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London The Biography

Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd

London: The Biography

List of Illustrations


Early Londoner admiring London Stone (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) John Stow (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London)

Charter of William I (Corporation of London Records Office)

Marcellus Laroon, Street merchants

Aerial sketch of London, 1560 (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) View of London Bridge by Anthonis van den Wyngaerde (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) Panorama of London by Hollar (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) View of Old St. Paul’s by Hollar (Guildhall Library/Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Royal Exchange by Hollar (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Detail of map charting the Great Fire of London, 1666 (Royal Academy of Arts Library, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) 17th c. firemen (Royal Academy of Arts Library, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Hanging outside of Newgate Prison by Rowlandson (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Moll Cut-Purse (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Newgate Prison (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

National Temperance map of London (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Café Monico, Piccadilly Circus (Courtesy of the Museum of London)


London from Southwark, Dutch School, c.1630 (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Entrance to the River Fleet, Samuel Scott (Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London) Detail of the City from Braun and Hogenberg’s map of London, 1572 (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Johann B. Homann’s map and prospect of London, 1730 (British Library, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Great Fire of London, 1666 aquatint after Philippe de Loutherbourg (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 16th October 1834, J.M.W. Turner (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA/Bridgeman Art Library) Jack Sheppard, William Thornhill (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Tom, Jerry and Logic Visiting Condemned Prisoners of Newgate Prison, George and Isaac Cruikshank (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Curds and Whey Seller, Cheapside, c. 1730, British School (Courtesy of the Museum of London) The Meat Stall from The London Markets, engraved by M. Dubourg after James Pollard (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Smithfield Market, engraved by R.G. Reeve after James Pollard (British Museum, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Frozen Thames, c.1677, Abraham Hondius (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Punch or May Day, Benjamin Haydon (Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY) A Rake’s Progress IV: The Arrested, Going to Court, William Hogarth (Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library) The Four Times of Day: Morning, William Hogarth (Upton House, Oxfordshire, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Whitehall and the Privy Gardens from Richmond House, Canaletto (By courtesy of the Trustees of the Goodwood Collection) View of the Adelphi from the River Thames, William Marlow (Christie’s Images, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library)


The Laying of the Water Main in Tottenham Court Road, George Scharf (British Museum, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Scavenger’s Lamentation, engraved by A. Sharpshooter (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) The Enraged Musician, William Hogarth (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Railway Station, William Frith (Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, Surrey, UK/Bridgeman Art Gallery) The Crowd, Robert Buss (Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London) Piccadilly Circus, Charles Ginner (Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY) Hammersmith Bridge on Boat Race Day, Walter Greaves (Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY) Noctes Ambrosianae, Walter Sickert (Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham, UK/Bridgeman Art Library/© 2001 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York, NY/DACS, London) Hammersmith Palais de Danse, Malcolm Drummond (Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery) A Coffee Stall, Chas Hunt (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

The Coffee House, William Ratcliffe (Southampton City Art Gallery, Hampshire, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Allen’s Tobacconist Shop, Hart Street, Grosvenor Square, Robert Allen (Courtesy of the Museum of London) House, Rachel Whiteread (Anthony d’Offay Gallery)

Two Sleepers, Henry Moore (The Henry Moore Foundation/Walter Hussey Bequest, Pallant House, Chichester, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Devastation, 1941: An East End Street, Graham Sutherland (Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY) Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, 1991, Alan Delaney (Courtesy of the Museum of London)


Regent Street in 1886, London Stereoscopic Company (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Covent Garden Porters, John Thomson (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Old houses in Bermondsey

Clerkenwell Green

River scavengers

Women sifting through dust mounds

The Great Wheel, Earl’s Court Exhibition, 1890, Charles Wilson (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Children Following a Water Cart, William Whiffin (Tower Hamlets Local History Library) Boy selling matches

Children Playing Cricket in Alpha Road, Millwall, 1938, Fox Photos (Hulton/Archive) A Thoroughbred November and London Particular, engraved by George Hunt after M. Egerton (Guildhall Library/Corporation of London) Car in smog, Henry Grant (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

A Paraleytic Woman, Géricault (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris) Protein Man (Davidson/Evening Standard/Hulton/Archive)

Bomb damage in Paternoster Row, 1940 (Cecil Beaton photograph, courtesy of Sotheby’s London) Near Spitalfields Market (© Don McCullin/Contact Press)


Plan of remains of Roman ship (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Matthew Paris map of London, 1252 (By permission of the British Library [ROY.14.C.VII f2]) Dore, Ludgate Hill

Tudor depiction of the market at Eastcheap (By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library) Mid-16th c. map of Moorfields (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Marcellus Laroon, The Merry Milkmaid

The Rookery of St. Giles (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Punch and Judy puppet show (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Great Plague of 1665 (Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge) Christopher Wren and John Evelyn plan of London after the Great Fire, 1666 (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Rowlandson depiction of hanging (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Rowlandson, Revellers at Vauxhall (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Gillray caricature of Sheridan as Punch (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) Cockney flower seller in Covent Garden (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Dore, vagrants huddled on Westminster Bridge

The Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) The burning of Newgate Prison, 1780, Gordon Riots (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) Title page of Astrologaster of the Figure Caster by John Melton Scharf, the building of Carlton House Terrace, c. 1830

Girgnion engraving of the Fleet River (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) Mayhew, The Sewer Hunter (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Dore, Seven Dials Slum

Géricault, Pity the Sorrow of a Poor Old Man (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris) The Mud-lark (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Scharf, The Original Oyster Shop

Whistler, Billingsgate (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Hogarth, A Harlot’s Progress

London Underground poster, 1929

St. Paul’s Cathedral (Imperial War Museum, London)

Poster for the Lansbury Council Estate in Poplar (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Tribute to Christopher Wren (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London)



54 Caesar’s first expedition to Britain AD

41 The Roman invasion of Britain

43 The naming of Londinium

60 The burning of London by Boudicca

61-122 The rebuilding of London

120 The Hadrianic fire of London c.

c. 190 The building of the great wall 407 The Roman withdrawal from London

457 Britons flee London to evade the Saxons 490 Saxon domination over London

587 Augustine’s mission to London

604 Foundation of a bishopric, and St. Paul’s, in London 672 Reference to “the port of London.” The growth of Lundenwic 851 London stormed by Vikings

886 Alfred retakes and rebuilds London

892 Londoners repel Danish invasion fleet 959 A great fire in London: St. Paul’s burned 994 Siege of London by Danish forces 1013 The second siege of London, by conquering Sweyn 1016 Third siege of London by Cnut, repulsed 1035 Harold I elected king by Londoners 1050 The rebuilding of Westminster Abbey 1065 Dedication of Westminster Abbey

1066 The taking of London by William the Conqueror 1078 The building of the White Tower

1123 Rahere establishes St. Bartholomew’s 1176 The building of a stone bridge

1191 The establishment of a London commune 1193-1212 The first mayor of London, Henry Fitz-Ailwin 1220 Rebuilding of Westminster Abbey

1290 Expulsion of the Jews; Eleanor Crosses set up at Chepe and Charing Cross 1326 The London revolution: deposition of Edward II 1348 The Black Death kills one-third of London’s population 1371 Charterhouse founded

1373 Chaucer living above Aldgate

1381 Wat Tyler’s revolt

1397 Richard Whittington first elected mayor 1406 Plague in London

1414 The Lollard revolt

1442 The Strand is paved

1450 Jack Cade’s revolt

1476 The establishment of Caxton’s printing press 1484 The sweating sickness in London

1485 Henry VII enters London in triumph after the Battle of Bosworth 1509 Henry VIII ascends the throne

1535 Execution of Thomas More on Tower Hill 1535-9 The spoilation of London’s monasteries and churches 1544 Wyngaerde’s great panorama of London 1576 The building of the Theatre in Shoreditch 1598 Publication of Stow’s Survey of London

1608-13 The construction of the New River 1619-22 The building of Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House 1642-3 The construction of earthen walls, and forts, against the king’s army 1649 Execution of Charles I

1652 The emergence of the coffee house 1663 The building of a theatre in Drury Lane 1665 The Great Plague

1666 The Great Fire

1694 The foundation of the Bank of England 1733 The covering of the Fleet River

1750 The building of Westminster Bridge 1756 The construction of the New Road

1769 The building of Blackfriars Bridge 1769-70 Wilkite agitation in London

1774 The London Building Act

1780 The Gordon Riots

1799 The establishment of the West India Dock Company 1800 The foundation of the Royal College of Surgeons 1801 London’s population reaches one million 1809 Gas-lighting instituted in Pall Mall 1816 Radicals meet at Spa Fields: riots in Spitalfields 1824 National Gallery founded

1825 Nash rebuilds Buckingham Palace

1829 London Metropolitan Police Force founded 1834 Houses of Parliament destroyed by fire 1836 University of London established

1851 The Great Exhibition opened in Hyde Park 1858 The “great stink” leads to Bazalgette’s sanitary engineering 1863 The opening of the world’s first underground railway 1878 The advent of electric lighting

1882 The emergence of the electric tram-car 1887 “Bloody Sunday” demonstrations in Trafalgar Square 1888 The appearance of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel 1889 The establishment of the London County Council 1892 The beginning of the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames 1897 The emergence of the motor-omnibus 1901 Population of London reaches 6.6 million 1905 Epidemic of typhus. Aldwych and Kingsway opened to traffic 1906 Suffragettes demonstrate in Parliament Square 1909 The opening of Selfridge’s department store 1911 The siege of Sidney Street

1913 The inauguration of the Chelsea Flower Show 1915 The first bombs fall on London 1926 The General Strike

1932 The building of Broadcasting House in Portland Place for the BBC

1935 The inauguration of the Green Belt 1936 The battle of Cable Street

1940 The beginning of the London Blitz

1951 The Festival of Britain on the South Bank 1952 The great smog

1955 The opening of Heathrow Airport

1965 The abolition of the London County Council; creation of the Greater London Council 1967 The closure of the East India Dock; the building of Centre Point 1981 The Brixton riots; the establishment of the London Docklands Development Corporation 1985 Broadwater Farm riots

1986 Completion of M25 ringway; abolition of GLC; the “big bang” in the Stock Exchange 1987 The building of Canary Wharf

2000 Mayoral elections


The author and publisher are grateful to the following for permission to reproduce illustrative material which appears in the text pages: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 587; British Library, 43; Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., 81; Guildhall, 383, 455, 471, 529, 751; Imperial War Museum, 721; Magdalene College, Cambridge, 191; Museum of London, 5, 89, 121, 135, 219, 237, 297, 403, 551, 613, 661, 735.

The author and publisher are grateful to the following for permission to reproduce copyright material: Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Secker amp; Warburg and the Wylie Agency (UK) Ltd.); Sally Holloway, Courage High (HMSO); Mike and Trevor Phillips, Windrush: the Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (HarperCollins); Virginia Woolf, The Diaries, ed. Anne Oliver Bell (the Executors of the Estate of Virginia Woolf, The Hogarth Press and Harcourt Brace).

The jacket and endpapers show details from the following paintings and photographs:

Front cover: London from Southwark, c.1630, British School; The Great Wheel, Earl’s Court Exhibition, 1890, by Charles Wilson; Curds and Whey Seller, Cheapside, c.1730, British School; Coombe and Co’s Brewer’s, St. Giles, c.1875, by Alfred and John Bool © Museum of London; Canary Wharf from the Isle of Dogs; Thames Barrier © Matthew Weinreb; inside flap: The Crawlers, c.1876, by John Thomson © Museum of London; Lloyds of London © Matthew Weinreb; back cover: May Morning, c.1760, by John Collet; Allen’s Tobacconist Shop, c.1841, by Robert Allen; A Shop in Macclesfield Street, Soho, 1883, by Henry Dixon; Suffragette Demonstration in Trafalgar Square, c.1908, © Museum of London; Simpson’s of Piccadilly; John Lewis, Oxford Street © Matthew Weinreb; inside flap: Westminster Bridge from the River Looking South, c.1750, British School; Railway Maintenance Gang, St. Pancras, c.1900, by Rev. John Galt © Museum of London; spine: Regent Street, c.1886, anon. © Museum of London; endpapers: Seven Phases in the Evolution of Old London Bridge © Museum of London.

Cartography on pages xxvi-xxix by Pamela Talese.

While the publishers have made every effort to trace the owners of copyright, they will be happy to rectify any errors or omissions in further editions.

The City as Body

The image of London as a human body is striking and singular; we may trace it from the pictorial emblems of the City of God, the mystical body in which Jesus Christ represents its head and the citizens its other members. London has also been envisaged in the form of a young man with his arms outstretched in a gesture of liberation; the figure is taken from a Roman bronze but it embodies the energy and exultation of a city continually expanding in great waves of progress and of confidence. Here might be found the “heart of London beating warm.”

The byways of the city resemble thin veins and its parks are like lungs. In the mist and rain of an urban autumn, the shining stones and cobbles of the older thoroughfares look as if they are bleeding. When William Harvey, practising as a surgeon in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, walked through the streets he noticed that the hoses of the fire engines spouted water like blood from a cut artery. Metaphorical images of the Cockney body have circulated for many hundreds of years: “gob” was first recorded in 1550, “paws” in 1590, “mug” in 1708 and “kisser” in the mid-eighteenth century.

Harvey’s seventeenth-century hospital was beside the shambles of Smithfield, and that conjunction may suggest another image of the city. It is fleshy and voracious, grown fat upon its appetite for people and for food, for goods and for drink; it consumes and it excretes, maintained within a continual state of greed and desire.

For Daniel Defoe, London was a great body which “circulates all, exports all, and at last pays for all.” That is why it has commonly been portrayed in monstrous form, a swollen and dropsical giant which kills more than it breeds. Its head is too large, out of proportion to the other members; its face and hands have also grown monstrous, irregular and “out of all Shape.” It is a “spleen” or a great “wen.” A body racked with fever, and choked by ashes, it proceeds from plague to fire.

Whether we consider London as a young man refreshed and risen from sleep, therefore, or whether we lament its condition as a deformed giant, we must regard it as a human shape with its own laws of life and growth.

Here, then, is its biography.

Some will object that such a biography can form no part of a true history. I admit the fault and plead in my defence that I have subdued the style of my enquiry to the nature of the subject. London is a labyrinth, half of stone and half of flesh. It cannot be conceived in its entirety but can be experienced only as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares, in which even the most experienced citizen may lose the way; it is curious, too, that this labyrinth is in a continual state of change and expansion.

The biography of London also defies chronology. Contemporary theorists have suggested that linear time is itself a figment of the human imagination, but London has already anticipated their conclusions. There are many different forms of time in the city, and it would be foolish of me to change its character for the sake of creating a conventional narrative. That is why this book moves quixotically through time, itself forming a labyrinth. If the history of London poverty is beside a history of London madness, then the connections may provide more significant information than any orthodox historiographical survey.

Chapters of history resemble John Bunyan’s little wicket-gates, while all around lie sloughs of despond and valleys of humiliation. So I will sometimes stray from the narrow path in search of those heights and depths of urban experience that know no history and are rarely susceptible to rational analysis. I understand a little, and I trust that it will prove enough. I am not a Virgil prepared to guide aspiring Dantes around a defined and circular kingdom. I am only one stumbling Londoner who wishes to lead others in the directions which I have pursued over a lifetime.

The readers of this book must wander and wonder. They may become lost upon the way; they may experience moments of uncertainty, and on occasions strange fantasies or theories may bewilder them. On certain streets various eccentric or vulnerable people will pause beside them, pleading for attention. There will be anomalies and contradictions-London is so large and so wild that it contains no less than everything-just as there will be irresolutions and ambiguities. But there will also be moments of revelation, when the city will be seen to harbour the secrets of the human world. Then it is wise to bow down before the immensity. So we set off in anticipation, with the milestone pointing ahead of us “To London.”

Peter Ackroyd


March 2000

From Prehistory to 1066

The relics of past ages have been found beneath many areas of London; they are the foundations upon which it rests.

CHAPTER 1. The Sea!

If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled “Why Can’t We Have the Sea in London?,” but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, fifty million years before, was covered by great waters.

The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London. The Portland stone of the Customs House and St. Pancras Old Church has a diagonal bedding which reflects the currents of the ocean; there are ancient oyster shells within the texture of Mansion House and the British Museum. Seaweed can still be seen in the greyish marble of Waterloo Station, and the force of hurricanes may be detected in the “chatter-marked” stone of pedestrian subways. In the fabric of Waterloo Bridge, the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea can also be observed. The tides and storms are still all around us, therefore, and as Shelley wrote of London “that great sea … still howls on for more.”

London has always been a vast ocean in which survival is not certain. The dome of St. Paul’s has been seen trembling upon a “vague troubled sea” of fog, while dark streams of people flow over London Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, and emerge as torrents in the narrow thoroughfares of London. The social workers of the mid-nineteenth century spoke of rescuing “drowning” people in Whitechapel or Shoreditch and Arthur Morrison, a novelist of the same period, invokes a “howling sea of human wreckage” crying out to be saved. Henry Peacham, the seventeenth-century author of The Art of Living in London, considered the city as “a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks,” while in 1810 Louis Simond was content to “listen to the roar of its waves, breaking around us in measured time.”

If you look from a distance, you observe a sea of roofs, and have no more knowledge of the dark streams of people than of the denizens of some unknown ocean. But the city is always a heaving and restless place, with its own torrents and billows, its foam and spray. The sound of its streets is like the murmur from a sea shell and in the great fogs of the past the citizens believed themselves to be lying on the floor of the ocean. Even amid all the lights it may simply be what George Orwell described as “the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes.” This is a constant vision of the London world, particularly in the novels of the twentieth century, where feelings of hopelessness and despondency turn the city into a place of silence and mysterious depths.

Yet, like the sea and the gallows, London refuses nobody. Those who venture upon its currents look for prosperity or fame, even if they often founder in its depths. Jonathan Swift depicted the jobbers of the Exchange as traders waiting for shipwrecks in order to strip the dead, while the commercial houses of the City often used a ship or boat as a weather-vane and as a sign of good fortune. Three of the most common emblems in urban cemeteries are the shell, the ship and the anchor.

The starlings of Trafalgar Square are also the starlings who nest in the cliff faces of northern Scotland. The pigeons of London are descended from the wild rock-doves who lived among the steep cliffs of the northern and western shores of this island. For them the buildings of the city are cliffs still, and the streets are the endless sea stretching beyond them. But the real confluence lies in this-that London, for so long the arbiter of trade and of the sea, should have upon its fabric the silent signature of the tides and waves.

And when the waters parted, the London earth was revealed. In 1877, in a characteristically grand example of Victorian engineering, a vast well was taken down 1,146 feet at the southern end of Tottenham Court Road. It travelled hundreds of millions of years, touching the primeval landscapes of this city site, and from its evidence we can list the layers beneath our feet from the Devonian to the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Above these strata lie 650 feet of chalk, outcrops of which can be seen upon the Downs or the Chilterns as the rim of the London Basin, that shallow saucer-like declivity in which the city rests. On top of the chalk itself lies the thick London clay which is in turn covered by deposits of gravel and brick-earth. Here, then, is the making of the city in more than one sense; the clay and the chalk and the brick-earth have for almost two thousand years been employed to construct the houses and public buildings of London. It is almost as if the city raised itself from its primeval origin, creating a human settlement from the senseless material of past time.

This clay is burned and compressed into “London Stock,” the particular yellow-brown or red brick that has furnished the material of London housing. It truly represents the genius loci, and Christopher Wren suggested that “the earth around London, rightly managed, will yield as good brick as were the Roman bricks … and will endure, in our air, beyond any stone our island affords.” William Blake called the bricks of London “well-wrought affections” by which he meant that the turning of clay and chalk into the fabric of the streets was a civilising process which knit the city with its primeval past. The houses of the seventeenth century are made out of dust that drifted over the London region in a glacial era 25,000 years before.

The London clay can yield more tangible evidence, also: the skeletons of sharks (in the East End it was popularly believed that shark’s teeth might cure cramp), the skull of a wolf in Cheapside, and crocodiles in the clay of Islington. In 1682 Dryden recognised this now forgotten and invisible landscape of London:

Yet monsters from thy large increase we find

Engender’d on the Slyme thou leav’st behind.

Eight years later, in 1690, the remains of a mammoth were found beside what has since become King’s Cross.

London clay can by the alchemy of weather become mud, and in 1851 Charles Dickens noted that there was so “much mud in the streets … that it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” In the 1930s Louis-Ferdinand Céline took the motor buses of Piccadilly Circus to be a “herd of mastodons” returning to the territory they had left behind. In Mother London Michael Moorcock’s late twentieth-century hero sees “monsters, by mud and giant ferns” while crossing the footbridge alongside the Hungerford railway bridge.

The mammoth of 1690 was only the first primeval relic to be discovered in the London region. Hippopotami and elephants lay beneath Trafalgar Square, lions at Charing Cross, and buffaloes beside St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A brown bear was discovered in north Woolwich, mackerel in the old brickfields of Holloway and sharks in Brentford. The wild animals of London include reindeer, giant beavers, hyenas and rhinoceri which once grazed by the swamps and lagoons of the Thames. And that landscape has not entirely faded. Within recent memory the mist from the ancient marshes of Westminster destroyed the frescoes of St. Stephen’s. It is still possible, beside the National Gallery, to detect the rise of ground between the middle and upper terraces of the Thames in the Pleistocene era.

This was not, even then, an unpeopled region. Within the bones of the King’s Cross mammoth were also found pieces of a flint hand-axe which can be dated to the Palaeolithic period. We can say with some certainty that for half a million years there has been in London a pattern of habitation and hunting if not of settlement. The first great fire of London was started, a quarter of a million years ago, in the forests south of the Thames. That river had by then taken its appointed course but not its later appearance; it was very broad, fed by many streams, occluded by forests, bordered by swamps and marshes.

The prehistory of London invites endless speculation and there is a certain pleasure to be derived from the prospect of human settlement in areas where, many thousands of years later, streets would be laid out and houses erected. There is no doubt that the region has been continually occupied for at least fifteen thousand years. A great gathering of flint tools, excavated in Southwark, is assumed to mark the remains of a Mesolithic manufactory; a hunting camp of the same period has been discovered upon Hampstead Heath; a pottery bowl from the Neolithic period was unearthed in Clapham. On these ancient sites have been found pits and post-holes, together with human remains and evidence of feasting. These early people drank a potion similar to mead or beer. Like their London descendants, they left vast quantities of rubbish everywhere. Like them, too, they met for the purposes of worship. For many thousands of years these ancient peoples treated the great river as a divine being to be placated and surrendered to its depths the bodies of their illustrious dead.

In the late Neolithic period there appeared, from the generally marshy soil on the northern bank of the Thames, twin hills covered by gravel and brick-earth, surrounded by sedge and willow. They were forty to fifty feet in height, and were divided by a valley through which flowed a stream. We know them as Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, with the now buried Walbrook running between. Thus emerged London.

The name is assumed to be of Celtic origin, awkward for those who believe that there was no human settlement here before the Romans built their city. Its actual meaning, however, is disputed. It might be derived from Llyndon, the town or stronghold (don) by the lake or stream (Llyn); but this owes more to medieval Welsh than ancient Celtic. Its provenance might be Laindon, “long hill,” or the Gaelic lunnd, “marsh.” One of the more intriguing speculations, given the reputation for violence which Londoners were later to acquire, is that the name is derived from the Celtic adjective londos meaning “fierce.”

There is a more speculative etymology which gives the honour of naming to King Lud, who is supposed to have reigned in the century of the Roman invasion. He laid out the city’s streets and rebuilt its walls. Upon his death he was buried beside the gate which bore his name, and the city became known as Kaerlud or Kaerlundein, “Lud’s City.” Those of sceptical cast of mind may be inclined to dismiss such narratives but the legends of a thousand years may contain profound and particular truths.

The origin of the name, however, remains mysterious. (It is curious, perhaps, that the name of the mineral most associated with the city-coal-also has no certain derivation.) With its syllabic power, so much suggesting force or thunder, it has continually echoed through history-Caer Ludd, Lundunes, Lindonion, Lundene, Lundone, Ludenberk, Longidinium, and a score of other variants. There have even been suggestions that the name is more ancient than the Celts themselves, and that it springs from some Neolithic past.

We must not necessarily assume that there were settlements or defended enclosures upon Ludgate Hill or Cornhill, or that there were wooden trackways where there are now great avenues, but the attractions of the site might have been as obvious in the third and fourth millennia BC as they were to the later Celts and Romans. The hills were well defended, forming a natural plateau, with the river to the south, fens to the north, marshes to the east, and another river, later known as the Fleet, to the west. It was fertile ground, well watered by springs bubbling up through the gravel. The Thames was easily navigable at this point, with the Fleet and the Walbrook providing natural harbours. The ancients trackways of England were also close at hand. So from earliest time London was the most appropriate site for trade, for markets, and for barter. The City has for much of its history been the centre of world commerce; it is perhaps instructive to note that it may have begun with the transactions of Stone Age people in their own markets.

All this is speculation, not altogether uninformed, but evidence of a more substantial kind has been discovered in later levels of London earth. In those long stretches of time designated as the “Late Bronze Age” and the “Early Iron Age”-a period spanning almost a thousand years-shards and fragments of bowls, and pots, and tools, were left all over London. There are signs of prehistoric activity in the areas now known as St. Mary Axe and Gresham Street, Austin Friars and Finsbury Circus, Bishopsgate and Seething Lane, with altogether some 250 “finds” clustered in the area of the twin hills together with Tower Hill and Southwark. From the Thames itself many hundreds of metal objects have been retrieved, while along its banks is to be found frequent evidence of metal-working. This is the period from which the great early legends of London spring. It is also, in its latter phase, the age of the Celts.

In the first century BC, Julius Caesar’s description of the region around London suggests the presence of an elaborate, rich and well-organised tribal civilisation. Its population was “exceedingly large” and “the ground thickly studded with homesteads.” The nature and role of the twin hills throughout this period cannot with certainty be given; perhaps these were sacred places, or perhaps their well-defined position allowed them to be used as hill-forts in order to protect the trade carried along the river. There is every reason to suppose that this area of the Thames was a centre of commerce and of industry, with a market in iron products as well as elaborate workings in bronze, with merchants from Gaul, Rome and Spain bringing Samian ware, wine and spices in exchange for corn, metals and slaves.

In the history of this period completed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, the principal city in the island of Britain is undoubtedly London. But according to modern scholars his work is established upon lost texts, apocryphal embellishments and uninformed conjecture. Where Geoffrey speaks of kings, for example, they prefer the nomenclature of tribes; he dates events by means of biblical parallel, while they provide indicators such as “Late Iron Age”; he elucidates patterns of conflict and social change in terms of individual human passion, where more recent accounts of prehistory rely upon more abstract principles of trade and technology. The approaches may be contradictory but they are not necessarily incompatible. It is believed by historians of early Britain, for example, that a people known as the Trinovantes settled on territory to the north of the London region. Curiously enough, Geoffrey states that the first name of the city was Trinovantum. He also mentions the presence of temples within London itself; even if they had existed, these palisades and wooden enclosures would since have been lost beneath the stone of the Roman city as well as the brick and cement of succeeding generations.

But nothing is wholly lost. In the first four decades of the twentieth century there was a particular effort by prehistorians to discover something of London’s supposedly hidden past. In books such as The Lost Language of London, Legendary London, Prehistoric London and The Earlier Inhabitants of London, tokens and traces of a Celtic or Druidic London were thoroughly examined and were found significant. These studies were effectively killed off by the Second World War, after which urban planning and regeneration became more important than urban speculation. But the original works survive, and still repay close study. The fact that existing street names may betray a Celtic origin-Colin Deep Lane, Pancras Lane, Maiden Lane, Ingal Road among them-is, for example, as instructive as any of the material “finds” recorded on the site of the ancient city. Long-forgotten trackways have guided the course of modern thoroughfares; the crossroads at the Angel, Islington, for example, marks the point where two prehistoric British roads intersected. We know of Old Street leading to Old Ford, of Maiden Lane crossing through Pentonville and Battle Bridge to Highgate, of the route from Upper Street to Highbury, all following the same ancient tracks and buried paths.

Yet there is no more suspect or difficult subject, in the context of this period, than Druidism. That it was well established in Celtic settlements is not in doubt; Julius Caesar, who was in a position to speak with some authority on the subject, stated that the Druid religion was founded (inventa) in Britain and that its Celtic adherents came to this island in order to be educated in its mysteries. It represented a highly advanced, if somewhat insular, religious culture. Of course we might speculate that the oak woodland to the north of the twin hills provided a suitable site for sacrifice and worship; one antiquary, Sir Laurence Gomme, has envisaged a temple or sacred space upon Ludgate Hill itself. But there are many false trails. It was once generally agreed that Parliament Hill near Highgate was a place for religious assembly, but in fact the remnants which have been discovered there do not date from prehistory. The Chislehurst caves in south London, once reputed to be of Druid origin connected in some fashion with the observation of the heavens, are almost certainly of medieval construction.

It has been suggested that the London area was controlled from three sacred mounds; they are named as Penton Hill, Tothill and the White Mound, otherwise known as Tower Hill. Any such theory can readily be dismissed as nonsense, but there are curious parallels and coincidences which render it more interesting than the usual fantasies of latter-day psychogeographers.

It is known that in prehistoric worship a holy place was marked by a spring, a grove and a well or ritual shaft.

There is a reference to a “shrubby maze” in the pleasure gardens of White Conduit House, situated on the high ground of Pentonville, and a maze’s avatar was a sacred hill or grove. Close at hand is the famous well of Sadlers Wells. In recent days the water of this well flowed under the orchestra pit of the theatre but, from medieval times, it was considered holy and was tended by the priests of Clerkenwell. The site of the high ground in Pentonville was also once a reservoir; it was until recently the headquarters of the London Water Board.

Another maze was to be found in the area once known as Tothill Fields in Westminster; it is depicted in Hollar’s view of the area in the mid-seventeenth century. Here also is a sacred spring, deriving from the “holy well” in Dean’s Yard, Westminster. A fair, similar to the pleasure gardens upon White Conduit Fields, was established here at an early date; the first extant reference is dated 1257.

The sites are, therefore, comparable. There are other suggestive coincidences. On old maps, “St. Hermit’s Hill” is a noticeable feature of the area beside Tothill Fields. To this day, there is a Hermes Street at the top of the Pentonville Road. It is perhaps also interesting that in a house on this site dwelled a physician who promoted a medicine known as the “Balsam of Life”; the house was later turned into an observatory.

On Tower Hill there was a spring of clear bubbling water, reputed to possess curative properties. A medieval well exists there, and traces of a Late Iron Age burial have been uncovered. There is no maze but the place has its own share of Celtic legends; according to the Welsh Triads the guardian head of Bran the Blessed is interred within the White Hill to safeguard the kingdom from its enemies. London’s legendary founder Brutus, also, was supposed to have been buried on Tower Hill, in sacred ground that was used as an observatory until the seventeenth century.

The etymology of Penton Hill and Tothill is reasonably certain. Pen is the Celtic signifier for head or hill, while ton is a variant of tor/tot/ twt/too, which means spring or rising ground. (Wycliffe applies the words tot or tote, for example, to Mount Zion.) Those of a more romantic disposition have suggested that tot is derived from the Egyptian god Thoth who is of course reincarnated in Hermes, the Greek personification of the wind or the music of the lyre.

Here, then, is the hypothesis: London mounds, which bear so many similar characteristics, are in fact the holy sites of Druid ritual. The maze is the sacred equivalent of the oak grove, while the wells and springs represent the worship of the god of the water. The London Water Board was, then, well situated. Pleasure gardens and fairs are more recent versions of those prehistoric festivals or meetings which were held upon the same ground. So antiquaries have named Tothill, Penton and Tower Hill as the holy places of London.

It is generally assumed, of course, that Pentonville is named after an eighteenth-century speculator, Henry Penton, who developed the area. Can one place assume different identities, existing in different times and in different visions of reality? Is it possible that both explanations of Pentonville are true simultaneously? Might Billingsgate be named after the Celtic king Belinus or Belin, as the great sixteenth-century antiquary John Stow would have it, or after a Mr. Beling, who once owned the land? Can Ludgate really bear the name of Lud, a Celtic god of the waters? Certainly there is room for contemplation here.

It is equally important to look for evidence of continuity. It is likely that there was antiquity of worship among the Britons long before the Druids emerged as the high priests of their culture, and in turn Celtic forms of ritual seem to have survived the Roman occupation and subsequent invasions by the Saxon tribes. In the records of St. Paul’s Cathedral the adjacent buildings are known as “Camera Dianae.” A fifteenth-century chronicler recalled a time when “London worships Diana,” the goddess of the hunt, which is at least one explanation for the strange annual ceremony that took place at St. Paul’s as late as the sixteenth century. There, in the Christian temple erected on the sacred site of Ludgate Hill, a stag’s head was impaled upon a spear and carried about the church; it was then received upon the steps of the church by priests wearing garlands of flowers upon their heads. So the pagan customs of London survived into recorded history, just as a latent paganism survived among the citizens themselves.

One other inheritance from prehistoric worship may also be considered. The sense of certain places as being powerful or venerable was taken over by the Christians in the recognition of “holy wells” and in such ceremonies of territorial piety as “beating the bounds.” Yet the same sensibility is to be found in the writings of the great London visionaries, from William Blake to Arthur Machen, writings in which the city itself is considered to be a sacred place with its own joyful and sorrowful mysteries.

In this Celtic period, which lurks like some chimera in the shadows of the known world, the great legends of London find their origin. The historical record knows only of warring tribes within a highly organised culture of some sophistication. They were not necessarily savage, in other words, and the Greek geographer Strabo describes one Briton, an ambassador, as well dressed, intelligent and agreeable. He spoke Greek with such fluency that “you would have thought he had been bred up in the lyceum.” This is the proper context for those narratives in which London is accorded the status of a principal city. Brutus, in legend the founder of the city, was buried within London’s walls. Locrinus kept his lover, Estrildis, in a secret chamber beneath the ground. Bladud, who practised sorcery, constructed a pair of wings with which to fly through the air of London; yet he fell against the roof of the Temple of Apollo situated in the very heart of the city, perhaps on Ludgate Hill itself. Another king, Dunvallo, who formulated the ancient laws of sanctuary, was buried beside a London temple. From this period, too, came the narratives of Lear and of Cymbeline. More powerful still is the legend of the giant Gremagot who by some strange alchemy was transformed into the twins Gog and Magog, who became tutelary spirits of London. It has often been suggested that each of this characteristically ferocious pair, whose statues have stood for many centuries within the Guildhall, guards one of the twin hills of London.

Such stories are recorded by John Milton in The History of Britain, published a little more than three hundred years ago. “After this, Brutus in a chosen place builds Troia nova, chang’d in time to Trinovantum, now London: and began to enact Laws; Heli beeing then high Priest in Judaea: and having govern’d the whole Ile 24 Years, dy’d, and was buried in his new Troy.” Brutus was the great-grandson of Aeneas who, some years after the fall of Troy, led the exodus of Trojans from Greece; in the course of his exilic wanderings he was granted a dream in which the goddess Diana spoke words of prophecy to him: an island far to the west, beyond the realm of Gaul, “fitts thy people”; you are to sail there, Brutus, and establish a city which will become another Troy. “And Kings be born of thee, whose dredded might shall aw the World, and Conquer Nations bold.” London is to maintain a world empire but, like ancient Troy, it may suffer some perilous burning. It is interesting that paintings of London’s Great Fire in 1666 make specific allusion to the fall of Troy. This is indeed the central myth of London’s origin which can be found in the sixth-century verses of “Tallisen,” where the British are celebrated as the living remnant of Troy, as well as in the later poetry of Edmund Spenser and of Alexander Pope. Pope, born in Plough Court beside Lombard Street, was of course invoking a visionary urban civilisation; yet it is one highly appropriate for a city first vouchsafed to Brutus in a dream.

The narrative of Brutus has been dismissed as mere fable and fanciful legend but, as Milton wrote in the judicious introduction to his own history, “oft-times relations heertofore accounted fabulous have bin after found to contain in them many foot-steps, and reliques of something true.” Some scholars believe that we can date the wanderings of the apparently legendary Brutus to the period around 1100 BC. In contemporary historiographical terms this marks the period of the Late Bronze Age when new bands or tribes of settlers occupied the area around London; they constructed large defensive enclosures and maintained an heroic life of mead-halls, ring-giving and furious fighting which found expression in later legends. Segmented glass beads, like those of Troy, have been discovered in England. In the waters of the Thames was found a black two-handled cup; its provenance lies in Asia Minor, with an approximate date of 900 BC. So there is some indication of trade between western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, and there is every reason to suppose that Phrygian or later Phoenician merchants reached the shores of Albion and sailed into the market of London.

Material evidence of an association with Troy itself, and with the region of Asia Minor in which that ancient doomed city resided, can be found elsewhere. Diogenes Laertius identified the Celts with the Chaldees of Assyria; indeed the famous British motif comprising the lion and the unicorn may be of Chaldean origin. Caesar noted, with some surprise, that the Druids made use of Greek letters. In the Welsh Triads there is a description of an invading tribe who have travelled to the shores of Albion, or England, from the region of Constantinople. It is suggestive, perhaps, that the Franks and Gauls also claimed Trojan ancestry. Although it is not altogether out of the question that a tribe from the region of fallen Troy migrated to western Europe, it is more likely, perhaps, that the Celtic people themselves had their origins in the eastern Mediterranean. The legend of London, as a new Troy, is therefore still able to claim some adherents.

At the beginning of any civilisation there are fables and legends; only at the end are they proved to be accurate.

