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Richard Wagner & The Case Of The Missing Boarding House

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday 13 February 2014 | 11:46:00 pm

Wagner as he looked at the time of his London stay
Our editor pops on a Deerstalker (a rather daft looking hat by the way) and becomes lost in Soho. 

Arriving in London on August 12,  1839, on the run, again, from debtors - this time from those in Riga - Wagner,  Minna and Newfoundland dog Robber needed a place to stay. Wagner tells us that after disembarking the Thetis (the small 7 man schooner on which they had made their troubled voyage) they ".. soon sought safety in a cab, which took us, on our captain's recommendation, to the Horseshoe Tavern [Ed: Hoop and Horseshoe, 10 Queen Street, Tower Hill], near the Tower, and here we had to make our plans for the conquest of this giant metropolis."

However, it quickly became apparent that "...the neighbourhood in which we found ourselves was such that we decided to leave it with all possible haste. A very friendly little hunchbacked Jew from Hamburg suggested better quarters in the West End, and I remember vividly our drive there, in one of the tiny narrow cabs then in use, the journey lasting fully an hour. They were built to carry two people, who had to sit facing each other, and we therefore had to lay our big dog crosswise from window to window. The sights we saw from our whimsical nook surpassed anything we had imagined, and we arrived at our boarding-house in Old Compton Street".

But what was the address of this boarding house. Luckily, Wagner goes on, "...Although at the age of twelve I had made what I supposed to be a translation of a monologue from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, I found my knowledge of English quite inadequate when it came to conversing with the landlady of the King's Arms. But the good dame's social condition as a sea-captain's widow led her to think she could talk French to me, and her attempts made me wonder which of us knew least of that language". With this, numerous biographers - and Wagner - confirmed that this is where they stayed for Wagner's first stay in London 1;. And it is here that the case of the missing Kings Arms begins.

Returning to London for the third and last time in 1877, Wagner spent much time with members of what would be the first London Wagner Society: Edward Dannreuther and Julius Cyriax. As one might expect, they were as curious about his first stay in London as they were about much else. So much so that Edward Dannreuther took Wagner to Old Compton Street to point out the famous "Kings Arms" But somehow, neither Wagner or Edward Dannreuther where able to locate it. In volume one of Glasenapp's 6 volume Life Of Richard Wagner Glasenapp explains this by referring to Julius Cyriax of whom he claims checked and believed that Wagner could not find it because it had been pulled down. And this is a story continued by a number of more detailed Wagner biographers,. Although in volume one one of his Wagner biography,  Ernst Newman is less positive saying the site of the King Arms "...cannot now be determined".

However, travel writer Ed Glinert in: "London Walks - London Stories" confounds every Wagner specialist since the 19th century According to Glinert the Kings Arms was located at 23-25 Old Compton Street, now the site of Soho Bar. However, as the only individual to make this connection I was lead to research further (This is especially so as he states with much certainty that Wagner began writing the Dutchman at this address!) and this is when things become complicated.

No 7, Old Compton Street
Researching  the postal records,  business directories,  Freemasonry records (The Kings Arms, Old Compton St was the meeting place of at least three separate, if consecutive, Lodges over two centuries), court records (there had been a prominent burglary there in 1846)  it quickly became apparent that there had only ever been one Kings Arms on Old Compton Street during the 19th century. Indeed so easy is it to find I was left wondering why so many, highly respected, early, Wagner biographers claimed that either it had been demolished or that, following Wagner, they could not find it. But this is not the end of the story, for historical records do not place the Kings Arms at 23-25 Old Compton Street, as Glinert maintains,  but at no 7! The mystery deepens. Not only does the Kings Arms become invisible when Wagner and his biographers go looking for it but, if we accept Glinert's assertion, it appears that on occasion it gets up and moves around.

However, looking a little deeper it appears that this is exactly what happened - in a sense. By accident I found records that stated that "The Kings Arms - although by then it had another name (more of this shortly) did indeed seem to relocate sometime after 1898; from No 5-7 (more of this latter) to no 23-25 Old Compton Street.

