As Westminster Council spends thousands of pounds turning Pall Mall into a dual-carriageway racetrack, parts of St. James’s remain an oasis of peace and calm. Thought to be the smallest public open space in London, Pickering Place is perhaps most famous for being the location of the last public duel in England. This gas lit courtyard, which until 1812 was known as Pickering Court is adjacent to some of London’s most famous clubs.
An appealing vision of two fiery young blades slipping out of White’s to settle an old score over their honour can be imagined here in this secluded irregularly shaped paved square.
Approached from St. James’s Street through a narrow 18th century oak-panelled tunnel which lies alongside Berry Brothers and Rudd, thought to be Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, having traded from the same shop for over 300 years. Berry’s was established in 1698 by the Widow Bourne, whose son-in-law, James Pickering built Picking Court as it was then known in 1731. By 1765, at the “Sign of the Coffee Mill”, Berry’s not only supplied the fashionable Coffee Houses (later to become Clubs such as Boodles and Whites) but also began weighing customers on giant coffee scales. Records of customers’ weights, including those of Lord Byron, William Pitt and the Aga Khan, span three centuries and continue to be added to, to this day. Their extensive cellars running under Pickering Place and down Pall Mall store over 200,000 bottles. Today members of the Berry and Rudd families continue to own and manage the family-run wine merchant.
This tiny Georgian alleyway and courtyard has another secret, in that Texas (yes that one!) was once a republic and had its own Legation in London. The Republic of Texas covered modern-day Texas as well as parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming and existed from 1836 to 1846 when it was annexed by the United States. Its Legation had their office in the premises of Berry Brothers and Rudd.
Other residents have been the author Graham Greene who kept a set of rooms overlooking the courtyard and Lord Palmerston who lived here for a time, a stone bust commemorates the former Prime Minister’s property.
Not surprisingly St James’s has the highest concentration of listed buildings in England, with nearly 60 listed Grade I and Grade II* buildings, and perhaps a 100 more listed Grade II, and it is this fact that Picking Place and its neighbours manage somehow to able to cling on to its little eccentricities and charms.