One token of Brutus and his Trojan fleet may still remain. If you walk east down Cannon Street, on the other side from the railway station, you will find an iron grille set within the Bank of China. It protects a niche upon which has been placed a stone roughly two feet in height, bearing a faint groove mark upon its top. This is London Stone. For many centuries it was popularly believed to be the stone of Brutus, brought by him as a deity. “So long as the stone of Brutus is safe,” ran one city proverb, “so long shall London flourish.” Certainly the stone is of great antiquity; the first reference to it was discovered by John Stow in a “fair written Gospel book” once belonging to Ethelstone, an early tenth-century king of the West Saxons, where certain lands and rents are “described to lie near unto London stone.” According to the Victorian County History it originally marked the very centre of the old city, but in 1742 was taken from the middle of Cannon Street and placed within the fabric of St. Swithin’s Church opposite. There it remained until the Second World War; although a German bomb entirely destroyed the church in 1941, London Stone remained intact. It is constructed of oolite which, as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to have survived since prehistoric times. Yet it has been granted a charmed life.

There is a verse by the fifteenth-century poet, Fabyan, which celebrates the religious significance of a stone so pure that “though some have it thrette … Yet hurte had none.” Its actual significance, however, remains unclear. Some antiquaries have considered it to be a token of civic assembly, connected with the repayment of debts, while others believe it to be a Roman milliarium or milestone. Christopher Wren argued, however, that it possessed too large a foundation for the latter purpose. A judicial role is more likely. In a now forgotten play of 1589, Pasquill and Marfarius, a character remarks: “Set up this bill at London Stone. Let it be doone sollemly with drom and trumpet” and then again “If it please them these dark winter nights to stikke uppe their papers uppon London Stone.” That it became a highly venerated object is not in doubt. William Blake was convinced that it marked the site of Druid executions, whose sacrificial victims “groan’d aloud on London Stone,” but its uses were perhaps less melancholy.

When the popular rebel Jack Cade stormed London in 1450, he and his followers made their way to the Stone; he touched it with his sword and then exclaimed: “Now is Mortimer”-this was the name he had assumed-“lord of this city!” The first mayor of London, in the late twelfth century, was Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone. It seems likely, therefore, that this ancient object came somehow to represent the power and authority of the city.

It sits now, blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare; over and around it have flowed wooden carts, carriages, sedan chairs, hansom cabs, cabriolets, hackney cabs, omnibuses, bicycles, trams and cars. It was once London’s guardian spirit, and perhaps it is still.

It is at least a material remnant from all the ancient legends of London and of its foundation. For the Celtic people these narratives comprised the glory of a city once known as “Cockaigne.” In this place of wealth and delight the traveller might find riches and blessed happiness. This is the myth that established the context for later legends, such as those of Dick Whittington, as well as those unattributable proverbs which describe London’s streets as “paved with gold.” Yet London gold has proved more perishable than London Stone.

CHAPTER 2. The Stones

A section of the original London Wall, with medieval additions, can still be seen by Trinity Place just north of the Tower of London; part of the Tower itself was incorporated within the fabric of the wall, demonstrating in material form William Dunbar’s claim that “Stony be thy wallys that about thee standis.” It was almost ten feet wide at its base, and more than twenty feet in height; besides these relics of the wall by Trinity Place can be seen the stone outline of an inner tower which contained a wooden staircase leading to a parapet which looked east across the marshes.

From here the spectral wall, the wall as once it was, can be traversed in the imagination. It proceeds north to Cooper’s Row, where a section can still be seen in the courtyard of an empty building; it rises from a car park in the basement. It goes through the concrete and marble of the building, then on through the brick and iron of the Fenchurch Street Station viaduct until an extant section rises again in America Square. It is concealed within the basement of a modern building which itself has parapets, turrets and square towers; a strip of glazed red tiling bears more than a passing resemblance to the courses of flat red tiles placed in the ancient Roman structure. For a moment it is known as Crosswall and passes through the headquarters of a company named Equitas. It moves through Vine Street (in the car park at No. 35 is a security camera on the ancient line of the now invisible wall), towards Jewry Street, which itself follows the line of the wall almost exactly until it meets Aldgate; all the buildings here can be said to comprise a new wall, separating west from east. We find Centurion House and Boots, the chemist.

The steps of the subway at Aldgate lead down to a level which was once that of late medieval London but we follow the wall down Duke’s Place and into Bevis Marks; near the intersection of these two thoroughfares there is now part of that “ring of steel” which is designed once more to protect the city. On a sixteenth-century map Bevis Marks was aligned to the course of the wall, and it is so still; the pattern of the streets here has been unchanged for many hundreds of years. Even the lanes, such as Heneage Lane, remain. At the corner of Bevis Marks and St. Mary Axe rises a building of white marble with massive vertical windows; a great golden eagle can be seen above its entrance, as if it were part of some imperial standard. Security cameras once more trace the line of the wall, as it leads down Camomile Street towards Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street.

It drops beneath the churchyard of St. Botolph’s, behind a building faced with white stone and curtain-walling of dark glass, but then fragments of it arise beside the church of All Hallows-on-the-Wall, which has been built, in the ancient fashion, to protect and bless these defences. The modern thoroughfare here becomes known, at last, as London Wall. A tower like a postern of brown stone rises above 85 London Wall, very close to the spot where a fourth-century bastion was only recently found, but the line of the wall from Blomfield Street to Moorgate largely comprises late nineteenth-century office accommodation. Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam, was once built against the north side of the wall; but that, too, has disappeared. Yet it is impossible not to feel the presence or force of the wall as you walk down this straightened thoroughfare which can be dated to the later period of the Roman occupation. A new London Wall then opens up after Moorgate, built over the ruins of the Second World War. The bombs themselves effectively uncovered long-buried remnants of the ancient wall, and stretches both of Roman and medieval origin can still be seen covered with grass and moss. But these old stones are flanked by the glittering marble and polished stone of the new buildings that dominate the city.

Around the site of the great Roman fort, at the north-west angle of the wall, there now arise these new fortresses and towers: Roman House, Britannic Tower, City Tower, Alban Gate (which by the slightest substitution might be renamed Albion Gate) and the concrete and granite towers of the Barbican which have once more brought a sublime bareness and brutality to that area where the Roman legions were sequestered. Even the walkways of this great expanse are approximately the same height as the parapets of the old city wall.

The wall then turns south, and long sections of it can still be seen on the western side sloping down towards Aldersgate. For most of its course from Aldersgate to Newgate and then to Ludgate, it remains invisible, but there are suggestive tokens of its progress. The great beast of classical antiquity, the Minotaur, has been sculpted just to its north in Postman’s Park. The mottled and darkened blocks of the Sessions House beside the Old Bailey still mark the outer perimeter of the wall’s defences, and in Amen Court a later wall looking on the back of the Old Bailey is like some revenant of brick and mortar. From the rear of St. Martin’s Ludgate we cross Ludgate Hill, enter Pilgrim Street and walk beside Pageantmaster Court, where now the lines of the City Thames Link parallel those once made by the swiftly moving River Fleet, until we reach the edge of the water where the wall once abruptly stopped.

The wall enclosed an area of some 330 acres. To walk its perimeter would have taken approximately one hour, and the modern pedestrian will be able to cover the route in the same time. The streets beside it are still navigable and, in fact, the larger part of the wall itself was not demolished until 1760. Until that time the city had the appearance of a fortress, and in the sagas of Iceland it was known as Lundunaborg, “London Fort.” It was continually being rebuilt, as if the integrity and identity of the city itself depended upon the survival of this ancient stone fabric; churches were erected beside it, and hermits guarded its gates. Those with more secular preoccupations built houses, or wooden huts, against it so that everywhere you could see (and perhaps smell) the peculiar combination of rotten wood and mildewed stone. A contemporary equivalent may be seen in the old brick arches of nineteenth-century railways being used as shops and garages.

Even after its demolition the wall still lived; its stone sides were incorporated into churches or other public buildings. One section in Cooper’s Row was used to line the vaults of a bonded warehouse while, above ground, its course was used as a foundation for houses. The late eighteenth-century Crescent by America Square, designed by George Dance the Younger in the 1770s, for example, is established upon the ancient line of the wall. So later houses dance upon the ruins of the old city. Fragments and remnants of the wall were continually being rediscovered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the succeeding phases of its existence were first seen steadily and as a whole. On the eastern side of the wall were found in 1989, for example, eight skeletons of late Roman date turned in different directions; there were also unearthed the skeletons of several dogs. This is the area known as Houndsditch.

It is often believed that the Roman wall first defined Roman London, but the invaders were in command of London for 150 years before walls were built and, during that long stretch of time, the city itself evolved in particular- sometimes bloody, sometimes fiery-stages.

In 55 BC a military force under the command of Caesar invaded Britain, and within a short time compelled the tribes around London to accept Roman hegemony. Almost a hundred years later the Romans returned with a more settled policy of invasion and conquest. The troops may have crossed the river at Westminster, or Southwark, or Wallingford; temporary encampments may have been established in Mayfair, or at the Elephant and Castle. It is important for this account only that the administrators and commanders finally chose London as their principal place of settlement because of the strategic advantages of the terrain, and the commercial benefits of this riverine location. Whether the Romans occupied an abandoned settlement, its tribal occupants having fled on wooden trackways into the swamps and forests, is not known. It seems likely, in any event, that the invaders understood the significance of the site from the beginning of their occupation. Here was an estuary, served by a double tide. So it became the central point for seaborne trade in the south of Britain, and the focus for a network of roads which have survived for almost two thousand years.

The outlines of that first city have been revealed by excavation, with two principal streets of gravel running parallel to the river on the eastern hill. One of these streets skirted the bank of the Thames, and can still be traced in the alignment of Cannon Street and Eastcheap; the second road, some hundred yards to the north, comprises the eastern stretch of Lombard Street as it approaches Fenchurch Street. Here are the true origins of the modern city.

And then there was the bridge. The wooden Roman bridge was located approximately one hundred yards east of the first stone London Bridge, spanning the area west of St. Olav’s Church in Southwark and the foot of Rederes (Pudding) Lane upon the northern bank; the exact date of its foundation cannot now be known but it would have seemed a majestic and even miraculous construction, not least to the native peoples who had settled under the Romans. Half the legends of London arose upon its foundations; miracles were performed, and visions seen, upon the new wooden thoroughfare. Since its sole purpose was to tame the river, it may then have harnessed the power of a god. Yet that god may have been enraged at the stripping of its riverine authority; thus all the intimations of vengeance and destruction invoked by the famous rhyme “London Bridge is broken down.”

It is not clear whether Londinium was first used as a Roman military camp. Certainly it soon became a centre of supplies. In its first stages we must imagine a cluster of small dwellings with clay walls, thatched roofs and earthen floors; narrow alleys ran between them, with a series of streets connecting the two main thoroughfares, filled with the smells and noises of a busy community. There were workshops, taverns, shops and smithies crowded together while, beside the river, warehouses and workshops were grouped around a square timber harbour. Evidence for such a harbour has been found in Billingsgate. Along the thoroughfares, which every traveller to London used, there were taverns and tradesmen. Just beyond the city were round huts, in the old British style, which were used as places for storage, while on the perimeter of the city were wooden enclosures for cattle.

Only a few years after its foundation, which can be approximately dated between AD 43 and 50, the Roman historian, Tacitus, could already write of London as filled with negotiatores and as a place well known for its commercial prosperity. So in less than a decade it had progressed from a supply base into a flourishing town.

Negotiatores are not necessarily merchants but men of negotium; business and negotiation. They can be described as traders and brokers. Thus the line of continuity-it might almost be called the line of harmony-can still be traced. The shining buildings which now stand upon the Roman wall contain brokers and dealers who are the descendants, direct or indirect, of those who came to London in the first century. The City has always been established upon the imperatives of money and of trade. That is why the headquarters of the procurator, the high Roman official who controlled the finances of the province, were erected here.

London is based upon power, therefore. It is a place of execution and oppression, where the poor have always outnumbered the rich. Many terrible judgements of fire and death have visited it. Barely a decade after its foundation a great fire of London utterly destroyed its buildings. In AD 60 Boudicca and her tribal army laid waste the city with flame and sword, wreaking vengeance upon those who were trying to sell the women and children of the Iceni as slaves. It is the first token of the city’s appetite for human lives. The evidence of Boudicca’s destruction is to be found in a red level of oxidised iron among a layer of burnt clay, wood and ash. Red is London’s colour, a sign of fire and devastation.

There was at least one other tribal attack upon the Roman city, at the end of the third century, but by that time the city and its defences were strong. Immediately after the Boudiccan assault the work of rebuilding was begun. If you were to stand now at the great crossroads in the City, where Gracechurch Street divides Lombard Street from Fenchurch Street, you would be facing the main entrance of the Romans’ public forum, with shops and stalls and workshops on either side. The new forum was constructed of ragstone from Kent, carried by boat up the Medway, and, with its plastered surfaces and its roofs of red tiles, was a small fragment of Rome placed upon an alien soil.

Yet the influence of Roman civilisation was enduring in more than one respect. The chief cashier’s office in the eighteenth-century Bank of England was based upon the design of a Roman temple, very like the basilica situated to the left of the early forum. Throughout the centuries London has been celebrated or denounced as a new Rome-corrupt or mighty, according to taste-and it can safely be said that part of its identity was created by its first builders.

London began to grow and flourish. A greater forum, and a greater basilica, were built upon the same site in the late first century; the basilica itself was larger than St. Paul’s, Wren’s seventeenth-century cathedral on Ludgate Hill. A great fort was built to the north-west, where the Barbican now stands. There were public baths, and temples, and shops, and stalls; there was an amphitheatre where the Guildhall now rests, and just south of St. Paul’s a racing arena: by the strange alchemy of the city a name, Knightrider Street, has survived for almost two thousand years.

We can find evidence of further survival in the line, if not the name, of other streets. At the corner of Ironmonger Lane and Prudent Passage, traces of a Roman road passing from east to west have been uncovered together with the alignment of structures against it; at least seven successive buildings, all apparently engaged in the same kind of industrial activity, were erected upon that same alignment. There was an interval of destruction caused by fire, and then a gap of some five hundred years, until new buildings were erected upon the base of the old Roman road in the early ninth century. By the twelfth century, when the name of Ironmonger Lane enters recorded history, the buildings still followed the northern edge of the street laid out more than a thousand years before. The same buildings were in use until the seventeenth century, providing evidence of perhaps unequalled continuity in the life of the city.

We can cite many of the ancient streets in this vicinity-Milk Street, Wood Street, Aldermanbury among them-as the visible remnants of a Roman street horizon. It is suggestive, also, that the great markets of London at Cheapside and East Cheap lay until recent years on the thoroughfares established by the Romans on their first arrival. In the space of fifty years, by the end of the first century, London had acquired its destiny. It became the administrative and political capital of the country as well as its trading centre. The focus of communication and commercial activity, it was governed by imperial laws concerning trade, marriage and defence, laws that survived the passing of the Romans themselves. It was in all essentials a city-state with its own independent government, albeit in direct relationship to Rome; that independence, and autonomy, will be found to mark much of its subsequent history.

During the strongest period of its growth, at the end of the first century, the city would have possessed some thirty thousand inhabitants. There were soldiers, and merchants, and businessmen, artisans and artists, Celts and Romans, all mingled together. There were grand houses for the wealthier merchants and administrators, but the standard house of most Londoners was a form of cubicle or bed-sitting-room, its walls painted or decorated with mosaic. Sometimes, we can even hear the people speak.

There are surviving letters dealing with matters of finance and of trade, as might be expected, but there are also less formal communications. “Primus has made ten tiles. Enough! … Austalis has been taking off on his own every day for the last fortnight … for shame! … London, next door to the temple of Isis … Clementinus fashioned this tile.” These are the earliest known words of a Londoner, scratched upon pieces of tile or pottery and fortuitously preserved among all the ruins that have been heaped over the city’s earth. More pious memorials have also been found, with inscriptions for the dead and invocations to the gods. The stamps for the labels of an optician have been uncovered, proffering remedies for running eyes, for inflammation and for dim sight.

Our own sight of the past may be cleared a little if we are able to reconstruct the scattered evidence of the remains. A great hand of bronze, thirteen inches long, was found beneath Thames Street; a head of the Emperor Hadrian, again more than life-size, in the waters of the Thames itself. So we may imagine a city adorned with great statues. Fragments of a triumphal arch have been recovered, together with stone frescoes of goddesses and gods. This is a city of temples and monumental architecture. There were public baths also, and one lay in North Audley Street quite a long way outside the City. When workmen of the late nineteenth century discovered it in an underground arched chamber, it was still half-filled with water. Votive statues and daggers, sacred urns and silver ingots, swords and coins and altars, all express the spirit of a city in which trade and violence were not divorced from a genuine religious spirit. But there is significance, also, in the smallest detail. More than a hundred styli have been found at the bottom of the Walbrook River, where countless busy clerks simply threw used pens out of the window. It is an image of bustling life which would not be inappropriate in any period of London’s history.

Yet the security and prosperity of London are not at this early date so certain. Like an organic being London grew and developed outwards, always seeking to incorporate new territory, but it also suffered periods of weariness and enervation when the spirit of the place hid its head. We may find tokens of just such a change by those same eastern banks of the Walbrook where the clerks of the empire tossed their pens into the water. Here was discovered, in 1954, the remains of a temple devoted to Mithras and subsequently to other pagan deities. It was not uncommon for Roman Londoners to embrace a variety of faiths; there is good evidence, for example, that the beliefs of the original Celtic tribes were incorporated into a peculiar Romano-Celtic form of worship. But the Mithraic mystery cult, with its rites of initiation and the secrets of its arcane ritual, seems at least in theory to presage a more disturbed and anxious city.

The most resourceful period of Roman London lay in the years spanning the first and second centuries, but these were followed by an uneven period combining development and decline. That decline was in part associated with the two great titular spirits of London, fire and plague, but there was also a steady alteration of imperial rule as the empire itself weakened and decayed. In approximately AD 200, some fifty years before the temple of Mithras was erected, the great wall was constructed around London. It speaks of an age of anxiety, but the very fact of its erection suggests that the city still had formidable resources of its own. Large areas within the wall were unoccupied, or used for pasture, but there were fine temples and houses in the more fashionable district close to the river. The first London mint was established in the third century, testifying once again to the city’s true nature. In that century, too, a riverine wall was constructed to complete the city’s defences.

What, then, was the nature and activity of the citizens themselves in the last decades of Roman London? They would be largely of Romano-British descent, and there were occasions when they were ruled by a British “king.” But London has from its inception always been a mixed city, and the streets would have been filled with the inhabitants of many nations including the native Celtic tribes who, over three hundred years, had naturally grown accustomed to the new order. This Roman city spanned a period as long as that from the late Tudors to the present day, but we have in general only the silent evidence of scattered cups and dice, bath scrapers and bells, writing tablets and millstones, brooches and sandals. How can we make these objects live again?

There were of course, in the passages of this long history, periods of turbulence and warfare. Many have gone unrecorded, but one or two powerful incidents survive. The darkness breaks and a scene presents itself, frozen for a moment, throwing into further confusion and mystery the historical process of which it is a part. A Roman leader named Allectus sailed to Britain in order to put down a local rebellion; having defeated the rebels he set up his headquarters in London. A Celtic chieftain, Asclepiodotus, in turn marched against the imperial victor; outside the city there was a great battle in which the British were successful. The remaining Roman troops, fearing massacre, fled within the walls and closed the gates. Siege engines were brought, and a breach was made in the defences; the Celts poured in and the leader of the last legion begged for mercy. It was agreed that the Romans could withdraw and take to their ships but one tribe or group of tribesmen reneged on the agreement: they fell upon the Roman soldiers, decapitated them in ritual Celtic style and, according to the narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth, threw their heads into “a brook in the city … in Saxon, Galobroc.” Many skulls were, in the 1860s, found in the bed of the long-buried Walbrook River. The rest is silence.

But we cannot from the evidence of this single anecdote assume that the history of London is one of warring tribes against a common Roman enemy. All the evidence suggests otherwise and instead intimates a degree of mingling, maintained by mutual trade, that encouraged an almost unbroken continuity of commerce and administration. There would by now be something of a London type, perhaps with that particular “muddy” complexion which became characteristic in later years. No doubt the citizens spoke a Latin patois which included native elements, and their religious beliefs would have been equally mixed and idiosyncratic. The Mithraic temple is only one example of a mystery religion-predominantly the reserve of merchants and professional administrators-but the Christian faith was not unknown. In AD 313 a certain Restitus attended the Council of Arles in his capacity as Bishop of London.

The city’s economic activity was equally mixed and practical; the commercial and military quarters were still in active operation, but the archaeological evidence suggests that many public buildings were allowed to fall into disuse and earth was laid over once inhabited sites for the purposes of farming. It may seem odd to have farms and vineyards within the walls of the city but, even as late as the time of Henry II, half of London was open ground with fields, orchards and gardens adorning it. There is also evidence, in the third and fourth centuries, of quite large stone buildings which were conceivably farm-houses. We might then have the paradox of rural landowners within the city itself. Certainly the city was still formidable enough to withstand the attentions of marauding tribes; in AD 368 the Attacotti laid waste to much of Kent without daring to make an onslaught upon London itself.

But in 410 Rome withdrew its protecting hand; like the hand found beneath Thames Street, it was of bronze rather than of gold. There are reports of raids against the city by Angles and Saxons, but there is no record of any great collapse or transition. There is, however, some evidence of decay. There was once a bath-house in Lower Thames Street which, in the early fifth century, was abandoned. The glass was shattered, and the wind destroyed the roof; then at a later date, after the collapse of the roof, the walls of the eastern range of buildings were systematically demolished. Found among the debris was a Saxon brooch, dropped by a woman while clambering over these alien ruins.

The arrival of the Saxons has been dated to the beginning of the fifth century when, according to the historian Gildas, the land of Britain was licked by a “red and savage tongue.” Within certain cities “in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies.” But in fact the Angles and the Saxons were already living in the London region, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence that by the late fourth century troops of Germanic origin were guarding London as legionnaires under the imperial banner.

It was once assumed, however, that the arrival of the Saxons resulted in the destruction and desertion of the city itself. In fact there was no fiery carnage in the London area from which Rome retreated. On several sites has been found a layer of “dark earth” which was believed to indicate dereliction and decay, but contemporary experts have suggested that levels of dark soil may point to occupation rather than destruction. There is other evidence of the continuous habitation of London during that period once known as the “dark ages.” In one of those extraordinary instances of historical survival, it has been shown that the provisions of London law in the Roman period- particularly in terms of testamentary provisions and property rights-were still being applied throughout the medieval period. There was, in other words, a continuous administrative tradition which no Saxon occupation had interrupted.

The old chronicles assert that London remained the principal city and stronghold of the Britons. In the histories of Nennius and Gildas, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Bede, it is regularly cited as an independent town which is also the home of the British kings; it is the place where sovereigns were made and acclaimed, and it is the site where the citizens were called together in public assembly. It is also the chief place of defence when, on various occasions, the Britons fled within the safety of the walls. It is the seat of the British and Roman nobility, as well as representing one of the great sees of the Christian realm. The ancient British kings-Vortigern, Vortimer and Uther among them-are depicted as reigning and living in London.

Yet in these early chronicles the distance between factual interpretation and fanciful reconstruction is short. In these accounts, for example, Merlin makes many prophecies concerning the future of the city. Another great figure who exists somewhere within the interstices of myth and history is also to be found in London: King Arthur. According to Matthew of Westminster, Arthur was crowned by the archbishop of London. Layamon adds that he entered London after his investiture. The mark of this urban civilisation was its sophistication; Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, celebrates the affluence and courtesy of Arthur’s subjects as well as the “richness” of decorative art everywhere apparent. In Malory’s great prose epic, derived from several original sources, known as Le Morte d’Arthur, there are many references to London as the principal city of the realm. At a time of foreboding after the death of Uther Pendragon, “Merlyn wente to the Archebisshop of Caunterbury and counceilled hym for to sende for all the lordes of the reame and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to London come” and gather “in the grettest chirch of London-whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyon.” In later books the Feir Maiden of Astolat is laid beside the Thames, Sir Launcelot rides from Westminster to Lambeth across the same river, and Guenevere “cam to London” and “toke the Towre of London.”

The less controversial documents of historians and chroniclers add detail to this picture of legendary munificence. Ecclesiastical records reveal that a synod was held, either in London or Verulamium, in 429; since the assembly was called to denounce the heresies of a British monk, Pelagius, it is clear that there was still a thriving religious culture in the regions bordering upon London.

Some twelve years later, according to a contemporaneous chronicle, the provinces of Britain accepted Saxon domination. Although that source is silent on the fate of London, it seems to have retained its independence as a city-state. By the middle of the sixth century, however, the city can be assumed to have accepted Saxon rule. Large parts of the walled area were employed as pasture, and the great public buildings were no doubt used as marketplaces, or stockades for cattle, or as open spaces for the wooden houses and shops of a population living among the monumental ruins of what was already a distant age. There is a wonderful Saxon poem on the material remnants of just such a British city; they are enta geweorc, the “works of giants,” the shattered memorials to a great race which passed away hund cnect-a hundred generations ago. In the description of broken towers and empty halls, of fallen roofs and deserted bath-houses, there is a combination of sorrow and wonder. There are intimations here, also, of another truth. The stone fabric of this ancient city has been dissolved by wyrde or “destiny,” and age; it has not been violently attacked or pillaged by marauders. The Saxons were not necessarily destroyers, therefore, and this poem displays a genuine reverence for antiquity and for a beohrtan burg, “bright city,” where heroes once dwelled.

We can infer, in turn, the lineaments of Saxon London. A cathedral church was built here, and the palace of the king was maintained on a site now claimed by Wood Street and Aldermanbury. Seventh-century records mention a “king’s hall” in London, and two centuries later it was still known as “that illustrious place and royal city”; the location of the royal palace beside the old Roman fort in the north-west of the city suggests that its fortifications had also been maintained. But there is even more striking evidence of continuity. One of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent years has been that of a Roman amphitheatre upon the site of the present Guildhall; this is exactly the location where the Saxons were known to hold their folkmoots, in an area always specified as being to the north-east of the cathedral. It seems certain, therefore, that the Saxon citizens used the ancient Roman amphitheatre for their own deliberations; it throws a suggestive and curious light upon their relationship to a remote past, that they should sit and argue upon stone rows erected more than two centuries before. It is no less suggestive, of course, that the modern Guildhall is erected upon the same site. There is evidence, at the least, for administrative permanence. It seems very likely, in turn, that the great walled city was known as the centre of authority and of power.

This would help to explain the location of the thriving Saxon town, Lundenwic-wic meaning “marketplace”-in the area now known as Covent Garden. A typical Saxon community, in other words, had grown up just beyond the walls of the powerful city.

We may imagine several hundred people, living and working in an area from Covent Garden to the Thames. Their kilns and pottery have lately been found, together with dress pins and glass beakers, combs, stone tools and weights for their looms. A butchery site has been excavated in Exeter Street, off the Strand, and farm buildings in Trafalgar Square. All the evidence suggests that a flourishing commercial area was, therefore, surrounded by small settlements of farmers and labourers. The names and sites of Saxon villages are still to be heard within the districts of a much greater London, Kensington, Paddington, Islington, Fulham, Lambeth and Stepney among them. The very shape and irregular street line of Park Lane are determined by the old acre strips of the Saxon farmers. Long Acre, too, reflects that pastoral tradition. It was an extended community, therefore, and it may have been of Lundenwic-rather than of London-that Bede spoke when he described it as situated “on the banks of the Thames … a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea.”

Documents dated 673-85 are concerned with the trade regulations to be observed by the men of Kent when they barter in Lundenwic. Gold coins stamped “LONDUNIU” were being used in the same period, so that there was no necessary disparity between administrative London and commercial Lundenwic. Similarly a continual process of assimilation and absorption was maintained between erstwhile Britons and Saxon settlers, achieved by intermarriage and peaceful commerce. The evidence for this lies in the most reliable of sources, language itself, since many old British words are to be found in “Saxon” English. Among them are “basket,” “button,” “coat,” “gown,” “wicket” and “wire,” so it can be surmised that skill in textile and wicker-work can best be attributed to the Britons. Another English word testifies to the mixed nature of London: the name Walbrook is derived from Weala broc, “brook of the Welsh,” which suggests that there was still a defined quarter for the “old Britons” in their ancient city.

Bede had said that “Londuniu” was the capital of the East Saxons, but over the period of middle Saxon rule the city seems to have accepted the authority of any king who was dominant within the region-among them kings of Kent, Wessex and Mercia. It might almost be regarded as the commercial reward for any successful leader, together with the fact that the walled city was also the traditional seat of authority. Given this changing pattern of sovereignty, however, it is not perhaps surprising that the main source of continuity lay within the Christian Church. In 601, four years after the arrival of Augustine, Pope Gregory proclaimed London to be the principal bishopric in all Britain; three years later Ethelbert of Kent erected the cathedral church of St. Paul’s. There follows a bare chronicle of ecclesiastical administration. In the year when St. Paul’s was erected Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated Mellitus as bishop of London; the citizens then formally became Christian but, thirteen years later, Mellitus was expelled after a change of royal rule. The innate paganism of London, for a while, reasserted itself before being eventually restored to the Roman communion.

And then came the Danes. They had plundered Lindisfarne and Jarrow before turning their attention to the south. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 842 there was “great slaughter in London,” a battle in which the Vikings were beaten back. Nine years later they returned and, having pillaged Canterbury, sailed up the Thames and with a fleet of 350 ships fell upon London. The city wall along the river may well have been already in ruinous condition but, even if the Saxons had been able to mend it, the defences were not enough to withstand the army of invaders. London was entered and pillaged. Many of the citizens may already have fled; those who remained were put to the sword, if Viking custom was followed, and their huts or shops consigned to the flame. Some historians have considered that the events of 851 marked a decisive moment in London’s history, but this is perhaps to misunderstand the nature of a city which is perpetually rising from flame and ruin. Indeed it has been defined throughout its history by such resurrections.

The invaders returned sixteen years later. Their great army moved through Mercia and East Anglia intent upon capturing Wessex; in 872 they built a camp near London, no doubt to protect their warships along the river, and it seems likely that their purpose was to control London and the Thames basin in order to exact tribute from neighbouring kingdoms. Certainly they occupied the city itself, which was used as a military garrison and storage base. Here they remained for fourteen years. This was not a bare ruined city, therefore, as some have suggested, but once more a busy centre of administration and supply. The Norse commander, Halfdere, minted his own silver coinage which, interestingly enough, is based upon Roman originals. The tradition of literal money-making in London had been preserved since that distant period, testifying once again to the organic continuity of its financial life. Coins were minted in London for Alfred, in his role as client king of Wessex. The native inhabitants may not have been as fortunate as Alfred; from the evidence of coin hoards buried in the first year of Norse occupation, the richer citizens ran for their lives along with every other Englishman who was able to flee.

Then, in 883, Alfred engaged in some form of siege, mustering an English army outside the walls of the city. London was the great prize, and three years later Alfred obtained it. It was, in fact, in the city itself that his sovereignty over the whole region was formally advertised, when “all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him.” London was still the emblem of power, in other words, even after its occupation by the Norsemen. The Danes sued for peace and were allocated territory to the east of the River Lea. London became a frontier town, therefore, and Alfred initiated a scheme of resettlement and fortification. The walls were restored, the quays rebuilt, and all the activities of Lundenwic brought within the defences of the revived city; it is at this point that Lundenwic passes into history as Aldwych, or “old market-town.”

London had once more become new, since Alfred instituted a scheme of works which might qualify as an early attempt at city planning. He built a road, just within the walls, from Aldgate to Ludgate; the outline of it still exists in the streets of the modern City. The alignments of new streets were plotted close to the wharves of Queenhithe and Billingsgate. He re-established London and rendered it habitable.

Certainly the city was powerful and formidable enough to withstand Viking assaults in succeeding years; the burgwara, or citizens, even marched out against them in 893 and 895. On that later occasion Londoners sallied forth to destroy or plunder the enemy ships. The fact that the Vikings were unable to retaliate against London suggests the effectiveness of its defences.

The restoration of London’s life and power might not have been all of Alfred’s doing, although his native genius as a planner of cities suggests that he played a prominent role. He had given lordship of London to his son-in-law, Ethelred, and had granted lands within the walls to religious and secular magnates. There then grew up that curious division or subdivision of land which is manifest today in the various wards and parishes of the City. An area of London ground might have been defined by streams, or by the course of Roman remains, but once apportioned to an English lord or bishop it became his especial soke or territory. Churches, of wood or of limestone and sandstone, were erected to bless and protect each well-defined area of London’s earth; these sacred edifices in turn became the focal point for small communities of tradesmen, artificers and others.

The early tenth century was a period of peace, although the citizen army of London assisted Alfred in his efforts to free those British regions still held under the Danelaw. The historical records describe only the succession of Mercian kings to the overlordship of London. In 961 there was a great fire, succeeded by an outbreak of plague fever; the cathedral church of St. Paul’s was destroyed in the conflagration, and once more we witness the periodic fate and fatality of the city. There was another great fire twenty-one years later, and in the same year three Viking ships attacked the coast of Dorset. The succeeding years were marked by a series of Viking attacks upon the prosperous city; no doubt the London Mint, with its reserves of silver, was a particular attraction. But the defences, restored by Alfred, were strong enough to withstand a number of incursions; in 994 the Danes sent a force of ninety-five ships into the Thames in order to blockade and assault the city, but they were driven back by London’s army. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these citizens visited upon the Danes “more slaughter and harm than they ever supposed that townsmen could inflict.” It is important to recognise, in the course of these battles and sieges, that London itself had acquired its own army and therefore a measure of independent power; it possessed the characteristics of a kingdom or a sovereign state which, for many centuries, it never wholly lost.

So the soldiers of London continually resisted the Danes, and there are records of them seizing the alien ships and rowing them back to the city. They marched to Oxford to assist their countrymen and, although the Viking raids occasionally swept within the vicinity of their walls, the city stood firm. Indeed London still maintained its position as a flourishing port, and in 1001 an Icelandic poet recorded his impressions of the quayside where merchants from Rouen, Flanders, Normandy, Liège and other regions paid a fixed toll upon their goods; they brought in wool, and cloth, and planks, and fish, and melted fat; a small ship paid a toll of one halfpenny, and in turn the mariners bought pigs and sheep for their journey homewards.

In 1013 the Danish leader, Sweyn, commanded a full invasion force of Scandinavian warriors and marched upon London “because therein was King Aethelred.” The “citizens would not yield,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “but resisted with full battle.” It was not enough, however, and after a long siege they surrendered their city to the Danes. The reigning monarch fled but in the following year he returned with a most unlikely ally, Olaf of Norway. Olaf’s Norsemen manoeuvred their ships close to London Bridge, tied them to its wooden piles with ropes and cables, then, assisted by the tide, strained at the wooden supports until they were dislodged and the bridge itself fell into the Thames: a notorious episode in the history of that great thoroughfare. In recent years iron axes and swords have been found at this point in the river. An Icelandic saga suggests that “the citizens, seeing their river occupied by the enemy’s navy so as to cut off all intercourse that way with the interior provinces, were seized with fear.” Since they were being relieved of a temporary and alien king this is perhaps open to debate, but the loss of the bridge was indeed a serious impediment to commerce and communications. Yet the saga ends happily, or at least with an encomium-“And thou hast overthrown their bridges, oh! thou storm of the sons of Odin! skilful and foremost in the battle. For thee it was happily reserved to possess the land of London’s winding city.” Olaf himself was eventually beatified, and in London were erected six churches to venerate his memory, one by the southeastern corner of the bridge which he had once destroyed. St. Olave in Hart Street, where Samuel Pepys worshipped, still stands.

During the next three years the English and the Norse were engaged in a series of sieges and battles and assaults; in this protracted warfare London remained the single most important site of power and authority. After the death of Aethelred in 1016, “all the councillors who were in London and the citizens chose Edmund as king,” again according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which suggests that there was some kind of folkmoot where the king was chosen and saluted. When Cnut eventually won the crown in 1016 he extracted tribute from the whole nation, but London was obliged to render one-eighth of the entire amount.

Meanwhile, a Danish population, trading peacefully, settled outside the walls in the area once occupied by the Saxons. The church of St. Clement Danes, at the mouth of the Strand, marks the site of their occupation; it is even possible that a tribal community of Danes had lived and worked here for several generations, but it was in the time of Cnut that the wooden church was turned to stone. It is also believed to be the burial place of Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut, and there is a runic monument which proclaims the fact that three Danish leaders also “lie in Luntunum.” So once more we have evidence of a flourishing market-centre dependent upon the walled city. William of Malmesbury suggests that “the citizens of London,” after long familiarity with the Danes, “had almost entirely adopted their customs”; this suggests a renewed history of assimilation.

One custom was thoroughly absorbed. There was once a stone cross close by the church of St. Clement Danes, which marked a place of power and ritual. Here an open court assembled, and it was “at the Stone Cross” that manorial dues were paid; for one piece of land in the vicinity, payment was given in horseshoes and iron nails. It is sometimes believed that this is an obscure remembrance of a pagan rite, but it has also become a modern one. In the early twenty-first century there is still a ritual of presenting six horseshoes and sixty-one hobnails in the Court of Exchequer, within the Law Courts close to the site of the old cross itself, as part of rent due to the Crown.

So the Danes, and the Londoners, flourished during a period in which the historical narratives record only the actions of “the citizens of London” or “the army of London” as an independent and effectively self-governing community. When the pale-skinned and devout Edward (afterwards “the Confessor”) was anointed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “all men chose him for king in London.” A legal statute in fact defined London “qui caput est regni et legum, semper curia domini regis” as the source of law and royal rule.

