen that day.  Prisoners are prisoners all the world over, we certainly saw plenty of ill looking fellows, working in gangs, the greatest number in your favourite bog, cutting and carrying turf for fires.  We found the Sun at Prince’s Town very dirty and comfortless, and do not intend to go there again.
                Eliza is busy with her elementary books, she often wishes you were here, especially when we meet with any thing a little amusing, for we find it very hard to get a good laugh now you are gone.
                You will not get many sketches at Folkestone I fear, as far as I remember the houses look as if they had fallen from heaven in a sort of hail storm.
                Take a good scampering ride now and then along the downs of Dover and Deal.
                Do tell me exactly how you are and give me a full account of dear Mother.
                This is a most depressing day for me and the throat has not forgotten to sing its old song.  However as the Doctor says I continue to hold my ground.  Do not forget us.
                                Give my best love to dear Mother.
                                Your very loving Br.

Sarah often stayed with her brother William at Corscombe, and it appears from the letter that she may have travelled to Dartmoor with William during August of 1853 and to Holne, before setting off by September to Folkestone to stay with her Mother.  William’s letter makes it clear that Sarah had previously been up Banjay Tor, and was going to be sketching at Folkestone, so it is quite likely that these are earlier examples of her work.

Holne Bridge, the oldest in Devonshire
Augst 1853

Sarah appears to have visited the New Bridge at Holne which was built in about 1413. There was also an even older bridge so she appears to have been mislead as to its being the oldest bridge in Devonshire.  It is recognisably Holne Bridge, however Sarah appears to have struggled with the perspective as the arch appears to be rounder in modern photos and the approach ramps flatter. Has the bridge been modified since 1853?

We have no idea who they were staying with, or where. It is possible that it was in the Church House Inn. Was William acting as a stand in for the Parson perhaps during the summer?