About twelve o’clock at night the public house known by the sign of the Heathcock in the Strand, fell down to the ground in a sliding manner, into an adjoining court, which was thought to be occasioned by some houses rebuilding on the other side. It so fortunately happened that all the company were just gone, though the mistress of the house who was in bed fell from the second floor into the court, but the bed falling under her, and the timber lying hollow, she got little or no hurt.(1)
This unfortunate accident took place on 12 January, 1754, which is already earlier than what Bryant Lillywhite claims as the starting date for the Heathcock tavern in his book London signs. He gives the tavern a start in the 1760s, but it must have opened at least ten years earlier. Heathcock Court itself is even older than the tavern. John Stow in his Survey already mentions it and according to him it had “pretty handsome buildings”.(2) According to E. Beresford, Heathcock Court takes it name from the Heathcock tavern(3), but that seems to be contradicted by what Stow writes.
The entrance to the Court can be found on the left of the 415 Strand Nationwide building. It is sometimes closed by a fence, but is normally open during the daytime. As you can see in the Google View picture, the entrance is slightly set back into the building (it is that dark hole behind the man walking away towards the left) and as such does not stand out, but you can walk right through the court, turn left at the end, then right to find yourself in Maiden Lane. The Nationwide building dates from 1912, but has been redeveloped in more recent times by Brimelow McSweeney Architects (see here). If truth be told, Heathcock Court can hardly be called a court; it is more a narrow alley with a roof. The Strand entrance used to be graced by a heathcock in a shell canopy, and was, according to one Mr. Leland Weever, “the last existing sign in London giving its name to a court”.(4) The heathcock sign was removed not long after Weever’s remark in 1844 and the modern replacement – nice as it is – unfortunately has no link at all to the origin of the name.
Heathcock is just another name for black grouse (Tetrao tetrix in Latin), sometimes also called a blackcock. According to the RSPB “habitat loss and overgrazing have resulted in severe population declines which make this a Red List species”. And Wikipedia says that since late Victorian times, the tail feathers have been used to adorn the hats worn with Highland Dress in some areas and are worn since 1904 on the uniform of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Hmmmm, I hope they just use the ones lost naturally by the bird, or even artificial ones, and that no bird is shot for their feathers!
Many businesses have been run from Heathcock Court itself, but for this post I will concentrate on the Heathcock Tavern. As can be expected, the tavern saw a number of proprietors during the course of the centuries and we know a few of their names from various sources. From an Old Bailey trial, for instance, we know that James Sedway was the publican in September 1763. It cannot have been Mrs Sedway, by the way, who tumbled down with her bed, as James Sedway said at the trial that he kept “the Heathcock in the Strand; this day 7 weeks”. From the Sun Fire Office insurance records we can list the following:
December 1792: Sorman
August 1794: Richard Kerrey
September 1809: Joseph Belshaw
August 1824: John Stonnell
June 1833: James Charles Chapman
June 1837: Harriet Hyatt
And from yet other sources, we have:
before 1816-1817: John Honner, father of Robert William Honner, the actor and theatre manager, who gave up his solicitor job to take over the Heathcock. Although the Wikipedia article on his son does not give a date for the take over, the land Tax records for Westminster list him there in 1816. Honner senior died in April 1817; the Heathcock is called a ‘chophouse’ in his will, so I assume one could eat as well as drink there.
Before 1840: Thomas Calvert, late Superintendent of the Heathcock Tavern … in the Fleet Prison. (London Gazette, Feb. 1840)
Yes, I know, the list of publicans is far from complete, but if I come across some more names, I’ll add them over time. Suggestions welcome.
(1) The Chronological Historian, or, a record of Public Events, volume 2, 1835.
(2) John Stow, A survey of the cities of London and Westminster, borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent (1598), volume 2 (ed. by R. Seymour = J. Mottley, 1735), p. 653.
(3) E. Beresford, The annals of the Strand, (c. 1912), p. 54.
(4) Fraser’s Magazine, vol. 29 (1844), p. 385.
You may also like to read the post in my London Street Views blog on Thomas Warne who ran his business from Heathcock Court.