CHAPTER 3. Holy! Holy! Holy!

Edward the Confessor left a memorial more enduring than his family’s fortunes; he retired to a palace, and established a monastery, in Westminster.

There had been a church there since the second century, but London antiquarians have suggested that there was once a pagan shrine to Apollo on the same site. Certainly a Roman sarcophagus, and a section of floor mosaic, have been found in the immediate vicinity. It was an area of great importance, in any case, since Westminster-or more particularly Thorney Island upon which Parliament and the abbey now rest-marked the spot where the road from Dover was united with Watling Street which proceeded northward. At low tide it was possible to cross the river here, and to ride along the great Roman ways. Yet topography is not simply a matter of road alignments. Tothill Fields beside Westminster was part of a ritualised area of power and worship; a document of 785 describes it as “that terrible place which is known as Westminster,” “terrible,” in this context, meaning sacred or holy terror.

It is not inappropriate, therefore, that the founding of Westminster Abbey is enwrapped in dreams and visions. The night before the hallowing of the first Saxon church here, in the seventh century, St. Peter himself appeared to a fisherman and was ferried across the river from Lambeth; the venerable figure crossed the threshold of the new church and all at once it was illuminated by a light brighter than a thousand candles. So began the history of the church of St. Peter. Edward the Confessor was in turn granted a dream, or vision, which persuaded him to build a great abbey. It became the repository of sand from Mount Sinai and earth from Calvary, a beam from the holy manger of Jesus and pieces of his cross, blood from Christ’s side and milk from the Virgin Mary, a finger from St. Paul and hair from St. Peter. Almost a thousand years later, in this place, William Blake was granted a vision of monks chanting and proceeding down the central aisle. A century before the poet’s sighting, Edward the Confessor also reappeared: a chorister came upon the broken coffin of the venerable king and drew from it a skull. So the sainted king had turned into a death’s head. It is perhaps an appropriate story for an abbey which has become London’s city of the dead, where the generations of kings and leaders and poets lie in silent communion as a token of that great mystery where past and present are mingled together. It is the mystery, and history, of London.

West Smithfield, after the foundation of St. Bartholomew-the-Great in the early twelfth century, witnessed as many miracles as any similar plot in Rome or Jerusalem. Edward the Confessor, in a prophetic dream, was informed that Smithfield had already been chosen by God as a place for his worship; Edward journeyed there the next morning and foretold that the ground should be a witness to God. In the same period three men from Greece came on pilgrimage to London, for already it had the renown of a sacred city; they approached Smithfield and, falling prostrate upon the ground, prophesied that there would be constructed a temple which “shall reach from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof.”

“The Book of the Foundation” of that great church of St. Bartholomew, from which these words are taken, was written in the twelfth century; it has much material for contemplation, but it also contains evidence relating to the piety of London and of Londoners. The founder of the church, Rahere, was on a journey in Italy when in a dream he was taken up by a beast with four feet and two wings to a “high place” where St. Bartholomew appeared to him and addressed him: “I, by the will and command of all the High Trinity, and with the common favour and counsel of the court of heaven, have chosen a spot in the suburb of London at Smithfield.” Rahere was to erect there a tabernacle of the Lamb. So he journeyed to the city where, in conversation with “some barons of London,” it was explained that “the place divinely shown to him was contained within the king’s market, on which it was lawful neither for the princes themselves nor for the wardens of their own authority to encroach to any extent whatever.” So Rahere sought an audience of Henry I in order to explain his divine mission to the city; the king graciously gave Rahere title to the spot which was at that time “a very small cemetery.”

Rahere then “made himself a fool” in order to recruit assistants in the great work of building. He “won to himself bands of children and servants, and by their help he easily began to collect together stones.” These stones came from many parts of London, and in that sense the narrative of construction is a true representation of the fact that St. Bartholomew’s was a collective work and vision of the city; it became, in literal form, its microcosm.

So the church rose, and many priests gathered to live “under regular rule” with the founder as prior. Beginning with its first foundation, when “a light sent from heaven gleamed over the church and remained over it for the space of an hour,” there were so many miraculous events within its walls that the chronicler declares that he will mention only those which he himself has witnessed. Wolmer, a cripple who supported himself “on two little stools he dragged behind him,” was carried to St. Bartholomew’s in a basket and, falling before the altar, was healed. A “certain woman of the parish of St. John” had her “enfeebled” limbs cured, and Wymonde that was dumb began to speak. Many of these miracles occurred on the day of the Feast of St. Bartholomew, so there was a continual awareness of sacred time in the city as well as sacred place. Miraculous cures were also performed in the “hospital of the church,” now St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. So St. Bartholomew’s is a temple of the holy spirit which has endured for almost nine hundred years.

When some citizens of London were on a long voyage to “the remote ends of the world,” they were threatened with shipwreck; but they comforted each other with the words: “what do we with little faith fear who have the good Bartholomew, the accomplisher of so many great marvels, set nigh to us in London? … He will not hide the bowels of his mercy from his fellow citizens.” In the oratory of the church was “an altar hallowed to the honour of the most blessed and perpetual Virgin Mary”; here the Virgin appeared to one lay brother and declared: “I will receive their prayers and vows and will grant them mercy and blessing for ever.”

That oratory survives still, but it is by no means an object of pilgrimage. St. Bartholomew’s Church is now largely ignored, set back from the circular road which connects the meat market to the hospital and which forms the perimeter of the old Bartholomew Fair. Yet Bartholomew himself might still be considered as one of the sacred guardians of the city and, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are ten streets or roads which bear his name.

London was once a holy city, therefore, and of Smithfield we read: “Awful, therefore, is this place to him that understands, here is nothing else but the house of God and the gate of heaven to him that believes.” This invocation is echoed by other visionaries and mystics of London; here, in the very grimy and malodorous streets of the city, the “gate of heaven” can be opened.

There are in London many holy wells of healing, although most were long ago filled in or demolished. The ancient well of St. Clement lies beneath the Law Courts; Chad’s Well is buried beneath St. Chad’s Street. The well of Barnet was covered first by a workhouse and then by a hospital, so its air of healing was not thoroughly dispelled; in the same spirit the curiously named but efficacious Perilous Pond lay beside St. Luke’s Hospital in Old Street. A healing well that was guarded by monks, near Cripplegate, is still recalled by the name of Monkwell Street, while Black Mary’s Well has been transformed into the area still known as Bagnigge Wells beside Farringdon Road. The only ancient well still to be seen is the Clerk’s Well, now protected by a glass window a few yards north of Clerkenwell Green: here for many centuries were staged miracle plays as well as more secular bouts of wrestling and jousting. The holy well of Shoreditch-commemorated by Holy Well Row and Holy Well Lane-marks the site of one of the first English theatres, erected in 1576 by James Burbage, more than twenty years before the Globe. Sadler’s Well was also a pleasure garden and, later, a theatre. So the holy spirit of the wells, in a fashion appropriate to London, turned into theatre.

Hermits were often chosen to be the guardians of the wells, but their principal stewardship was of the gates and crossroads of the city. They collected the tolls, and dwelt in the very bastions of London Wall. In a sense, then, they were the protectors of London itself, professing by their vocation that this was a city of God as well as a city of men. This was the theory, at least, but it is clear that many were hermits by device rather than by profession; the author of Piers the Plowman, William Langland, condemned them as “Grete lobyes and longe that loth were to swynke” or impostors who were simply unwilling to work. In 1412, for example, William Blakeney was convicted at the Guildhall for going about “barefooted and with long hair, under the guise of sanctity.” Nevertheless the picture of London surrounded, as it were, with hermits who lived in their small stone oratories keeping vigils and reciting orisons is an arresting one.

The figure of the hermit has another significance also; the stories of the city, throughout the centuries, have been filled with lonely and isolated people who feel their solitude more intensely within the busy life of the streets. They are what George Gissing called the anchorites of daily life, who return unhappy to their solitary rooms. The early city hermits may therefore be regarded as an apt symbol for the way of life of many Londoners. An extension of that hermitic spirit can be traced in the four churches of St. Botolph, which guarded four of the city’s gates; Botolph was a seventh-century Saxon hermit, who was especially associated with travellers. So the wanderer and the interior exile are seen as part of the same short pilgrimage among the streets of London.

But those streets can also be filled with prayer. There was in Marylebone, before the redevelopment of Lisson Grove, a Paradise Street approached by Grotto Passage; in the immediate vicinity were Vigil Place and Chapel Street. Perhaps here we have evidence of an ancient hermitage, or sacred spot, linking the city to eternity. In the immediate vicinity of St. Paul’s are to be found Pater Noster Row, Ave Maria Lane, Amen Court and Creed Lane: here we may usefully imagine a procession through various streets in which particular prayers or responses were chanted. So the old churches of London maintain their ancient presence and seem periodically to relive their histories.

That is why the area around St. Pancras Old Church, for example, still remains desolate and dreary. It has always been an isolated and somewhat mysterious place-“Walk not there too late,” counselled one Elizabethan topographer. It is the traditional terminus for murderers, suicides and those who were killed while fighting duels at Chalk Farm, but no true resting place: the corpses are continually being dug up and reburied. The last great removal occurred in 1863 when the railway lines of St. Pancras Station were laid through the site. The tombstones were placed against a great tree, the roots of which curl among them; from a distance it would seem that the headstones are indeed the fruit of that tree, ripe and ready to be gathered. Among these ancient memorials will be some to the Catholic dead; it was for them a holy place. St. Pancras is believed to be the first Christian church in England, established by Augustine himself, and is reported to contain the last bell which was able to toll during the Mass. Pancras has therefore been construed as Pangrace; a more likely derivation, associated with the saintly boy named Pancras, is Pan Crucis or Pan Cross-the monogram or symbol of Christ himself. So we have a Vatican historian, Maximilian Misson, asserting that “St. Pancras under Highgate, near London … is the Head and Mother of all Christian Churches.” Who could imagine the source of such power in the wasteland north of King’s Cross Station?

It has its bells, like the other London churches. The bells of St. Stephen, Rochester Row, were named “Blessing,” “Glory,” “Wisdom,” “Thanksgiving,” “Honour,” “Power,” “Might” and “Be Unto Our God For Ever and Ever Amen Alleluiah.”

We do not necessarily need the evidence of the famous nursery rhyme to realise that the bells were a familiar and friendly presence in the life of Londoners:

You owe me five farthings,

Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me,

Say the bells at Old Bailey.

In 1994 the Meteorological Office reported that, before the sound of motorcars entered the already crowded streets, the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside “would have been audible all over London.” In a true sense, then, every Londoner was a Cockney. Yet the East End may lay an especial claim to that honorific, perhaps, since the oldest business in that area is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which was established in the fifteenth century. Citizens used to bet which parish could make its bells heard at the greatest distance and it was said that bell-ringing was a salutary way of keeping warm in winter. It was sometimes surmised that at the Last Judgement the angels would peal the bells of London, rather than sound their trumpets, in order to convince the citizens that the day of doom had truly arrived. The bells were part of the sound and texture of its life. When the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984 recalls the famous song with its mention of St. Clement’s and St. Martin’s, Bow and Shoreditch, he seems to “hear the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten.” Some of the bells of that lost London can still be heard.

The Early Middle Ages

A map of London, drawn by chronicler and illuminator Matthew Paris in 1252; it shows the Tower, St. Paul’s and Westminster.

CHAPTER 4. You Be All Law Worthy

In the last month of 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, marched down St. Giles High Street before turning south to Westminster. He had already savaged Southwark and now intended to lay siege to London Wall by Ludgate, which was then the principal entrance to the city. It was commonly said at the time that London “neither fears enemies nor dreads being taken by storm” because of its defences but, in fact, after some form of secret treaty or negotiations, certain Saxon nobles opened the gate. William’s troops made their way to St. Paul’s and Cheapside but then “in platea urbis”-an open space or wide street-they were attacked by a group, or perhaps even an army, of citizens who refused to countenance the entry of the foreign leader. A late eleventh-century chronicler, William of Jumieges, records that the Norman forces at once “engaged them in battle, causing no little mourning to the City because of the very many deaths of her own sons and citizens.” Eventually the Londoners capitulated. But their action demonstrates that they considered themselves to dwell in an independent city which could withstand foreign invasion. On this occasion they were mistaken, but for the next three hundred years Londoners would assert their sovereignty as members of a city-state.

The Battle of London, however, was over. Eleven bodies have recently been recovered just south-west of Ludgate, with some suggestion that they had been dismembered, while a hoard of several thousand coins of that period was found by the Walbrook.

The new monarch’s primary task was to subjugate the city. Work began on three military stockades at various points on the perimeter wall-Montfichet Tower, Baynard’s Castle and against the south-east section of the Wall, a structure that has since become known as the “Tower of London.” But the Tower never belonged to London and was considered by the citizens to be an affront or threat to their liberty. In The Making of London, Sir Laurence Gomme contemplates their displeasure when “they heard the taunts of the people who said that these walls had been built as an insult to them, and that if any one of them should dare to contend for the liberty of the city he would be shut up in them and consigned to imprisonment.”

After a great fire in 1077 which, like its predecessors, seems to have devastated much of the city, a stone tower was built in place of the original fortification; it took more than twenty years to complete, and pressed labour from the neighbouring shires was used in its construction. It was called the White Tower, and rose some ninety feet in the air to emphasise its power over the city. Elaborate rituals were drawn up in order to formalise the presence of London’s leaders in the Tower for judicial or administrative purposes, but it remained outside their jurisdiction. Built of alien material, cream-coloured Caen stone from Normandy, it was a visible token of foreign rule.

William was also graciously pleased to grant a “Charter” to London, on a tiny parchment less than six inches in length. It is written in Anglo-Saxon and French. Addressed to “the chiefs of the city” it granted to London “rights” that the city already possessed and had had since the days of Roman domination. “I do you to know that I will that you be all law worthy that were in King Edward’s day,” runs the translation. “And I will that every child be his father’s heir after his father’s day. And I will not endure that any man offer any wrong to you. God keep you.”

It may seem innocuous but, as Gomme suggests in The Governance of London, it represents “an entirely new constitutional factor in the history of London.” Londoners were to be allowed to live under the rule of law that the city itself had established. The king was asserting his sovereignty over the ancient governance of London.

William had, however, recognised the one central fact-that this city was the key both to his own fortunes and to those of the country he had conquered. That is why he had inaugurated the transition of London from the status of an independent city-state to that nation’s capital. In 1086 the Domesday Survey left London uninspected, no doubt on the ground that the complex financial and commercial activity within the city could not usefully be considered as part of the king’s revenue. At the same time the Norman king and his successors initiated an inspired plan of public works in order to emphasise the central place of London in the new politics. The cathedral of St. Paul was rebuilt and William’s successor, his son William Rufus, began the construction of Westminster Hall; a number of monastic houses and nunneries, together with priories and hospitals, were also erected in this period so that London and its environs were the site of prolonged and continual construction. The building and rebuilding, have been maintained ever since. The area around the Roman amphitheatre, for example, was cleared in the early twelfth century. In the same area the first guildhall was completed by 1127, and a second built in the early fifteenth century.

The earliest form of public administration was the folkmoot, which met three times a year, in the Roman amphitheatre and then latterly by St. Paul’s Cross. There was also a more formal court, known as the hustings. These institutions were of the greatest antiquity, dating to Saxon and Danish times when the city was autonomous and self-governing. The territorial divisions of London, still in existence, were also of very early date. By the eleventh century the principal unit of territory had become the ward, which was led and represented by an alderman. The ward was more than a collection of citizens administering their own streets and shops; it was also a unit of defence and attack, with a midsummer inspection when, according to an official document dating from the reign of Henry VIII, “ev’y alderman by hymself musteryd hys owne warde yn the fields, vewyng theym in harnes and sawe that ev’y man had a sworde and a dagger and suche as were not meate to be archars were turnyd to pykes.” As late as the fourteenth century a clerk could term London a respublica, and in this account of a carefully marshalled citizen army it is possible to trace the force and antiquity of the republican ideal.

But if the ward boundaries were the most significant within the city, they were not necessarily the most distinctive. Beneath the ward were the precincts with their own assemblies, and below them the individual parishes with their self-governing vestries. The city embodied a series of intricately related authorities, and that network of affiliations and interests has materially affected its life. Throughout the nineteenth century, for example, there were continual complaints about the rigidity and stubbornness of the city authorities. This resistance to change was the legacy of a thousand years, affecting and obscuring the capital as powerfully as its coal-smoke and its fog. It is also the setting in which succeeding events are best understood.

William the Conqueror’s successor, William Rufus, was characterised by his attempt to impose ever more extortionate taxes and dues and tolls on the citizens. In his struggles with the Norman barons ensconced in England, it was also Rufus’s custom to send prisoners to be executed in London; it was a token of its role as capital, perhaps, but also of the king’s authority.

After the death of Rufus in 1100, his brother, Henry I, hastened to the city in order to be acclaimed as the new sovereign. The records of his reign include a list of aldermen, from 1127, which displays so comprehensive a mixture of English and French names that a thoroughly ordered and working association between citizens who were now properly “Londoners” can be assumed. In fact the study of the names of Londoners becomes of extreme interest and significance in this period, as Old English names are gradually supplanted by those of French origin. Surnames were by no means universal, but were attached to a person because of locality or occupation-Godwinus Baker was thus distinguished from Godwin Ladubur (moneyer) and Godwyn Turk (fishmonger) or Godwinne Worstede (mercer) and Godwynne Sall (hatter). Other citizens were identified by patronymics or, more commonly, by nicknames. Edwin Atter’s name meant Edwin of the sharp tongue while Robert Badding’s implied an effeminate man; Hugh Fleg was “wide awake,” Johannes Flocc had woolly hair, John Godale sold good ale while Thomas Gotsaul was honest.

Even as they associated with each other in trade and commerce, however, the relationship of the citizens with the king became more problematic. For him, the city was predominantly a place to be “farmed” for revenue; the reason why Henry rarely interfered in the life of London was simply that he needed it to prosper in order to benefit from its wealth.

After Henry’s death in 1135, the dynastic struggles of the various claimants to the throne were directly affected by the loyalties and allegiances of Londoners; Henry’s nephew Stephen, Count of Blois, claiming the right of succession, promptly “came to London, and the London folk received him … and hallowed him king on midwinter day.” So says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and another ancient source adds that the “Alderman and wise folk gathered together the folkmoot, and there providing at their own will for the good of the realm unanimously resolved to choose a king.” The citizens of London had, in other words, formally elected a king for the entire country. It is not clear what Stephen promised or granted the city, in return, but from this time forward it takes the first place in national affairs with a degree of independence which suggests that London is almost self-governing.

The coronation of Stephen, however, was not in itself enough. The landing in 1139 of his rival, Henry’s daughter the Empress Matilda, and his own capture at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, meant that London was forced to choose again. A great conference was held at Winchester in order to consider the royal claims of Matilda, and a speech in her favour by Stephen’s own brother was concluded with the following significant remarks: “We have despatched messengers for the Londoners, who, from the importance of their city in England, are almost nobles, as it were, to meet us on this business; and have sent them a safe-conduct.” They arrived on the following day, saying that they had been sent a communione quam vocant Londoniarum-“from the community, or commune, of London.” This testimony from William of Malmesbury is the clearest possible evidence of the city’s significance. As the nation divided in baronial wars, London had ceased to be a capital and had once again become a city-state. The events of Matilda’s short subsequent reign reinforce this impression. She tried to curb the power of London and unwisely demanded money from its richest citizens. That is why, when Stephen’s own queen, Maud, approached London, its inhabitants rushed into the streets, according to Gesta Stephani, with weapons “like thronging swarms from beehives” in order to support her. Matilda fled from the irate citizenry, and never regained the throne.

A proviso must be entered here, if only to dispel the impression of thorough independence. When the national policy was disrupted by dynastic struggle, then London naturally took the lead. But in a peaceful well-ordered kingdom the citizens, equally naturally, accepted the authority of the sovereign. So it was that the reign of Henry II, Matilda’s son and Stephen’s successor, marked a slight diminution of the city’s authority. In his charter the king granted to Londoners “all their liberties and free customs which they had in the time of Henry my grandfather,” but the royal sheriffs conducted much of the administration under the king’s direct control.

The murder of Thomas à Becket in the winter of 1170 at Canterbury, for example, ought to have been a matter for Londoners. The archbishop was known to his contemporaries as “Thomas of London” and for many centuries he was the only Londoner to be canonised; his theatricality and flamboyance were also characteristic of the city. But there is no evidence of any popular support for his cause among Londoners. Perhaps he is one of those striking figures in the city’s history who move beyond their immediate context into eternity.

Yet it was Becket’s own twelfth-century biographer, William Fitz-Stephen, who celebrated the more earthly values of the city in that period. His account is written in the new style of urban encomia, since the formation of flourishing cities and the conduct of their citizens were then at the centre of European debate, but Fitz-Stephen’s depiction is nevertheless remarkable for its enthusiasm. It is also highly significant as the first general description of London.

He describes the sound or “clatter” of the mills, turned by streams in the meadows of Finsbury and Moorgate, as well as the shouts and cries of the market vendors who “have each their separate station, which they take every morning.” There were many wine shops close by the Thames, to accommodate the local artisans as well as traders who came to the docks; there was also a large “public eating-house,” where servants could purchase bread and meat for their masters or where the local vendors could sit and eat. Fitz-Stephen also depicts the “high and thick wall” which surrounded and protected all this activity, with its seven double gates and northern towers; there was also a great fortress to the east, “the mortar used in the building being tempered with the blood of beasts,” and two “strongly fortified” castles on the western side. Beyond the walls were gardens and vineyards, the mansions of the noble and the powerful interspersed among them. These great houses were generally in the western suburbs, where Holborn is now situated, while to the north were meadows and pastures which bordered upon “an immense forest” of which Hampstead and Highgate are the only remnants. Just beyond the city wall, on the north-western side, was a “smooth-field” now known as Smithfield where horses were sold every Friday. In paddocks close by, oxen and pigs were also slaughtered and sold. The same activity had taken place in precisely the same area for almost a thousand years.

Fitz-Stephen’s account is distinctive for the emphasis he lays upon the energy, combativeness and vivacity of the citizens. There were games of football every evening in the fields outside the city, when the young men were watched and cheered by their teachers, parents or fellow apprentices; upon each Sunday, at the same time, there were games of combat when they rode against one another “with lances and shields.” Even in its sports London had a reputation as a violent city. At Easter a tree was fixed into the middle of the Thames with a target hung upon it; a boat was rowed hard against it, carrying a young man with a lance. If he missed the target he fell into the river, to the amusement of the spectators. In the coldest days of winter, when the marshland of Moorfields froze, the more sportive citizens would sit upon great blocks of ice, which were pulled along by their friends; others fashioned skates from the shin bones of animals. But again there was an element of competition and violence in their pursuit; they skated towards each other until “either one or both of them fall, not without some bodily hurt” and “very frequently the leg or arm of the falling party” was broken. Even the lessons and debates of schoolboys were characterised in combative terms, with a steady stream of “scoffs and sarcasms.” It was a world of bear-baiting and cock-fighting, somehow consonant with Fitz-Stephen’s report that London could raise an army of 80,000 men, a world of violence and laughter mingled with what Fitz-Stephen terms “abundant wealth, extensive commerce, great grandeur and magnificence.” His is a portrait of a city celebrating its destiny.

It was a time, therefore, of prosperity and growth. The docks were expanding, as the waterfront was continually reclaimed and extended in order to accommodate the Flemings and the French and the Hanseatics as well as the merchants from Brabant and Rouen and Ponthieu; there was trade in fur, wool, wine, cloth, grain, timber, iron, salt, wax, dried fish and a hundred other commodities to feed, clothe and support an ever increasing population. Most of this population was itself busily engaged in commerce: the furriers of Walbrook, the goldsmiths of Guthrun’s Lane, the butchers of East Cheap, the shoe-makers of Cordwainer Street, the mercers in West Chepe, the fishmongers in Thames Street, the woodmongers of Billingsgate, the candlestick-makers of Lothbury, the ironmongers of Old Jewry, the cutlers of Pope’s Head Alley, the prayer-bead-makers of Paternoster Row, the vintners of Vintry, all of them involved in perpetual trade.

The city was indeed a much noisier place than it is now, filled with continual cries of porters and water-bearers as well as the general uproar of wagons and bells, of blacksmiths and pewterers beating out their wares, of porters and apprentices, of carpenters and coopers working alongside each other in the same small area of lanes and alleys. There was of course the smell as well as the noise, concocted from tanneries and breweries, slaughter-houses and vinegar-makers, cook-houses and dung-heaps as well as the ever flowing tide of refuse and water which ran down the middle of the narrower streets. All this created a miasma of deep odours which could not be dispersed by even the most violent wind. It was further enriched by the increased use of coal by brewers and bakers and metal-forgers.

Throughout this period, too, there was a continual process of building and rebuilding; not one part of the city was untouched by this expansion as new shops and “sleds” or covered markets, churches and monasteries, houses of stone and timber were constructed. When these layers of the city were excavated there lay revealed foundations of chalk and ragstone, chalk cesspits, arches of Reigate stone, building rubble, beechwood piles, oak timbers and threshold beams as well as the various impressions of walls, drains, floors, vaults, wells, rubbish-pits and stake holes. They were evidence of protracted and productive activity.

There was also constant activity in the “suburbs,” or fields just outside the walls. In the twelfth century the great priories of Clerkenwell and Smithfield, St. John and St. Bartholomew, were established, while in the succeeding century the religious houses of Austin Friars, St. Helen, St. Clare and Our Lady of Bethlehem were also founded. The church of St. Paul’s was rebuilt, and the monastic hospital of St. Mary Spital erected. The white friars and the black friars completed their great religious houses within twenty years of each other in the west of the city. This was the part of London in which there was the most heavy investment, with vacant land being sold on the promise of immediate development while buildings and tenancies were continually being subdivided into more profitable units. Yet the grandest work in all the rebuilding was that of London Bridge. It rose in stone and became the great highway of commerce and communication which has remained upon the same site for almost nine hundred years.

On either side of the southern entrance to that bridge, there now rear two griffins daubed in red and silver. They are the totems of the city, raised at all its entrances and thresholds, and are singularly appropriate. The griffin was the monster which protected gold mines and buried treasure; it has now flown out of classical mythology in order to guard the city of London. The presiding deity of this place has always been money. Thus did John Lydgate write of London in the fifteenth century: “lacking money I might not spede.” Alexander Pope repeated his sentiments in the eighteenth, invoking, “There, London’s voice: ‘Get Money, Money still!’”

“The only inconveniences of London,” Fitz-Stephen wrote, “are, the immoderate drinking of foolish persons, and the frequent fires.” In this he was prophetic as well as descriptive. Other observers at a slightly later date in the twelfth century, however, were more critical. One Yorkshire writer, Roger of Howden, reported that the sons of the wealthier citizens would assemble at night “in large gangs” in order to threaten or assault anyone who passed by. A monk from Winchester, Richard of Devizes, was more colourful in his condemnation: for him London was a place of evil and wrong-doing, filled with the worst elements of every race as well as native pimps and braggarts. He referred to the crowded eating houses and taverns, where dicing and gambling were customary. It is perhaps significant that he also mentioned theatrum, “the theatre,” which suggests that the London appetite for drama was already being satisfied in forms other than those of the mystery or miracle plays staged at Clerkenwell. (The “first” theatres of 1576, the Theatre and the Curtain, may well descend from lost originals.) The monk also provided an interesting survey of the city’s population, comprising in part “pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts.” They are joined by “quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes” in a panoply of urban life that would be celebrated, rather than condemned, in other centuries by writers as diverse as Johnson and Fielding, Congreve and Smollett. It is, in other words, the permanent condition of London.

William Fitz-Stephen noted that “The city is delightful indeed, when it has a good governor.” The word itself might be construed as “leader” or “master,” and has generally been taken to refer to the king. Yet in the years immediately succeeding his chronicle, the term is susceptible to other interpretations. There came a moment, in the last decade of the twelfth century, when it was shouted abroad that “Londoners shall have no king but their mayor!” This short-lived revolution was the direct consequence of a king’s absence on crusade in Palestine and Europe. Richard I had come to London for his coronation and was anointed on the first Sunday in September 1189 “that was marked unlucky in the calendar”; indeed it proved “very much so to the Jews in London, who were destroyed that day.” These cryptic words describe a mass slaughter-called by Richard of Devizes a “holocaust”-which has generally been scantily treated by historians. It has often been said that the principal culprits were those who owed money to the Jews, but it is hard to overestimate the savagery of the London mob; it represented a violent and ruthless society where the metaphor for the native population was that of bees swarming in angry clusters. The multitude are “busie Bees,” according to the sixteenth-century author of The Singularities of the City of London; their clamour, according to Thomas More in the same period, was “neyther loude nor distincke but as it were the sounde of a swarme of bees.” On this occasion the mob of bees stung the Jews and their families to death.

In the absence of the king on his religious wars, the leaders of London once more became the ascendant voice of England. The animus and will of Londoners were materially strengthened by the fact that Richard’s representative, William Longchamp, established himself in the Tower and began to erect new fortifications around it. It was a symbol of authority which was unwelcome. When Richard’s brother, John, aspired to the crown in 1191, the citizens of London assembled at a folkmoot in order to pronounce upon his claims; at this significant moment they agreed to accept him as king as long as he in turn recognised the inalienable right of London to form its own commune as a self-governing and self-elected city-state. To this John agreed. It was not a new title but for the first time it was accepted by the reigning monarch as a public organisation “to which all the nobles of the kingdom, and even the very bishops of that province, are compelled to swear.” These are the words of Richard of Devizes, who considered the new arrangement to be nothing other than a “tumor” or swelling-up of the people which could have no good consequences.

The connotations of the word “commune” are, from the French example, generally considered to be radical or revolutionary, but this particular revolution was instigated by the richest and most powerful of the London citizens. It was in fact, and in effect, a civic oligarchy comprising the most influential families-the Basings and the Rokesleys, the Fitz-Thedmars and the Fitz-Reiners-who styled themselves aristocrats or “optimates.” They were a governing elite who took advantage of the political situation in order to reassert the power and independence of the city which had been curtailed by the Norman kings. So we read in the great chronicle of the city, Liber Albus, that “the barons of the city of London shall choose for themselves each year a mayor from among themselves … provided always that when so elected he shall be presented unto his lordship the king, or in the king’s absence unto his justiciar.” Thus the mayor and his governing council of probi homines, the “honest men” of aldermanic rank, attained formal rank and dignity. The honour of becoming the first mayor of London goes to Henry Fitz-Ailwin of Londenstone, who remained in office for twenty-five years until his death in 1212.

It was not long after the authority of the mayor and commune was established that a sense of tradition entered the affairs of London: it is almost as if it had reacquired its history at the same time that its old powers were restored. Communal archives and records were deposited in the Guildhall, together with wills, charters and guild documents; from this period, too, issues a great spate of laws and mandates and ordinances. London had thereby acquired an administrative identity which animated such later bodies as the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London County Council of the nineteenth century as well as the Greater London Council of the twentieth. Here is the evidence of organic development which has not faded in time.

The administration of the city also began to demand the full-time employment of clerks, notaries and lawyers. An extraordinarily detailed code of civic legislation was established, and courts were instituted to deal with various misdemeanours. These courts also exercised general supervision over the condition of the city, such as the state of London Bridge and the creation of a water supply, with the various wards supervising matters of local sanitation, paving and lighting. The wards were also responsible for public safety as well as health, with twenty-six separate forces of police who were classified as “unpaid constables … beadles or bellmen, street keepers, or watchmen.” Extant records show that this was by no means a sinecure: we may estimate the population of London in the late twelfth century at approximately forty thousand, many of whom were not disposed to obey the precepts of authority and good order imposed by the optimates.

When in 1193 the citizens of London were asked to provide money for the ransom of the absent king, his brother’s brief rebellion having been effectively suppressed, there were many who resented the imposition. When Richard himself returned to London in the following year he was greeted with great ceremony, but then proceeded to milk the revenues of the city with methods ever more exacting; he is once supposed to have stated that “he would sell London if he could find a buyer,” which scarcely endeared him to the already hard-pressed citizens. It seems likely that those artisans and merchants beneath the level of the optimates carried the heaviest burden, and in 1196 a revolt of these Londoners was led by William Fitz-Osbert “of the long beard.” The beard was long but the rebellion was short. He seems to have had the support of a large number of citizens, and has been variously described as a demagogue and a defender of the poor. These are not in fact incompatible descriptions; but his insurrection was put down in a ruthless and violent manner which was entirely characteristic of the city. Fitz-Osbert sought sanctuary in St. Mary-le-Bow, on Cheapside, but the city authorities summarily removed him and hanged him with eight others at Smithfield in the sight of his erstwhile supporters. But the significance of the brief tumult was in the fact that a group of citizens had refused to obey the royal officials and merchant princes who controlled the city. It was the harbinger of necessary and inevitable change, as the population began to assert its own place in the general polity.

Yet the central area of tension, and possible conflict, still lay between city and king. The death of Richard I in 1199, and the elevation of John, did nothing to alleviate what seems to have been an instinctively anti-monarchical trend in London politics. It was the familiar story of the citizens being forced to pay increasing taxes or “tallage” to cover the king’s expenditure. The mayor and the most powerful citizens attempted to maintain a spirit of cooperation, if only because many of them were involved with the king’s household and would not necessarily benefit from his eclipse. But there was a growing disaffection within the commune. It would seem that King John, despite earlier promises, had abrogated certain rights and properties to himself, which prompted the thirteenth-century chronicler Matthew Paris to conclude that the citizens had almost turned into slaves. Yet the elective capacity of the folkmoot could still be asserted. In 1216 five wealthy Londoners gave 1,000 marks to the French prince, Louis, in order that he might travel to the city and be consecrated as king in place of John. The civic ritual of coronation proved unnecessary, however, when John died in the autumn of that year. London sent Louis home again, with more money, and welcomed the young Henry III, John’s nine-year-old son, as its rightful sovereign.

We may walk the streets of London during the long reign of Henry III (1216-72). There were great houses as well as hovels, fine stone churches against which were erected wooden stalls for passing trade. The contrast of fair and foul can be put in another context with the statistic that, out of forty thousand citizens, more than two thousand were forced to beg for alms. The richer merchants constructed halls and courtyards while the poorest shopkeepers might live and work in two rooms ten feet square; the more affluent citizens owned fine furniture and silver, while those of straiter means possessed only the simplest pottery and kitchen utensils together with the tools of their trade.

One examination of a murder, when a young man killed his wife with a knife, incidentally provides a household inventory of the “middling” sort. The unfortunate pair lived in a house of wooden construction with two rooms, one above the other, and a thatched roof. In the lower room which opened upon the street there were a folding table and two chairs, with the walls “hung about with kitchen utensils, tools and weapons.” Among them were a frying pan, an iron spit and eight brass pots. The upper room was reached by means of a ladder-here were a bed and mattress, with two pillows. A wooden chest held six blankets, eight linen sheets, nine tablecloths and a coverlet. Their clothes “which were laid in chests or hung upon the walls” consisted of three surcoats, one coat with a hood, two robes, another hood, a suit of leather armour and half a dozen aprons. There were a candlestick, two plates, some cushions, a green carpet, and curtains hung before the doors to keep out the draughts. There would also have been rushes on the floor, not included in any inventory. It was a small, but comfortable, residence.

Those in poorer situations lived in rooms built within tenements which could be found down the narrow alleys between wide thoroughfares. The upper floor of these small houses was known as the “solar,” which protruded into the street itself so that little of the sky could be seen between two overhanging solars. Many of the smaller houses had been built of wood with thatched roofs, still reflecting the appearance of Saxon or early Norman building; London retained in part the atmosphere of a much earlier city, with tribal or territorial connotations. Yet after the many fires that visited the city, particularly a great conflagration in 1212, ordinances compelled householders to build their walls of stone and their roofs of tiles. Broken tiles from this period have been found in cesspits, wells, cellars, rubbish dumps and the foundation stones of roads. So there was a general process of transition, not perfectly managed, in which new stone and old timber stood side by side.

The condition of the streets themselves can be ascertained from the extant documents of the period. In the pleas and memoranda of the Guildhall, for example, we read of the master of Ludgate putting dung into the Fleet to such an extent that the water was stopped in certain places; a common privy is “diffectif” and “the ordur therof rotith the stone wallys.” The taverners of St. Bride’s parish put their empty barrels, and slops, into the street “to nusauns of all folk ther passyng.” There were complaints about defective paving in Hosier Lane, while in Foster Lane the fourteen households had the habit of casting from their windows “ordure amp; vrine, the which annoyet alle the pepol of the warde.” The cooks of Bread Street were indicted for keeping “dung and garbage” under their stalls, while a great stream of “dong and water and other diverse filth” was known to pour down Trinity Lane and Cordwainer Street by Garlickhithe Street, and descend between the shops of John Hatherle and Richard Whitman before discharging itself into the Thames. A dung-hill in Watergate Street beside Bear Lane “is noyowse to all the commune people, kasting out in-to this lane ordour of Prevees and other orrible sightis.” There are reports of stinking fish and bad oysters, of common steps in disrepair and of thoroughfares being blocked up, of areas or “pryue places” where thieves and “money strumpettes” congregate.

