Episode 89. Thomas Arne in Covent Garden

Like many of the places in London, Covent Garden has evolved over the years. It started from humble beginnings as a convent garden for Westminster Abbey is moved through many guises over the centuries from a home to the aristocracy and the main centre of theatrical life in London. It developed into the largest produce market in the world. The rapid expansion of the market altered the character of the area along with a bustling commercial market, two theatres, the first theatre Royal and Drury lane, and the Royal opera on Bow Street were built.

Each theatre had letters, patent granted by Charles II, allowing them to be the only London theatres able to perform spoken. This made Covent Garden London’s theatrical centre, attracting droves of theatregoers, who thronged the streets of Drury Lane and Bow Street and brought in their wake, a flourishing trade in prostitution.

The residing nobility, living at a time where where a respectable address was everything, moved further to London’s west. And it is here where we begin today’s episode.

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Your host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).


Guest: Barbara Wright

Guiding is my passion. I am a fully qualified City of Westminster tour guide. I’m ready to show you London in all its glory, where you can see and learn about how this great city works. I’ve been guiding for the last couple of years, generally covering historical and cultural walking tours in Royal, Tudor, restoration, Regency and 19th century London (especially Westminster) and central areas with other neighbourhoods such as Soho, Covent Garden, Marylebone and Belgravia.


Guided Walk:

Composers of the West End

Related Podcasts:

Episode 17: The Proms and the Royal Albert Hall

Episode 63: Hendrix and Handel in London

Episode 57: The Gerald Coke Handel Collections

Episode 82: Ballet in London


Related Blog posts:

A Hidden Icon: Ivor Novello


Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Joining me in the studio today is Barbara Wright. She’s a City of Westminster tour guide and amateur musician. She has been doing a brand new walking tour called Classical Composers in the West End.

I went on this a couple of weeks ago being a music fan myself, as I’m sure you all know by now, and it’s absolutely riveting. One of the key people that Barbara talks about is Thomas Arne, and I wanted to know more about him and his London life. And I’m sure you do too. So Barbara is with us today.


Barbara Wright: Hello, 

Hazel Baker: Thomas Arne is a name that maybe people might not know, but they certainly would know some of his music wouldn’t they?

Barbara Wright: Oh yes, they would. You’d never guess that he wrote the national anthem and he wrote a lot of songs that are actually in an English song book, which if ever you went to a school that had a song, but it probably had a few of his songs in. Thomas Arne was a very interesting man, born in Covent Garden.

Hazel Baker: When people think about Covent Garden, they think of maybe the boutique shops and maybe the opera house, which of course we touched in episode 82 of Ballet in London, but Thomas Arne, most of his life he’s actually spent in and around Covent Garden.

Barbara Wright: Yes he did. And that to me is one of the most fascinating things about Covent Garden. It used to be more of a place for ordinary people to live the ordinary people who didn’t earn a lot of money. Didn’t have a lot of money lived in common garden and particularly artistic types. Particularly musical types, even composers, there were quite a few composers and musicians in the 18th century, living in Covent Garden.

And Thomas Arne on was born at 31 King Street, bang in between, Covent Garden and  Leicester Square. Can you imagine? That’s amazing! And his parents were not well off. They were upholsterers and that was not a rich family. He was born there because they weren’t that well off. And this is quite common.

His parents, the last thing that they would want him to do is go into anything artistic, because anything artistic meant an insecure life. Okay. So his parents wants to attend to become a solicitor and he was articled to be a solicitor, but in secret, he was learning the spin at which kind of harpsichord.

And he used to put his handkerchief over it at night so that he could actually practice when the family were sleeping.

Hazel Baker: I was thinking about the practicalities of this, because at school we used to put newspaper between the hammers and the strings in order to deaden the sounds a little bit. And I’m thinking when putting a handkerchief over, maybe he’s doing that a bit, like how you put a muffle on a bell to a minimise the sound.

And so he ends up at night. What is your teenager by now? Was he? Is this what it is? 

Barbara Wright: He was a teenager by this time. And the thing was also what he did was that he was so keen on the opera. And the theatre that he dressed up as what was called a livery manner, smart servants to go to the theatre and opera.

