Piccadilly Circus – Frank McNally on the colourful, coded history of a famous London address

An Irishman’s Diary

Chided on the letters page recently for referring to “Peterhouse College” in Cambridge -– as I now know, the “house” makes the “College” redundant – I went searching this newspaper’s archives to see if my error was at least a common one. Gratifyingly, it is.

Among many others to have committed the faux pas over the years was the unnamed writer of our "London Letter" from November 1958, when noting the death of a Peterhouse graduate, William Stone – aka "the Squire of Piccadilly" – at age 101.

Mr Stone had lived his long life in style, from keeping a wine cellar at university to being a famously dapper old man, known around Piccadilly for always wearing a “top hat”, “cravat with pearl tie-pin”, and “frock-coat with a carnation in the buttonhole”.

Not only was he a graduate of Peterhouse, he had just bequeathed it a large part of his fortune. This comprised half of Albany Chambers, a block of exclusive London apartments.

But despite having increased its property portfolio so dramatically, he too would have been appalled to hear our London correspondent giving it the unnecessary extension: “Peterhouse College”.

Having committed one infelicity, meanwhile, the writer proceeded to lecture about another. This involved the name of the apartment complex. Stone had owned “half the freeholds in Albany”, our correspondent wrote, “which must never, under any circumstances, he called the Albany”.

Now, I happened to remember that among the fictional former residents of that illustrious building was the hero of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. So naturally, I now checked the play’s text, newly armed with our London Letter’s advice. And imagine my embarrassment for Wilde when I saw that he had Jack (aka Ernest) Worthing produce a calling card in high society with the address “B.4, The Albany.”

Then again, I knew, there have been many other celebrity residents, real and imaginary, of the building, ranging from Lord Byron to Jacob Rees Mogg, via Fascination Fledgeby, the moneylender in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend. And a glance through the various records suggests that the names "Albany" and "the Albany" have been historically interchangeable.

Indeed, also in 1958, the other Times newspaper wrote this: “Albany or the Albany? It has long been a test of intimate knowledge of the West End. If one was in use, a man could feel superior by using the other. When G.S. Street wrote The Ghosts of Piccadilly in 1907, he said that ‘the Albany’ was then ‘universal’, but that to the early tenants it was ‘Albany’.”

Wilde, therefore, and typically, was in tune with the social fashion of his time. But it turns out that there was a lot more than that going on in the address he gave Ernest.

Under rules drawn up when the original mansion was divided into “sets”, the Albany’s tenants used to have to be “bachelors”, a rule that continued into recent times. Some, inevitably, were gay bachelors, in the both older and newer senses of the term.

One notable resident, for example, was George Cecil Ives (1867-1950), poet, penal reformer, and an early campaigner for gay rights. He tried to recruit Wilde's public support for "the cause", something the Irishman was not ready to do then. But Ives lived at number E.4, the Albany, which was also Ernest's apartment, before it was changed it to B.4 in the published edition. Thus, in a play about men leading double lives, even the address was coded.

Ives, by the way, was the real-life model for Raffles, gentleman burglar of fiction, who also lived in the Albany and smoked “Sullivan Cigarettes”. Which is odd, because in an era when smoking and central London addresses were both marks of sophistication, the streets and gentlemen’s clubs of the city were extensively mined for tobacco brand-names.

“Piccadilly”, “Parliament”, “Pall Mall”, “Mayfair”, “Marlboro” (minus the “ugh”), and – yes – “The Albany” were all real-world brands. But the Irish-sounding cigarettes smoked by Raffles were fictional.

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Changing subjects for now but staying with the theme of keyholders and coded sexuality, my thanks to several vintage roller skaters who have pointed out that in the 1950s and 60s, roller skates did come with keys – to tighten them onto normal footwear – as suggested by Melanie’s 1971 hit, about which I was puzzled yesterday.

One the one hand, this strengthens her case for being surprised that so many people took the lyric for sexual innuendo. Sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a key is just a key.

On the other hand, Melanie’s new skates would surely have come with one of their own. The mystery remains as to why she needed the key of the boy next door for help with adjusting her equipment.