But some of the best evidence for the condition of the streets comes in the many regulations which were, from the evidence of the courts, being continually flouted. Stallholders were supposed to set up their stands only in the middle of the street, between the two “kennels” or gutters on either side. In the narrower thoroughfares the kennel ran down the middle of the street, thus effectively forcing pedestrians to “take the wall.” The scavengers and rakers of each ward were ordered “to preserve, lower and raise the pavements, and to remove all nuisances of filth”; all such “filth” was taken by horse and cart down to the river where it was carried off in boats built for the purpose. Special arrangements were made for carting off the noisome stuff from the sites of butchery-the shambles, the Stocks Market and the market at East Cheap-but there were always complaints of foul odours. In More’s Utopia (1516) the killing of animals takes place outside the city walls; his pointed recommendation is evidence of the real disgust which many citizens felt about the proximity of this trade.

In the Liber Albus there are also instructions that pigs and dogs be not allowed to wander through the city; more curiously, perhaps, it was decreed that “barbers shall not place blood in their windows.” No citizen was allowed to carry a bow for firing stones, and no “courtesans” were permitted to dwell within the city walls. This last ordinance was persistently flouted. There were elaborate regulations about the building of houses and walls, with special provisions applied for neighbours’ disputes; once again the impression is of a close compacted town. In the same spirit of good order it was decreed that the owners of the larger houses should always possess a ladder and a barrel of water in case of fire; since it had been ordained that tile rather than thatch should be the standard material of the roofs, the aldermen of each ward had the power to come with a pole or hook in order to remove any offending straw.

It is indicative of the close watch kept upon all citizens that there were also regulations about private and social arrangements. Every aspect of life was covered by an elaborate network of law, ordinance and custom. No “stranger” was allowed to spend more than one day and a night in a citizen’s house, and no one might be harboured within a ward “unless he be of good repute.” No lepers were ever allowed within the city. No one was permitted to walk abroad “after forbidden hours”-that is, after the bells or curfew had been sounded-unless he or she wished to be arrested as a “night-walker.” It was also forbidden that “any person shall keep a tavern for wine or for ale after the curfew aforesaid … nor shall they have any persons therein, sleeping or sitting up; nor shall anyone receive persons into his house from out of a common tavern, by night or by day.”

The curfew itself was rung at nine o’clock in the summer months, earlier in the darkness of winter. When the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside rang curfew, followed by the bell of St. Martin’s, St. Laurence’s and St. Bride’s, the taverns were cleared, the apprentices left their work, the lights dimmed as rush or candle were put out, the gates of the city were locked and bolted. Some of these apprentices believed that the clerk of St. Mary-le-Bow kept them at work too long by ringing too late and, according to John Stow, a rhyme was issued against

Clerke of the Bow bell with the yellow lockes

For thy late ringing thy head shall have knocks.

To which the offending clerk responded:

Children of Cheape, hold you all still,

For you shall have the Bow bell rung at your will.

This exchange testifies to the close relationship between all the members of the city so that everyone, for example, knew the bell-ringer with yellow hair. But the most striking image is perhaps that of the dark and silent city, barricaded against the outer world.

That silence was sometimes punctuated by screams, shouts and cries. It was the citizens’ duty to “raise hue and cry” against any transgressor of the peace, for example, and any citizen “who comes not on such hue and cry raised” was heavily fined. London was a city where everyone was watching everyone else, for the sake of the spirit of the commune, and there are numerous reports of neighbours “crying shame” at the ill treatment of an apprentice or the abuse of a wife.

Yet it is to be expected that, in a mercantile culture, the greatest body of law should be concerned with commercial transactions. There are many hundreds of regulations in this period, controlling every aspect of trading life. It was ordered that the vendors of certain products like cheese and poultry “shall stand between the kennels in the market of Cornhulle so as to be a nuisance to no one” with other trades distributed in various sites in the city. No vendor could “buy any victuals for resale before prime rung at St. Paul’s.” From the twenty regulations applying to bakers alone, it might be noted that a baker of “tourte” or pan-baked bread was not permitted to sell white bread; every baker also was commanded to leave “the impression of his seal” upon each loaf of bread. It was decreed that “all kinds of fish brought into the City in closed baskets shall be as good at bottom of the basket as at the top,” and that “no stranger ought to buy of a stranger.”

Fishermen laboured under hundreds of regulations about what they could catch, how they could catch, and where they could catch; the size and mesh of their nets were carefully measured. There was also an elaborate system of tolls and taxes, so that “Every man who brings cheese or poultry if the same amounts to fourpence halfpenny shall pay one halfpenny. If a man on foot brings one hundred eggs or more he shall give five eggs. If a man or woman brings any manner of poultry by horse and lets it touch the ground” he or she will pay more. It was an intricate system but its purpose was simply to ensure that the inhabitants of the city were adequately fed and clothed. It attempted both to pre-empt the extortionate demands of those who bought and sold, and to protect the rights of the citizens to trade in the city at the expense of “aliens” or “strangers.” The regulations had a further primary purpose, in the efforts to systematise trading so that there was little possibility of false measures, adulterated food or shoddy manufactures.

It is in the context of this thriving, colourful and energetic city that we can trace specific events which reveal the dangerous condition of the streets. In court records of the period we read of unnamed beggar women collapsing and dying in the street, of occasional suicides and constant fatal accidents- “drowned in a ditch outside Aldersgate … fell into a tub of hot mash.” We learn that “A poor little woman named Alice was found drowned outside the City wall. No one is suspected … a certain Elias le Pourtour, who was carrying a load of cheese, fell dead in Bread Street … a girl of about eight years old was found dead in the churchyard of St. Mary Somerset. It was believed that she was thrown there by some prostitute. No one is suspected.” Suicide in this age of piety, was considered a token only of madness. Isabel de Pampesworth “hanged herself in a fit of insanity” in her house in Bread Street. Alice de Wanewyck “drowned herself in the port of Dowgate, being non compos mentis.” Drunkenness was general, and there are continual references to citizens falling from their solars to the ground, falling down steps into the Thames, falling off ladders. The reports of these, and other fatalities, are to be found in The London Eyre of 1244 edited by Chew and Weinbaum. Other incidents are redolent of the period. “A certain man named Turrock” was found dead but “it was found that three men were lying in the deceased’s bed when he died … and they are in mercy,” the last phrase denoting that they had been acquitted of any charge. In another instance “Roger struck Maud, Gilbert’s wife, with a hammer between the shoulders and Moses struck her in the face with the hilt of his sword, breaking many of her teeth. She lingered until the feast of St. Mary Magdalen, and then died.”

This litany of death and disaster highlights the crude violence of the city streets; tempers are short, and life is held very cheap. “Henry de Buk killed a certain Irishman, a tiler, with a knife in Fleet Bridge Street, and fled to the church of St. Mary Southwark. He acknowledged the deed, and … abjured the realm. He had no chattels.” The quarrel of three men in a tavern by Milk Street led to a fatality when one was attacked with an “Irish knife” and a “misericord,” a merciful knife which was meant to guarantee a quick exit from this life; the fatally wounded man reached the church of St. Peter in Cheapside, but none of the bystanders offered to assist him.

The various trade guilds openly fought against each other in the streets; a group of goldsmiths, for example, fell upon a saddler and proceeded to lay open his head with a sword, chop off his leg with an axe and generally belabour him with a staff; he died five days later. When apprentices of the law rioted by Aldersgate, a citizen “amused himself” by shooting into the crowd an arrow which killed an unfortunate bystander. A “love-day,” designed to reconcile the coppersmiths and ironsmiths, turned into a general and murderous riot. When a group of unruly men entered a tavern one of the customers enquired, “Who are these people?” and was promptly killed with a sword. There were continual fights in the street, ambushes and arguments over nothing-or over “goat’s wool” as it was known. Games of “dice” or “tables” frequently ended in drunken fights, while it is clear that some of the owners of dicing taverns were engaged in wholesale fraud. It is a curious but instructive fact that the officers of the ward or parish were quick to tend to the religious needs of the maimed or dying, but there were few attempts to administer any form of medical treatment by physician or barber-surgeon. The injured were generally left to recover, or die, as providence intended.

There were many assaults upon women; in the transcripts there are cases of female Londoners being beaten or kicked to death, or callously murdered in premeditated fashion. Lettice accused Richard of Norton, vintner, of “raping and deflowering her” but the case did not proceed to trial. Wife-beating was common and went largely unremarked; but the brutalised women themselves could then in turn become brutal. A drunken woman started howling out insults to certain builders who were working on the corner of Silver Street-she called them “tredekeiles,” which might be translated as “lousy slobs,” and promptly started a fight in which one man was stabbed in the heart. Women could also be exponents of justice, rough even by London standards: when a Breton murdered a widow in her bed, “women of the same parish come owte with stonys and canell dong, and there made an ende of hym in the hyghe strete.”

The aldermen and watch of each ward had other duties which cast an intriguing light upon the customs of medieval London. They were instructed, for example, to arrest anyone wearing a “visor or false face” in the streets; to be masked was to be considered a criminal. The Court Rolls suggest that they were also given power to remove the doors and windows from any house of dubious reputation; there is a record of their “entering the house of William Cok, butcher, in Cockes Lane and tearing away eleven doors and five windows with hammers and chisels.” It is significant that the name, trade and street of the offender are conflated in characteristic medieval manner; it is an indication of how one activity, in this case the slaughter of poultry, can imbue an entire area of the city. Other incidents may also be representative, although less violent. The watch arrested certain apprentices who had filled a barrel with stones and then rolled it downhill from Gracechurch Street to London Bridge “to the great terror of the neighbours.”

There were more salacious, or intimate, events noted in the judicial records of a slightly later date; in their striking immediacy we might almost be in the same chamber with these early Londoners. “Will’m Pegden saieth that one Morris Hore broughte one Cicell and the saide Colwell had the vse of the bodie of the saide Elizabeth and the saide Alice Daie burned [gave a venereal disease to] the saide Cicell … And then the saide Alice daie came vppe Imediatlie, and lepped vppon the bed amp; said Cicell with hir kissinge together, and laying hir legges so broade that a yoked sow might go betwene.”

The crimes could be egregious, but the punishments had a distinctively communal aspect. It has often been suggested that the officials of the medieval city were more lenient than their successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and there is a partial truth to this. Punishments such as amputation were often commuted. But the civic spirit could be violent indeed, at least when it was threatened, and there are many records of hanging or beheading for offences against the city’s peace. The fatal penalty was almost always imposed upon rebels and upon those offenders who had in some other way touched the king’s majesty; one man was hanged, for example, for tampering with the royal seal. The heads of rebels and traitors were boiled and placed upon London Bridge, sometimes adorned with a crown of ivy as a final theatrical touch in the drama of punishment. At times of tension or disorder within the city, also, the mayor and aldermen resorted to capital punishment as the most expeditious way of controlling the populace. Murder was always a hanging offence (except when committed by a woman who could prove herself to be pregnant) but, in more peaceful time, the prison and the pillory were the common remedies for crime. Walter Waldeskef was charged “with being addicted to playing knucklebones at night”; he was described in the report as “a night walker, well dressed and lavish of his money, though no one knew how he got his living.” In the year after his arrest he was stabbed in Lombard Street and died in the church of St. Swithin at Walbrook. Agnes de Bury was imprisoned “for selling old fur on Cornhill,” while Roger Wenlock was committed to prison “for selling beer at 2d a gallon.” John Mundy, baker, “was set vpon the pyllery in Cornhill for makyng and sellyng of false breed,” and in the same month Agnes Deynte was also put in the pillory for selling “false mengled buttur.” Many and various frauds were also detected and punished. One baker cut a hole upon his moulding board; when the customer brought in his dough to be cooked, part of it was removed by a member of the baker’s family crouched beneath the counter. In another instance a former servant of a law officer, dismissed, travelled to various taverns and pretended to confiscate ale; the good tavern wives paid him to leave them alone. Eventually he was caught, and placed in the pillory.

Some of the punishments were more exotic. Bawds and “whore-mongers” had their hair shaved, leaving a two-inch fringe upon the heads of men and a small clump upon the heads of women. They were taken to their respective pillories by minstrels, the female pillory being known as a “thew,” where they became the target of the honest citizens’ anger or high spirits. If a woman was found to be a prostitute “let her be taken from the prison unto Aldgate” while wearing a hood of striped cloth and carrying a white taper in her hand; the minstrels once more led her to the pillory and, after the ritual abuse, she was marched down Cheapside and through Newgate to take up guarded lodgings in Cock Lane by West Smithfield.

Those consigned to the pillory for fraudulent manufacture or for selling shoddy goods had the items of their trade burned before them. John Walter had sold false measures of coal; he was condemned to stand in the pillory for an hour “with his sakkis brent [burnt] under him.” The journey to this place of obloquy was accompanied by other diversions: the culprit sometimes was forced to ride backwards on a horse, the tail towards him, and crowned with a fool’s cap. When one priest was found in flagrante delicto he was paraded through the streets with his breeches down and his clerical robes carried before him. Sir Thomas de Turberville, traitor, was taken through the streets of London dressed in a striped coat and white shoes; he was tied to a horse while around him rode six officials dressed all in red as emblems of the devil. Punishment becomes a form of festivity; in a relatively small and enclosed city, it turns into a celebration of communal feeling.

Yet harshness-one might almost call it savagery-was never very far from the surface, and can best be exemplified by the destination for London criminals who were spared the pillory or the noose: Newgate. During the coroner’s inquests of 1315-16, sixty-two of the eighty-five corpses under investigation had been taken from Newgate Prison. That is why there were many desperate attempts to break out of what was, essentially, a house of death. On one occasion the prisoners forced their way on to the roof “and faught ageyn the Citizens and kept the gate a greate while,” reinforcing the point that it was Londoners themselves who were essentially their guards and captors. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that one of the first extant texts in London English, written in the middle of the thirteenth century, should be entitled “The Prisoner’s Prayer.”

There was essentially only one escape from the wrath of the citizens, and that was the plea of sanctuary. A felon who could avoid capture, and take refuge in one of the many churches, was safe there for forty days. A watch was always placed around the church, in case of a sudden escape, and a body of citizens would have been encamped there day and night. Other places of sanctuary were Southwark, south of the river, and the east side of the Tower; where the power of the city stopped, in other words, the criminal was free. This is another indication of the self-sufficiency of the city, even if on such occasions it might have preferred a wider jurisdiction. During the course of sanctuary the prisoner often made a confession to the officers of the law and, at the end of the forty days, he or she was forced to “abjure the realm” and flee into exile. The status of the outcast was then announced at the folkmoot.

So from ancient deeds and coroners’ inquests, chancery rolls and chancery warrants, calendars of inquisitions and court records, we can summon up the spirit of medieval London in the streets, lanes and alleys that survive even still. But if this urban society was often characterised by violent confrontation so, too, was its political culture.

For much of the thirteenth century the record is one of riots, and massacres, and street-fighting. During this period London was in almost perpetual conflict with the reigning monarch, Henry III, while the aspiring leadership of the city was divided between the optimates and the populares- the old commercial magnates who had comprised the oligarchical commune of the city, as against the representatives of the crafts and trades who were beginning to feel their power. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the magnates tended to be royalist in their sympathy while the populares, sometimes also known as the mediocres, instinctively supported the barons of the realm with whom the king was in open conflict. London, once more, was the key. Whoever controlled the city was close to controlling the kingdom. The periodic baronial wars had this further consequence; there were parties and families within the city who maintained different allegiances, so that the national struggle was played out in miniature within the streets of London. It was truly the epitome of all England.

London Contrasts

A traffic “lock” or jam on Ludgate Hill, sketched by the French artist Gustave Doré towards the close of the nineteenth century.

CHAPTER 5. Loud and Everlasting

London has always been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness. It is part of its unnaturalness, too, like the roaring of some monstrous creature. But it is also a token of its energy and of its power.

From its earliest foundation London rang with the hammers of artisans and the cries of tradesmen; it produced more noise than any other part of the country, and in certain quarters, like those of the smiths and the barrel-makers, the clamour was almost insupportable. But there were other noises. In the early medieval city, the clatter of manufacturing trades and crafts would have been accompanied by the sound of bells, among them secular bells, church bells, convent bells, the bell of the curfew and the bell of the watchman.

It might be surmised that the effect of the bells ended with the Reformation, when London ceased to be a notably pious Catholic city, but all the evidence suggests that the citizens continued to be addicted to them. A German duke entered London on the evening of 12 September 1602, and was astonished by the unique character of the city’s sound. “On arriving in London we heard a great ringing of bells in almost all the churches going on very late in the evening, also on the following days until 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening. We were informed that the young people do that for the sake of exercise and amusement, and sometimes they lay considerable sums of money as a wager, who will pull a bell longest or ring it in the most approved fashion. Parishes spend much money in harmoniously-sounding bells, that one being preferred which has the best bells. The old Queen is said to have been pleased very much by this exercise, considering it as a sign of the health of the people.” This account is taken from The Acoustic World of Early Modern England by Bruce R. Smith, which offers an intimate version of London’s history. There is some suggestion here that the harmony of the bells is in some sense intended to demonstrate the harmony of the city, with the attendant “health” of its citizens, but there is also an element of theatricality or bravura intrinsic to London and Londoners. Indeed there is almost a kind of violence attached to their liking of loud sound. Another German traveller, of 1598, wrote that Londoners are “vastly fond of great noises that fill the ear, such as the firing of cannon, drums, and the ringing of bells, so that it is common for a number of them … to go up into some belfry, and ring the bells for hours together for the sake of exercise.” A chaplain to the Venetian ambassador similarly reported that London boys made bets “who can make the parish bells be heard at the greatest distance.” To the element of display are added aggression and competition.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the very definition of the Londoner should be adduced in terms of loud noise. A Cockney was one who was born within the sound of the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow, in Cheapside, which according to John Stow was “more famous than any other Parish Church of the whole Cittie or suburbs.” Fynes Moryson, in 1617, announced that “Londiners, and all within the sound of Bow-Bell, are in reproach called Cocknies, and eaters of buttered tostes.” Bruce R. Smith has suggested that “cockney” in fact derives from the “cock-shaped weathervane” which once surmounted the belfry of St. Mary-le-Bow and that the Londoners’ identification with the sound came from their own “loud loquaciousness” or “boastfulness.”

As the city grew, so did its level of noise. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, according to Walter Besant’s London, “there was no noisier city in the whole world”; it could be heard from Highgate and from the Surrey hills. Dekker in The Seven deadly Sinnes of London evokes something of the incessant din-“hammers are beating in one place; Tubs hooping in another, Pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth.” Here noise itself is associated with energy, and specifically with the making of money. Sound was intrinsic to the trades of the carpenters and the coopers, the blacksmiths and the armourers. Other occupations, such as dockers and porters, the loaders and unloaders by the wharves, actively employed noise as an agent of business; it was the only way of affirming or expressing their role within the commercial city.

Certain areas produced particular noises. The metal foundries of Lothbury, for example, produced “a loathsome noise to the by-passers, that hath not been used to the like” and the quarter of the blacksmiths was permeated “with the noise of and sound of their hammers amp; anuiles.” There was also the general circumambient noise of the London streets where, according once more to Thomas Dekker, “carts and Coaches make such a thundring” and where “in the open streetes is such walking, such talking, such running, such riding, such clapping too of windowes, such rapping at Chamber doores, such crying out for drink, such buying vp of meate, and such calling vppon Shottes, that at every such time, I verily beleeue I dwell in a Towne of Warre.” Images of violence and assault spring unimpeded from the experience of London sound. In 1598 Everard Guilpin wrote a verse satire upon “the peopled streets” of London, which he depicts as a “hotch-potch of so many noyses … so many severall voyces.” Here the heterogeneity of London is seen as an aspect of its noise. Yet without the perpetual hum of traffic and machines which seems to characterise the noise of contemporary London streets, individual voices would have been heard more clearly. The wooden and plaster houses on either side of the main thoroughfares acted as an echo-chamber, so that one of the characteristics of the sixteenth-century city would be a continual babble of voices making up one single and insistent conversation; it might be termed the conversation of the city with itself.

There were certain places where the voices reached such a pitch and intensity that they could also be characterised as a London sound. The interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral was known for its particular timbre. To quote once more from Bruce Smith’s account, “the noyse in it is like that of Bees, a strange humming or buzze, mixt of walking, tongues, and feet: It is a kind of still roare or loud whisper.” The Royal Exchange, where merchants from all over the world congregated, was “vaulted and hollow, and hath such an Eccho, as multiplies euery worde that is spoken.” At the centre of commerce there is a great reverberation, as if the conduct of finance could only take place within thunder. Then, in the taverns to which the dealers and merchants retired, “men come here to make merry but indeed make a noise.” So, in the places of power and speculation, the insistent sound is that of raised male voices. Samuel Johnson once remarked upon the subject of taverns, “Sir, there is no other place where the more noise you make, the more welcome you are.” It is a suggestive observation, with its implications of theatricality and aggression as part of the London experience; the more “noise” you make, the more you become a true inhabitant of the city. In the theatres, too, there was unabated noise, with the hucksters and the criers and the huddled throng; everybody talking together, breaking nuts, and crying out for ale.

On the streets outside were the bells, the wagons, the cries, the barking dogs, the squeaking of shop signs blowing in the wind. But there was another sound, relatively unfamiliar to Londoners of later generations. It was that of rushing water. The sixteenth-century city was crossed by streams and rivers. The sound of water from fifteen conduits mingled with the noise of the Thames and its lapping tides, audible along all the lanes and thoroughfares which led to the river. Great wheels were used to pump water from the Thames into small wooden pipes, and their endless grinding and reverberation added materially to the overwhelming noise of the city.

In 1682 it was still the same endless sound, like a great shout perpetually renewed. “I lie down in Storms,” Sir John Oldham announced in that year, “in Thunders, rise.” He evokes the “Din” of the “restless Bells” as well as

Huzza’s of Drunkards, Bellmen’s midnight Rhimes

The noise of Shops, with Hawkers early Screams.

The allusion here is to a city that is always wakeful; there is no end to its activity, neither at night nor at day, and it lives continually. In the seventeenth century, too, London was still a city of animals as well as people. Samuel Pepys was disturbed one night by a “damned noise between a sow gelder and a cow and a dog.” The noise of horses, cattle, cats, dogs, pigs, sheep and chickens, which were kept in the capital, was confounded also with the sound of the great herds of beasts being driven towards Smithfield and the other open markets; London consumed the countryside, or so it was said, and the noise which accompanied its devouring appetite was everywhere apparent.

It has often been observed how foreigners, or strangers, were astonished and perplexed by the noise of London. On one level it was regarded as representative of London’s “license,” where the boundary between anarchy and freedom remained ambiguous. In a city filled with an implicitly egalitarian spirit, each inhabitant was free to occupy his or her own space with endless noisy expressiveness. In Hogarth’s engraving of 1741, The Enraged Musician, a foreign visitor is assailed by the sound of a sow-gelder (perhaps a descendant of the one who annoyed Pepys), by howling cats, a girl’s rattle, a boy’s drum, a milkmaid’s cry, a ballad-seller’s plaintive call, a knife-grinder and a pewterer at their respective trades, a carillon of bells, a parrot, a wandering “haut-boy” or oboe player, a shrieking dustman and a barking dog. The significance of these heterogeneous images is that they are all striking and familiar London types. Hogarth is here celebrating the noises of the city as an intrinsic aspect of its life. It is the prerogative of Londoners to make noise; therefore, noise is a natural and inevitable part of their existence in the city. Without that right, for example, many of the vendors and street-sellers would perish.

Those who came to the city as visitors were not of course necessarily able to share Hogarth’s implicit enthusiasm for this native uproar. In Tobias Smollett’s novel of 1771 Humphry Clinker is dismayed by its nocturnal aspects. “I start every hour from my sleep, at the horrid noise of the watchmen bawling the hour through every street and thundering at every door,” thus illustrating the fact that time itself can be imposed with a shout. In the morning, too: “I start out of bed, in consequence of the still more dreadful alarm made by the country carts, and noisy rustics bellowing green peas under my window.” Commerce, as well as time, must be understood in raucous terms. Joseph Haydn complained that he might fly to Vienna “to have more quiet in which to work, for the noise that the common people make as they sell their wares in the street is intolerable.” Yet there were others who so wished to enter the spirit of London that they rejoiced in the clamour and embraced it like a lover. “The noise,” Boswell wrote upon his first arrival in London in 1762, “the crowd, the glare of the shops and signs agreeably confused me.” He arrived in the capital by way of Highgate, from which eminence he would already have heard the noise. “Let anyone ride down Highgate Hill on a summer’s day,” Laetitia Landon wrote in the early nineteenth century, “see the immense mass of buildings spread like a dark panorama, hear the ceaseless and peculiar sound, which has been likened to the hollow roar of the ocean, but has an utterly different tone … then say, if ever was witnessed hill or valley that so powerfully impressed the imagination with that sublime and awful feeling, which is the epic of poetry.” So the noise of the city partakes of its greatness.

This sense of disturbing, almost transcendental, sound was essentially a discovery of the nineteenth century when London represented the great urban myth of the world. Its noise became an aspect of its mightiness, and horror; it became numinous. In 1857 Charles Manby Smith, in the paradoxically entitled The Little World of London, described it as “that indefinable boom of distant but ever-present sound which tells that London is up and doing, and which will swell into a deafening roar as the day grows older [and] now rises faintly but continuously upon the ear.” The “roar” here suggests the presence of some great beast, but more significant is this sense of a continuous, distant sound as if it were a form of meditation or self-communing. We read in the same narrative of “the uninterrupted and crashing roar of deafening sounds, which tell of the rush of the current of London’s life blood through its thousand channels-a phenomenon, however, of which the born Londoner is no more unpleasantly conscious than is the Indian savage, cradled at the foot of a cataract, of its everlasting voice.” This is an interesting image, which identifies London itself with some kind of natural force; at the same time it covertly admits savagery among the citizens, in a locale both untamed and untamable.

From three miles’ distance, in what was then an “outlying” suburb soon to be drawn within the vortex of the city, the sound of London is “like the swell of the sea-surge beating upon a pebbly shore when it is heard far inland.” Here is a haunting impression of proximity to the great city. That perpetual sound was variously compared to Niagara, in its persistence and remorselessness, and to the beating of a human heart. It is intimate and yet impersonal, like the noise of life itself. That same intuition was vouchsafed to Shelley who wrote of

London: that great sea whose ebb and flow

At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore

Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more.

The adjectives “deaf” and “loud” summon up an image of pitiless activity; the verb “howls” one of fear, pain and rage in equal measure. The noise is one of greed and helplessness, as if it were in a perpetually infantile state. Its noise is ancient, but always renewed.

A celebrated American of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell, has written: “I confess that I never think of London, which I love, without thinking of that palace which David built for Bathsheba, sitting in hearing of one hundred streams-streams of thought, of intelligence, of activity. One other thing about London impresses me beyond any other sound I have ever heard, and that is the low, unceasing roar one hears always in the air; it is not a mere accident, like a tempest or a cataract, but it is impressive, because it always indicates human will, and impulse, and conscious movement; and I confess that when I hear it I almost feel as if I were listening to the roaring loom of time.”

Here, then, is a further sense of the numinous. London becomes the image of time itself. The great “streams” of thought and intelligence never cease; to change the metaphor, they resemble cosmic winds. But is the sound of the city also the sound of time itself? The noise would then be striated by the shuttling of the future into the past, that instantaneous and irremediable process that takes place in a “present” moment that can never really be glimpsed or known. The sound is then one of vast loss, the “howl” of which Shelley writes. In the phrase of T.S. Eliot, a poet whose vision of time and eternity sprang directly from his experience of London, “All time is unredeemable.” London is unredeemable, too, and we may also think of its noise as comprising a vast mass of subjective private times continually retreating into non-existence.

Even in the middle of that maelstrom, however, it was possible to pick out and to remember specific London sounds which belonged to that place and to no other in the nineteenth century. There were the notes of the “German band,” with their horn and trombone and clarionet; there was the lament of the barrel organ and the barrel piano; there was the cry of “Lucifers” from an old man bearing a tray of matches. There was the rumble of the scavenger’s cart drawn by great horses “adorned with tiaras of tinkling bells.” There was the incessant clatter of horses’ hooves which, when they departed, left London bereft. “I shall miss the ‘orses’ feet at night, somethin’ shockin’,” one Cockney lady put it, “they was sech comp’ny like.” There was of course the continual noise of wheels, endlessly turning with their own resistless momentum. “To the stranger’s ear,” a journalist wrote in 1837, “the loud and everlasting rattle of the countless vehicles which ply the streets of London is an intolerable annoyance. Conversation with a friend whom one chances to meet in midday is out of the question … one cannot hear a word the other says.” Jane Carlyle, having settled in London with her husband Thomas, asked a correspondent in 1843: “Is it not strange that I should have an everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, wagons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door-bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay.” It is as if the whole world had broken in upon her. That same sense emerges in a book entitled Memories of London in the 1840s where the constant roar of traffic was described “as if all the noises of all the wheels of all the carriages in creation were mingled and ground together into one subdued, hoarse, moaning hum.”

Wooden paving was laid upon many of the main thoroughfares in the 1830s-Oxford Street and the Strand being two particular examples-but nothing could really withstand the encroaching noise of the city. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) R. L. Stevenson writes of “the low growl of London from all round.” In a life of Tennyson it is remarked that the poet “always delighted in the ‘central roar’ of London.” “This is the mind,” he told his son, “that is a mood of it.” Charlotte Brontë heard that “roar” and was deeply excited by it. In each instance the presence of a living thing is being registered, perhaps with some disquiet; it is one great life comprising the sum of individual lives so that, at the end of Little Dorrit, the little heroine and her husband “went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.” Those who are “blessed” are silent, like strangers in the city, but the “eager” and the restless maintain their uproar. Or, rather, the sound of London is transmitted through them.

It has changed during the course of the twentieth century. Those at the beginning recall the noise of horse-driven vans and the apoplectic roar of the omnibuses mingled with the strangely peaceful and satisfying sound of horses’ hooves. It is perhaps not surprising that the writers who dwelled in the city in the first decades of the twentieth century, should instil an enchantment in those noises; it is as if they were aware of their imminent destruction.

In 1929, according to the Journal of the London Society, a deputation from the British Medical Association had visited the Ministry of Health to suggest that “city noise” was “a menace to public health.” Instead of the sound of London being celebrated as a token of life itself, or at least of the energy of the city, it was now being construed as injurious and unwelcome. It had become more uniform and monotonous so that, two years later, a report noted that “people are beginning to rebel against this disturbing, wearying factor in their lives.” It had also become more impersonal and, in response to its dehumanising potential, the measurement of the “decibel” was introduced. Various sources of what was now considered a nuisance were reported. It offers an odd contrast with Hogarth’s print of The Enraged Musician, surrounded by human sources of sound, to note that the new disturbers of the peace in the 1930s included the pneumatic street drill, the motor horn, building construction, and the railway steam-whistle described as “harsh and grating.” Much attention was paid to the “unnatural” quality of London noise-“a riveter is equal to 112 decibels, whereas thunder can register only 70”-thus reintroducing the old notion of a city intrinsically opposed to natural laws of growth and development. It was also suggested that the sound of London had a wholly deleterious effect upon “the brain and nervous system,” creating fatigue, inattention and general weariness.

D.H. Lawrence had a peculiar intuition of this change in the city’s noise. He had considered it, in the first decade of the twentieth century, as an expression of “the vast and roaring heart of all adventure” with the emphasis upon “roar” or “uproar” as a token of exhilaration; but then the traffic had become “too heavy.” This was also the gist of official reports, so that the novelist can be presumed to have touched upon an authentic alteration. “The traffic of London used to roar with the mystery of man’s adventure on the seas of life” but now “it booms like monotonous, far-off guns, in a monotony of crushing something, crushing the earth, crushing out life, crushing everything dead.”

The reiterated note of monotony is entirely characteristic of descriptions of modern London sound. Virginia Woolf described the noise of traffic as “churned into one sound, steel blue, circular” which adequately conveys the artificiality or impersonality of the circumambient noise. In recent years, too, there have been reports of a low humming sound which can be discerned everywhere. It is an accompaniment of fluorescent light, perhaps, or of the vast electronic systems working continuously beneath the surface of the city; it is now the low-level “background” noise which masks other sounds. The noise of cars and cooling systems has changed the air of London in every sense, principally by dulling down the variety and heterogeneity of sound. The great roar of nineteenth-century London is today diminished in intensity but more widespread in its effects; from a distance it might be recognised as an incessant grinding sound. The image would no longer be that of a sea but, rather, of a machine. The beating “heart” of London can no longer be credited with human or natural attributes.

The sound of voices, once such an intrinsic aspect of the street, has now been marginalised-except for the individual voice responding to the call of the mobile telephone, in a manner louder and more abrupt than that of ordinary conversation. Yet two aspects of these changing soundscapes have remained constant. Native Londoners have for many centuries been known to talk louder than their contemporaries, with a marked tendency towards shouting. London has become one unyielding and unending shout. There is a second characteristic noise. If you stand in Lombard Street at any time of the day, for example, that narrow thoroughfare like others in the vicinity echoes to hurrying footfalls. It has been a continuous sound for many hundreds of years, in the very centre of the City, and it may be that the perpetual steady echo of passing footsteps is the true sound of London in its transience and in its permanence.

CHAPTER 6. Silence Is Golden

Yet, on Sundays and public holidays, Lombard Street falls quiet. Throughout the old City, silence returns.

The history of silence is one of London’s secrets. It has been said of the city that its most glorious aspects are concealed, and that observation is wonderfully well fitted to account for the nature of silence in London. It comes upon the pedestrian, or traveller, suddenly and unexpectedly; it momentarily bathes the senses, as if going from bright light into a darkened room. Yet if London sound is that of energy and animation, silence must therefore be an ambiguous presence within city life. It may offer peace and tranquillity, but it may also suggest absence of being. It may be a negative force. The city’s history is striated with moments of silence: the silence of the surrounding country when the anonymous poet of London Lickpenny leaves Cheapside in 1390, the silence of the civic assembly when Richard III was first proposed as king in 1483, the silence of desolation after the Fire in 1666.

There was the silence of sixteenth-century London, after the day’s last cry at the stroke of midnight:

Looke well to your locke,

Your fier and your light,

And so good-night.

Of course the London night was not wholly quiet. What London night ever is, or ever will be? It is the contrast that is significant, in an almost theatrical sense, because it marks an interdiction upon the natural ardour of the citizens. In that sense the silence of London is indeed unnatural. There is a mid-seventeenth-century poem by Abraham Cowley which intimates that, on the departure of all the wicked and the foolish, the city would become “a solitude almost,” the implied silence suggesting here that noise and bustle are indistinguishable from sinfulness or folly. In that sense London could never be a silent city.

The absence of noise has also been marked as yet another contrast in an endlessly contrasting place. An eighteenth-century traveller observed that in the smaller streets off the Strand, running down to the Thames, there was “so pleasing a calm” that it struck the senses. This is a constant refrain. When the American connoisseur of antiquity, Washington Irving, wandered through the grounds of the Temple, off Fleet Street, “strangely situated in the very centre of sordid traffic,” he entered the silence of the chapel of the Knights Templar. “I do not know a more impressive lesson for the man of the world,” he wrote, “than thus suddenly to turn aside from the high way of busy money seeking life and sit down among these shadowy sepulchres, where all is twilight, dust and forgetfulness.” Here silence becomes an intimation of eternity, with the suggestion that London once emerged from a great silence and will one day return to it.

The great locus solus of silence, amid the overbearing noise of nineteenth-century London, acquired therefore an almost sacred status. Another American writer of that century, Nathaniel Hawthorne, entered it, having gone astray in Holborn. He walked “through an arched entrance, over which was ‘Staple Inn’ … but in a court opening inwards from this was a surrounding seclusion of quiet dwelling houses … there was not a quieter spot in England than this. In all the hundreds of years since London was built, it has not been able to sweep its roaring tide over that little island of quiet.” Silence has derived its power here by being able to withstand the sound of London, and in the process has itself acquired a kind of immensity-“there was not a quieter spot in England.”

Dickens knew the same courtyard well and employed it in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “It is one of those nooks, the turning into which out of the clashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet soles on his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in smoky trees, as though they called to one another, ‘Let’s play at country.’” There is almost a theatrical aspect to this silence, therefore, as if it had been tainted by the artificiality of London. It is not a natural silence but a “play,” one of a series of violent contrasts which the inhabitants of London must endure. It is in that sense wholly ambiguous; it may provoke peaceful contemplation, or it may arouse anxiety.

When Hawthorne continued his pilgrimage to the centres of silence-a journey by an antiquarian determined to prove that “modern” London had not obtained full mastery over the silent past-he entered the precincts of Gray’s Inn. “It is very strange to find so much of ancient quietude right in the monster city’s very jaws,” he wrote, confirming his intuition that noise is a consequence of inattention or ignorance. It is silence which partakes of the past, and redeems the present. “Nothing else in London is so like the effect of a spell, as to pass under one of these archways, and find yourself transported from the jumble, rush, tumult, uproar, as if an age of weekdays condensed into the present hour, into what seems an eternal Sabbath.” So silence is the equivalent of the holy days of rest. Silence is the sound of not working, not making money.

But this again is ambiguous since the Sunday of London was known for its altogether dismal aspect, gloomy and generally disheartening. So does silence itself partake of this dreariness? In London the absence of noise, and activity, may be peculiarly enervating. Gabriel Mourey, a French traveller of the nineteenth century, remarked that on a Sunday “it is like a dead city; all trace of life and activity of the past six days has vanished.” Everyone noticed the change. It was “horrible,” and manifested a contrast which no other place on earth could afford. Once more the uniqueness of this sudden transition is being emphasised, so that even silence itself reflects the magniloquence of nineteenth-century London.