And it was there that he met a man called Michael vesting, who was also a local composer. He was also a violent. He played at the would have been then the Queens theatre Haymarket played the violin there. He took Thomas Arne on, under his wing and taught him the violin and also showed him around. Gave him contacts.

So that was absolutely critical. And the thing about Thomas Arne Allen is that a, he was living in this environment, which was very packed with people all day and night. There were people they live close together, cheap budget. That’s how it was lots of artists, musicians, et cetera, lots of visitors. So you couldn’t not bump into people.

This was the point because of that. You bumped into people who were like yourself who happened to be there because there were so many theatres in that area or musical places. So there was Drury lane theatre. There was Covent Garden opera, and obviously mentioned the Haymarket, but also the 17th and 18th century.

We’re growing up, lots of places to listen to music, which was not in a church. So pubs particularly there was a place down on the strand where you can go to listen to music in a pub. And that was because there was nowhere else to go to start with secular music. 

Hazel Baker: And what’s an exciting time to live as a teenager.

You’re in a place where the arts is alive, literally on your doorstep. You’re being inspired by people that you will going to be bumping into. You’re dressing up as an, every man to go and see these performances. And then you are muffling. Lynette and playing it in your bedroom at night when your parents sleep.

He was really following something from the heart, wasn’t it? 

Barbara Wright: Yes. Yes. And the interesting thing about it, particularly with. Whereas today, if you are you are of modest means like that. You wouldn’t be living, you wouldn’t be able to live in somewhere like Covent Garden and be near all that culture.

You’d been living out in the suburbs where only if you got the money to get on the tube and come into London, would you experience that bus when she gets in most capital cities somewhere? But it was particularly like that in the 18th century. So when I walked around Covent Garden and I finished my classical composers walk at Thomas Arne’s home at 31 King Street.

I often feel I’d like to spend more time there to try to think back to the 18th century of what it would have been like to literally live there. As a modest individual who didn’t have a lot of money and that’s how it.

Hazel Baker: You said his dad was an upholsterer and wanted Thomas to become a solicitor and that, so the parents even say, now, isn’t it, when you grow up and the only thing you want to be as long as a doctor or a solicitor or a dentist there, the three options was he training to be a solicitor.

And then doing this on the side? What happened? 

Barbara Wright: He did three years of his articles as a Clerk, and then apparently what happened was was that his father came upon him at some musical events, soiree or something like that. I don’t know whether he was playing music or just watching. So he caught in the act as it were. And eventually the parents gave way and let him pursue his musical career. Again, that was Michael Vesting with a V who was encouraging him, he had a mentor basically through my court. And, if he hadn’t been round the corner from him, cause Michael lived in Covent Garden as well, it would never have happened.

And actually the person this reported this was Frances Bernie, and he was also a composer and he lived in coffin garden as well. He was the father of Fanny Burney, who was perhaps a little bit more well-known, but through, this commute or connection, I think you can actually get a feel for the sort of artistic feel as it were of Covent Garden at that time, because there were so many composers in that area and people who are musicians and they just live around the corner from their work.

Which of course it’s so difficult to do these days, unless you’re very well off in, in somewhere like a big city. So it must have been amazing, an amazing place. And also it was just about the time that I suppose you’d call the middle class is all the the aristocracy, what we, aristocracy always have money, but the middle classes were starting to have a bit of money.

And you’d got things like apart from these pubs where you could go to listen to music, you’d also got it’s further away, but somewhere like Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where it would go to listen to music and Thomas Arne would compose music for places like that. And that would have again, been a bit of a melting pot, it’s like when the people you know in London and then you go to Ascot and when you go to Ascot, you bump into everybody again. I’m sure Vauxhall pleasure gardens would have been like that. 

Hazel Baker: If you’ve seen Poldark they have a few scenes at the pleasure gardens, but it’s got to have been even more fun than that. Hedges which had little bit cutout. So they’d have artwork in the hedges. So you can see like an outdoor gallery and also I suppose, dark corners to do wear dark deeds.

