There is an obscure alleyway in London that has a small brass plaque mounted on the wall. Hidden away off busy St. James’s Street, the plaque is rarely ever seen or known about. But it is all that remains of what was once a vast country — a Republic over twice the size of Germany – that simply disappeared in the middle of the 19th century. Today hardly anyone knows that this country even existed; but the peculiar plaque records that once this building was home to the Embassy of the Republic of Texas.
Between 1836 and 1846 Texas was briefly, a sovereign country, with its own President, currency and legislature. With its borders under constant threat from both Mexico and the United States, the fledgling country sought to bolster its presence on the international stage, opening Embassies in London and Paris. In the latter, the official Residency of the Republic of Texas was established in the grand Hôtel de Vendôme; in the former, the Texans rented rooms above a wine shop.
We’re in the heart of the old City of Westminster, a few doors down from St. James’s Palace. At No. 3, St.James’s Street you’ll find Berry Brothers & Rudd, London’s most venerable wine merchants. Since 1698 the firm has been providing fine wines, ports and whiskeys to such wine drinking luminaries as the British Royal Family, ever since King George III.
Stepping inside, it seems not much has changed since then. The old floorboards are warped and sloped, the dark wooden paneling is decorated with portfolio etchings of Royal Princes and notable past customers, such as the Duke of Wellington, Pitt the Elder and Lord Byron; the shelves are lined with dusty bottles of rare vintages.
Underneath the still thriving wine merchants are nearly two acres of wine caves and cellars, stretching under the old London streets; one in particular was often used by Napoleon III, in exile in London, to hold secret meetings.
If the confines of Berry Brothers & Rudd Ltd are distinguished with old Empire trappings, the small alleyway next to it was slightly more salubrious. Pickering Place, where the brass plaque is mounted, leads into a narrow courtyard that was once home to a brothel, a gambling den, a bear baiting pit, and the site of the last public duel fought in London.
It was here that the Texan diplomats made their home, walking down the alley to rented rooms above the wine merchants.
The plaque can be found just inside the entrance to the alleyway; it reads
IN THIS BUILDING WAS THE LEGATION FOR THE MINISTERS FROM THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS TO THE COURT OF ST.JAMES
Texan President Sam Houston’s official envoy to Great Britain was his Secretary of State, Dr.Ashbel Smith. But his time in London was short: Texas finally joined the Union in 1845, and the Embassy was closed. But the Texan delegation left behind their mark, in the form of an unpaid £160 bill with the wine shop downstairs.
The Republic of Texas may be consigned to the history books: many people are unaware it was ever once its own country, whilst many wish it were so again.
But the Republic still lives on in the hearts of many Texans: as a gesture of goodwill, members of the Anglo-Texan Society visited the wine merchants in 1986, to mark the sesquicentennial of the Republic. Dressed in full buckskins, they settled the outstanding debt owed by their forefathers, and placed the small plaque in the alleyway at Pickering Place as a reminder of their vanished country.
Berry, Bros. & Rudd can be found at 3, St James Street, London, England, SW1A 1EF. The plaque is just inside the alleyway, a few feet in, on the right. For more information about the history of Texas visit the excellent online home of the Texas State Historical Association.