Yet there are other forms of silence which seem to presage activity. The author of The Little World of London recognised, and heard, them all. There was the moment of early dawn, a brief period of stillness before the distant noise “of horses’ hooves and grinding wheels” marked the awakening of the city into life. And then, at night, “a dead sepulchral silence seems to reign in the deserted thoroughfares, where but a few hours ago the ear was distracted by every variety of sounds.” This “stillness so sudden and complete … has a solemn suggestiveness,” containing within itself the idea of death as the “sudden and complete” surcease. The nature of the nineteenth-century city was such that it invited and provoked such “solemn” contemplation, precisely because it included the elements of life and death within itself. This is not the silence of the countryside, in other words, where repose seems natural and unforced. The silence of London is an active element; it is filled with an obvious absence (of people, of business) and is therefore filled with presence. It is a teeming silence.

That is why it can actually awake the sleeper. An inhabitant of Cheapside was asked by a London reporter how he knew when it was past two in the morning. “He will tell you, as he has told us, that the silence of the City sometimes wakes him at that hour.” Silence can sound like an alarm. Henry Mayhew noted the “almost painful silence that everywhere prevailed” in certain deserted London alleys, as if the absence of sound provoked mental or physical suffering. Silence can also be associated with what the poet James Thomson described as “the Doom of a City.” Many images abound of silent stone. The City at night, “the city of the dead” as it has been called, has been seen to resemble “a prehistoric forest of stone.” One writer within the great volumes of London, edited by Charles Knight and published in 1841, contemplated the city “with its streets silent and every house untenanted-how should we be excited and thrilled by so touching a sight!” The advent of this silence strangely excites him, as if it represents the erasure of all human energy.

The silence of the nineteenth-century city can induce an almost spiritual sense of transcendence; Matthew Arnold wrote some lines in Kensington Gardens, where peace and silence prevailed over “men’s impious roar” and the “city’s hum”:

Calm Soul of all things! make it mine

To feel, amid the city’s jar,

That there abides a peace of thine,

Man did not make, and cannot mar.

So the “soul of all things” is to be recognised within this silence. Charles Lamb considered it to be a token of all lost and past things, while others believed it to be an emanation or manifestation of that which is secret and hidden. The silence then becomes another aspect of what a contemporary critic has described as “London’s unknowability.” Certainly, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was an obscure fascination for what Julian Wolfreys in Writing London has called “the hidden court, the forgotten square, the unobserved portico” as if the mystery of London exists within its silence. It is the mystery which Whistler observed in his Nocturnes, and which generations of Londoners have encountered in silent streets and strange byways.

Fountain Court, in the Temple, is one such sacred spot that has survived until the beginning of the twenty-first century; its solace seems to be unchanging. The silence of Tower Hamlets cemetery, in the middle of the East End, is also profound and permanent; there is silence in the square by St. Alban the Martyr, off busy Holborn, and there is a sudden silence in Keystone Crescent off the Caledonian Road. There is the silence of Kerry Street in Kentish Town, of Courtenay Square off Kennington Lane, of Arnold Circus in Shoreditch. And then there is the silence of the outer suburbs, waiting to be born within the encroaching and approaching noise of London.

Perhaps these quarters of silence are necessary for the harmony of the city itself; perhaps it needs its antithesis in order properly to define itself. It is like the quiet of the dead upon whom London rests, the silence as a token of transience and eventual dissolution. So oblivion and wakefulness, silence and sound, will always accompany each other in the life of the city. As it is written in that great urban poem of the late nineteenth century, The City of Dreadful Night,

Thus step for step with lonely sounding feet

We travelled many a long dim silent street.

The Late Medieval City

A Tudor depiction of the market of East Cheap; note the number of butchers’ shops, in a city where meat was at a premium.

CHAPTER 7. This Companye

The visitation of “the death” in the last months of 1348 destroyed 40 per cent of London’s population. Perhaps 50,000 people died within the city. A decade later, one-third of the land within the walls remained uninhabited. It was called “the great pestilence” as well as “the death,” and reoccurred with extraordinary virulence eleven years later. London (like most other European cities) remained under the threat of bubonic plague for the rest of the century. It was not an urban disease but it flourished in urban conditions; it was transmitted by rats, living in the straw and thatch of medieval dwellings, as well as by close respiratory proximity.

Yet London seems inured to disaster, and there is no evidence of any discontinuity in the history of this period. It was said that in the city itself there were not enough living to bury the dead but, for those who survived, the disease offered an unparalleled opportunity to thrive and flourish. Many, for example, became prosperous as a result of unexpected inheritance; while, for others, the demand for labour meant that their worth was greater than they had imagined. The late fourteenth century was a time when many families, those of labourers and merchants alike, moved from the neighbouring provinces to the great city in order to make their fortunes. From this period dates the apocryphal history of Dick Whittington, which once more spread the story of London as “Cockaigne” or the realm of gold.

The real Richard Whittington was a member of the mercers’ guild, and London’s history cannot properly be understood without also understanding the nature of those fraternities which combined the regulation of work with religious observances and parish duties. London may not have been recognised as a “city of god” upon the earth, but there were many late medieval theorists who believed that the city itself was the pattern of human existence as well as an emblem of human harmony.

There seem to have been trading guilds since the time of the Saxons, gegildan, later known as “frith guilds,” which also possessed military or defensive functions. In the twelfth century certain traders, such as the bakers and the fishmongers, were allowed to collect their own taxes without being “farmed” or tolled by the royal administration. As part of a complementary, if not directly connected, process we find the various trades congregating in separate areas; the bakers were ensconced in Bread Street, while the fishmongers might be found in Friday Street (good Catholics ate no meat on Fridays).

The growth of craft guilds, located in a specific area, cannot be distinguished from the parish guilds of the same vicinity. The tanners who pursued their noisome craft along the banks of the River Fleet, for example, were accustomed to meet at their own “fraternity” in the Carmelite house in Fleet Street. By the late thirteenth century there were approximately two hundred fraternities in which craft regulation and religious observance were mingled. In the church of St. Stephen, Coleman Street, for example, three fraternities are recorded; while at St. James Garlickhythe there was a “litel companye” of joiners. It was a typically late medieval arrangement, which effectively allowed a self-regulating and self-sustaining community to prosper within the context of a rapidly developing city. In the early fourteenth century was issued a royal charter in which it was formally announced that no man might join a specific craft without the recommendation and security of six other members of that craft; a further stipulation decreed that only members of a craft might be admitted to the freedom of the city. Only citizens, in other words, could belong to a trade guild. In this fashion the guilds acquired enormous economic power within the city. One ordinance, for example, required that ale or beer could be bought only from freemen enfranchised in and inhabiting London.

But in London economic power in turn purchased political and social preeminence so that, in 1351 and again in 1377, the crafts themselves elected the Common Council of the city. It ought to be remembered, also, that there were “many craftes” and “mochel smale poeple” who would simply have met for business in their local church. The religious and social constraints of these trading “mysteries”-the word has no sacred significance, but comes from the French métier-are also implicit within the ordinances of the guilds themselves which emphasised the importance of honesty and good reputation. The rules of the fraternity of St. Anne at St. Laurence Jewry, for example, demanded that “yif any of the company be of wikked fame of his body and take othere wyues than his owene or yif he be a sengle man and be holde a comone lechour or contecour or rebell of his tonge” then he is to be admonished. After three such warnings, if unavailing, he is to be expelled so that “godemen of this companye ne be nat sclaundered bi cause of hym.”

There are other aspects of these guild ordinances which reveal the very condition of the time. It is noted in the same rules that anyone who “vse hym to lye longe in bedde amp; atte risyng of his bed ne wil nat worcke to wynne his sustenaunce amp; kepe his house amp; go to the tavernne to the wyn to the ale to wrastelynge to schetynge,” “schal be put of for euermore of this companye.” Clearly the enjoyment of drink and what might now be termed “spectator sport” was not considered compatible with good working practice; the same admonitions against urban amusements were made by Daniel Defoe in his seventeenth-century manual on London trade. In a similar spirit there are injunctions against any who acquire an “euel name” as “theft or commune barettour or comune questmonger or meyntenour of quereles”; the guilds were here condemning those who breached public peace, as if the act of quarrelling or disputing might itself be construed as sinful in a community whose harmony was maintained only with great difficulty. The emphasis here is upon good standing, and the avoidance of shame among equals; it is typical of the regulations which “smale poeple” devised in order to protect their “good name” and therefore assist them in the remorseless pressure to move “upward” in the hierarchy of trades. That is why the ordinary workmen or “journeymen” sometimes tried to combine against their employers, but the city authorities were generally able to prevent any “union” of the lower workers. There came a time when the victualling and manufacturing trades were indeed engaged in bitter dispute about precedence and power, but it was essentially only a further stage in the continual restless and dissatisfied movement of those “lower” trades and professions who gradually pushed themselves forward into the social and political life of the city. This is the true history of London which lives and moves beneath the incidents and events of public record.

But no account of medieval London would be complete without an understanding of the elaborate and complicated manner in which the Church itself remained the single most disciplined and authoritative director of the city’s affairs. In the simply material sphere, the administrators of the Church were the biggest landlords and employers both within and without the walls. Many thousands of people, both secular and spiritual, owed their livings to the great abbeys and monastic foundations of the city, but these large communities also owned ancient lands and manors beyond the jurisdiction of the city itself. The bishop of St. Paul’s, for example, owned the manor of Stepney which stretched to the boundaries of Essex on the east and to Wimbledon and Barnes on the south-west; the canons of that establishment possessed thirteen other manors, ranging from Pancras and Islington to Hoxton and Holborn. This territorial power is a direct expression of secular, as well as spiritual, authority which dates from a very early period indeed; during the steady disintegration of Romanised England, and the dissolution of Roman London, these magnates of the Church had already become the true governing class of the country. The bishop of each province had taken on “the mantle of the Roman consul” and, in default of other public institutions, the parish church and the monastery became the centre of all organised activity. That is why the earliest administrative records of London emphasise the power of the Church authorities. In 900 we read that “the bishop and the reeves who belong to London make, in the name of citizens, laws which were confirmed by the king,” and it was customary for priors and abbots also to become aldermen. There was no distinction between secular and spiritual power because both were seen as intrinsic aspects of the divine order.

London itself was a city of churches, containing a larger number than any other city in Europe. There were more than a hundred churches within the walls of the old City, sixteen alone devoted to St. Mary, and it can reasonably be inferred that many were originally of Saxon date and of wooden construction. In London Walter Besant has noted that “there was no street without its monastery, its convent garden, its college of priests, its friars, its pardoners, its sextons and its serving brothers.” This may seem exaggerated but, although not every lane and alley contained a monastery or a convent garden, a look at any map will show that the main thoroughfares did indeed harbour religious institutions great and small. Beside the 126 parish churches there were thirteen conventual churches, including St. Martin’s le Grand and the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem; there were seven great friaries, including the Carthusian friars of Hart Street; there were five priories, among them St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield and St. Saviour’s in Bermondsey; there were four large nunneries and five priests’ colleges. Of the hospitals and refuges, for the sick and the indigent, we have records of seventeen in areas as diverse as Bevis Marks and Aldgate, Charing Cross and St. Laurence Pountney (among them a refuge for the insane at Barking, and thus the phrase “barking mad”). This is not to mention the chantries, the church schools and the private chapels. It is a further indication of the sanctity of London that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there was continual reconstruction of these sacred edifices. The piety of Londoners is not in doubt.

The evidence of medieval wills in London is of some consequence, and in the last testaments of John Toker, vintner (1428), of Robert Ameray, cordwainer (1410), of Richard Whyteman, wax-chandler (1428), and Roger Elmesley, wax-chandler’s servant (1434), there are tokens of a simple but profound piety. In the details of these testaments there is all the paraphernalia of ordinary London life, with bequests of towels and spoons, beds and blankets; Roger Elmesley left an iron rack for roasting eggs as well as some peacock feathers and “my roller for a towell,” but his main wish was that he be buried “vnder the stone with-oute the Dore of the porche” of St. Margaret Pattens in Little Tower Street. He was concerned also with the spiritual destiny of his godson, to whom he left “a prymmer for to serve god with,” as well as “a litel cofur to putte in his smale thynges.” All of these wills mention sums of money to be given to the poor, or the imprisoned, or the sick, on condition that these disadvantaged would then pray for the soul of the departed. John Toker the vintner, for example, gave various bequests to the priests of St. Mildred’s in Bread Street “forto praie for my soule” with other moneys to be paid to the prisoners of “Ludgate, Marchalsie Kyngesbenche,” as well as to the “pore folk lying sike in the spitell of our lady with-oute Bisshopes-gate, Oure lady of Bedlem, Oure lady of Elsingspitel, of Seynt Bathilmewys in Smythfeeld, And seint Thomas in Sowthwerk.” Many of these institutions exist today, albeit in altered form, while others linger only in the folk memory of London. John Toker left to his apprentice Henry Thommissone “my mancion that is cleped the Mermaid in Bredstreet” which is the very same tavern where Shakespeare and Jonson were supposed to have drunk. The history of London is a palimpsest of different realities and lingering truths.

The patron saint of the medieval city was a seventh-century monk who ruled as the bishop of London: Erkenwald was the spiritual leader of the East Saxons for eighteen years and, after his death, many miracles were vouchsafed on his behalf. The wooden cart or litter upon which Bishop Erkenwald would travel through the streets of London, when age and sickness prevented him from walking through his diocese, became the centre of a cult. Fragments and splinters of this vehicle were credited with curative properties, and the litter was enshrined behind the main altar of St. Paul’s with the relics of the saint himself. The physical remains of Erkenwald were sealed within a leaden casket which was fashioned “in the form of a gabled house or church,” thus rendering in sacred space the physical topography of the city itself.

The cult of Erkenwald survived for many centuries, testifying once more to the piety or credulity of the citizens. There was a miracle at Stratford, where now an industrial park is sited by the River Lea, as well as many other reported wonders in the thoroughfares around St. Paul’s itself. It was in fact something of a miracle that the physical remains of St. Erkenwald survived the various fires that visited the cathedral, most notably the great fire of 1087, after which the relics were placed in a silver shrine befitting Lundoniae maxime sanctus, “the most holy figure of London.” We read of the servants of the abbey moving the body of the saint to yet another great shrine clandestinely by night, since its exposure during the day would have created hysteria among the crowd assembled. This devotion was not of the populace alone. Even in the early sixteenth century the shrine of St. Erkenwald was an object of pilgrimage to the most successful lawyers of London who, on being nominated as serjeants of law, would walk in procession to St. Paul’s in order to venerate the physical presence of the saint.

Legends of dead saints may seem of little relevance, but they were part of the very texture of London life. The citizens when they first carried Erkenwald’s body to the cathedral, declared: “We are like strong and vigorous men who will … undermine and overturn cities heavily fortified with men and weapons before we will give up the servant of God, our protector … we ourselves intend that such a glorious city and congregation should be strengthened and honoured by such a patron.” There is indeed an Erconwald Street in the western part of the twenty-first-century city. So we may still name him as the patron saint of London, whose cult survived for over eight hundred years, before entering the temporary darkness of the last four centuries.

· · ·

The medieval city can be understood in a variety of ways, therefore, whether in terms of its violence or its devotion, its commercial imperatives or its spiritual precepts. The bells of the church tolled the end of each trading day, and the traders’ weights were tested and measured at the market cross. Could we say that the administrators of the Church in London were thoroughly secularised? Or that the citizens, avid for trade and capable of great savagery, were thoroughly spiritualised? The question lends absorbing interest to the lives of medieval Londoners. Perhaps the perpetual press of business and of domestic routine was viewed in the terms of eternity. Perhaps there was so much savagery because life itself, in contrast to the immortal soul, was considered to be relatively worthless. The city then becomes the true home of fallen humankind.

Onward and Upward

A mid-sixteenth-century map of Moorfields, north of London. Some women dry linen upon the ground, while the citizens engage in archery. The line of Bishopsgate Street marks the accelerating growth of the city.

CHAPTER 8. Rather Dark and Narrow

John Stow, the great sixteenth-century antiquarian, offered the most vivid and elaborate description of Tudor London. He wrote of new streets and new buildings continually springing up beyond the walls and, within the city itself, of “encroachments on the highways, lanes, and common grounds.” Where once there had been sheds or shops, in one of which an old woman used to sell “seeds, roots and herbs,” there were now houses “largely built on both side outward, and also upward, some three, four or five stories high.” Growth is the continual condition of the city, but one which Stow himself lamented when it encroached upon the ancient topography of the place which he had known as a child in Cordwainer Lane.

We can follow John Stow down Butchers’ Alley, beside St. Nicholas Shambles and Stinking Lane, where he discoursed on the rising price of meat. In the old days, he said, a fat ox was sold for 26s 8d “at the most” and a fat lamb for a shilling, but “what the price is now I need not to set down.” In such local touches, Stow stands alone among the chroniclers of the city. It was said that “he reporteth res in se minutas, toys and trifles, being such a smell-feast that he cannot pass by Guildhall, but his pen must taste of the good chear therein.” But that is what makes him such an excellent London surveyor, and such a characteristic Londoner. In his Survey of London, he provides a detailed and immediate account of the lanes and alleys which he had known all his life.

He was born in 1525 and came from at least two generations of tallow chandlers who resided in Threadneedle or Threeneedle Street; Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s familiar councillor, encroached upon his father’s garden there, and Stow ruefully noted “that the sudden rising of some men causeth them in some matters to forget themselves.” Little is known of any formal education which Stow may have received, although it is likely that he attended one of London’s free grammar schools. He himself recalled how he used to walk to a farm belonging to the nuns of the Minories where “I myself have fetched many a halfpenny worth of milk,” thus indicating that there was grazing land by the very walls of the city. But of other juvenile incidents he is silent. It is known that he took up the profession of a tailor, however, and established himself in a house by the well at Aldgate close to the farm where he had bought milk as a child, but his true labours had not yet begun.

Antiquarian studies seem to be an instinctive London passion, and Stow remains their greatest exemplar. It is appropriate that his first work should be an edition of Chaucer; that fine London poet was Stow’s original pursuit before he turned to the city which nourished his genius. He began the study of London records, primarily kept in the Guildhall, as a “fee’d chronicler”; we may imagine him among slips of parchment, manuscript rolls and broken-backed volumes, trying to decipher the history of his city. In one of his first volumes, A Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, he wrote that “It is now eight years since I, seeing the confused order of our late English Chronicles, and the ignorant handling of ancient affairs, leaving mine own peculiar gains, consecrated myself to the search of our famous antiquities.” This might suggest that he had abandoned his trade as a tailor in order to devote himself to historical study, but extant documents show that he maintained his business for some time. He complained about being called a “prick-louse,” an invidious catchphrase for those who sewed as a profession, and he testified that a neighbour threw stones and tiles at his apprentice.

The “antiquities” were all around him. A few yards from his own house, between Billiter Lane and Lime Street, were buried a wall and gate of stone “about two fathoms deep” under the ground. They had been discovered after demolition work in 1590; Stow investigated the curiosity, and believed the old stonework to date from the reign of King Stephen some 450 years before. The ground of London was always rising, built again and again upon the ash and rubble of its previous incarnations. Stow walked everywhere, and once confessed that his labours “cost many a weary mile’s travel, many a hard-earned penny and pound, and many a cold winter night’s study.” He was tall and lean, “of a pleasant and cheerful countenance; his sight and memory were good; very sober, mild, and courteous to any that required his instructions.”

There was much to instruct since, in the early sixteenth century, London would indeed have been an antiquarian’s delight. Stow often mentions the presence of great houses “of old time built upon arched vaults, and with gates of stone” which date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries; there would still have been extant walls, pillars and pavements from the Roman period. Much of the brick and masonry of that early time had been pillaged for modern rebuilding, but there is no doubt that there would have been evidence of the first century in succeeding periods of London’s history. Yet much also was being destroyed even as Stow continued his survey. The Reformation of faith, inaugurated by Henry VIII, wreaked a sudden transformation upon the buildings as well as the beliefs of London. The fabric of the Roman communion, to which the citizens had so fervently attached themselves, was shattered; the uncertainty and bewilderment of Londoners were in turn embodied in the changing fabric of the city itself where monasteries and chantry chapels and lady chapels were vandalised or broken. The dissolution of the abbeys, churches and monastic hospitals in particular meant that the entire city was in a fevered period of demolition and construction. Parts of it would have resembled a vast building site, while other areas were left to slow neglect and in Stow’s words became “sore decayed.”

London was in many respects a place of ruins. Stow notes the remains of an “old court hall” in Aldermanbury Street, now “employed as a carpenter’s yard.” A mayor’s great house in Old Jewry became in turn a synagogue, a house of friars, a nobleman’s house, a merchant’s house, and then a “wine tavern” known as the Windmill. A chapel became a “warehouse and shops towards the street, with lodgings over them,” bishops’ houses were turned into tenements, and so on. Other documentary sources reveal that a Cistercian house was pulled “clean down” and in its place were erected storehouses, tenements and “ovens for making ship’s biscuit.” The convent of the Poor Clares, known as the Minories, was destroyed to make way for storehouses; the church of the Crutched Friars became a carpenter’s shop and a tennis court; the church of the Blackfriars was turned into a warehouse for the carts and properties of the “pageants.” (It is perhaps appropriate that on this same site rose the Blackfriars Playhouse.) St. Martin’s le Grand was pulled down and a tavern built upon its remains.

There are many other examples, but the salient point remains that after the Reformation much of late Tudor London was in a ruined condition, with walls and gateways and ancient stone windows to be glimpsed among the shops and houses which lined the lanes and thoroughfares. Even in the area outside the walls, where the palaces of the bishops and nobles had led down from the Strand towards the river, the grand houses were, according to the Venetian ambassador, “disfigured by the ruins of a multitude of churches and monasteries.”

Yet even in the midst of lamentation there was also renovation. In Goldsmiths Row, between Bread Street and Cheapside Cross, Stow extols the shops and dwellings-built just thirty-five years before his birth- which are “beautified towards the street with the Goldsmith’s arms … riding on monstrous beasts, all of which is cast in lead, richly painted over and gilt.” A fifteenth-century traveller, Dominic Mancini, noted, in the same area, “gold and silver cups, dyed stuffs, various silks, carpets, tapestry.” These are the true tinctures of Tudor London. An old church may be pulled down, but in its place Stow remarks that there has been erected “a fair strong frame of timber … wherein dwell men of divers trades.” An old cross is removed, and on the same site is constructed a glistening water-conduit. An aristocratic dwelling is converted into a market “for the sale of woollen baize, watmols [coarse wool], flannels and such like.” A stone building of great antiquity is gradually taken down and in its place are erected “divers fair houses.”

This is the trade, and energy, of Tudor London. Stow himself, quintessential Londoner as he is, cannot prevent himself from enumerating the gardens, the mills, the houses of stone and timber, the taverns, the conduits, the stables, the yards, the hostelries, the markets, the tenements and guild halls which comprise the city’s life.

The older versions of the grand London house, established around a separate hall and courtyard, were no longer appropriate to the new conditions of the city; they were built over, or encroached upon, by smaller dwellings in streets which were already acquiring a reputation for being “rather dark and narrow.” Even the mansions of the wealthy merchants were now more compact, with a shop and warehouse on the ground floor, a hall and parlour on the first floor and the other living quarters above; it was not uncommon for such a house to rise to five or six storeys, with two rooms on each level, in the customary timber and mortar fashion. Such was the premium upon space in the bustling city that cellars and garrets were utilised as dwellings for the poor. Estimates of population can only be approximate but there are figures of 85,000 by 1565, rising to 155,000 by 1605; this does not include those who lived in “the liberties” or within “the bars,” which would increase the figures by more than 20,000. It represents, to use a perhaps anachronistic phrase, a population explosion.

The price of property had risen so steeply that no one would willingly demolish even the smallest shop or house. So the growth of the city meant that the ancient ditches, used for both defence and refuse, were now filled in and covered over and became the site of more properties. The main roads leading to the city gates were “improved” and paved, so that within a very short time shops and houses were erected beside them. The road to Aldgate, for example, was, according to Stow, “not only fully replenished with buildings outward” but “also pestered with divers alleys on either side to the bars.” Even the fields beyond the city, where once the younger citizens had shot their arrows or walked among the streams, had “now within a few years made a continual building throughout of garden houses and small cottages, and the fields on either side turned into garden plots, tenter yards, bowling alleys, and such like.”

The overcrowding became so serious that, in 1580, Elizabeth I issued a proclamation “perceiving the state of the city of London (being anciently termed her chamber) and the suburbs and confines thereof to increase slowly, by access of people to inhabit the same” so that there was no chance of sustaining “victual food, and other like necessaries for man’s life, upon reasonable prices, without which no city can long continue.” There was further cause for alarm concerning the overpopulation within the city itself “where there are such great multitudes of people brought to inhabit in small rooms, whereof a great part are seen very poor, yea, such as must live begging, or by worse means, and they heaped up together, and in a sort smothered with many families of children and servants in one house or small tenement.” This is one of the earliest accounts of overcrowding in London, and can be considered the first extended version of a description which has haunted the city ever since. The queen’s remedy was to prohibit “any new buildings of any house or tenement within three miles from any of the gates of the said city of London.” It has been suggested that this was the first venture at a “green belt” around London, a surmise which would at least have the merit of emphasising the historical continuity within all apparently “modern” plans for the city, but it was more likely to be an attempt to protect the trading and commercial monopoly of the citizens within the walls who did not relish the appearances of trades and shops beyond their jurisdiction.

Another aspect of the proclamation is also of some significance, in that passage where the monarch and her city advisers prohibit “any more families than one only to be placed, or to inhabit from henceforth in any house that hereto fore hath been inhabited.” The idea of one family occupying one house was indeed the stated purpose behind much of the city’s development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it has even been considered a peculiarly London solution. It is peculiar to the city because it is historical in spirit; as S.E. Rasmussen put it in London: The Unique City, the Elizabethan remedy represented a “conservative clinging to the medieval form of housing.” In a similar spirit new building was only allowed if it were raised “on old foundations.” Here we have an inkling of that continuity, and sense of permanence, which London still exemplifies.

It did not, however, work. Within three years of Elizabeth’s proclamations the city authorities were lamenting the continual increase in sheds, lodgings and tenements outside the walls. There were further edicts and orders issued at regular intervals throughout the reign of her successors; none of them was ever obeyed, and none of them was in the least successful at controlling the growth of the city.

The truth is that the growth of London could not, and cannot, be controlled. It spread to the east along the high street of Whitechapel, and to the west along the Strand. It spread north to Clerkenwell and Hoxton; to the south, Southwark and its environs became “pestered,” to use Stow’s word, with places of popular resort, taverns, brothels, pleasure grounds and theatres. In turn the Inns of Court, clustered in the “suburbs” of Holborn between the city and the royal palaces of Westminster, were extended and embellished.

Yet the quality of transport from suburb to city was not always of the best. In the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII the high road between the Temple “and the village of Charing,” now known as the Strand, was noted in the Rolls of Parliament to be “full of pits and sloughs, very perilous … very noyous and foul, and in many places thereof very jeopardous to all people passing and repassing, as well on horseback as on foot.” More modern forms of transportation, however, were not necessarily welcomed. The introduction of hackney coaches, known as “chariots” or “whirlicotes,” led Stow to reflect that “the world runs on wheels with many whose parents were glad to go on foot.”

The state of traffic in the capital was a source of constant complaint in the sixteenth century, as it has become for each generation. Stow again noted “the number of cars, drays, carts and coaches, more than hath been accustomed, the streets and lanes being straitened, must needs be dangerous, as daily experience proveth”-dangers not tempered when coachmen lashed their horses forward without checking what was behind them and inebriated drivers quarrelled frequently and violently in the street over who had right of passage. And there was the noise “where even the very earth quakes and trembles, the casements shatter, tatter, and clatter.”

There was, however, a significant improvement in the conditions of urban living at least for those who could afford the new “luxuries” of city life. There were pillows and bedding where there had once lain a log and a straw pallet; even the poorer citizens dined off pewter rather than wood and the “middling” households might boast of wall-coverings, brass, soft linen, cupboards garnished with plate, jars and pots made from green glazed earthenware. There was also a fashion for brick and stone chimneys, which in turn had an effect both upon the appearance and atmosphere of London.

The city had forfeited some of its independence to Parliament and to the sovereign, even to the extent of accepting Henry VIII’s recommendations for the mayoralty, but in turn it had become the recognised capital of a unified nation. The municipal ideal had been displaced by a national ideal-and how could it not be so in a city which was now largely populated by immigrants? The new arrivals came from every area of England, Cornwall to Cumberland (it has been estimated that one-sixth of all Englishmen became Londoners in the second half of the sixteenth century), and the number of foreign immigrants rose at an accelerating pace, making the city truly cosmopolitan. So high was the mortality, and so low the birth rate, that without this influx of traders and workers the population would in fact have steadily declined. Yet instead it continued to expand, with brewers and book-binders from the Low Countries, tailors and embroiderers from France, gun-makers and dyers from Italy, weavers from the Netherlands and elsewhere. There was an African or “Moor” in Cheapside who made steel needles without ever imparting the secret of his craft. Fashion followed population, just as the populace followed fashion. In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) there was a surfeit of silk shops, selling everything from gold thread to silk stockings, and at the time of her accession it was reported that no country gentleman could “be content to have eyther cappe, coat, doublet, hose or shirt … but they must have their geare from London.”

If London had become the centre of fashion, it had also become the centre of death. Mortality was higher than in any other part of the country, the two great harvesters being the plague and the sweating sickness. In poorer parishes life expectancy was only between twenty and twenty-five years, while in the richer it rose to thirty or thirty-five years. These fatal infections confirm the evident truth that sixteenth-century London remained a city of the young. The greatest proportion of the citizens were under the age of thirty, and it is this actuarial statistic which helps to explain the energy and restlessness of urban life in all its forms.

The most striking example comes from within the turbulent body of the apprentices, a peculiarly London phenomenon of young men who were bound by strict articles of agreement and yet managed to retain a high-spiritedness and almost feverish buoyancy which spilled over into the streets. They “wold ether bee at the taverne, filling their heads with wine, or at the Dagger in Cheapeside cramming their bellies with minced pyes; but above al other times it was their common costome, as London prentises use, to follow their maisters upon Sundays to the Church dore and then to leave them, and hie unto the taverne.” There are reports of various fights and “affrays,” the common victims being foreigners, “night-walkers,” or the servants of noblemen who were considered to take on the airs of their superiors. A declaration, in 1576, warned apprentices not to “misuse, molest, or evil treat any servant, page, or lackey of any nobleman, gentleman, or other going in the streets.” There were often disturbances after football matches and three young men were put in the local prison for “outrageously and riotously behaving themselves at a football play in Cheapside.” But drunken high spirits could turn into something more violent, and threatening. Apprentices as well as artisans and children took part in the “evil May-day” riots of 1517, in which the houses of foreigners were ransacked. In the last decade of the sixteenth century there were still more outbreaks of riot and disorder but, unlike other continental cities, London never became unstable or ungovernable.

The accounts of foreign travellers suggest the unique status of London in this period. A Greek visitor reported that the treasures in the Tower were “said to exceed the anciently famed wealth of Croesus and Midas,” while a Swiss medical student reported that “London is not said to be in England, but rather England to be in London.” There was a standard guided tour for visitors, who were first taken to the Tower and the Royal Exchange before being escorted to the west, with Cheapside, St. Paul’s, Ludgate and the Strand viewed, before a magnificent arrival at Westminster and Whitehall. The roads were unpaved in parts, but a journey on horse was still sometimes preferable to that upon the Thames. Giordano Bruno, spy and magician, has left a graphic account of his attempts to hire the services of a wherry. He and his companions, wishing to travel to Westminster, spent a great deal of time looking for a boat and vainly crying out “Oars!” At last a boat arrived with two elderly boatsmen-“After much question and reply as to whence, where, why, how and when, they brought the prow to the foot of the stairs.” The Italians believed they were at last on their way to the destination but then, after about a third of the journey had been completed, the boatsmen began to row towards the shore. They had reached their “station,” and would go no further. This is a small incident, of course, but it reveals the rudeness and obstinacy which was seen by strangers to be characteristic of London behaviour. Just as typical, perhaps, is Bruno’s arrival on the shore only to find a footpath thick with mud where he was forced to journey through “a deep and gloomy hell.”

Other reports emphasise both the violence and xenophobia of ordinary Londoners. A French physician, in London between 1552 and 1553, observed that “the common people are proud and seditious … these villains hate all sorts of strangers” and even “spit in our faces.” Gangs of apprentices were also likely to set upon foreigners in the street, and one traveller saw a Spaniard being forced to take refuge in a shop from a mob after he dared to wear his national costume. The Swiss medical student was in that respect perhaps too kind when he mentioned that “the common people are still somewhat coarse and uncultured … and believe that the world beyond England is boarded off.”

Yet the city also lives in its details gathered in these foreign accounts. One traveller noted that it was remarkable for the number of kites which were “quite tame” and wandered through the streets as if they owned them; they were the city’s scavengers and the butchers threw out offal for them to consume. The number of butchers’ shops was matched only by the number of taverns. A passion for privacy was also noted, with individual dwellings separated from their neighbours by walls of stone; the same conditions applied in the taverns themselves, where wooden partitions were set up “so that one table cannot overlook the next.” It may be that in a teeming and overcrowded city such attempts at privacy were natural or inevitable, yet they also represent a significant and permanent aspect of the London character.

In other accounts “between meals one sees men, women, and children always munching through the streets.” The same children, when not eating apples and nuts, could be seen “gathering up the blood which had fallen through the slits in the scaffold” after a beheading on Tower Hill. The executioner on this occasion wore a white apron “like a butcher.” We seem to have come full circle in a city dominated by violence, blood, meat and continual consuming appetite.

CHAPTER 9. Packed to Blackness

There was once a Dark Lane, in the medieval city; a tavern was erected there, known as the Darkhouse. That narrow thoroughfare was then renamed Dark House Lane, and is to be seen on eighteenth-century maps of London. On the same site there now stands Dark House Wharf, which is dominated by the headquarters of the Bank of Hong Kong. This building is clad in dark blue steel and dark, tinted glass. So does the city maintain its dark secret life.

Dust, mud, soot, slime and smut were the objects of continual dissatisfaction. “Though a chamber be never so closely locked up,” John Evelyn complained in the seventeenth century, “men find at their return all things that are in it evenly covered with a black thin soot.” In the same century a Venetian chaplain described “a sort of soft and stinking mud which abounds here at all seasons, so that the place more deserves to be called Lorda (filth) than Londra (London).” The “filth of the city” was also depicted as being “rich and black as thick ink.” In the eighteenth century the road outside Aldgate “resembled a stagnant lake of deep mud,” while in the Strand the puddles of filth were three or four inches deep so that they “fill coaches when their windows happen not to be up, and bedaub all the lower parts of the houses.” If they were not strewn with mud, the streets were filled with dust. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, according to the Quarterly Review, there was not a man or woman in London “whose skin and clothes and nostrils are not of necessity more or less loaded with a compound of powdered granite, soot, and still more nauseous substances.” It was said that St. Paul’s Cathedral had a right to be blackened because it was built with a tax upon sea coal, but it was hard upon the animals of the city which were similarly affected by the smoke and dirt; the feathers of the redstarts and the martins were suffused with soot, while the dust of London was believed to clog the breathing and dull the senses of the omnipresent spiders. All creatures were affected and, as a late twentieth-century character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince puts it, “I could feel the thick filth and muck of London under my feet, under my bottom, behind my back.”

Yet it is more than material filth. There is a drawing of Fish Street Hill by George Scharf, executed in the late 1830s, as accomplished and as detailed as all his work. But in the foreground a vast shadow obscures the people and the house-fronts; it is in fact the outline of the Monument, otherwise concealed from sight, but in that shadow Scharf has somehow managed to depict something of the nature of London itself. It has always been a shadowy city.

As James Bone, the author of The London Perambulator, remarked in 1931, it resides in “the appearance of great shadows where there can be no shadows, throwing blackness up and down.” This is also the London vision of Verlaine, who writes of “l’odieuse obscurité … quel deuil profond, quelles ténèbres!” within “la monstrueuse cité.” Much of the slate used in London building is striated by what geologists term “pressure shadows” but they are inconspicuous beside the blackened surfaces of Portland stone. One foreign traveller remarked that the streets of London were so dark that the citizenry seemed to delight in playing “hide and seek” with the light, like children in a wood, while in the summer of 1782 Charles Moritz noted that “the houses in general struck me as if they were dark and gloomy.” The gloom affected him profoundly: “At that moment I could not in my own mind compare the external view of London with that of any other city I had ever before seen.”

There were almost a score of Dirty Alleys, Dirty Hills and Dirty Lanes in the medieval city; there were Inkhorn Courts and Foul Lanes and Deadman’s Places. Lombard Street in the City, at the centre of capitalist imperialism, was a notoriously dark street. At the beginning of the nineteenth century its brick was so blackened with smoke that the walls resembled the mud in the road. Today, in the twenty-first century, it is still just as narrow and just as dark, its stone walls constantly echoing to the sound of hurried footsteps. It is still close to what a century ago Nathaniel Hawthorne called “the black heart of London.” Hawthorne’s compatriot Henry James also noticed the “deadly darkness” but he revelled in it as if he were a “born Londoner.” In the 1870s Hippolyte Taine simply found the darkness “horrible”; the houses from a distance looked “like ink-stains on blotting paper” while from a closer vantage the “tall, flat straight façades are of dark brick.” The darkness of London seems to have entered Taine’s soul with his crepuscular invocations of “a bone-black factory” which is a London dwelling, of “porticoes foul with soot … every crevice inked in … long ranks of blind windows … the fluting of the columns full of greasy filth, as if sticky mud had been set flowing down there.”