And on the bandstand, we have that now just go and you go to the DJ and ask for your favourite tune and they were doing the, exactly the same thing back then. But with the live orchestra, how amazing is that? 

Barbara Wright: It’s a pity. We can’t recreate it. Maybe in festivals we have, yes. 

Hazel Baker: Yeah. Mainly. And of course it wasn’t just Vauxhall, it was Ranelagh and Marylebone and of course, around Islington as well. There was so many pleasure gardens and music. Whereas this is where the importance of music and accessibility to music was it was coming on. Now. It wasn’t just for those who could afford music within their own private home for the guests.

They said last time, I suppose we call it popular music. 

Barbara Wright: Yes. Yes, no, it’s a fact. It’s a great time. And then I’ve got a bit of a funny example of this thing about being in close proximity. Rick was apparently I discovered that. There was this thing called the battle of the Romeos, which was two versions of Romeo and Juliet, which were held one at seven and the other at Drury lane.

And Thomas Arne wrote a dirge for the one at Covent Garden, William Boyce, another composer born in Covent Garden wrote. Run the music to the rival one. He had to, he was told to one weekend he had to write it by Monday or something. And so he wrote it and as these two productions were going on at the same time and as a result of boy’s writing his, he managed to get a bigger audience at the Drury lane theatre.

It’s a bit of a fee bridal, if that’s the right expression atmosphere with not just getting on, but also a bit of competition there. All around all people living together, round the corner from each other and not always getting on 

Hazel Baker: of the Romeos. 

Barbara Wright: Yes, that was 1750 when that war broke 

Hazel Baker: out.

Wow. So I said to put into perspective for everybody else, this is the same time as Handel’s about, we’ve talked about handling previous episodes and of course you have William Hogarth as well, who had to have been very active in the area as well. You mentioned about him spending much of his life in London.

He was all over the place. It wasn’t easy. So we talked about where he lived in king street. We also talked about the Haymarket theatre when formed that and also to relay in as well. After that, and you mentioned the pleasure gardens, he’s getting about a bit Covent Garden theatre. What about other places?

Barbara Wright: He wrote pieces for a festival at Stratford

Hazel Baker: Stratford in London or Stratford upon Avon?

Barbara Wright: Stratford upon Avon. So yes, he wrote for a festival. I think when the sucks was written for that, and there was something called soft flowing Avon and the  Avon flows through Stratford upon Avon. And I’m not sure whether this was also produced to the Shakespeare, but he wrote another famous.

I haven’t seen, we will go, which we’re definitely been in, in an English song book. And another one less well-known Blow, Blow What Winter Wind. And his style was very, as they say, light and airy, and he had a great sense of melody and he copied a lot of, Irish, Scottish, and also Italian. Styles in, in musical songs, which was lovely.

He was a bit of an outlier, rarely because he wasn’t a member of the church of England. He was actually Catholic. So he was always a bit on the outside of the establishment, because if you are a member of the Catholic church in those days, You wouldn’t have been able to secure a formal position safe, for example, is cathedral organist.

So that’s possibly why he veered towards the theatre. However, funnily enough, he was eventually now I think of it he’s in St. Paul’s church in Covent Garden, which I’m sure is to, to England. He’d never secured a position. And in those days you had to be in the church of England if you were going to get anywhere in music.

That would have been difficult for him, but he made a very good career in the theatre and he is considered to be the most foremost theatrical composer of the age of the 18th century, if not ever, but a lot of his music was burned. And there’s disappeared, probably because many of the theatres burnt down the way, the main word, for example, a Covent Garden theatre, where he performed quite a lot.

His weight work he that burned down twice and so he would have lost music there. Yeah, so that was. That was that was his life. Mainly it was actually mainly around Covent Garden that he spent his time in the theatres around there and the pubs in the area. 

Hazel Baker: I think it’s what you’re saying about him having an ability to write a good tune.

