We went searching for Nell Gwynn’s London, but couldn’t find much the glamorous 17th century courtesan would have recognized. For once, you can’t pin this one on the bombs of the German Luftwaffe—most of Nell’s neighborhood off Drury Lane in Westminster was deservedly obliterated in the endless waves of urban renewal that have overwhelmed this city since its earliest days.
By the time of Nell’s birth in Coal Yard Alley, somewhere around 1650, the brooks and runnels crisscrossing the land had been paved over or had degenerated into the vermin-filled open sewers that begat the murderous Great Plague of Nell’s teen years. The near-universal use of coal for heating and locomotion cast a hideous pall over the city that could black out the sun on a drizzly summer’s day. And nearly 300 years before any British politician gave a serious damn, child prostitutes and brothel-keeper’s daughters like Nell were lucky to make it out of adolescence alive and disease-free.
But the fabulously talented girl somehow ended up selling oranges outside the newly restored King’s Theater where, around 1665, she caught the eye of the famous English stage actor Charles Hart. Within a few years, she was rightly recognized as one of the great comediennes in the hilarity-filled history of the London stage. Within another year or two, she was chief mistress to King Charles II, the happily debauched and oversexed Stuart monarch who had brought England back from its soulless experiment with Cromwellian Puritanism.
Nell insisted on calling her first son by the King “you little bastard”, until the exasperated monarch caved in, legitimized the boy, and gave him the title Duke of St. Albans. Nell herself fought off the waves of rival mistresses and, in 1687, died in the only house on Pall Mall still not owned by the Crown, her debts paid off by the grateful King’s brother, James II. Yet while Nell might have prospered, the wildly popular woman was still in her early thirties when repeated strokes felled her.
Today, the Drury Lane neighborhood is a hipster’s paradise, bursting with famous theaters, exotic eateries, and trendily dressed crowds. The worst you have to fear from its narrow alleyways is the hangover you’ll find in the cute, little pubs hidden there. The former project housing, designed to fight the uber-persistent slums, has been gentrified out of recognition. But everyone seems to be wringing their share of fun and pleasure out of the neighborhood, and Nell would have approved of that.