Thursday, February 28, 2013

Covent Garden

Today's Covent Garden is a very different place to where my 3x great grandfather George Ruthven used to pound his beat in 1810.  Or is it?

Once a 'convent' garden, the Italianate development was the brain child of the Earl of Bedford in the 17th century. Initially home to the rich and influential, by 1670 a number of sheds and stalls selling fruit and veg had pitched up along the south side of the square and the demographics of the area promptly changed.

At the end of the 18th century it was better known for its brothels. Samuel Derrick, failed actor and smelly poet, compiled Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies: Or, Man of Pleasure's Kalender.  Originally thought to have been the work of John Harrison, head waiter at the Shakespeare's Head, it is now believed that Harrison merely loaned his name to the best seller, earning a commission for so doing.

In 1810 seventeen year old George Thomas Joseph Ruthven joined his father and elder brother as an officer in the Bow Street peace keeping force. The first Runners were paid a retainer of 11s 6d a week plus expenses and the majority continued to maintain a second job, although not always on the right side of the law.

George's father Archibald retired in 1812 and by 1816 the brothers's career paths had diverged.  Elder brother Archibald slipped into the seedier side of 19th century police work. He began setting up known offenders to commit crimes, then taking not only a share of the proceeds but the reward for an arrest as well - until he was arrested as part of the clean up campaign.

Meanwhile George went on to gain public acclaim and an international reputation and was named as being one of a dozen elite officers who served under the Bow Street magistrate Sir Richard Birnie between 1821 and 1832.  During 30 years' service George travelled extensively, across the British Isles and overseas; the crimes he investigated ranged from pick-pocketing to murder. But the case that was to bring him to national recognition and put him firmly in the history books was the Cato Street Conspiracy.

The market hall tourists visit today was built in 1830.  By then George had graduated from Bow Street Runner to detective. But when Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police force merged with the Runners in 1839 George decided to retire. He became landlord of the One Tun Inn in Chandos Street, Covent Garden. It was here that he died, aged 51, in March 1844. He is buried in the churchyard at St Paul's, Covent Garden.

The life and times of my ancestor George Ruthven continue to fascinate me.  His extraordinary career and colourful personal life were apparently unknown to later generations of the family. Unfortunately both my mother and my aunt had died long before I made any of these discoveries.

It has been some time since I have made the pilgrimage to Covent Garden but having recently read the magnificent Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch I wanted to revisit the area in which my ancestor spent most of his working life.

Mullins and Westley Ltd., tobacconists shop inside Covent Garden

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

St Paul's, Covent Garden where George is buried and where Constable Peter Grant meets the only witness to a gruesome crime, the long dead Nicholas Wallpenny.

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