There were others who were intimate with this darkness. In his account of nineteenth-century Whitechapel, Charles Booth, the sympathetic chronicler of The Life and Labour of the People of London, mentions that the tables of the poor are “fairly black” with thick swarms of flies congregating on every available surface while, in the streets outside, at the level of the hip, “is a broad dirty mark, showing where the men and lads are in the constant habit of standing.”

Charles Booth’s images of disease and torpor somehow increase the darkness of the capital, as the very embodiment of those shadows which the rich and powerful cast upon the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. The effect of the industrial revolution, although less noticeable in London than in some of the northern manufacturing towns, deepened those shadows. The growth of factories as well as small workshops, and the increasing demand for coal in a city which by the beginning of the eighteenth century was already the manufacturing centre of Europe, only intensified London’s characteristic darkness.

In another sense its darkness suggests secrecy, and the titles of many accounts of the city confirm that sense of concealment, among them Unknown London, its Romance and Tragedy, The London Nobody Knows and London in Shadow. And yet that secrecy is of its essence. When Joseph Conrad described the city “half lost in night,” in The Secret Agent (1907), he was echoing Charles Dickens’s remark seventy years before in Sketches by Boz that “the streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark dull murky winter’s night.” The tone is ironic but the meaning is by no means so. In his last completed work Dickens returned to it in his description of “a black shrill city … a gritty city … a hopeless city, with no vent in the leaden canopy of its sky.” Darkness is of the city’s essence; it partakes of its true identity; in a literal sense London is possessed by darkness.

CHAPTER 10. Maps and Antiquarians

The history of London is represented by the history of its maps. They can be seen as symbolic tokens of the city, and as attempts to picture its disorder in terms of fluent and harmonious design. From the first great copperplate map of the mid-sixteenth century to the “Underground” map of the late twentieth century, the mapping of London represents an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to mitigate it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.

That is why the first map, from which John Stow himself borrowed, has always been a source of wonder and curiosity. It is inscribed upon copper plates by an unknown hand, but all the evidence suggests that this carefully prepared map was commissioned by Queen Mary I. In its complete form (only three fragments remain) it would have been some eight feet in width and five feet in depth, covering the entire area of city and suburbs. It is in certain respects extraordinarily detailed: the very scales of Leadenhall Market are depicted, together with the dog-kennels in some of the gardens; the position of a tree or the number of buckets by a well are faithfully recorded; shirts and bed linen lie stretched out to dry in Moor Field, while games of musketry and archery are conducted in the neighbouring pastures. The churches and monastic remains are also visible, many of them rendered in such detail that we may distinguish between wood and stone. When Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt compared the sea around England with “a moat defensive to a house,” we now know that his audience, coming to the Theatre, by Shoreditch, had passed just such a moated house on the road out of London through Finsbury Fields. Since this copperplate is also the original upon which most other maps of sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century London are based, in its lineaments we may find the most lucid and significant outline of the city.

In certain respects, however, the map inevitably strays from accuracy. The actual warren of passages and alleyways is ignored in order to display the principal lanes and streets; the city has in that respect been cleansed. The number and variety of houses are also neglected in order to create a more uniform and pleasing appearance. The citizens depicted at work or at play are in turn of an unnatural size, suggesting that the cartographer wished to emphasise the human dimension of the city. Nevertheless it is a beautiful feat of engraving, and it is no accident that it did become the source and inspiration for maps completed some years later.

One coloured map of mid-Tudor London, for example, which is known as the “Braun and Hogenberg,” is a smaller copy of the great original. Here the city is given compact form and, although it is by no means a spiritualised shape, it is in instinctive harmony with its surroundings; the skiffs and wherries ply their river trade in graceful formation, while the main thoroughfares themselves seem to mimic the natural passage of the water. It depicts the “fair city” of contemporary report, but it also has one other significant aspect; in the foreground, quite out of proportion, stand four Londoners. An older man is dressed in the robes of a merchant, with cap and fur-trimmed coat, while upon his right hand stands his apprentice wearing a short coat like a doublet as well as sword and buckler; the merchant’s wife is dressed in a simple blue gown over a Spanish farthingale while her maid is plainly attired in gown and apron. These are modest figures but they stand upon a hill above London as the true representatives of the city. The map itself can be seen as an advertisement of London’s mercantile power, with the vessels on the Thames behind the four Londoners depicting its status as a port.

In similar spirit the two great “panoramas” of London, before the Fire of 1666 utterly destroyed its appearance, take the river as the leading spirit of their design. Anthony van den Wyngaerde’s riverine views of the mid-seventeenth century have been eclipsed by Hollar’s panorama of 1647, but Wyngaerde’s study has the merit of showing the bustling life of the Thames. Some row, while others fish. Travellers wait at Stargate Horse Ferry, while others make their way up Southwark High Street towards London Bridge.

Of course Hollar’s more powerfully executed engraving is perhaps the most beautiful and harmonious of all London panoramas. In his work, London has become a world city of which the horizons are scarcely visible. The artist takes his stand upon the roof of St. Mary Overie by Bankside, so that in the foreground of the engraving are great clusters of roofs and house-fronts by the entrance to London Bridge. The chimneys and windows, the rooftops of tile and wood, suggest the massive presence of a city already congregating by its southern mouth; on the Thames there are almost eighty great vessels as well as innumerable smaller craft, the river itself forming a great sheath of light and space which lends London a monumental aspect. There are more intimate details on the southern bank where, among the throng of roofs and chimneys, Hollar has opened up two short vistas of the streets. A dog can be seen, a man on horseback, couples wandering, here and there a solitary figure, all fixed for ever as part of the pattern of London. From Hollar’s high vantage a walled garden can be observed and, beyond it, two circular buildings labelled “The Globe” and “Beere bayting” respectively. Beyond them lie fields, where horses are grazing. On the other side of the Thames there is a forest of rooftops and church spires; although that of St. Paul’s had been destroyed by a thunderstorm some eighty years before, the cathedral church still dominates the skyline of the city. It rises above the streets and wharves, where people can be seen working or waiting for transport. There is continuous building eastwards from the Tower to Shadwell, while the line of the city is prolonged westward to Whitehall. The effect is that of great activity caught in majestic perspective, with the city arrayed in glory. The panorama is completed by various classical deities who, as it were, introduce and applaud the scene from the wings; the figure of Apollo hovers just above St. Paul’s.

It is perhaps the finest ever representation of London, and certainly the greatest image of the city before the Great Fire of 1666. Later maps by Norden, as well as Newcourt and Faithorne, in style and spirit reflect the first great copperplate map. Similarly, the familiar map of the London Underground today still completes and complements the one first designed with such clarity of purpose in 1933. The original Underground map bears only approximate relation to the location of lines and stations, but it is so aesthetically pleasing that its lineaments have never been changed.

In 1658 Wenceslaus Hollar completed a further etching, of the western aspect of the city. We observe that still more areas of fields and stiles and country lanes have been replaced by squares and piazzas and dwellings. Some of these houses are several storeys high, others on a smaller scale, but all reflect a pleasing symmetry which did not in fact exist. Another theme obtrudes, at least in retrospect. The streets and open areas are devoid of figures or any depiction of active life-the city had already grown too large to register even the symbolic presence of its citizens-and so it seems like some great empty place waiting silently for its destruction in the Great Fire.

The extent of that destruction can be see in another engraving by Hollar; it was completed in 1667, and depicts the razed city as more than four hundred acres of whitened contours. The ruins of the churches, prisons and main public buildings are sketched in, but the rest is empty space encroached upon by dark clusters of building which had escaped the flames.

Within days of that Fire, however, various speculative maps of a new London were being completed. These were visionary schemes. To a certain extent they resemble the structure of planned cities such as Paris and New York which were to be laid out grandly in the nineteenth century. Many of these seventeenth-century designs for London incorporated grid systems of intersecting thoroughfares, with great avenues linking majestic public edifices. Wren and Evelyn conceived of a humane and civilised city built upon a preordained pattern, while some of their contemporaries presented mathematically ingenious systems of roads and squares. These noble plans could not work, and they did not work. The very nature of the city defeated them: its ancient foundations lie deeper than the level at which any fire might touch, and the spirit of the place remained unscathed.

London is not a civilised nor a graceful city, despite the testimony of the maps. It is tortuous, inexact and oppressive. It could never be laid out again with mathematic precision, in any case, because the long history of streets and estates meant that there was a bewildering network of owners and landlords with their own especial claims or privileges. This is a social and topographical fact, but it in turn suggests a no less tangible aspect of London. It is a city built upon profit and speculation, not upon need, and no mayor or sovereign could withstand its essential organic will.

That is why the map of reconstructed London, published ten years after the Fire, shows the city restored approximately to its original state. One new thoroughfare has been built, the new King Street and the new Queen Street leading to the Guildhall from the river, but the congerie of streets around it- Milk Street, Wood Street, Aldermansbury, Old Jewry, and all the rest-have sprung up again. Thoroughfares were widened after more stringent fire precautions and building regulations were applied, but the essential topography of the neighbourhood was revived.

There was one other change. The surveyors of this post-Fire map, John Ogilby and William Morgan, had declared that they would chart “all Bye-streets and Lanes, all Courts and Allies, all Churches and Churchyards” by scientific principles of “Mesuration and Plotting” with theodolites and “circumferentors.” So for the first time the city became susceptible to scientific measurement, with the result that it could no longer be depicted as an aesthetic or harmonious whole. Paradoxically it then became fragmented, chaotic, unknowable. The twenty sheets of this topographical survey are covered by rectangles and numbers-“i 90 … B69 … C54”-which are designed to expedite identification, but the general effect is one of bewildering complexity. When London is seen in terms of abstract size and measurement, it becomes unimaginable.

There was, instead, a vogue for guidebooks which rendered London intimate and identifiable-among them Couch’s Historical Remarques and Observations of 1681, de Laune’s The Present State of London and Colsoni’s Le Guide de Londres of 1693. They were complemented by such volumes as The Antiquities of London and Westminster, with accounts of the town-ditch, the gates, the schools, hospitals, churches and wards.

By the eighteenth century there was an efflorescence of those books which emphasise “whatever is most remarkable for GRANDEUR, ELEGANCE, CURIOSITY OR USE.” There were others designed to aid visitors, or new residents, as to the way in which they should conduct themselves in the city. One, for example, suggests that should a carrier of a sedan chair behave unmannerly, “take the Number of the Chair, as you do of a Hackney Coach, and complaining at the office abovementioned, the Commissioners will correct their Insolence.” The London Adviser and Guide of 1790 offers similar advice, with the note that common people will be charged one shilling for swearing in the street and that every gentleman will face the higher penalty of five shillings. The number of convictions is not mentioned.

The next attempt at a comprehensive cartography, undertaken by John Roque, in 1783, emphasises the problems that were now inevitably encountered; trigonometrical measurements of the streets did not align with actual measurements, and street names were thoroughly confused. The project took seven years to finish and, in the process, Roque himself came close to bankruptcy. The plan itself was of enormous size and the publishers suggested that it be placed on a “Roller” so that “it will not interfere with any other Furniture.” Yet it is by no means a complete survey. It omits certain smaller or inconsiderable features, place names are missing, and there has been no effort to include individual buildings. This is hardly surprising in a map covering some ten thousand acres of built land, and the publishers were tactful enough to encourage subscribers to point out “Inaccuracies and Omissions.” So it remains in many respects an impressionistic survey, with the actual lanes, tenements and shops reduced to a fine grey shading; it has an “enduring enchantment,” according to the authors of The History of London in Maps, but it is the enchantment of distance.

At the end of the eighteenth century the largest map ever printed in England conveyed what seemed to be, even then, the immensity of London. Richard Horwood’s map was ninety-four feet square, and contained street numbers as well as names and houses. The project continued for nine years but four years after its publication Horwood, tired and careworn, died at the age of forty-five. Some of the inevitable difficulties he encountered can be measured by changes in four different editions. Within the space of thirteen years the fields adjacent to Commercial Road were gradually filled with houses and terraced streets. In the space of twenty years the number of houses in Mile End had tripled. The persistent and steady growth of London, in a sense, had killed its map-maker.

Horwood’s aim was largely utilitarian. The enterprise was sponsored by the Phoenix Fire Insurance office, one of the city’s most significant institutions, and was advertised as indispensable “in bringing Ejectments or Actions, in leasing or conveying Premises etcetera.” In that, it proved successful, if only because every subsequent attempt at conveying the specific houses or buildings of the city was engulfed by its sheer immensity. The first Ordnance Survey of London completed in 1850, for example, comprised some 847 sheets; it was greatly reduced for publication but then proved to be on too small a scale to be useful for travellers and inhabitants alike. This and later maps of mid-and late Victorian London simply display lines of streets linked together, with shading used indiscriminately to represent the shops, offices, houses, tenements and public buildings.

These are the direct predecessors of the contemporary A to Z gazetteer in which hundreds of pages are needed to chart a city which cannot be recognised or understood in terms of one central image. The begetter of the A to Z, Phyllis Pearsall, entranced by London’s immensity, compiled the first edition in the mid-1930s by “rising at five and walking for 18 miles per day.” She covered 3,000 miles of streets, and completed 23,000 entries which she kept in shoeboxes beneath her bed. Michael Hebbert, the author of London, has revealed that the maps “were drawn by a single draughtsman, and Pearsall herself compiled, designed and proof-read the book.” No publisher was interested, however, until she delivered copies on a wheelbarrow to a W.H. Smith buyer. By the time of her death, in 1996, the number of London streets had risen to approximately 50,000.

The nineteenth-century city, already seeming too vast for comprehension, was sometimes plotted in terms of theme or subject. There were “cab-fare maps” outlining the distance which could be travelled for a certain fare, maps of street improvements with the renovated thoroughfares outlined in vivid red, maps of the “modern plague of London” which marked each public house with a red spot, and maps displaying the incidence of death by cholera. Maps of the underground railway, of trams, and of other forms of modern transport soon followed so that London became a city of maps, one laid upon another like an historical palimpsest. It never ceased to grow and, in the process, glowed perpetually with various colours-those of death, alcohol and poverty competing with those of improvements and railways.

“Up to this time,” Henry James wrote in 1869, “I have been crushed under a sense of the mere magnitude of London-its inconceivable immensity-in such a way as to paralyse my mind for any appreciation of details.” Yet for the true antiquarian of London those details live and survive within the memory, beyond the reach of any plan or survey. “In my youth,” John Stow wrote in the sixteenth century, “I remember, devout people, as well men as women of this city, were accustomed oftentimes, especially on Fridays, weekly to walk that way [to Houndsditch] purposely there to bestow their charitable alms; every poor man or woman lying in their bed within their window, which was towards the street, open so low that every man might see them.” It is a distinct and striking image, in a city of spectacle and ritual. And then again: “I remember within this fifty four years Malmsey not to be sold more than one penny halfpenny the pint.” Memory here must complete the task of observation, if only “to stop the tongues of unthankful men, such as used to ask, Why have ye not noted this, or that? and give no thanks for what is done.”

Stow remains the guardian spirit of all those Londoners who came after him, filled with their own memories of time passing and time gone. There is Charles Lamb wandering through the Temple in the early 1820s, noting “what an antique air had the now almost effaced sun-dials, with their moral inscriptions, seeming coevals with that Time which they measured”; these were “my oldest recollections.” A decade later Macaulay spoke of a coming time when the citizens of London, “ancient and gigantic as it is, will in vain seek, amidst new streets, and squares, and railway stations for the site of that dwelling” which was in their youth the centre of their lives or destinies. Leigh Hunt, in The Town of 1848, observed of the city, “nor perhaps is there a single spot in London in which the past is not visibly present to us, either in the shape of some old buildings or at least in the names of the streets.” At the very beginning of the nineteenth century a London journalist known as “Aleph” wandered down Lothbury, recalling its previous “tortuous, dark vista of lofty houses” lit only by oil-lamps; since Aleph’s journey it has changed many times, yet it still remains unique and identifiable, most particularly with its recurrent “darkness” and “loftiness.”

It has been said that no stone ever leaves London but is reused and redeployed, adding to that great pile upon which the city rests. The paradox here is of continual change and constant underlying identity; it is at the core of the antiquarian passion for a continually altering and expanding city which nevertheless remains an echo chamber for stray memories and unfulfilled desires. That is perhaps why, as V.S. Pritchett noted in the late 1960s, “London has the effect of making one feel personally historic.” “It is strange,” he once wrote, “that although London wipes out its past, the Londoner does not quite forget.” Every journey through the streets of London can then become a journey into the past, and there will always be Londoners who thrill to that past like an obsession. In the early 1920s another London visionary, Arthur Machen, walked through Camden Town and found himself witnessing like a revenant the city of 1840, with pony gigs and dimly lit interiors, all of it conjured up by the sudden glimpse of a “little coach-house and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away.”

Until recent years it was possible to find inhabitants of Bermondsey who were, in the words of one reporter, “enthralled by the history of their borough.” It is a genuine London passion. Where Thomas Hardy could hear “the voice of Paul” in ancient stones exhibited within the British Museum, Londoners hear the voices of all those who came before them in the smallest houses and meanest streets. Charles Lamb remembered a cashier in the South-Sea House, Mr. Evans, who was eloquent “in relation to old and new London-the site of old theatres, churches, streets gone to decay-where Rosamond’s pond stood-the Mulberry Gardens-and the Conduit in Cheap.” The author of Highways and Byways in London, Mrs. E.T. Cook, stood upon Westminster Bridge in a winter’s twilight, when “as the light faded, and the mist rose, I seemed to lose the forms of the modern buildings, and to see, as though in a vision, the ‘Thorney Isle’ of the dim past.” Yet even as this early twentieth-century observer sees intimations of the eighth century, her meditations are broken by a beggarwoman’s plea for money. “I ain’t got a place ter sleep in this night. Gawd knows I ain’t, dear lydy.” Past and present collide in a thousand different forms. When Rose Macaulay visited the wilderness of a bomb-site in the Second World War, she had an intimation of “the primeval chaos and old night which had been before Londinium was.” In the preceding century Leigh Hunt observed that St. Paul’s Churchyard was “a place in which you may get the last new novel, and find remains of the ancient Britons and of the sea.” Despite his fear of the city’s immensity Henry James himself experienced “the ghostly sense, the disembodied presences of the old London.” There is a foot-tunnel under the Thames, linking Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs, which seems to harbour something of its mystery; for Stephen Graham, the author of the lachrymose London Nights, it “told of an enigma which would never be solved; the enigma of London’s sorrow, her burden, her slavery.”

There have always been solitary Londoners meditating upon the past, musing, even, upon civilisations which like their own had fallen into decay and dissolution. Edward Gibbon sat alone in his lodgings in Bond Street and, to the sound of rattling coaches, reflected upon the fall of Rome. The young John Milton sat up half the night in his bed-chamber in Bread Street, his candle glimmering at the window, while he dreamed of ancient London and its founders. There have been such men in every generation, men who have spent “their lives in the disquisition of venerable ANTIQUITY concerning this city.” One of the first, Fabyan, a sheriff and alderman of London, wrote a Chronicle or Concordance of Histories of which the first edition was published in 1485. Among other topics he compiled a chronology of the successive weathercocks upon St. Paul’s. Arnold’s Chronicle, or Customs of London appeared in 1521 where among a record of the charters of the city can be found “an estimate of the livings of London” and a recipe “to pickle sturgeon.”

The work of Stow himself was successively edited and corrected by Munday, Dyson and Strype who also considered themselves the faithful recorders of London, “being birthplace and breeder to us.” They were followed by William Stukeley, who found evidence of Julius Caesar’s camp by Old St. Pancras Church and traced the line of Roman roads through eighteenth-century London. He “appears to have had all the quiet virtues and gentle dispositions becoming an antiquarian-one living in the half-visionary world of the past,” as so many other Londoners have done. He died in Queen Square and by his particular direction was buried in the forlorn churchyard of East Ham.

The most elaborate and extensive antiquarian studies, however, can be dated from the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It was the time of encyclopaedic surveys, including the six great volumes of Old and New London edited by W. Thornbury and E. Walford. There are literally hundreds of other volumes chronicling the “curiosities” and “celebrities” of what had become the largest and wealthiest city in the world. This was also the period in which were completed various histories of London, a tradition which was maintained into the early twentieth century by Sir Walter Besant, the founder of “the People’s Palace,” whose memorial can now be viewed beneath Hungerford Railway Bridge. It was Besant who remarked, on his death-bed, “I’ve been walking about London for the last thirty years, and I find something fresh in it every day,” an observation which could be confirmed by almost any admirer of London.

By the 1870s, at the time when urban chroniclers were extolling the size and variety of the new city, there were others who, like their predecessors in earlier centuries, mourned the passing of the old. The Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was established in 1875, as a direct result of the threat of demolition of the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, and its work was complemented by such books as London Vanished and Vanishing and Unknown London. There were individual writers, many of them journalists from London newspapers, who explored the vestiges of the past concealed in old courts and antique squares. Their labours were in turn continued in the twentieth century by books such as London’s Secret History, The Vanished City and Lost London. The city has always provoked sensations of loss and transitoriness.

Yet antiquarianism can take many forms. At the turn of the twentieth century Sir Laurence Gomme, a great administrative historian, wrote a series of volumes which suggested, even if they did not entirely prove, that London had retained a territorial and judicial identity since the time of the Roman occupation. The permanent and unchanging nature of London was, thereby, affirmed in the very face of change. Gomme’s work was in a sense complemented by that of Lewis Spence whose Legendary London connected the history of the city with the tribal patterns of the Celts as well as the magic of the Druids.

Their contributions to the history of London have been sadly neglected or derided, partly as a result of the more precise and “scientific” record of the city’s growth maintained by the various London archaeological societies whose own work has proved invaluable. A more fundamental challenge came from the numerous sociologists and demographers who in the postwar years were more concerned with rebuilding and with new forms of urban planning.

Antiquarianism might itself be considered outmoded, therefore, except for one curious ceremony which is conducted every year at the church of St. Andrew Undershaft. Here rests John Stow’s tomb, with a memorial figure of the Tudor antiquarian resting upon it. He holds a quill pen in his hand and every year, at the beginning of April, the Lord Mayor of London and a distinguished historian proceed to the memorial where a new quill is placed in Stow’s stone hand. So the city honours one of its greatest citizens, with the changing of the quill a solemn token of the fact that the writing of London’s history will never come to an end.

Trading Streets and Trading Parishes

The London milkmaid, as portrayed by Marcellus Laroon in the mid-seventeenth century; milkmaids were generally Welsh and seldom merry. The silver plate on her head was part of Mayday festivities.

CHAPTER 11. Where Is the Cheese of Thames Street?

In the nineteenth century, old clothes were sold by male Jews. The largest number of bakers, in the same century, came from Scotland, while London barbers were characteristically city-born. Brick-makers were of London, too, while their labourers were “almost exclusively Irish.” “Navvies” sprang from Yorkshire and Lancashire, while a large proportion of shoe-makers arrived from Northampton. Sugar-refining and the trade in toys were once almost entirely in the hands of Germans, who confined themselves to Whitechapel and its environs. Most butchers and fishmongers, of Smithfield and Billingsgate respectively, were London-born but cheesemongers characteristically arrived from Hampshire and dairymen from Wales; the Welsh “milk-maid” was once a regular sight of the capital. Linen drapers came from Manchester, and only a small proportion of their assistants were Londoners; most came from the counties of Devon and Somerset. In each case members of the same profession tended to form distinct enclaves of habitation and employment.

The same segregation has always been part of London’s trade. Thus in the seventeenth century opticians tended to congregate in Ludgate Street, pawn-brokers in Long Lane, booksellers in St. Paul’s Churchyard. In the eighteenth century cheese was to be found in Thames Street, and playing cards along the Strand. Signs for shops and taverns were on sale in Hoop Alley, Shoe Lane, where the sign-painters kept large stocks ranging from teapots to white harts and red lions. Bird-sellers were located in Seven Dials, coach-makers in Long Acre, statuaries in Euston Road, clothiers in Tottenham Court Road and dentists along St. Martin’s Lane.

Yet sometimes a street will shake off old associations and change its trade. Catherine Street was once known as the quarter for pornographic book-dealers, despite the fact that the saint’s name is derived from the Greek for “purity,” but then in the early decades of the nineteenth century it changed its trade to eating-houses, newsvendors and advertising agents. The Strand was notable for its publication of newspapers before that industry moved eastwards to Fleet Street, and then eastwards again to the newly resurgent Docklands.

Certain parishes were identified by the trades which were continued within them; there were poulterers in St. George’s, lace-men in St. Martin’s, artists in Holy Sepulchre without Newgate and timber merchants in Lambeth. Wheelwrights were to be found in Deptford, millers in Stratford and saddlers at Charing Cross.

Trades sometimes delayed their departure even when the streets themselves were pulled down. “Very curious it is to mark,” Walford wrote in Old and New London, “how old trades and old types of inhabitants linger about localities.” He gave the example of the silversmiths in Cranbourn Street; the street was demolished, together with the adjacent Cranbourn Alley, when suddenly shops in the recently created New Cranbourn Street were “overflowing with plates, jewellery and trinkets.”

The segregation of districts, within London, is also reflected in the curious fact that “the London artisan rarely understands more than one department of the trade to which he serves his apprenticeship,” while country workmen tend to know all the aspects of their profession. It is another token of the “specialisation” of London. By the nineteenth century the divisions and distinctions manifested themselves in the smallest place and in the smallest trade. In Hoxton there grew up the industry of fur-and feather-dressing, for example, and in East London Walter Besant observed that “the number of their branches and subdivisions is simply bewildering”; “a man will go through life in comfort knowing but one infinitesimal piece of work … a man or woman generally knows how to do one thing and one thing only, and if that one piece of work cannot be obtained the man is lost for he can do nothing else.”

So these workers become a small component of the intricate and gigantic mechanism which is London and London trade. A map of the “industrial quarters of north-east London, 1948” shows well-defined patches of light blue for “Camden Town instruments” and the “Hackney clothing quarter” as well as the “South Hackney shoe area.” A dark blue area shows the “Aldersgate clothing quarter” close to the “Shoreditch printing quarter” which is bordered on the north by “furniture quarter” and on the south by “East End clothing quarter.” These areas, comprising many small industries and businesses, were described in The Times London History Atlas as “the successors of long-established crafts which originated in the medieval city.” Then, as if in imitation of the conditions of the city’s medieval origin, other more outlying areas began to specialise in certain trades. Hammersmith and Woolwich were known for engineering and metals, Holborn and Hackney for their textiles.

Certain other professions migrate together, flocking over the centuries to new territories as if by instinct or impulse. It is well known that doctors and surgeons now cluster in Harley Street. But in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries notable medical practitioners inhabited Finsbury Square, Finsbury Pavement, Finsbury Place and Finsbury Circus, while the younger or less affluent doctors took lodgings in the immediate vicinity. They all migrated in the 1840s and 1850s, and Finsbury became a “socially deserted district.” There was a similar movement in the manufacture of hats. They were made in an area of Bermondsey known as “the Maze,” between Bermondsey Street and Borough High Street, together with Tooley Street, but then some unknown migratory instinct pushed “the grand centre of hat manufacture” further westward until it came to reside by the Blackfriars Road; why Bermondsey should thus be abandoned is unknown although it would be fair to guess that it was the result of some hidden mechanism involved in commerce. By some similar process the business of furniture-making removed from Curtain Road, Shoreditch, to Camden Town.

The phenomenon of trading streets and trading parishes can also be recognised on a larger urban scale, with the employment of “land use” maps; these demonstrate that the whole area was once divided into regions marked “built up area,” “clay pits (unproductive),” “market garden,” “pasture,” “mixed farming” and “grain rotations” in a remarkably fluent pattern of organisation. A map of eighteenth-century food markets shows a similar natural pattern, as if the very topography of London was determined by silent and invisible lines of commerce.

Why have the furniture dealers of Tottenham Court Road, still operating in that street after 150 years, in recent times been joined by shops selling electronic apparatus? Why have the clock-makers of Clerkenwell been supplemented by design consultancies and advertising companies? Why has Wardour Street, the home of antique bric-à-brac, now become the centre of the film industry? An intervening period in the late nineteenth century, when Soho became the centre of music publishing, may help to account for the transition but it does not explain it. Like much else in London there is no surviving rhyme or reason to elucidate its secret and mysterious changes.

A London Neighbourhood

A depiction of the “rookery” of St. Giles parish, in 1800; it was perhaps even more noisome and squalid than this sketch suggests. Note the pig.

CHAPTER 12. The Crossroads

The bells of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, according to a church report, “are in very fair condition, and, in spite of their great age, work very well.” They are more than three hundred years old, and yet are still heard every Thursday lunchtime. But the history of this London parish stretches back much further.

In familiar and almost characteristic fashion, there was a Saxon church on the site of the present St. Giles. Drury Lane, once known as “via de Aldwych,” was the main road leading towards Watling Street from the settlement of Lundenwic, or Covent Garden; at its northern end was a village cross and a chapel administered by “John of good memory.” Upon this site, in the first years of the twelfth century, were established a chapel and a hospital for lepers; they were dedicated to St. Giles, himself the patron saint of lepers. The establishments lay among fields and marshes, their contagion kept apart from the city. But St. Giles was also the intercessionary saint for beggars and cripples, for those afflicted with misery or those consigned to loneliness. He himself was lame but refused to be treated for his disability in order that he might practise self-mortification all the more fervently.

The invocation of sorrow and loneliness, first embodied in the twelfth-century foundation, has never entirely left this area; throughout its history it has been the haunt of the poor and the outcast. Vagrants even now roam its streets and close to the church there is still a centre for the homeless.

The grounds belonging to the hospital, which eventually became the parish of St. Giles, are now roughly delineated by the triangle of Charing Cross Road (formerly Hog Lane and, even earlier, Eldestrate), New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. It remained a refuge for lepers until the fifteenth century, when it seems that it also made provision for the very poor and the infirm; it was, in the words of a London County Council survey, a “peculiarly London institution.” A village sprang up beside the refuge, with small shops catering to the needs of the inmates; Gervasele Lyngedrap (linen-draper) is one of the late medieval merchants mentioned in the hospital records. At the time of the Reformation the establishment was dissolved, and the chapel transformed into the parish church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. The first post-Catholic building was erected in 1631, but by that time the nature of the district had changed. Always an ambiguous and ill-defined area, hovering between city and country, in the ninth century it had been on the Saxon highway and, as London grew more prosperous, its trade and traffic had increased; there were taverns and hostels for travellers. Another kind of wanderer arrived when, by proclamation of Elizabeth in 1585, many foreigners were ejected from the city itself and settled in the vicinity. These in turn were followed by the vagrant and the impoverished. Meanwhile, the position of St. Giles, outside the city and close to Westminster, attracted various notables who built grand houses among pasture grounds recreated as gardens. By the seventeenth century St. Giles was known for its startling contrasts between rich and poor, the latter clustering to the south of what is now New Oxford Street. It remained in that unsettled state for several centuries. “Numbers of the habitations seem calculated for the depth of misery,” one chronicler of the parish wrote in the nineteenth century, “others for the extremes of opulence.”

It functioned, then, as both entrance and exit; it greeted arrivals and harboured those who had been expelled from the city. It was in every sense a crossroads. A gallows and, later, a “cage” or “pound” were placed on the spot where now Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street and New Oxford Street meet. Beneath St. Giles Circus, as it is called, exists the crossroads of the “Northern” and “Central” lines of the Underground system. St. Giles has also been the crossroads between time and eternity. “For a shroud for a poor woman that dyed in the cage,” reads one notation in the churchwarden’s account. Even after the gallows had been removed, in the late fifteenth century, St. Giles was still the guardian of the threshold to death; all malefactors on their way to the “Tyburn tree” halted at the aptly named “Resurrection Gate” of St. Giles-in-the-Fields where they were given a bowl of ale to comfort them on their journey. It might almost be described as a local celebration, since St. Giles was remarkable for nurturing the hangmen of the day, as well as being the second largest source of those who were hanged. In the words of an old lyric: “St. Giles’ breed, better hang than seed.”

That final drink upon the rite of passage was appropriate in another sense, also, since the parish was celebrated or condemned, according to taste, for the number of taverns and the incidence of drunkenness. The White Hart, established in the thirteenth century, survives in name at least by the corner of Drury Lane, but many others have crumbled to dust-the Maidenhead in Dyot Street, the Owl Bowl in Canter’s Alley, the Black Bear, the Black Jack, the Black Lamb, the Vine and the Rose. The Maid in the Moon, off Drury Lane, has now been curiously succeeded by the Moon Under Water along the Charing Cross Road. There is another connection with alcohol; the present Grape Street is aligned with the old vineyard of the hospital.

This is also the neighbourhood where William Hogarth set Gin Lane. The tradition of the last drink or “the St. Giles bowl,” according to John Timbs, the author of the nineteenth-century Curiosities of London, had “made it a retreat for noisome and squalid outcasts.” But no description can match the outrage and despair of the eighteenth-century engraving. Hogarth has established the essential spirit of the place where vagrants still sit in small groups drinking ale from cans-the emaciated young man, the drunken woman with syphilitic sores, the suicide, the hasty burials in situ, the child about to fall to its death, all these reflect in exaggerated detail the reality of St. Giles as a centre of death-dealing drink but they are also uncannily prophetic of the early nineteenth-century slums known as the “Rookeries” which would arise on the identical spot some fifty years later.

Another calamity was visited by drink upon St. Giles-in-the-Fields in 1818. A great vat of the Horseshoe Brewery, situated just north of the crossroads, exploded and released approximately ten thousand gallons of beer; stalls, carts and walls were washed away in the flood and the beer quickly filled the cellars of the vicinity, drowning eight people. Gin Lane and Beer Lane met in confluence.

The cellars that proved so fatal have their own history. “To have a cellar in St. Giles” was a catchphrase for squalor and misery. As early as 1637 the churchwardens’ accounts refer to “the great influx of poor people into this parish … persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.” These lower rooms acquired their reputation for foulness because of the locality itself: St. Giles-in-the-Fields was known for being “damp and unwholesome.” A parliamentary Act of 1606 had condemned Drury Lane and its environs as “deepe foul and dangerous to all who pass those ways.” A report by Christopher Wren complained of its “noisomnesse,” as it was surrounded by marshland, conduits and open ditches; and in the same period an inquiry at Westminster complained that the area “was very much overflowed with water” and had become “exceeding miry, dirty and dangerous.”

was dangerous in more than one respect since, from Drury Lane and the little courts beside it, emerged that pestilence which became known as the Great Plague of London. In the last weeks of 1664 the first people to be visited by that contagion were living at the northern end of the lane, opposite the Cole Yard where the fourteen-year-old Nell Gwynne dwelled. The outbreak “turned people’s eyes pretty much to that quarter,” as Daniel Defoe put it in his Journal of the Plague Year, and the sudden increase of burials in the parish led everyone to suspect “that the plague was among the people at that end of the town.” So this unlucky spot was the source of the great distemper which threatened to destroy the greater part of London’s citizens before being purged by fire. Many of the houses were closed down, and in his diary for 7 June 1665 Samuel Pepys noticed “much against my will” the red crosses daubed upon the wooden doors. The area was in a curious way blamed for the virulent disease-“that one parish of St. Giles at London hath done us all this mischief” Sir Thomas Peyton wrote-and it seems likely that its ambiguous status as a resort for the wretched and the outcast was now responsible for its dire reputation. The refuse of the city were, in a most threatening form, coming back into the city.

Yet this was not the end of St. Giles’s unhappy history. Waves of poor settlers generally inhabited its large buildings which over the years were converted into tenements and cellars. It is not too fanciful to suggest that the spirit of St. Giles himself influenced the journey of the poor to the parish of St. Giles since, as a direct consequence of its earlier history as a hospital, it was known for the scale of its charitable relief. The mid-seventeenth-century accounts of the parish note: “Gone to Tottenham-court Meg, being verie sicke, 1s. 0d…. Geven to the Ballet-singing Cobler 1s. 0d…. Gave to old Fritz-wig 0s. 6d…. Pd a year’s rent for Mad Bess £1 4s. 6d.” There are many references to relief granted for “poore plundered Irish,” to families “that came oute of Ireland,” and in fact that nation was to maintain its hold upon the area for two centuries. But the French also came, and those expelled from the city for vagrancy, as well as black servants reduced to beggary who were known as “St. Giles blackbirds.” In this quarter there emerged a tradition of mendicity which it has not wholly exorcised; as early as 1629 there were calls for “idle persons” to be taken up and within a generation complaints that the parish was the resort of “Irish and aliens, beggars, and dissolute and depraved characters.” Three generations later the area was considered to be “overburthened with poor.” The whole history of London vagrancy can be understood by proper attention to this small territory.

Most poignant, perhaps, is the unhappy fate of individuals who appear in the annals of poor relief. In the mid-eighteenth century “Old Simon” lived with his dog under a staircase in a ruined house within Dyot Street; a contemporary description of him by J.T. Smith in Book for a Rainy Day is similar to that which could be given of late twentieth-century vagrants: “He had several waistcoats, and as many coats, increasing in size, so that he was enabled by the extent of the uppermost garment to cover the greater part of the bundles, containing rags of various colours, and distinct parcels with which he was girded about, consisting of books, canisters containing bread, cheese, and other articles of food; matches, a tinder-box, and meat for his dog.” The presence or companionship of a dog seems to be a permanent characteristic of the London vagrant.

