Bedford Row, London, November 2023.

I wrote the other day (in Operatic foundations: A relic of the Haymarket theatre) about the curious stones in the front garden of a law office in Bedford Row and how I think they once formed the foundation of John Vanbrugh’s Italian opera house.

I quoted a contemporary journalist (and the source here was Ophelia Field’s excellent book, The Kit-Cat Club) who wrote that the foundation stone was laid “with great Solemnity by a Noble Babe of Grace” – i.e., Anne Spencer, Countess of Sunderland – adding that “over and under [it] is a plate of Silver, on which is Graven Kit Cat on the one side, and Little Whig on the other”.

If proof were needed that it’s always best to go back to the original source, I located the quotation (from Charles Leslie’s The Rehearsal of Observator, &c.) and see that Field (or someone she quotes from) has mistranscribed it. It should in fact read “over or under” – OR not AND.

This might seem a small point, but it does raise the question whether Leslie actually saw the laying of the foundation stone at all. I note that he was writing in 1705, after the opening of the Queen’s Theatre, so was at some distance from the event in question. He was also a Tory and pre-disposed to make the Whigs look extravagant (which is why I wanted to know whether he was saying the stone was completely covered in silver or not).

Here is the whole quote from the source:

The Foundation was laid with great Solemnity, by a Noble Babe of Grace. And over or under the Foundation Stone is a Plate of Silver, on which is Graven Kit Cat on the one side, and Little Whigg on the other. This is in Futuram rei Memoriam, that after Ages may know by what Worthy Hands, and for what good Ends this stately Fabrick was Erected.

By the way, as Field points out, a 19th-century report says that on March 19th 1825, workmen removing part of the walls of the Italian opera house discovered some coins along with a stone bearing the following inscription:

April 18th, 1704. This corner-stone of the Queen’s Theatre was laid by his Grace Charles Duke of Somerset.

So, as you can see, history is rarely straightforward!