Being a singer myself, I’ve sang where the Bee Sucks and I’ve got it in my head nap. When you know, Hunting We’ll Go, they are good tunes. Aren’t they? You and also in a Rule Brittania you do want to give a good sing along. I must admit when I’m listening to some nouveau music, now I’m like, I’m waiting for the tune

Barbara Wright: I get a feeling that it was a very lively period for music. If anybody wants to look it up you can look up all these 18th century composers, and there’s an awful lot of them, some of which he might never have heard, but you might know that you might know the music, even if you don’t, you’ve never heard it there now. So that’s worth looking up. 

Hazel Baker: There’s something special about the placement of Covent Garden as well. 

Barbara Wright: The thing was that it was placed between the city and Westminster the seat of power, but when indigo Jones built Covent Garden Piazza in the 1600s, a lot of aristocrats moved in. It was designed for aristocrats, but it was never quite finished.

And then they put the market in. So it’s a bit of a hotspot and then. You had the play and 1665 and then the great fire of London, 1666, and this help make the aristocrats quite fearful. And they started to look to move west and they started to move away for Covent Garden, which allowed rooms for there, for the poorer artistic types to move into.

And so that’s what created a bit, a few vacancies as it were, as the aristocrats move west towards first Leicester Square, then St James’s and Mayfair later. And so that’s what created this hub really. And people came from all over the country to actually live there.

Hazel Baker: And not just the arts, but also the coffee houses as well. You think of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Yeah, exactly. So a melting pot of all these people in thinkers coming together I’m finding a. A practical outlet. 

Barbara Wright: Rarely. Yes. That’s what makes that, what I think what makes a big city so amazing.

There is that creative. As, they said that during COVID that, the it sector really suffered. They still, that’s why you get them, saying everyone has to be near each other to, to bounce ideas off each other. Although, I know now you’ve got working from home, but that’s one of the problems with working from home is that you don’t, you don’t get that creative buzz that you get.

If you’re beside each other. But I was just going to mention just thinking about giving you an idea of the poverty, not poverty, but the insecurity of say his parents. A bit more because I don’t, I think that’s something that it might be worth emphasising and what it was like, because there was no state provision in those days.

I said his father was in up holster and he’s, but his grandfather was, we had to go into the Marshalsea debtors prison because he was in huge debt. So they went from that to his father, managing to make enough money, to send him to Eaton. They were insecure middle classes one minute, they’d got a grandfather was in a debtor’s prison and the next minute he managed to earn some money.

But during his lifetime, his father also was reduced to quite a lot of poverty. So I don’t really, now know how he managed to end up sending him to Eaton, but they struggled to do that. It was that narrative, of the family. We’re determined that he was going to get on Marshalsea debtors’ prison. Marshalsea prison to Eaton is a pretty big jump isn’t it?

But that was all within sort of two or three generations. 

Hazel Baker: Yeah. Amazing. Especially to think of, I mean 31 King Street, that’s a big house for them to rent Isn’t it? 

Barbara Wright: Yes. But it would be interesting to find out a bit more about the actual finances of the family, but anyway, that’s apparently that the source of.

For those who might recognise the name, Marshallsee prison, it’s also where Charles Dickens’s father, mother and younger siblings went and you can still see part of the wall there. 

I’m just thinking as a teenage Thomas Arne you’ve been sent to Eaton in the 1720s, you’ve been told to become a man of law. Knowing what you want to do is make music and your grandfather had been in debtors prison. There’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders to become someone who inherently you’re not. 

Barbara Wright: Yes. Thomas Arne and William Boyce had a rivalry that went beyond that battle of the Romeos. So why that was, but it might make you super sensitive and ambitious and determined that you were going to make it, even if it was in a different place. Profession. I think that’s quite gone. I think Shakespeare was like that a bit … absolutely determined to get on because you’ve been slighted quite a lot earlier on.

Hazel Baker: Shakespeare wanted to make money there and then he, wasn’t thinking about his name living on and 500 years time. Was this the same for Arne? Did he, did he make it financially? 

Barbara Wright: He married a lady who was a soprano singer. He also taught his sister to sing. Then he fell out with his wife and then got together again before he died and he said they had a son and the son became a composer. So I think that if his son became a composer, they must have had enough money to keep in the music tradition.

I don’t get the feeling ever became really rich but I think that he was sort of reasonably comfortable, I would imagine, from his music, but he probably had to be careful with money. They kept themselves together. They mixed more or less just with each other, not so, I mean, they did a bit where they are.