The mystery, at least this part, seems resolved. Wagner stayed at the "original"  Kings Arms and Glinert was unaware that it had moved. And indeed, the original no 7 Old Compton Street does still exist (although 1-3 were demolished and then rebuilt in 1907). But the more I looked at this building the more I thought it simply did not look like a "tavern" - less so where a Freemasonry Lodge would meet2. And then we have the fact that according to records sometime in the 1850s it expanded and became 5-7 Old Compton Street and yet looking at both buildings they look both much different and unlikely to have ever been modified into one building.. It was then that two accidental findings led to a possible answer. The Coach & Horses  Old Compton Street has a long history for various reasons yet strangely around 1900 it too relocated!

A possible answer then presented itself: the Coach and Horses was formerly listed at  the no longer existing 17 Little Compton Street. This is a possible reason for it moving of course - if the street was demolished there was little other alternative.  However, while it is true that part of Little Compton Street was demolished (it used to link Old with New Compton Street) much of it still exists but was simply "added" (and thus renamed)  to Old Compton Street (Little Compton Street used to start at the junction of Greek street yet this section is now renamed Old Compton St - as can be clearly seen by comparing old and new maps of the area). The answer thus becomes clear: neither the Coach and Horses or more importantly the Kings Arms were relocated, they were simply renumbered - as all of of Old Compton St must have been  after it was "expanded". This might, at least in part, explain where the misconception about the boarding house being demolished originated.

The "real" Kings Arms?
But this still does not explain why Wagner was unable to find the Kings Arms in 1877 - before any renumbering or merging of the street had accorded. Again , however, the answer maybe very simple. At this stage Wagner had not been back to Old Compton Street in  28 years and even then he had only been there for 12 days - and his autobiography admits he spent very little time there and much more "sight-seeing" (using various justifications to do so). Perhaps he had simply forgotten exactly what the building looked like? This would not have been helped by the fact that the Kings Arms had been renamed around 29 years earlier to "The Hibernian Stores 3  - with no-doubt accompanying "face-lift" (it should also be noted that around this time the post office seemed to change the address of this rather large building giving it an extra house number (from no 7 to no 5-7 Or did it "expand" gaining a side property? There is certainly no record of the site being rebuilt. And site plans prior to that time to seem to show one large building, much like it is today - if clearly altered.). That Wagner was unable to find it may have simply been the result of poor memory of a building now altered and renamed.

So, the "missing" Kings Arms seems to have been found - even if it is in a form that Wagner would not recognise today. Or at least this is the case unless any reader can suggest otherwise. Indeed the help of anyone who can check, as whether the building was or was not,  demolished and rebuilt sometime in 1860 would be appreciated.

 Now if only we could find Robber too....



1 The only exception is Wilhelm Praeger in his book "Wagner as I Knew Him". In this he states that Wagner did not stay at the Kings Arms but at  a boarding house across the street. As he says, "He recommended Wagner to a small, uninviting hotel in Old Compton Street, Soho, much resorted to by needy travellers from the continent. The hotel, considerably improved, still exists. It is situated a dozen doors or so from Wardour Street, and is opposite to a public house known then, as now, as the “King’s Arms.” While Praeger's account is not totally unreasonable - it it might be possible to read Wagner's description as such,  it seems unlikely for two reasons: By the time Praeger wrote those words the Kings Arms had changed name yet again becoming the Helvetia and secondly his description places the building on the wrong end of Old Compton Street.

Balans. Opposite the "Kings Arms". The Buliding 
identified only by Praeger as Wagner's first London Residence

2 It should also be noted while not impossible, the building seems hardly large enough to accommodate boarders, and the occasional business that seems to have operated from it during this time. Of particular interest here is that during Wagner's time the "The German Society Of Benevolence And Concord". was based above the Kings Arms. This was a charity that specialized in providing financial help to poor Germans abroad - even providing then with money to return to German. One can't but help think that someone like Wagner would have made use of its services - perhaps explaining why his intended "short stop-over" lasted much longer then was intended? He certainly noted that he and Minna had little money - not even enough to visit the opera.

3 Under this name, it has yet another claim to fame, for in 1872 Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud attended Communist/Anarchist lectures here after they had fled Paris. Of further interest, in the next century it became the Helvetia, famous for - among other things - being the pub where the missing manuscript of Dylan Thomas Under Milk Wood was found by BBC producer Douglas Cleverdon