The urgent voice on the phone said: “Come over, quickly. I’ve just found another cesspit!” It was my friend, David Bieda. I locked up my office in Covent Garden and hurried to Soho, where Bieda was waiting impatiently outside the early Georgian house he’d recently bought in Dean Street.
We went through the hall and down the stairs into the basement kitchen. “Here, take this torch. I’ll get a spade.”
He led the way into the flagstoned area in front of the house, opening a rickety door to reveal a dank, dark space under the pavement. I leaned against the door jamb and shone the torch downwards. David, squeezed beside me, started digging into the brown, crumbly ground — dry earthy stuff from the 18th century: night soil.
That was was 22 years ago. Now the secrets of 68 Dean Street have been laid bare. The major finds have been two cesspits and two rooms hidden in the attic.
Many Londoners will have noticed this lovely building. The brick façades of Number 68 and 67, two rare townhouses built in 1732, seem gloriously mellow against the bustle of their Soho street. But it is 68 that invites your attention.
Attractive greenery rampages up from the basement, and a tree, now 15 years old, produced 80 apples last year. It seems extraordinary that when Bieda bought number 68 in 1993 the house had been on the market for eight years.
Miraculously, the original wooden panelling and shutters were intact, as was the delicate carved cornicing. For Bieda there followed “three years without a bath, having to use the outdoor privy in the yard, and huddling over coal fires in the winters”. He gained an interesting insight into Georgian life.
Grants from English Heritage and Westminster city council helped fund restoration. Bieda learned that his house was built by John Meard Junior, who in 1713 inherited 20 properties, as well as St Anne’s Court in Soho.
Master of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters in 1735, Meard also worked with Sir Christopher Wren at St Paul’s and other great London churches. Number 68 was Meard’s own home.
The first cesspit was discovered during the restoration work. “Archaeologists from University College London were too concerned about its structural integrity to dig it out, so I did it myself after a precautionary tetanus jab. Among the found objects were hundreds of long, thin scent bottles. When empty they were thrown into the cesspit, which effectively doubled as a rubbish chute.”
BBC architectural historian Dan Cruickshank told Bieda there would have been a separate servants’ cesspit.
“When I cleared out the left-hand vault under Dean Street I noticed a missing section of Victorian paving, and dug a hole that revealed an odd brick construction. The Museum of London Archaeology Service unearthed the servants’ soakaway and a tiny vaulted sewer, the latter only for liquids.”
The conversion of this vault into a coal cellar and the installation of the Victorian drainage system were dated by the fortuitous find of a marmalade jar inscribed with the date of 1862.
When Bieda was persuaded by architectural historian, John Martin Robinson, to rescue Number 68, he was happily living in a house in Seven Dials. He made a reasonable living importing juice but buying the house was a brave move, given its dereliction.
Bieda had spent many years doing conservation work — he is chairman of the Seven Dials Trust and a founding trustee of the Covent Garden Area Trust — so he was experienced enough to lead his own project, hiring 16 subcontractors, all specialist craftsmen, to help. With 18 rooms in all, the project took two decades.
No Georgian house was complete without the odd joke: think a chamberpot drilled with a hole. The custom continues with a remote-controlled rat on the sideboard and a rubber spider to greet you upstairs.
For information about booking a group tour of 68 Dean Street, W1, email firstname.lastname@example.org
- The full version of this article appears in the August issue of The World of Interiors, out now.