“They were thought of as craftsmen of the middling kind and earned little.” It would be an interesting comparison to have a look at how much money everybody actually had.

Hazel BakerIt was a very different time then, where you’re not relying on patrons. You’ve got to write for the masses in order to get the money and all that adds up in the end

Barbara Wright: There was this slow gradual, development of music as an actual profession, because I mean, really it took till the 1820s, and then the 1880s, you’ve got the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music were developed. So it was into the 1800s before you actually had a formal place to go and learn music as opposed to learning it from an actual patron. Frances Burney spent three years learning from Thomas Arne. So that’s the way you did it. And then Thomas Arne learnt off Vesting.

So that’s the way you were actually,  learning music then. And in terms of the number of musicians and sort of my theory that they were starting to professionalise, there was this thing called. Universal directory, which might get a bit like Kelly’s directory, which I think has disappeared. But when I was first at work, we used Kelly’s directory, in my job and it was bright red.

I remember. But anyway, the 1763 universal directory. Listed 95 masters and professors of music across London, 1763. And so many of them actually lived in common gardens. So that to me is an indication you were starting to get people who actually taught music as a living. And clearly Thomas Arne was teaching music and getting paid for it as well as composing music for the theatres and the pleasure garden.

Yeah. And presumably playing as well. Although you hear more of his composing for example, he produced some songs for a later version of the Beggar’s opera riches, John Rich’s Beggar’s opera, which was first produced in 1728. I think it was about 1750. Thomas had. His songs were in another Covent Garden version later on.

So they were constantly revising and improving operas for example, and he wrote Italian opera himself. He’s got one called Rosamond. And he, that was his first. But a lot of them disappeared. We don’t hear of them, but we do hear of except God Save the Queen and through these lovely songs which have survived.

Yeah. So into our heritage as, as I think quite antecedently English, actually,

Hazel Baker: I’m just thinking how wonderful work ’cause you’re talking about Burney. So if you think of Evelina, written by Fanny Burney and Charles being a student of Thomas Arne. He’s one of the first musical historians I learned about. And then when we throw into the melting pot, obviously Susanna Cibber, Arne’s sister. She was a big favourite of Handel, he absolutely loved her. And she got on really well with David Garrick who also lived in Covent Garden and she was on the stage for him at Drury Lane Theatre and that, so it’s, they’re all moving around in rather small circle. And on Sunday nights there were musical soirees at Susannah’s house. I’m not quite sure if she’s actually living with a brother Thomas, cause it’s a big house there. Isn’t it? There they would have a good old sing song on a Sunday night and made their own fantastic music. 

Barbara Wright: Well, they also have these things. Have you heard of glee clubs? Yes. Early drinking club where you would sing songs. Yeah. And apparently there were a lot of those round Covent Garden, so that, and yeah. So yeah, Sunday night seems to be Music night. Didn’t there used to be a program on the radio called Sunday Night is Music Night?

My grandfather, who was a very good violinist, used to apparently get round the piano on a Sunday. It was Sunday night, so around and because people had instruments, England relatively modestly well off people might have the audience judge around and they would just pick it up and play it. Because there was no TV.

Hazel Baker: When I lived in Covent Garden I used to go to the Coach and Horses in Soho for ‘Sing at the piano’ on a Sunday night.

Fantastic. That is brilliant. Barbara, thank you very much for sharing the life of    Thomas Arne. Yes. Well, I hope it’s given a bit more of a feel for maybe something about how it might felt to live in Covent Garden from certainly a musician’s point of view, but also what it was like as a place. That’s all we’ve got time for now.

If you want to continue the music tradition, then have a listen to episodes. 17, The Proms and The Royal Albert Hall, and also episode 63 and 57 about Handel’s time in London. And of course, episode 82 is where we talk about ballet in common. God. And in the show notes, along with the transcript, I’ve also added links to Barbara’s classical composers in the west end walk, a blog that she’s also written about Ivor Novello, and also some photos as well.

So you can have a little look there. That’s all for now. See you next time.

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