‘In Holborn there is no one big infamous slum, like the Somers Town of St Pancras, but there is a surprisingly large number of mean steets’ (‘Holborn & City Guardian’, 1926)
We don’t know too much about our building’s early history, but it used to be a multiple occupancy residential building, home to many of the market traders working in Covent Garden. Tenement buildings on the other side of the street were knocked down in 1926 – we’ve seen photos of civic officials cheering as the substandard housing tumbled.
Tracking occupants’ details through censuses has given us information about who lived here and when, and what they did. The name of the street changed from Brownlow to Betterton, and the numbering changed, so the details are patchy. At one point, the building was some sort of vegetable wholesaler – and we know that in 1935, George V’s Silver Jubilee was celebrated here with a street party.
A Counter-cultural Hot Spot
The Betterton Street building is part of London’s rich counter-cultural history. In the 1960s, it housed radical magazine The International Times, and The Arts Lab alternative arts centre was round the corner in Drury Lane.
We’ve also heard stories about it being the site of the first Hare Krishna Temple in London and that George Harrison wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun’ in the building. If any visitors can tell us more about these stories, we’d love to hear from you.
The Poetry Society
(Based on an article written by Judith Palmer, Poetry Society Director, for ‘The Covent Gardener’ magazine in 2017)
‘On February 24th 1909 a group of poetry lovers gathered in the upstairs room of the Eustace Miles vegetarian restaurant in Chandos Place (now Chandos Street) on the south side of Covent Garden. Offering London’s “Best Light and Sustaining Luncheons for Brain Workers”, and waitresses who’d skip along with dumb-bells to demonstrate the Eustace Miles System of Physical Culture, this was one of the hippest hang-outs of the day for the serious-minded bohemian. By the end of that fateful day, a new literary institution had been born – The Poetry Society – founded from the group’s ardent ambition to “popularise interest in poetry and to assist in bringing about a poetic renaissance”.
You can’t hurry a poetic renaissance, and The Poetry Society has kept at it, working away to ensure we have a lively poetry culture. After flirting for some decades with life in Holborn, Portman Square and Earls Court, the Society returned to Covent Garden in 1992, where you’ll find it in a narrow side-street between The Cross Keys of Endell Street and The Sun in Drury Lane, at 22 Betterton Street.
From Betterton Street, The Poetry Society discovers and develops new writers, and runs schemes across the country to help give young people from challenging backgrounds a voice. There are poems being commissioned for events such as the lighting up of the Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square, or to be projected on Coventry Cathedral; and publication every quarter of ‘The Poetry Review’, the magazine every poet hopes to appear in.’
As we deliver a busy programme of events and opportunities for the country’s poets and readers, we are proud of our role as custodians of a rare non-commercial space in the centre of London.
Revamp and Refurbish
Look at the spiralling rectangular frames of our shopfront windows. They’re the dimensions of paper sizes: A1, A2, A3, A4 and A5: a nod to the blank page that inspires the poet to verse.
The new windows are part of the building’s 2017 revamp, designed by Mills Power architects. The refurbishment modernised our offices, cafe and performance space, and we’re now home to a buzzing vegetarian cafe and a packed out events programme.
Visitors pop in for lunch with friends, or sit musing over a coffee. In the evenings, they head downstairs to hear new work with a friendly crowd, to catch a magazine launch, hear favourites like Henry Normal and John Hegley or join the queue to get on stage at the Unplugged open mic night.
Break your Open House West End tour with a coffee and a cake, and enjoy a drop-in screening of Poetry Society-produced film poems.