I had read there was an important relic of John Vanbrugh’s Italian opera house in the Haymarket to be seen in Bedford Row. The first Haymarket theatre was co-managed, at least in the first instance, by Vanbrugh and William Congreve (the latter quickly got out when he realised that opera rarely turns a profit). The theatre had its foundation stone laid on April 18th 1704, and it was this – the stone – that I went to see on Bedford Row in the front garden of a law office.
In 1740 the actor Colley Cibber attested that the stone had “Little Whig” engraved on the one side. This was the nickname of Anne, Countess of Sunderland: daughter of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and a favourite of the Kit-Cat Club, who were bankrolling the Haymarket project. A contemporary journalist said the stone was laid “with great Solemnity by a Noble Babe of Grace” – presumably, Anne – 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”.
The stones outside number 42 Bedford Row – there are two because the foundation stone has apparently been cut in half – do carry these inscriptions. The “Kitt-Catt” one is slightly recessed, and given the remark above (which must be taken with a pinch of salt because the journalist was a Tory, and therefore probably hostile to the Whig opera house), I did wonder if a plate of silver was fitted into it. I can’t see how silver would have been fitted to the other side or underneath it.
How the stones ended up on Bedford Row is anyone’s guess, but I’m glad they’re being looked after.
Cibber, Colley, An Apology for the Life of Mr Colley Cibber, Comedian, ed., David Roberts (Cambridge, CUP, 2022), pp. 210-11.
Field, Ophelia, The Kit-Cat Club (London: Harper Perennial, 2009), fn 21, p. 449.