St James's, London

A literary guide

St. James’s, south of Piccadilly, between Mayfair and Westminster, is named after St James the Less, the dedicatee of St James Hospital, on the site of which Henry VIII built St James’s Palace in 1532-6.

By the end of the 17th century St James’s had become a highly fashionable locale due to its proximity to the Court. 

Numerous coffee shops lining St James’s Street and Pall Mall provided a rich source of gossip and intrigue for Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (founders of Tatler and The Spectator) regarding those vying for attention at Court or in the corridors of power on the other side of St James’s Park - the Palace of Westminster.

St James's Palace

Although no longer the principal residence of the monarch, St James's Palace remains the official residence of the Sovereign and foreign ambassadors are still formally accredited to the Court of St James's.

Elizabeth I was resident during the threat posed by the Spanish Armada in 1588 and set out from St James's to address her troops assembled at Tilbury, to the east of London.

Charles I was confined in St James's Palace during his trial, and it was from here, on Tuesday 30 January 1649, that he walked under guard to the Palace of Whitehall and the execution scaffold that had been erected in front of the Banqueting House where, at about 2pm, Charles put his head on the block.

George III bought Buckingham House (now Palace) in 1762 to provide greater space for his growing family, increasingly using St James's Palace only for conducting the most formal occasions. The move was formalised by Queen Victoria in 1837.

St James Infirmary Blues

The title of the jazz standard made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928, (based on the folk song 'St James Infirmary', which in turn was based on an 18th-century traditional English folk song called "The Unfortunate Rake" ) is said to derive from St James Hospital - the hospital that stood on the Palace site.

Whilst possibly (!) more legend than history, the endlessly adaptable song provides a good reason to print the legend. This is the first verse in the Louis Armstrong recording. 

I went down to St. James Infirmary,

Saw my baby there,

Stretched out on a long white table,

So cold, so sweet, so bare.


James Boswell

James Boswell (1740-95), who was living at Downing Street at the time, recorded in his diary on 20th March 1763 that he felt a carnal desire and so went into the Park to pick up a whore.

With his Life of Johnson Boswell can make a good claim to have invented modern biography. With his London Diaries he made an indelible contribution to the art of the diary form, and a vivid account of a life lived in full measure.

A compulsive diarist, Boswell recorded every aspect of his life, his hopes and ambitions, his successes and failures, his glories and his shame.

Extending over 8,000 pages, his journals provide an extraordinarily intimate portrait of a city and of a consciousness struggling with its own contradictions. As he writes on Sunday 27 November 1762, after attending Church at St James’s:

‘What a curious, inconsistent thing is the mind of man! In the midst of divine service I was laying plans for having women, and yet I had the most sincere feelings of religion’

His genuine love for his wife, and grief at her early death, was nevertheless combined with an inability to resist ‘female sport’ wherever opportunity arose – in St James’s Park, up alleyways, on Westminster Bridge.

He very quickly gained access to all the foremost characters of the age, Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, Sheridan and Adam Smith among them, but the worldly success that he craved eluded him.

Johnson famously gave Boswell the epithet ‘a very clubbable man’, but also, as recorded by Boswell himself in the Life (5 August 1763), likened him to a moth that had just burnt itself on the candle -

“That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was BOSWELL.”

The eldest son of a Scottish laird, Boswell could have enjoyed life as a solid and respected pillar of Edinburgh society, but he was drawn, inexorably, to the greater brilliance of London.

White's

37-38 St James’s Street

An Italian, Francesco Bianco, opened White’s Chocolate House at No. 28 St James’s Street in 1693. Over the years he moved premises several times, before finally relocating to Nos. 37-38 in 1755.

In the first issue of Tatler Steele described White’s as renowned for ‘accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure and Entertainment’.

In plate 6 of The Rake’s Progress (see detail below) Hogarth depicts Rakewell, his wig torn from his head and shaking his fist at the heavens, having lost his fortune in the gaming room at White’s.

Jonathan Swift referred to White’s as the ‘bane of half the English nobility’, shaking his fist in the direction of the club every time he passed, whilst inThe Dunciad (1728) Alexander Pope describes White’s as a place where one ‘may teach oaths to youngsters and to nobles wit’.

A fire destroyed the coffee house in 1773; it re-opened in 1775 as White’s Club and continues to this day.

In the illustration below, looking down St James's Street, White's is on the left, its name on the sign hanging over the pavement.

A Woman of Pleasure

The printshops and bookshops of St James’s and Bond Street competed with the coffee houses as centres of conversation, scandal and intrigue.

In the attic above Hannah Humphrey’s bookshop at No. 27 St James’s Street, the caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815) etched and printed his work. In July 1811 he attempted to kill himself by jumping out of the window; his eyesight had been failing since 1806.

John Cleland (1709-1789) was living at 37 St. James’s Place when in 1748 he published (anonymously) the risqué ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’, better known as Fanny Hill. It achieved enormous sales, bringing its publisher £10,000 - but only 20 guineas for its author.

St James's Coffee House

60 St James’s Street

Jonathan Swift wrote some of his letters to Esther Johnson, published posthumously as Journal to Stella (1766), at ‘St. James’s’ and used the address for his mail.

Addison and Steele regularly visited on Sunday evenings to gather political news for The Tatler and The Spectator. These folio sheet newspapers, comprising fluent essays on current moral or political issues, were published more or less daily from 1709 to 1711 and sold in the coffee houses.

They also contained advertisements for noteworthy publications and events including, for example, the latest books by Alexander Pope.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), proto-feminist, poet and wit, wrote one of her Six Town Eclogues (1747) about St.James’s, evoking the drinking and womanising for which the coffee houses had become notorious.

She advised Addison on his tragedy Cato (1712) and wrote The Spectator No. 573 for him in 1714. When in 1722 she rejected Alexander Pope’s declaration of love with an amused laugh, he became her enemy for life.

From 1773 Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick became habitués. In response to Garrick’s proposal that they write each other’s epitaph, Goldsmith wrote Retaliation: A Poem (1774) at St. James’s.

In the poem Goldsmith sets out to provide epitaphs for ten friends – including himself and Garrick – all of whom he imagines gathered around a table. He died before completing the poem. In 1806 the Coffee House closed down, having been superseded by Brook’s Club.

St James's Park

Charles II renovated the park by planting new trees and constructing the Mall. Nell Gwynne’s house stood on the south side of Pall Mall, with its garden in the park.

The Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot (1647-80), pictured left, wrote A Ramble in St James’ Park (1672), which captures an aspect of the Park at the time:

Much Wine had pass’d, with grave Discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse ..

And nightly now, beneath their shade
Are Buggeries, Rapes and Inceasts made ..
Great Ladies, Chambermaids and Drudges
The Rag-picker and the Heiress trudges.

Carmen, Divines, Great Lords and Taylors
Prentices, Poets, Pimps and Jayles,
Footmen, fine Fopps do here arrive
And here – promiscuously – they swive ..

Sexual activity in the Park also caught the attention of Alexander Pope in the second book of Horatian Satires, Imitations (1735):

My Lord of London, chancing to remark
A noted Dean much busy’d in the Park
‘Proceed’ he cry’d, ‘proceed my Reverend Brother
‘tis Fornicatio Simplex and no other;
Better than lust for Boys, with Pope and Turk
Or other Spouses like my Lord of York’.

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