“Old Jack Norris, the Musical Shrimp Man” lived, some seventy years later, in the same street (now renamed George Street). A beggar, engaged in the “cadging ramble” under the guise of selling shrimps, he starved to death or, as the jury put it, “died by the visitation of God.” There was Anne Henley, who in the spring of 1820 died in her 105th year in Smart’s Buildings. “She used to sit at various doors in Holborn to sell her pincushions. She was short in stature, mild and modest in her deportment, cleanly in her person and generally wore a grey cloak.”

At the time of writing, a large woman, with a shaved head, sits on New Oxford Street between Earnshaw Street and Dyott Street (which has reacquired its old name); she carries bags filled with newspapers and talks to herself continually, but she never asks for money. It is not clear why she should choose each day the same very public position, unless we were to surmise that the old lure of Dyott Street has not been wholly lost in the rebuilding of the area. A young man, with close-cropped hair and steel-rimmed glasses, sits and begs near the corner of Dyott Street. On St. Giles High Street, between Earnshaw Street and Dyott Street, the steps and doorway of a disused office block are used by middle-aged men who beg money for “a cup of tea.” St. Giles is indeed still a haven for beggars and vagrants, among them the woman who sits surrounded by pigeons in a urine-stained corner off High Holborn, and the old man who is always drunk but never begs by the Dominion Theatre where once the brewery stood. Vagrant youths beg from passers-by around the corner of the theatre. They lie in sleeping bags directly across the road from the YMCA hostel, emphasising that the place of transients in the life of St. Giles has never faded.

On the threshold of St. Giles, where the great road of High Holborn passes the entrances of Southampton Row and Proctor Street, vagrants can always be seen singly or in groups as if they were guardians of the area. They also linger in the churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, whiskered, red-faced, dirty, drinking spirits like the generations who came before them.

In this spirit of individual narrative we can note the end of the characteristically short lives in this neighbourhood, as recounted in the parish record, like those of “Elizabeth Otley, and one Grace, who were killed by the fall of a chimney in Partridge-alley … one Farmer’s child in the Cole-yard, drowned in a tub of water … a dead man, being thrust in the eye by a footman … one Goddid White, that drowned herself … a girl in Hogg Lane, that hanged herself … the deathe of a childe that parte of the limbes were bitt off by a dog or cat, at my Lord of Southampton’s house, in Long-fielde … a male child murdered, and layed at the backside of the King’s Head inne … indictment against Priscilla Owen, for biting her husband’s finger, which occasioned his death.”

There is another way of describing its inhabitants. In pictorial narratives they are seen as emblematic of a certain urban type, whose depraved or drunken character leads inevitably to an early demise through illness or upon the gallows. Death, then, becomes once more the province of St. Giles. The fatal stages of Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress are set in Drury Lane, and in a neighbouring night-cellar the “Idle Apprentice” is arrested for murder before being dispatched to the gallows. Another of Hogarth’s infamous characters, Tom Nero in Four Stages of Cruelty, is a St. Giles charity boy. He also ends upon the gallows. Death was rife within the parish in another sense, since St. Giles had the second greatest rate of mortality in the entire city.

The poor can also become the creatures of another narrative device, when their lives are retold by those with a taste for neo-Gothic sensationalism or prurience. Charles Dickens was repeatedly drawn to this area, either alone or in the company of police inspectors, and immortalised one of its most celebrated thoroughfares in his “Reflections upon Monmouth Street.” Tobias Smollett wrote of “two tatterdemalions from the purlieus of St. Giles, and between them both was but one shirt and a pair of breeches.” In 1751 Henry Fielding, another great London novelist, published his own account of infamous proceedings in St. Giles where “men and women, often strangers to each other, lie promiscuously, the price of a double bed being no more than three-pence, as an encouragement for them to lie together: That as these places are adapted to whoredom, so are they no less provided for drunkenness, gin being sold in them all at a penny a quartern … in one of these houses, and that not a large one, he [Mr Welch, high constable of Holborn] hath numbered fifty eight persons of both sexes, the stench of whom was so intolerable, that it soon compelled him to quit the place.” Drink, sex and smell are here mingled in a heady compound designed to titillate the senses of those fortunate enough to be able otherwise to avoid the area; these are precisely the scenes and scents which Fielding could not have presented within any of his official fiction but in the guise of sober reportage he could indulge his novelistic appetite for the “filth” and “noisomness.”

It is not necessary to emphasise that the lives of the St. Giles poor were indeed wretched, and that there were dirty houses of assignation in the parish; but it ought also to be remembered that the great London novelists, such as Dickens and Fielding, created a strange shadow-play of urban imagery. Their own occluded or obsessive characters mingled with the darker forces of the city to create a theatrical and symbolic London which has on many occasions supplanted the “reality” of various areas.

The most sensational accounts of St. Giles-in-the-Fields were reserved for the first decades of the nineteenth century. This was the time of the Rookeries, an island of cellars and tenements roughly bounded by St. Giles High Street, Bainbridge Street and Dyott Street. Within this unfortunate triangle, before New Oxford Street was constructed to lay waste the slums, were Church Lane, Maynard Street, Carrier Street, Ivy Lane and Church Street together with a congregation of yards and courts and alleys which turned the area into a maze used both as a refuge and as a hiding-place for those who dwelled there. “None else have any business there,” wrote Edward Walford in Old and New London, “and if they had, they would find it to their interest to get out of it as soon as possible.”

“The Rookeries” were also known as “Little Dublin” or “The Holy Land” because of the Irish population which dwelled there. But there were thieves, coiners, prostitutes and vagrants as well as labourers, road-sweepers and street-sellers. The lanes here were narrow and dirty, windows of decaying tenements were stuffed with rags or paper, while the interiors were damp and unwholesome. The walls were sagging, the floors covered in dirt, the low ceilings discoloured by mould; their smell was altogether indescribable. Thomas Beames, in The Rookeries of London, described how these sinister streets were “crowded with loiterers … women with short pipes in their mouths and bloated faces and men who filled every intermediate occupation between greengrocer and bird-catcher.” Its inhabitants were also “squalid children, haggard men with long uncombed hair, in rags … wolfish looking dogs.” Behind some of the most populous and busy streets in the capital were these areas of stale inactivity and impoverished languor; it was one of the many permanent and formidable contrasts within the city. The night lodgings here were known colloquially as “beggar’s operas” because of the drink and tumult which were encouraged.

For many generations there was also an annual carnival of beggars in the vicinity. In fact only sex and drink could make the conditions bearable. An official report in 1847 states that one room in a house “was occupied by only three families in the day but as many as could be got into it at night.” More than twenty people were often found in one small space, together with the wares which they sold in the street, oranges, onions, herrings and watercress being the favoured articles. In one alley behind Church Street there was a chamber like “a cow house” where “seventeen human beings eat, drunk and slept.” In this fearful place “the floor was damp and below the level of the court.”

Once again the peculiar dampness or fetidness of the parish is emphasised, the “noisomness” of which Wren and others had complained. The area was filled with vermin of every description and, in these conditions, there were innumerable cases of fever, cholera and consumption. Thomas Beames found a young man with a fatal consumptive cough-“he was quite naked, had not a rag to his back, but over him was thrown a thin blanket, and a blue rug like a horse cloth-these he removed to let us see there was no deception.” In many cases of mortal disease “those stricken were left to die alone, untended, unheeded, “they died and made no sign” … without a word which betokened religious feeling on their lips, without God in the world …” Nobody was beside them to murmur “St. Giles, protect them!,” because the presiding saint may be said to have fled the vicinity. The Irish behaved in a reckless and violent manner because they believed that they had entered a “heathen city.” “The Rookeries” embodied the worst living conditions in all of London’s history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach before death took hold of them, and to the Irish it seemed that the city and its inhabitants were already given over to the devil.

They were given over to the landlord, however, and not to the devil. London is established upon commercial profit and financial speculation, and the pattern of its housing has followed similar imperatives. It has grown largely from speculative building, advancing in succeeding waves of investment and profit-taking while being momentarily stilled in periods of recession. The parish of St. Giles was a particularly interesting case of exploitation. A small group of individuals owned the housing stock of the area-eight people, for example, owned about 80 per cent of the houses in the Church Lane quarter-and they in turn let out the streets one by one. A person for an agreed sum rented a street by the year and then let out certain houses on a weekly return, while the proprietor of each house rented out separate rooms. The person who rented a room would then take money from those who inhabited a corner of it. It represents an absolute hierarchy of need, or desperation, in which no one assumed responsibility for the dreadful conditions which prevailed. They were instead blamed upon the “Irish” or the vices of the “lower orders” who somehow were seen to have brought their unhappy fate upon themselves. The caricatures of Hogarth, or of Fielding, damn the victims rather than their oppression.

There also emerged the “mob” of St. Giles, an undifferentiated mass of common human beings who posed a threat to order and security. In one armed raid upon “an Irish ken,” as reported in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, “the whole district had become alarmed, and hundreds came pouring down upon us-men, women, and children. Women, did I say!-they looked fiends, half naked.” Here the demonic language of the heathen city is applied to the tormented themselves. But if we look more closely at this “mob,” it will perhaps become more variegated and more interesting. It was often assumed that, because St. Giles was a haven for transients, it was therefore inhabited by a wholly transient population. But in fact the evidence of the settlement and examination books of the period reveals that the population was relatively stable and the movement in the parish took place only within sharply defined boundaries; the poor, in other words, clung to their neighbourhood and had no desire to move outside it. When later redevelopment of the area removed many parts of “the Rookeries,” their inhabitants migrated to adjacent streets where they lived in even more overcrowded circumstances. It is in fact a general characteristic of Londoners that they tend to conduct their lives in a relatively restricted area; it is still possible to find people in Hackney or Leytonstone, for example, who have never “gone West” and, similarly, inhabitants of Bayswater or Acton who have never travelled to the eastern portions of the city. In the case of the paupers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, that territorial imperative was very strong; they lived and died within the same few square yards with their own network of shops, public houses, markets and street contacts.

The great social topographer Charles Booth described St. Giles-in-the-Fields as the repository of “ordinary labour” but this term, like “mob,” hardly does justice to the nature of employment in this quarter of outcast London. There were knife-grinders and street-singers, dealers in vegetables and makers of door mats, dog-breakers and crossing sweepers, bird dealers and shoemakers, hawkers of prints and sellers of herring. More exotic trades, too, flourished in the neighbourhood.

Until 1666, when houses were built upon it, the southern region of the parish was a wasteland known as Cock and Pye Fields. It was not properly urbanised until 1693, however, when seven streets were laid out to meet at a central pillar and thereby form a star. This area was known as the Seven Dials. Perhaps the symbolic dimension of this late seventeenth-century development materially encouraged the presence of the astrologers who assembled here. There was Gilbert Anderson, “a notorious quack” who lived beside the inn called the Cradle and Coffin, in Cross Street; there was Dr. James Tilbury at the Black Swan by St. Giles-in-the-Fields, who sold the herb spoonwart supposedly mingled with gold; W. Baynham, who resided a few yards away at “the Corner house over against the upper end of St. Martin’s Lane near the Seven Dials, St. Giles,” was able to inform his customers “Which shall win in Horse or Foot races”; again “near the Seven Dials in St. Giles, Liveth a Gentlewoman, the seventh daughter of a Seventh Daughter” who could divine the result of pregnancies and lawsuits: “SHE ALSO INTERPRETS DREAMS.” Another famous quack and alchemist lived “by St. Giles Church, where you may see over the door a printed paper,” where he promised to reveal the workings of “Sulphur and Mercury,” and there was the notorious Jack Edwards who lived “in Castle-street in the Parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields” where he sold medicines, pills and potions for the treatment of humans and animals alike. All of them can be found in The Quacks of Old London by C.J. Thompson.

These examples of what we might now term alternative medicine are taken from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but the neighbourhood has never lost its oblique reputation for occultism and strange practice. In succeeding years the Freemasons, the Swedenborg Society, the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn have established themselves in the same parish. A few hundred yards from Monmouth Street is the Atlantis Bookshop, which remains the most celebrated depository of occult literature in England. Here again may be another example of that territorial imperative, or genius loci, which keeps inhabitants and activities in the same small area.

Jack Edwards was a ballad singer as well as a doctor, and the ballads of Seven Dials were as notorious as the events and people whom they commemorated. James Catnach of Monmouth Court was the first begetter and promoter of the broadsides, songs and pamphlets which circulated through the streets of eighteenth-century London. They cost a penny each, hence the term “catchpenny” as a tribute to his marketing skills. He was forced to take the coppers to a bank, however, because no one else would touch them in case of infection springing off the metal. The reputation of Seven Dials was always dark and disturbed, although Catnach himself remedied his own position by boiling the pennies in potash and vinegar so that they became bright once more.

There were five other printers of ballads in the immediate vicinity of St. Giles, publishing street literature with titles such as “Unhappy Lady of Hackney,” “Letter Written by Jesus Christ,” “Last Dying Speech of …” These broadsides were, for the people of London, the real “news” passing from hand to hand; in many instances it was disruptive or polemical news, concerning events which affected the citizens themselves. There was one mid-eighteenth-century ballad, for example, which was issued from Seven Dials and which concerned the local workhouse-“The Workhouse Cruelty, Workhouses turn’d Gaols, and Gaolers Executioners.” The death of “one Mrs. Mary Whistle” in the institution became the subject of popular resentment. There were also ballad complaints about the conditions of paupers and beggars, many left to die in the very same streets from which the ballads were issued. In that sense St. Giles-in-the-Fields, perhaps because of its raging population and its awful mortality, acted as an alternative source of authority. That made it a suitable haven for “coiners” who were in effect issuing another kind of money, in the process helping to disrupt the system of commerce and finance which cast so palpable a shadow over the impoverished inhabitants of this area.

It is appropriate, also, that the parish should be the haunt of prostitutes and a harbour of “night houses.” The courts and lanes adjoining Drury Lane were the most notorious for the trade and it was here, in his London Labour and the London Poor published between 1851 and 1862, that Henry Mayhew recorded the statement of one woman “over forty, shabbily dressed and with a disreputable unprepossessing appearance.” Mayhew’s accounts are a remarkable and affecting source of street life as well as street anecdote. His veracity and accuracy have sometimes been questioned, largely because he was part of a generation of mid-Victorian writers who tended to sensationalise or fictionalise the events and inhabitants of the “great wen.” But the general tenor and candour of Mayhew’s transcriptions can be trusted, as in this unhappy woman’s story: “I lodge in Charles Street, Drury Lane, now. I did live in Nottingham Court once and Earl Street. But, Lord, I’ve lived in a many places you wouldn’t think, and I don’t imagine you’d believe one half. I’m always a-chopping and a-changing like the wind as you may say … I don’t think much of my way of life. You folks as has honour, and character, and feelings, and such, can’t understand how all that’s been beaten out of people like me. I don’t feel. I’m used to it … I don’t suppose I’ll live much longer, and that’s another thing that pleases me. I don’t want to live, and yet I don’t care enough about dying to make away with myself. I arn’t got that amount of feeling that some has, and that’s where it is.” Mayhew declares that “she had become brutal,” but in fact the city had brutalised her.

Her fatalism, however, has not necessarily been shared. D.M. Green, in People of the Rookery, remarked that because of its dreadful conditions St. Giles contained “the seeds of revolution.” It is a curious chance, then, that in 1903, the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party should take place on Tottenham Court Road itself; it was organised by Lenin, and resulted in the separation of Bolsheviks from Mensheviks. As the author of Lenin in London, Lionel Kochahs, has put it, “It is almost true to say that Bolshevism as a political party was actually founded in Tottenham Court Road.” So the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields did indeed contain those “seeds” of violent social disruption, even if it were a species of instinctive and distant revenge.

• • •

The area around St. Giles was, in the language of the period, a “sore” or “abscess” that might poison the whole body politic, with the unspoken assumption that it must in some way be purged or cauterised. So between the years 1842 and 1847 a great thoroughfare known as New Oxford Street was run through it, leading to wholesale demolition of the worst lanes and courts with an attendant exodus of the poor inhabitants-although most of them moved only a few streets further south. The language of the body was once more used by contemporary moralists who characteristically celebrated the fact that “one huge filthy mass” had been dispersed. Yet the heady atmosphere of the place was by no means removed; the exiled poor simply lived in conditions worse and more overcrowded than before, while the premises and shops of the new street remained unlet for some years. It was still a damp, dismal and “noisome” place to which few new residents could be attracted. And so it stands today. New Oxford Street is one of the least interesting thoroughfares in London, with no character except the somewhat dubious one of being dominated by the high-rise block of Centrepoint. The building towers above the site of the old “cage” and gallows, and may perhaps be considered a fitting successor to them. It is an area now without character or purpose, the home of computer suppliers, an Argos superstore, some indistinguishable and undistinguished office buildings, and shops designed for the trade of passing tourists. There are still the vagrants lingering in the recesses of the area as a token of its past, but where there was once life and suffering there is now a dismal quiet from which St. Giles himself can offer no deliverance.

London as Theatre

“Punch and Judy” arrived early in London and could be seen on the streets until recent times. Street entertainers have haunted the city since the thirteenth century, and perhaps before.

CHAPTER 13. Show! Show! Show! Show! Show!

Show! Show! Show! Show! Show! This was the cry of a seventeenth-century city crowd, as recorded in Ned Ward’s London Spy. There were indeed many shows to be seen on the London streets, but the greatest fair of all was held at Smithfield. It was known as Bartholomew’s Fair.

Smithfield itself began as a simple trading area, for cloth in one place and cattle in another, but its history has always been one of turbulence and spectacle. Great jousts and tournaments were held there in the fourteenth century; it was the ritual place for duels and ordeal by battle; it was the home of the gallows and the stake. That festive nature was also evident in less forbidding ways. Football matches and wrestling contests were commonly staged and the appropriately named Cock Lane, just beyond the open ground, was the haunt of prostitutes. Miracle plays were also part of its entertainment.

The trading market for cloth had become outmoded by the middle of the sixteenth century but “the privileges of the fair” were still retained by the city corporation. So, instead of a three-day market, it was transformed into a fourteen-day festival which resounds through the plays and novels of succeeding centuries with the cry of “What do you lack? What is it you buy?” From the beginning of its fame there were puppet-shows and street performers, human freaks and games of dice and thimble, canvas tents for dancing or for drinking, eating-houses which specialised in roast pork.

This was the fair which Jonson celebrated in his play of the same name. He notes the sound of rattles, drums and fiddles. Here on the wooden stalls were laid out mousetraps and gingerbread, purses and pouches. There were booths and toyshops. Displayed “at the sign of the Shoe and Slap” was “THE WONDER OF NATURE, a girl about sixteen years of age, born in Cheshire, and not above eighteen inches long … Reads very well, whistles, and all very pleasant to hear.” Close by was exhibited “a Man with one Head and two distinct Bodies,” as well as a “Giant Man” and “Little Fairy Woman” performing among the other freak shows and theatrical booths. There were puppies, whistling birds and horses for sale; there were ballads cried out, with bottled ale and tobacco being constantly consumed. Cunning men cast nativities, and prostitutes plied their trade. Jonson himself noted small details, too, and watched as the cores of apples were gathered up for the bears. As one of his characters puts it, “Bless me! deliver me, help, hold me! the Fair!”

It continued, curiously enough, during the Puritan Commonwealth, no doubt with the primary motive of venting the steam of the more unruly citizens, but flourished after the Restoration of 1660 when liberty and licence came back into fashion. One versifier of the period notes masquerades dramatising “The Woman of Babylon, The Devil and The Pope,” as well as shows of dancing bears and acrobats. Some acts came year after year: there was the “Tall Dutchwoman” who made annual appearances for at least seventeen years, together with the “Horse and no Horse, whose tail stands where his head should do.” And there were always rope-walkers, among them the famous Scaramouch “dancing on the rope, with a wheelbarrow before him with two children and a dog in it, and with a duck on his head,” and the notable rope-dancer Jacob Hall “that can jump it, jump it.” Perhaps the most celebrated of all the acts, however, was that of Joseph Clark, “the English Posture Master” or “Posture Clark” as he was known. It seems that he could “put out of joynt almost any Bone or Vertebra of his Body, and to replace it again”; he could so contort himself that he became unrecognisable even to his closest friends.

And so the fair went on, as all fairs do. There was even a Ferris wheel, known then as a “Whirligig” (later an “Up and Down”) where, according to Ned Ward in The London Spy (1709), “Children lock’d up in Flying Coaches who insensibly climb’d upwards … being once Elevated to a certain height come down again according to the Circular Motion of the Sphere they move in.”

The general noise and clamour, together with the inevitable crowd of pickpockets, finally proved too much for the city authorities. In 1708 the fortnight of the fair was reduced to three days at the end of August. But if it became less riotous, it was no less festive. Contemporary accounts dwell upon the drollery of “merry Andrews,” otherwise known as Jack Puddings or Pickled Herrings; they wore a costume with donkey’s ears, and accompanied other performers with their fiddles. One of the more famous fools was a seller of gingerbread nuts in Covent Garden; since he was paid one guinea a day for his work at Bartholomew Fair, “he was at pains never to cheapen himself by laughing, or by noticing a joke, during the other 362 days of the year.”

Alongside the merry Andrews leapt the mountebanks who sold miracle cures and patent medicines to those credulous enough to purchase them. In an illustration by Marcellus Laroon one such is dressed as a harlequin from commedia dell’arte with a monkey tied to a rope beside him. His voice, too, might be heard among the general noise and tumult-“a rare cordial to strengthen and cheer the Heart under any Misfortune … a most rare dentifrice … good to fortifie the stomach against all Infections, Unwholesome damps, malignant effluvias.” And so the fair rolled on. It is perhaps appropriate, amid the noise and excitement, that in 1688 John Bunyan collapsed and died at the corner of Snow Hill and Cock Lane.

If there was one central character, however, it was that of Punch, the uncrowned monarch of “puppet-plays, hobby-horses, tabors, crowds, and bagpipes.” He had emerged upon the little stage by the end of the seventeenth century, announced by a jester and accompanied by fiddle, trumpet or drum. He is not a uniquely London phenomenon, but he became a permanent entertainer at the fairs and streets of the city; with his violence, his vulgarity and his sexual innuendo he was a recognisable urban character. “Often turning towards a tightly packed bend of girls, he sits himself down near to them: My beautiful ones, he says, winking roguishly, here’s a girl friend come to join you!” With his great belly, big nose and long stick he is the very essence of a gross sexual joke which, unfortunately, in later centuries became smaller, squeakier, and somehow transformed into entertainment for children. There is a watercolour by Rowlandson, dated 1785, which shows a puppet-play with Punch in action. George III and Queen Charlotte are driving to Deptford, but the attention of the citizens is drawn more towards the wooden booth where Punch is beating the bare buttocks of his wife. He was often conceived as a “hen-pecked” husband but, here, the worm has turned. Rowlandson’s work is of course partly conceived as a satire against the royal family, but it is filled with a greater and all-encompassing urban energy.

Within Bartholomew Fair itself there was a complete erasure of ordinary social distinctions. One of the complaints against it lay in the fact that apprentice and lord might be enjoying the same entertainments, or betting at the same gaming tables. This is entirely characteristic of London itself, heterogeneous and instinctively egalitarian. It is no coincidence, for example, that at the time of the Fair an annual supper was held in Smithfield for young chimney-sweeps. Charles Lamb has immortalised the occasion in one of his essays, “The Praise of Chimney Sweepers,” where he reports that “hundreds of grinning teeth startled the night with their brightness” while in the background could be heard the “agreeable hubbub” of the Fair itself. It might be argued that there is no true egalitarianism in the gesture, and that such solemn festivities merely accustom the little “’weeps” to their dismal fate. This might then be considered one of the paradoxes of London, which consoles those whom it is about to consume.

Punch is also advertised in Hogarth’s print of Southwark Fair. Known as “the Lady Fair,” it was held in the streets around the Borough in the month after Bartholomew Fair. But since Hogarth announced his engraving as “The Fair” and “the Humours of a Fair” we may safely assume that he is portraying a characteristic and familiar London entertainment. Here Punch is mounted upon a stage horse which picks the pocket of a clown; above him, there is a poster announcing “Punches Opera” which depicts the large-nosed figure wheeling his wife in a barrow towards the open mouth of a dragon.

Elsewhere in this fair a motley group of performers stands upon a wooden balcony where a painted cloth announces “The Siege of Troy is here”; the entertainers have been identified as part of Hannah Lee’s theatrical company, and one of their advertisements has in fact survived. “To which will be added, a New Pantomime Opera … intermixed with Comic scenes between Punch, Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot and Columbine. N.B. We shall begin at Ten in the Morning, and continue Playing till Ten at Night.” It was a long day at the fair.

On each side of the players there are various feats of acrobatics; a tightrope-walker spans two wooden buildings, while a rope-flyer descends precipitously from the tower of St. George the Martyr. In another corner of the fair a wooden stage has collapsed, and the actors fall upon stalls selling china and upset a table where two gamblers are playing at dice. There are dwarves, conjurors and waxworks, performing dogs and monkeys; a girl beats a drum while a mountebank sells his medicine; a pickpocket plies his trade while another kind of performer swallows fire. One customer can be seen gazing into the aperture of a wooden peep-show and does not notice that, by his side, a man is being arrested by a bailiff.

Bartholomew Fair itself became the arena for fictional characters whose authors used it as the setting of their adventures, but perhaps the most famous account is autobiographical in nature. In the seventh book of his Prelude Wordsworth memorialised his youthful residence in London in the 1790s, and chose Bartholomew Fair as one of its emblems with its “anarchy and din Barbarian and informal”-a word which we might better translate as formless. It was

Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound

filled with

chattering monkeys dangling from their poles,

… And children whirling in their roundabouts …

The Stone-eater, the Man that swallows fire

It is clear that the entertainments had not changed throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but Wordsworth’s particular response to its barbaric “din” and shapelessness is an example of his general attitude towards the city itself. The fair becomes, in fact, a simulacrum of London. The first lines of Pope’s Dunciad make a similar point by extolling:

The Mighty Mother, and her Son who brings

The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings

It is a symbol of disorder and anarchy, threatening to overwhelm the values of a humanised and civilised London with all its vulgar paraphernalia of “shews, machines, and dramatical entertainments, formerly agreeable only to the taste of the Rabble.” The egalitarian energies of the city, therefore, are treated with the gravest mistrust by those who wrote for smaller London circles.

At the time of Wordsworth’s visit the Fair was gradually being extended until, by 1815, it had spread up along one side of St. John’s Street and, in the other direction, had almost reached the Old Bailey. It had also become a place of danger and lawlessness with gangs of thieves, known as “Lady Holland’s mob,” who “robbed visitors, beat inoffensive passers-by with bludgeons, and pelted harmless persons.” These were no longer the festivities of the eighteenth century, and were certainly not to be endured in the more respectable climate of the mid-nineteenth. Bartholomew Fair could never have lasted long into the Victorian era, and in 1855 it passed away without much sign of public mourning.

Yet Wordsworth had divined, in the spectacle of the Fair, a permanent aspect of London life. He recognised and recoiled from an innate and exuberant theatricality, which was content to manifest sheer contrast and display with no interior or residual meaning. In this book of The Prelude, “Residence in London,” he remarks:

On Strangers of all ages, the quick dance

Of colours, lights and forms, the Babel din

It is the play of difference, characterised by mobility and indeterminacy, which disturbs him. Within a few lines he notes “Shop after Shop, with Symbols, blazon’d Names … fronts of houses, like a title page” as if the city harboured endless forms of representation, not one of which is superior to any other. He records the ballads hanging upon the walls, the huge advertisements, the “London Cries” and the stock urban characters of the “Cripple … the Bachelor … the military Idler,” as if they were all part of some great and endless theatre.

Yet it is at least possible that he did not fully understand the very reality which he so vividly describes-these “shifting pantomimic scenes,” these “dramas of living Men,” this “great Stage” and “public Shows,” the spectacles and the showmen, may indeed represent the true nature of London. Its theatricality therefore leads to “Extravagance in gesture, mien, and dress,” just as in all the streets and lanes the citizens were “living shapes”; even the roadside beggar wears “a written paper” announcing his story. Thus all may be, or seem, unreal. Wordsworth believed that he saw only “parts,” in every sense, and could derive no “feeling of the whole.” He may have been mistaken.

Wordsworth was correct about the essential theatricality of the city, but it may also be considered from another vantage. It may become a cause for celebration. Charles Lamb, that great Londoner, extolled his city as “a pantomime and masquerade … The wonder of these sights, impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life.” Macaulay wondered at the “dazzling brilliancy of London spectacles,” while James Boswell believed it to comprise “the whole of human life in all its variety”; for Dickens it was the “magic lantern” which filled his imagination with the glimpse of strange dramas and sudden spectacles. For each of these Londoners, whether by birth or adoption, the theatricality of London is its single most important characteristic.

The crowd that gathered to see the inauguration of the first underground railway, in 1863, was compared in newspaper accounts “to the crush at the doors of a theatre on the night of a pantomime,” and Donald J. Olsen, the author of The Growth of Victorian London, has compared the speed and scale of city transport in that period to the “magical transformation of the pantomime continually being translated into life.” That is why London has always been considered to be the home of stock theatrical characters-the “shabby genteel,” the “city slicker,” the “wide boy.” In print-shop windows of the mid-eighteenth century there were caricatures of London “types,” while the more fashionable citizens of the same period dressed up in costume for masques and disguisings.

The most famous pictorial series displaying London characters, Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life, published in 1687, reveals many professions and trades where the actual principle was that of acting. Many beggars put on a masquerade for the benefit of their passing audience, but Laroon himself chose a particular female vagrant to exemplify what he called “The London Beggar.” He did not give her name, but in fact she was known as Nan Mills who, according to the most recent editors of his work, was “not only a good physiognomist but an excellent mimic … and could adapt her countenance to every circumstance of distress.” There is no reason to doubt that she was also poor, and conscious of her degradation. Here, too, is part of the mystery of London where suffering and mimicry, penury and drama, are aligned with each other to a degree where they become indistinguishable.

The rituals of crime have, in London, also taken on a theatrical guise. Jonathan Wild, the master criminal of mid-eighteenth-century London, declared that “The mask is the summum bonum of our age” while the marshalmen, or city police of a slightly later date, were costumed in cocked hats and spangled buttons. There were more subtle disguises available to the detective of the city. One is reminded of Sherlock Holmes, a character who could have existed only in the heart of London. According to his amanuensis, Holmes “had at least five small refuges in different parts of London, in which he was able to change his personality.” The mysteries of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, too, could be conducted only through “the swirling wreaths” of London fog where character and identity may suddenly and dramatically be obscured.

If crime and detection rely upon disguise, so London punishment had its own theatre of judgement and of pain. The Old Bailey itself was designed as a dramatic spectacle, and was indeed compared with “a giant Punch and Judy show” where the judges sat within the open portico of a Sessions House which resembled a theatrical backdrop.

Yet since Punch, who in the end manages to hang the hangman Jack Ketch, is the epitome of disorder it is likely that his spirit would also be found in noisome circumstances. The cellar floor of the Fleet Prison was known as “Bartholomew Fair,” while in the chapel of Newgate there were galleries where spectators were invited to watch the antics of those condemned to die who deliberately entertained their audience with acts of outrageousness or defiance. We read, for example, of one John Riggleton who “made a practice of sneaking up to the Ordinary [prison clergyman] when his eyes were fast shut in prayer and shouting out loud in his ear.” This of course is the role of the pantaloon in pantomime.

The theatre did not end in the prison chapel, but continued upon the little stage where the execution took place. “The upturned faces of the eager spectators,” wrote one contributor to The Chronicles of Newgate, “resembled those of the ‘gods’ at Drury Lane on Boxing Night.” Another witness remarked upon the fact that, just before the execution, there was a roar of “‘Hats off!’ and ‘Down in front!’ as at a theatre.” There was one peculiarly theatrical episode at the execution in 1820 of Thistlewood and his “Cato Street” companions for treason; according to the traditional sentence, they were to be hanged and then beheaded. “When the executioner had come to the last of the heads, he lifted it up, but, by some clumsiness, allowed it to drop. At this the crowd yelled out, ‘Ah, Butter-fingers!’” This small episode manifests the peculiar temperament of the London crowd, combining humour and savagery in equal measure.

The witnesses at executions were not the only inhabitants of London to appreciate the virtues of urban theatre. Inigo Jones’s construction of the Banqueting House in 1622 was, in the words of John Summerson’s Georgian London, “really an extension of his stage work”; the same might be said of his other great urban projects. In a similar spirit, two hundred years later, John Nash disguised a concerted effort at town planning, dividing the poor of the east from the wealthy of the west, by creating streets and squares which represented the principles of “picturesque beauty” by means of scenic effects. George Moore commented that the “circular line” of Regent Street was very much like that of an amphitheatre, and it has been noted that the time of Nash’s “Improvements” was also the period of the great panoramas and dioramas of London. Buckingham Palace, as viewed from the end of the Mall, seems nothing more than an elaborate stage-set while the House of Commons is an exercise in wistful neo-Gothic not unlike the elaborate dramas to be seen in the patent theatres of the period. The latest Pevsner guide notes that the clearing banks of the City of London “were built to impress inside and out,” while much of the architecture of the 1960s “took the expressive potential of concrete to a theatrical extreme.”

That central spirit of London has been divined by artists as well as architects. In the work of Hogarth the streets are delineated in terms of scenic perspective. In many of his prints, perhaps most notably in his delineation of the Fair, the division between performers and spectators is for all practical purposes invisible; the citizens fulfil their roles with even more animation than the stage actors, and there are more genuinely dramatic episodes among the crowd than upon the boards.

Some of the more famous portraits of London also borrow their effects from the theatre of the period. It has been remarked, for example, how Edward Penny’s painting of A City Shower is taken from a scene from David Garrick’s The Suspicious Husband. One of the greatest painters of mid-nineteenth-century cityscapes, John O’Connor, was also an accomplished painter of theatrical scenery. The editors of the most comprehensive volume upon the subject, London in Paint, go so far as to suggest that “further research will be carried out into this vital link between the two professions” of urban painter and theatrical designer. They may not be two professions, however, but one.

· · ·

It would seem that everyone in London wore a costume. From the earliest period the city records reveal the vivid displays of rank and hierarchy, noting garments of coloured stripes and gowns of rainbow hues. When the dignitaries of the city attended the first day of Bartholomew Fair, for example, they were expected to wear “violet gowns, lined,” but the emphasis on colour and effect was shared by all manner of London citizens. In fact in such a crowded city people could be recognised only by their costume, the butcher by his “Blue-Sleeves and Woollen Apron” or the prostitute by “Hood, Scarf and Top-Knot.” That is why at the Fair, when costumes change, all social hierarchy is undermined.

A shopkeeper of the mid-eighteenth century would advertise the traditional worth of his wares “with his hair full-powdered, his silver knee and shoe buckles, and his hands surrounded with the nicely-plaited ruffle.” In the early twentieth century it was noted that the bank messengers and fishboys, waiters and city policemen, still wore mid-Victorian costume as if to display their antique deference or respectability. In any one period of London’s history, in fact, it is possible to detect the presence of several decades in the dress and deportment of those in the streets.

Yet disguise can also be a form of deception; one notorious highwayman escaped Newgate “dressed up as an oyster-girl,” while a character in Humphry Clinker, Matthew Bramble, noticed how mere journeymen in London went around “disguised like their betters.” In turn Boswell delighted in “low” impersonation, dressing up and taking on the role of a “blackguard” or soldier in order to pick up prostitutes and generally to entertain himself in the streets and taverns of the city. Boswell was entranced by London precisely because it allowed him to assume a number of disguises and thus escape from his own identity. There was, as Matthew Bramble had written, “no distinction or subordination left,” which accounts precisely for the combination of egalitarianism and theatricality that is so characteristic of London.

London is truly the home of the spectacle, whether of the living or of the dead. When in 1509 the cadaver of Henry VII was carried along Cheapside, a wax effigy of his royal person, dressed in the robes of state, was placed upon the hearse. The wagon was surrounded by priests and bishops, weeping, while the king’s household of six hundred persons followed in procession with lighted candles. It was the kind of funeral parade at which London has always excelled. The funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852 was no less ornate and sumptuous, and a contemporary account describes the event in highly theatrical terms-“the effect is novel and striking” with the mass of shade relieved by colour, particularly that of “a Grenadier Guardsman, his scarlet uniform strongly contrasting with the sable decorations around him.”

On the arrival of foreign monarchs, or upon the birth of princes, or after news of success in wars, the city decked itself out in colourful pageants. When Catherine of Aragon entered London in 1501 she was greeted by painted wooden castles built upon stone foundations, columns and statues, fountains and artificial mountains, mechanical zodiacs and battlements. It is impossible to overestimate the thirst for spectacle among Londoners through many centuries. When Henry V returned from Agincourt in 1415 he saw two gigantic figures placed upon the entrance to London Bridge; on the bridge itself “were innumerable boys representing the angelic host, arrayed in white, with glittering wings, and their hair set with sprigs of laurel”; the conduit on Cornhill was covered by a pavilion of crimson cloth and, on the king’s approach, “a great quantity of sparrows and other small birds” were set free. At the conduit in Cheapside there were virgins, dressed entirely in white, “who from cups in their hands blew forth golden leaves on the king.” An image of the sun, “which glittered above all things,” was placed upon a throne and “round it were angels singing and playing all kinds of musical instruments.” In succeeding reigns the conduits of Cornhill and Cheapside were arrayed with trees and caves, artificial hills and elaborate streams of wine or milk; the streets themselves were draped with tapestries and cloth of gold. As Agnes Strickland, an early biographer of Elizabeth I, remarked upon these manifestations, “The city of London might, at that time, have been termed a stage.” A German traveller similarly observed that, at the coronation of George IV, the king “was obliged to present himself, as chief actor in a pantomime” while the royal costume “reminded me strikingly of one of those historical plays which are here got up so well.”

There is another kind of drama which seems close to the life of the city. The streets provided a permanent arena, for example, in which any “patterer” or chanting trader could attract an inquisitive audience. The stages of sixteenth-century theatres were built to face the south, so that more light might fall upon the players, but we may imagine the actions and deportment of less professional actors to be similarly lit upon the crowded thoroughfares of London. Historical scenes were dramatised by street performers. There are extant photographs of actors in nineteenth-century street theatre; they seem poor, and perhaps grimy, but they wear spangling tights and elaborate costumes against garishly painted backdrops. In the early twentieth century, too, scenes from the novels of Dickens were played out on open carts on the very sites where those scenes were set.

Dickens may have appreciated such a gesture, since he turned London itself into a vast symbolic theatre; much of his dramatic imagination was formed by visiting the playhouses which abounded in his youth, particularly the penny gaffs and the small theatrical “houses” around the Drury Lane Theatre. In one of them he saw a pantomime and “noticed that the people who kept the shops, and who represented the passengers in the thoroughfares, and so forth, had no conventionality in them, but were unusually like the real thing.” He is adverting to the fact that ordinary Londoners, mainly of the younger generation, paid to be allowed to act in that season’s latest urban drama or pantomime. In Vanity Fair his contemporary, Thackeray, noted two London boys as having “a taste for painting theatrical characters.” In a similar spirit almost every street of London was once the object of dramatic curiosity, from A Chaste Maid of Cheapside to The Cripple of Fenchurch Street, from the Boss of Billingsgate to The Lovers of Ludgate, from The Devil of Dowgate to The Black Boy of Newgate. The audience found in them what they also found in Bartholomew Fair, a theatre which reflected the nature of their lives as well as the nature of the city itself. These plays were generally violent and melodramatic in theme, but that is precisely why they offered a true image of teeming city life.

London life itself could in turn become street theatre, even if it were sometimes of a tragic and inadvertent kind. The poor, and the outcast in particular, can claim no privacy and, as Gissing noted in his novel The Nether World (1889), “their scenes alike of tenderness and of anger must for the more part be enacted on peopled ways” where their shouts and muttered words could plainly be heard.

CHAPTER 14. He Shuld Neuer Trobell the Parish No More

Out you rogue, you hedge-bird, you pimp … Does’t so, snotty nose? Good lord, are you snivelling? You were engendered on a she-beggar in a barn.” These lines from Bartholomew Fair evoke something of the flavour of London speech, even if they do not catch its particular accent and intonation.

London speech has been variously described both as harsh and as soft, but the predominant characteristic is that of slackness. W. Matthews, author of Cockneys Past and Present, suggests that “Cockneys avoid movement of the lips and jaw as far as possible”; M. MacBride, author of London’s Dialect, makes the same point, after examining microsegments and terminal contour peaks, nuclei and junctures, by declaring that “the Cockneys avoid, as far as possible, any unnecessary movements of the articulating organs.” In other words, they are lazy speakers. One more obvious point might also be made. If the Cockney voice is indeed “harsh,” it is perhaps because Cockneys have always inhabited a harsh and noisy city where the need to be heard above the roar of “unresting London” is paramount.

There are many famous examples of what became known as Cockney- a “piper” rather than a “paper,” “Eye O pen” rather than “High Holborn,” “wot” not “what.” There are also very familiar constructions-“so I goes … and he goes” is now more common than “so I says … and he says,” but the immediacy is still there. “Innit?” or “Ennit?” are now more favoured than “Ain’t it?,” and memorable phrases such as “’E didn’t ’alf ’it ’er, ’e did” or “You ain’t seen nuffin” or “nuffink” can still be heard in certain regions of the East End. Other Cockneyisms, however, have not survived the middle decades of the twentieth century. “For why?” is uncommon, as is “summut.” Even “blimey” is fading out of discourse. Certain Cockneyisms-familiar perhaps from the novels of Dickens-are now of distant vintage. “Wery” instead of “very,” “wulgar” rather than “vulgar,” are quite out of use, although the device was always more popular in fiction than upon the streets; the same might be said of “Hexcuse” rather than “excuse.” In the early decades of the twentieth century you might hear a stall-keeper shouting out: “Plees to reck-leck [please recollect] that at this ’ere stall you gets …”; but no longer. It would once have been possible to hear the following sentence from a Cockney waiter-“There are a leg of mutton, and there is chops”-but that particular construction appears to have gone out of favour. Some words have simply shifted allegiance; in the mid-nineteenth century Cockneys would tend to employ “Ax” rather than “Ask,” but that ellipsis is now in use predominantly among black Londoners. One construction is still current- “paralysed, like” or “fresh, like”-even though it has been part of the London tongue for at least two centuries. A more substantial point can be made in this context, too, since there is clear evidence that Cockney English has not changed in its essentials for over five hundred years.

Its history is significant, therefore, if only to demonstrate once more the essential continuities of London life. Cockney has always represented an oral rather than a written culture, sustained by an unbroken succession of native speakers, but for many centuries there was no standard London speech. The legacy of the Old English tongue left a variety of identifiable dialects among the citizens of early medieval London; we can trace south-eastern speech, south-western speech and East Midland speech. West Saxon was the language of Westminster, because of the historical connection between the reigning sovereign’s household and Winchester, while the predominant language of the city itself was East Saxon; hence the connections throughout the centuries between the London dialect and the Essex dialect. “Strate” in London was “strete” at Westminster. There was no standard or uniform pronunciation, in other words; it would have differed even from parish to parish.

There were other forms of speech, too, which rendered the language of the city more heterogeneous and polyglot. One linguistic survey of the registers of London English, from the last decade of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fifteenth, reveals a vast range of sources and borrowings. In the previously unstudied archives of London Bridge, generally dealing with the employment of Thames fishermen, there are elements of Old English, Anglo-Norman and medieval Latin as well as Middle Dutch and Middle Low German; this might be considered merely the work of educated clerks transcribing the rough tongue into a more polished and formal style, but in fact all the evidence suggests that there was a truly “mixed” or “macaronic” style caused by “the interaction between different registers of London English.” The author of Sources of London English, Laura Wright, has also pointed out that Londoners “who used French and Latin habitually in their work would in all probability retain the terminology of these languages even when discussing or thinking about their work in English.” We do not need to imagine Thames fishermen, however, speaking classical Latin. Their Latin would have been some form of argot or patois which included terms inherited from the time of the Romans. The addition of French is predictable enough, after the Conquest, when all these tongues became part of the fabric of living speech.

There were, however, broad patterns of change. During the fourteenth century the dominant East Saxon voice of London was displaced by that from the Central and East Midlands; there is no single reason for this shift, although it is likely that over several generations the more wealthy or educated merchant families had emigrated from that region into the city. There was in the same period another essential linguistic change, when this different and apparently more “educated” language inaugurated a slow process of standardisation. By the end of the fourteenth century there had emerged a single dialect, known as “London English,” which in turn became what the editor of the Cambridge History of the English Language calls “modern literary Standard English.” Writing standards were progressively set by the scribes of Chancery, too, with their emphasis upon correctness, uniformity and propriety.

So the East and Central Midland dialect became the language spoken by educated Londoners and increasingly the language of the English generally. What happened, then, to the East Saxon dialect which had previously been the native tongue of the native Londoner? To a certain extent it was displaced but, more importantly, it was demoted. One of the central prejudices against its use lay in the fact that it had always been spoken and rarely, if ever, written down. Thus these “vocal cries” were filled with “Incongruities and Barbarism.” By the sixteenth century this difference between “standard” and what had become “Cockney” English was well enough understood to be the subject of critical attention, but the salient fact was its survival.

The vestry records of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries show that Cockney was not only well established but already exhibited certain permanent features. Thus “the abbot of Westmynster and the monks reprevyed … Mr. Phipp who was chosen constable in which complaint he made appear his imbecility … yt was erecktyde by most voysses … without the least predyges of the paryshe … he wold nott church a woman owt-sept she wold com at vi in the mornyng.” Then there were the double negatives: “he shuld neuer trobell the parish no more … not otherwysse to be ussyd at noo tyme”; in a seventeenth-century stage play this is parodied as “Were you never none of Mister Moncaster’s scholars?” Here again we can hear them talking: “Att this vestry it was ffurder menshoned whether the parishe would be pleased to Accept of Mr. Gardener for to bee a Lecterrer … greytt necklygence of our pyssheners.” In diaries of the sixteenth century, particularly that of Henry Machyn, there are phonetic spellings that catch the very accent and intonation of these early Cockneys: “anodur” for “another” and “alff” for “half.” Vestmynster, Smytfeld, Hondyche and Powlles Cross are mentioned together with Honsley heth and Bednoll Grene. One of Machyn’s entries concerns a sudden bolt of lightning, when “on of servand was so freyd that ys here stod up, and yt wyll never come down synes.” A diligent investigator has also found many devices, used by Cockneys of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which are still familiar; among them are “Stren” instead of “Strand,” “sattisfectory” instead of “satisfactory,” “texes” instead of “taxes,” “towled” instead of “told,” “owlde” instead of “old,” “chynes” not “chains,” “rile” instead of “rail,” “suthe” instead of “south,” “hoathe” instead of “oath,” “orfunt” instead of “orphan,” “cloues” instead of “clothes,” “sawgars” instead of “soldiers,” “notamy” instead of “anatomy,” “vill” instead of “will,” “usse” instead of “house,” “’im” instead of “him.” Certain key words and phrases have also survived the centuries, among them “sav’d ’is bacon,” bouze (drink), poppet (girl), elbow-grease (energy), paw (hand), swop (exchange) and tick (credit). The central point is clear: the Cockney speech of the twenty-first century is in many respects identical to that of the sixteenth century. As an oral tradition, it has never died.

Cockney of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was also reproduced on stage, as well as in written reports, but at this early date it was parodied rather than mocked. Mistress Quickly, the garrulous hostess of the Boar’s Head in East Cheap in the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, might stand as an emblem for the more strident Cockney females. “I was before Master Tisick, the debuty, t’other day; and, as he said to me, ‘twas no longer than Wednesday last, ‘I’ good faith, neighbour Quickly,’ says he; Master Dumbe, our minister, was by then; ‘neighbour Quickly,’ says he, ‘receive those that are civil; for’ said he, ‘you are in an ill name.’” It might be the voice of Mrs. Gamp, almost three centuries later. Shakespeare must have heard these elisions, repetitions and asides whenever he walked through the streets of the city.

Fielding was another wonderful observer of London life in the first decades of the eighteenth century; he heard the voices, too, and reproduced them with great precision. “It would be the hiest preasumption to imagine you eggnorant of my loave. No, madam, I sollemly purtest,” writes Jonathan Wild to an assumed admirer, “… I have not slept a wink since I had the hapness of seing you last; therefore hop you will, out of Kumpassion …”

It is the same accent identified by Smollett at a slightly later date. “Coind sur, Heaving the playsure of meating with you at the ospital of anvilheads [invalids], I take this lubbertea of latin you know …” There is more than humour here; there is also a sense of farce and singularity which in no way condemns the Cockney speakers for their mannerisms. In the same spirit the dramatic vitality and sympathy, to be found in Shakespeare, emerge in these other urban writers. Smollett practised for a while as a surgeon in Downing Street, and Fielding as a judge in Bow Street; they knew all the voices. Their connection with London speech also throws a suggestive light upon the observations of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, writing in his journal of 1826, that for “a man of letters who endeavours to cultivate, however modestly, the medium of Shakespeare and Milton … London must ever have a great illustrative and suggestive value, and indeed a kind of sanctity.”

Writers of a later generation were more concerned with polite taste and the maintenance of “good” English as the medium of enlightenment. In that context the Cockney accent becomes absurd, and deplorable. So, in dramas of the mid-eighteenth century, it is lampooned. “I have heard, good Sir, that every Body has a more betterer and more worserer Side of the Face than the other … It is the onliest way to rise in the world … all them kind of things.” Soon enough there were treatises and educational manuals which condemned the vulgarity and incorrectness of Cockney speech; their prejudice was strengthened with the proliferation of board schools and religious schools where, in the context of national education, the Cockney speaker was considered “uneducated” and illiterate. Since “London English” had become the standard of “proper” English, so in turn the native dialect of London was all the more strongly condemned. It became the mark of error and vulgarity.

The figure of the Cockney, however, never disappeared. The term itself has been considered one of derision. “Cockney” is generally supposed to derive from the medieval term “cokenay” or cock’s egg; in other words an unnatural object or freak of nature. There is another, equally derisory, explanation. A Londoner, on his first visit to the country, is supposed innocently to have asked, “Does a cock neigh too?” But there is also the possibility of more agreeable origins. One historian has suggested that it comes from the Latin term coquina, or “cookery,” and derives from the time when London was considered the great centre of cook-shops. It may also come from the Celtic myth of London as “Cockaigne,” a place of milk and honey, of whom the Cockneys are the true inhabitants. Yet even this origin has been held against them. By the fifteenth century the term was synonymous with “a milksop … an effeminate fellow” and in the sixteenth century was “a derisive appellation for a townsman as a type of effeminacy, in contrast to the hardier inhabitants of the country.” Sometimes he or she seems to be an image of pity, then, as in Dickens’s reproduction of the crossing-sweeper’s conversation-“a sov’ring as waw give me by a lady in a wale as sed she was a servant and as come to my crossin’ one night as asked to be showd this ’ere ouse.” But there are many Cockney characters in Dickens who retain their exuberance and vitality. There is Ikey in “A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle,” from Sketches by Boz, who has the very model of a Cockney manner: “He seed her several times, and then he up and said he’d keep company with her … the young lady’s father he behaved even worser and more unnatural … So then he turns round to me and says … and wasn’t he a trembling, neither.” Dickens was a master of the spoken word and throughout his fiction he evinces his command of the London dialect. It might even be said that the nineteenth century was the one in which Cockneys and Cockneyisms really flourished. They were no longer the city merchants or innkeepers of the seventeenth-century drama or the aspiring (if vulgar) neighbours of the eighteenth-century novel; they were considered to be members of a distinctive and extensive group.

The rise of rhyming slang, for example, can be dated to the first decades of the nineteenth century, when there emerged phrases such as “apples and pears” for “stairs” and “trouble and strife” for “wife.” Back-slang, or the reversal of words, also appeared at this time. Thus is “yob,” for example, slang for “boy.”

In the same century, too, the Cockney fully emerged as an identifiable if not always lovable character. Writers including Pierce Egan, Henry Mayhew and G.A.H. Sala-whose careers span the entire century-copied a recognisable idiom in such phrases as “She’s a bloody rum customer when she gets lushy” or “They doesn’t care nothink for nobody” or “She tipp’d him a volloper right across the snout.”

The literature of Cockney in the nineteenth century is for all practical purposes endless, but it found one specific focus in the language of the music hall. Performers such as Albert Chevalier, Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and Gus Elan gave Cockney idiom artistic form and direction; it allowed the genuine outflow of communal feeling with songs such as “My Shadow is My Only Friend” and “I Wonder What It Feels like to be Poor.” They are the true songs of London. The routines of the “halls” encouraged much elaboration and ingenuity, also, so that it can fairly be said that the standard of Cockney was set by the 1880s. Certainly this was the period that witnessed the emergence of what may still be called modern Cockney.

Its most fastidious exponent was, perhaps, Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle: “There’s menners f’yer. Te-oo banches o’ voylet trod into the mad … Ow eez yee-ooa san, is ’e?” The last sentence-“Oh he’s your son, is he?”- is indicative of Shaw’s skill at phonetic reproduction, but it is not always easy upon the ear or eye. Other examples of twentieth-century Cockney may be more amenable. “The other dye I ‘appened ter pick up a extry ’alf-thick-un throo puttin’ money on my opinyun of the Gran’ Neshnal. Well, nar, the fancy tikin’ me, I drops in on a plice as were a cut above whart I patterinizes as a yooshal thing.” This dates from 1901, and then twenty-one years later we have the following: “Vere was a bloke goin’ dahn Tah’r Bridge Road, an’ ve Decima Stree’ click se’ abaht ’im. Vey dropped ’im one …”

Pronunciations like “relytions” (relations), “toime” (time), “owm” (home), “flahs” (flowers), “inselt” (insult), “arst” (asked), “gorn” (gone), “I done it” (I did it), have become standard. Certain words and phrases have changed. “Smashin’,” for example, has become “blindin’” or “brilliant.” Other words have been retrieved. “Mate” or “mite” went quite out of fashion, but then returned through the intermediary of Australian television soap opera. But in general terms construction and intonation have remained the same. A speaker from the 1960s-“He did not say nothing … so he come in and just as he come in … Right in the corner it was … Of course they was cursing … So-any way-I give one look … I seen them … Them days”-does not differ radically from any Cockney speaker of the early twenty-first century.

One proviso ought to be entered, however. There are still speakers of modern or standard Cockney but among younger Londoners it has become milder or at least more subdued; this may be the result of better formal education, but is perhaps more closely related to the general diminution of local or native dialects as a result of mass “media” communications.

Yet it is still a remarkable record of continuity; native London speech has survived all the incursions of intellectual fashion, educational practice or social disapproval and has managed to retain its vitality after many centuries of growth. Its success reflects, and indeed may even be said to embody, the success of the city itself. Cockney grew, like London, by assimilation; it borrowed other forms of speech, and made them its own. It has taken words from Dutch and Spanish, Arabic and Italian, French and German; it has borrowed the cant of thieves and the argot of prison. Since the city itself has on many occasions been described as a prison, it is fitting that the language of the Cockney should in part be the language of the convict, from “nark” to “copper.” Given the general and persistent violence of London life, also, it is not altogether surprising that the London dialect has taken many words and phrases from the boxing ring including “kisser,” “conk,” “scrap” and “hammer.” Other terms have come from the army and navy, where Cockneys served, and in recent decades Americanisms have also been assimilated. Thus the language thrives.

Cockney has other characteristics which also serve to define the life of the city. It benefits from an extraordinary theatricality; it is filled with a magniloquence and intensity not unconnected to braggadocio. In Machyn’s diaries of the sixteenth century we encounter the same bravura which, with some modifications, can still be heard on the streets of London: “the goodlyest scollers as ever you saw … the greth pykkepus as ever was … ther was syche a cry and showtt as has not byne.” This is also related to the Cockney tendency to mix up, or misunderstand, apparently impressive words in an effort to convince the hearer. A bathroom wall may be “covered in condescension” or an elderly person may suffer from “Alka-seltzer disease.” Other observers have noted such phrases as “Yer a septic … collector of internal residue … jumbo sale … give ’im a momentum when he retires.” The list is endless.

There is a certain cheerfulness and perkiness, too, which is as much a characteristic of the city as of the language. Londoners are fond of proverbs and of catchphrases, and of very harsh oaths which are a combination of comedy, aggression and cynicism. Their tongue has therefore been described as generally “crude and materialistic” but with precisely those characteristics it resembles and reflects the city in which it was fashioned.

Slang and catchphrases are as old as the language itself. The streets of London have always been filled with slogans and catcalls. We can date some as far back as the fifteenth century. “Who put a turd in the boy’s mouth?,” “As bare as a bird’s arse” and “God save you from the rain” are typical examples of street language. There were other expressions which had a specific urban origin. A famous performing horse, Morocco, for example, when asked by its owner to pick out the biggest fool in the audience, chose the comedian and jester Richard Tarleton, whose response, “God a mercy, horse,” ran through London at the end of the sixteenth century. It could be used as a token of any kind of annoyance, but it had a comic touch because of its associations. “Oh good, Sir Robert, knock!” became in the seventeenth century a general cry of reproach among Londoners at some naughty deed; its derivation was the knock of a hammer to stop flagellation in Bridewell.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, too, street slang appears and disappears for no particular reason. The word “quoz” was a great favourite, for example, and was capable of almost any meaning. According to Charles Mackay, in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, it was a mark of incredulity, or hilarity, or condescension. “When a mischievous urchin wished to annoy a passenger, and create mirth for his chums, he looked him in the face and cried out ‘Quoz!’ … Every alehouse resounded with Quoz; every street corner was noisy with it, and every wall for miles around was chalked with it.” It was followed by another favourite phrase of street life, “What a shocking bad hat!,” which was directed at almost anyone of distinctive appearance. This in turn was followed by the single word “Walker!,” which was designed to cause maximum offence and “was uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last.” It was used by young women to deter an admirer, by young boys mocking a drunk, or to anyone impeding the way. It lasted three or four months only, and was replaced by another piece of London slang which lasted an equally short period, “There he goes with his eye out.” This was rivalled in its unfathomability by another popular phrase, “Has your mother sold her mangle?,” which became a customary term of abuse among the Cockney population. Brevity and incomprehensibility are the two marks of popular favour. In the 1830s another phrase, “flare up,” became literally the talk of the town. “It answered all questions and settled all disputes,” Charles Mackay wrote, “… and suddenly became the most comprehensive phrase in the English language.” A man who had spoken out of turn, or who had drunk too much, or had been involved in a quarrel, had consequently “flared up.” Its popularity lasted, again, for a short time, to be followed by “Does your mother know you’re out?,” addressed to anyone who looked a little too pompous or self-satisfied-as in the retort by the cab driver to the peer who resisted the attempt to be charged double.

There are other examples of this continual invention of new words or phrases which seem mysteriously to resound in the streets of London immediately after they have been coined by-who knows whom? It is almost as if they were invented by the city itself, and sent echoing down the alleys and thoroughfares in the litany of London generations: “I can come it slap … Would you be surprised to hear? … Go it! … Immensikoff! … It’s naughty but it’s nice … Whatcher me old brown son … Chase me … Whoa, Emma! … Have a banana … Twiggey-voo! … Archibald, certainly not … There’s a lot of it about it … He’s a splendid performer, I don’t think … Can I do you now, sir … It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going … See you later alligator … Shut that door.” The most recent examples come respectively from music hall, radio and television-television, together with cinema and popular music, now being the most fruitful source of street slang.

The tradition continues, principally because it is an aspect of Cockney humour once known as “chaff.” We hear in the eighteenth century of Londoners being sent into “convulsions” of laughter by prints of a couple yawning after sexual intercourse. The humour could also be of a more personal kind. Steele, in the Spectator of 11 August 1712, tells the story of an eighteenth-century gentleman who was approached by a beggar and politely asked for sixpence so that he might visit a tavern. “He urged, with a melancholy Face, that all his Family had died of Thirst. All the Mob have Humour, and two or three began to take the Jest.” The “Humour” of “the Mob” here consists in the beggar implicitly mocking the gentleman, a form of burlesque which is the most common form of Cockney humour. Chimney-sweeps were dressed up as clergymen; shoe-blacks, “with their footstools on their heads,” were driven around the “ring” of Hyde Park at the precise moment when the fashionable were about to parade. They were levelling distinctions, and parodying wealth or rank. William Hazlitt divined in The Plain Speaker of 1826 that “Your true Cockney is your only true leveller.” He concluded that “Everything is vulgarised in his mind. Nothing dwells long enough on it to produce an interest; nothing is contemplated sufficiently at a distance to excite curiosity or wonder … He has no respect for himself, and still less (if possible) for you. He cares little about his own advantage, if he can only make a jest out of yours. Every feeling comes to him through a medium of levity and impertinence.” This may represent too jaundiced an attitude, however, since the levelling humour is also related to the spirit of “fair play” which was said to be prevalent among the London crowd; one of the great Cockney expressions was “Fair play’s a jewel.” In this spirit the street urchins of the nineteenth century might innocently ask a gentleman, “Is the missus quite well?” Swift remembered a child declaring, “Go and teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

When street scavengers were confronted by the new “street-sweeping machines,” “a brisk interchange of street wit took place, the populace often enough encouraging both sides.” In similar fashion street fights, however spontaneous, took place according to rules well known to the London crowd. The same equalising spirit of London burlesque may also lie behind the permanent affection for cross-dressing among Cockneys. Theatrical transvestism has been prominent in London entertainments for centuries-from Mrs. Noah of the medieval pageants to the latest act in a London “drag” club. When in 1782 the actor Bannister played the character of Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera-itself a great emblem of London-one member of the audience “was thrown into hysterics which continued without intermission until Friday morning when she expired.”

CHAPTER 15. Theatrical City

Evidence for a Roman theatre, south-west of St. Paul’s, is now very clear; it was located little more than 150 feet east of the Mermaid Theatre, which is situated by Puddle Dock. Further evidence can be found for a theatre at Whitechapel in 1567; it was just beyond Aldgate, with a stage some five feet high and a series of galleries.

This was in turn followed by the erection of the Theatre in the fields of Shoreditch. It was constructed of wood and thatch, well enough designed to merit the description of this “gorgeous playing-place erected in the Fields.” Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were performed here. Certainly it must have proved popular because, a year later, another theatre was built two hundred yards away; it was known as “The Curtain” or, latterly, “The Green Curtain” in deference to the colourful sign painted on its exterior. Theatres, like taverns and shops, were well illustrated to catch the attention of the citizens.

These two early theatres set the standard for those more famous playhouses which play so large a part in Elizabethan cultural history. These playhouses were always outside the walls of the city (unlike the “private” theatre of Blackfriars), and the two theatres in the northern fields were constructed upon land once belonging to Holywell Priory; as the name suggests, there was a “holy well” in the immediate vicinity. It may be that they were deliberately sited close to the location where sacred plays had once been staged. This might also account for the presence of a theatre in the old priory of the Blackfriars. Londoners have always been aware of the topography of their city and its environs, so that on many occasions and in many contexts the same activity can be observed taking place in the same location. The situation of the twelfth-century “theatrum” is not known, but it is at least reasonable to suggest that it lay where the Rose, the Swan and the Globe eventually emerged in the 1580s and 1590s.

There has been speculation about the origins of early theatre architecture, and some have supposed that it was established upon the pattern of the yards of galleried inns where itinerant groups of minstrels or actors would perform. They were known as “inn-playhouses”; there were two in Gracechurch Street, the Bell and the Cross Keys, while another stood on Ludgate Hill. The latter was known as the Belle Sauvage or the Bell Savage and, like the others, soon acquired a distinctly unsavoury reputation. In 1580 an edict from the Privy Council commanded the officers of London “to thrust out the Players from the City” and to “pull down the playing and dicing houses within the Liberties” where the presence of actors encouraged “immorality, gambling, intemperance … Apprentices and Factions.” The theatre, then, may provoke that unrest which seems always to have been present beneath the surface of the city’s life. It also provided occasion for the spread of those terrors of London, fire and disease.

Other theatrical historians have concluded that the true model of the Elizabethan theatre was not the inn-yard but the bear-baiting ring or the cockpit. Certainly these activities were not incompatible with serious drama. Some theatres became bear-rings or boxing rings, while some cockpits and bull-rings became theatres. There was no necessary distinction between these activities, and historians have suggested that acrobats, fencers and rope-dancers could also perform at the Globe or the Swan. Edward Alleyn, the great actor-manager of the early seventeenth century, was also Master of the King’s Bears. The public arena was truly heterogeneous.

The popularity of Elizabethan drama characterises Londoners who attended it, both in their affection for colourful ritual and in their admiration of magniloquence. The taste of the crowd for intermittent violence was amply satisfied by the plays themselves, while the Londoners’ natural pride in the history of their city was recognised in those dramatic historical pageants which were part of the diet of the playhouses. When Shakespeare places Falstaff and his company in East Cheap, he is invoking the life of the city which existed two centuries before. Spectacle and violence, civic pride and national honour, all found their natural home in the theatres of London.

There were, of course, familiar complaints. When Burbage attempted to reopen the theatre of Blackfriars in 1596, the “noblemen and gentlemen” who lodged in the old monastery buildings complained about the “vagrant and lewd persons” who would congregate there; they also declared that “the noise of the drums and trumpets” would hinder church services in the vicinity. When the Blackfriars was eventually reopened, visitors attending plays by Shakespeare or by Chapman were obliged to leave their coaches by the west end of St. Paul’s or by the Fleet conduit, and proceed the rest of the way on foot; this was designed to prevent further tumult.

The Fortune Theatre in Golding Lane, now Golden Lane, was famous for its “inflamations” with “squibs … thunder … artificial lightning.” The costs were a penny for standing room only, twopence for a chair and threepence for “the most comfortable seats which are cushioned.” During the performance, according to Thomas Platter’s Travels in England, “food and drink are carried around the audience.”

During the Puritan Commonwealth the theatres were closed; it was said that the people had seen enough public tragedy and no longer required any dramatic version; instead theatrical entertainments were performed clandestinely or under cover of some other activity. The Red Bull Playhouse in Clerkenwell-only a few hundred yards to the north of Smithfield-remained open for rope-acts and the like, but also managed to make room for “drolleries” and “pieces of plays.” So great was the appetite for these spectacles among ordinary Londoners that one contemporary wrote: “I have seen the Red Bull playhouse, which was a large one, so full, that as many went back for want of room as had entered.” There were continual complaints about plays and actors, even after various inhibitory proclamations of 1642 and 1648, so we may assume that the more spirited Londoners continued to find at least “pieces” of drama.

It might be thought then that the citizens would agree with one of their number, Samuel Pepys, who declared after the Restoration that the theatre was “a thousand times better and more glorious than ever before.” He was referring to the newly licensed theatres of Dorset Gardens and Drury Lane, but the new theatres were nothing like the old; as Pepys went on to remark, “now all things civil, no rudeness anywhere.” The drama had been refined, in other words, in order that it would appeal to the king, the court and those Londoners who shared the same values. Just as the “Cockney” dialect was now being denigrated, so the popular theatre of previous decades was dissolved.

And yet the more “Cockney” Londoners did also manage to attend the new plays; they were not necessarily welcomed in the boxes or the pit with the more prosperous citizens, but they took over the gallery from where they could shout insults or pelt fruit upon both stage and respectable audience. Cockney theatre-goers were only one aspect, however, of the generally partisan and inflammatory aspect of the urban audience. “Claques” would attend in order to cry up, or drown out, the latest production; fights would break out among the gentlemen “of quality,” while there were often riots which effectively concluded all theatrical proceedings. Indeed the riots themselves were somewhat theatrical in appearance. When in the mid-eighteenth century David Garrick proposed to abolish “half-price” seats, for those who entered after the third of five acts (the whole performance beginning at six o’clock in the evening), the day appointed for that innovation found the Drury Lane Playhouse filled with a silent crowd. P.J. Grosley composed A Tour of London in 1772, and set the scene. As soon as the play commenced there was a “general outcry” with “fisty-cuffs and cudgels,” which led to further violence when the audience “tore up the benches of the pit and galleries” and “demolished the boxes.” The lion, which had decorated the king’s box, was thrown upon the stage among the actors, and the unicorn fell into the orchestra “where it broke the great harpsichord to pieces.” In his London Journal of 19 January 1763, Boswell remarks that “we sallied into the house, planted ourselves in the middle of the pit, and with oaken cudgels in our hands and shrill-sounding cat calls in our pockets, sat ready prepared.”

Such behaviour in the capital’s theatres continued well into the nineteenth century. A German traveller of 1827, Prince Pückler Muskau, later caricatured by Charles Dickens as Count Smorltork in The Pickwick Papers, reported that “The most striking thing to a foreigner in English theatres is the unheard-of coarseness and brutality of the audiences.” The “Old Price” riots of 1807 lasted for seventy nights, and the private life of Edmund Kean-accused of being both a drunk and an adulterer-led to four nights of violent rioting in the playhouse of Drury Lane. What was termed “party spirit” did on more than one occasion prompt fights both among the spectators and the players. The presence of foreigners upon the stage was another cause of uproar; when the “Theatre Historique” arrived at Drury Lane from Paris, there was a general rush for the stage. Mobs surrounded the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, in 1805, when a comedy entitled The Tailors caused offence among the fraternity. Professional boxers were brought into the auditorium by rival groups, as early as 1743, in order to slug it out. This was city drama, in every sense. And yet, in the city itself, the real drama was still performed upon the streets.

CHAPTER 16. Violent Delights

As long as the city has existed there have been entertainers and entertainments, from the street ventriloquists who cast their voices into their hands to the “man with the telescope” who for twopence would allow you to look at the heavens on a summer’s night. Performers balanced on the weathercock of St. Paul’s steeple; there were midnight dog-shows and duels of rats; there were street jugglers and street conjurors, complete with pipes and drum; there were performing bears and performing monkeys dragged through the streets of London upon long ropes. In the late eighteenth century a pedlar exhibited a hare dancing upon a tambourine, while another entertainer displayed “a curious mask of bees on his head and face.” In the early nineteenth century a crowd gathered around a booth labelled “Fantasina,” while children examined a “Kelidascope.” On Tower Hill there was set up an “ingenious contrivance” of many mechanical figures, with the legend “Please To Encourage the Inventor,” while in Parliament Street a donkey pulled along a peep-show entitled “The Battle of Waterloo.” There are now amusement arcades where there were once the windows of print-shops, and instead of the London Zoo there was once a “Menagerie” in Exeter Change along the Strand where the roaring of the beasts reverberated down the thoroughfare and frightened the horses.

There have always been wonders and curiosities. John Stow recorded the minute skills of a blacksmith who exhibited a padlock, key and chain which could be fastened around the neck of a performing flea; John Evelyn reported seeing “the Hairy Woman” whose eyebrows covered her forehead, as well as a Dutch boy who displayed the words “Deus Meus” and “Elohim” on each iris. In the reign of George II, it was announced that “from eight in the morning till nine at night, at the end of the great booth on Blackheath, a West of England woman 38 years of age, alive, with two heads, one above the other … She has had the honour to be seen by Sir Hans Sloane, and several of the Royal Society. Gentlemen and ladies may see her at their own houses as they please.” The advertisement has been taken from a pamphlet entitled Merrie England in the Olden Time. So the unfortunate creature was taken to the London houses of the rich, to be inspected at closer hand. In the early nineteenth century “Siamese twins” were often exhibited, although such “monstrous couplings” had already been shown under other names in other centuries, and in the same period was displayed the “Anatomic Vivante” or “Living Skeleton” who at the height of five feet seven and a half inches weighed less than six stone. At another London exhibition, “the heaviest man that ever lived,” weighing eighty-seven stone, also entertained the curious public. As Trinculo says upon first confronting Caliban, on that enchanted island strangely recalling London, “when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Fleet Street was once the home of London marvels other than those of newspaper “stories.” The playwright Ben Jonson noticed “a new motion of the city of Nineveh, with Jonah and the whale, at Fleet Bridge.” In 1611 “the Fleet Street mandrakes” were on show for a penny. A fourteen-year-old boy, only eighteen inches high, was to be seen in 1702 at a grocer’s shop called the Eagle and Child by Shoe Lane; a Lincolnshire ox, nineteen hands high and four yards long, could be viewed at the White Horse nearby. There was the usual diet of giants and dwarfs; anything out of its due size and proportion was welcome in “disproportion’d London.” There was also much interest excited by “automata” and other mechanical devices, as if they somehow imitated the motions of the city itself. It is curious to learn from the Daily Advertiser of 1742 that at the Mitre Tavern there was exhibited “a most curious Chaise that travels without Horses. This beautiful convenient Machine is so simply contriv’d, and easily manag’d as to travel upwards of forty Miles a Day.”

In Fleet Street, too, were the waxworks. They were first exhibited by Mrs. Salmon, the direct predecessor of Madame Tussaud, at the sign of the Golden Salmon near Aldersgate; as the Spectator pointed out on 2 April 1711, “it would have been ridiculous for the ingenious Mrs. Salmon to have lived at the sign of the Trout.” But she removed to Fleet Street, where her collection of 140 figures was the object of public admiration. On the ground floor of her establishment was a toyshop, selling Punch dolls and cricket bats and chessboards, while on the two upper floors stood replicas of John Wilkes, Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Siddons and other London notables; the sign emblazoned across the house-front read, simply enough, “The Wax Work.” Outside was the pale yellow wax image of Mother Shipton who, on the release of a lever, would kick the unsuspecting pedestrian.

These figures, mobile or immobile, also served an apparently more serious purpose. For many centuries the wax effigies of dead monarchs and statesmen, coloured and “made up,” were exhibited in Westminster Abbey. Where once the effigy of the dead Elizabeth I, carried in procession at her funeral, elicited “general sighing, groaning and weeping,” its decrepit condition in the mid-eighteenth century made her seem “half witch and half ghoul.” Yet the phrase “man of wax” was still in general circulation; it had no disagreeable connotations then but, rather, meant a personage who one day might be granted the honour of display in the Abbey.

Mrs. Salmon herself has long since sunk from view, but the waxworks of Madame Tussaud survive in glory. Curiously enough, wax-workers have always been women, and Madame Tussaud herself can be credited with the invention of what Punch dubbed “the Chamber of Horrors.” The present establishment lies by the equally spectacular Planetarium.

Mayfair is named after the annual fair which took place on the north side of Piccadilly; now only the prostitutes of Shepherd’s Market bring an echo of its past. But Haymarket has retained its old associations. Since the eighteenth century it has been a street of entertainment, from the Cats’ Opera of 1758 to The Phantom of the Opera of the last decade of the twentieth century. In 1747 Samuel Foote, a famous actor and mimic, gave a series of comic lectures at the Haymarket Theatre; in the theatre built upon the same site, in 1992, the comic actor John Sessions gave a very similar performance. The persistent energy of the city has its own momentum which defies rational explication.

It is a city always known for its vivacity and its restlessness. We learn from Thomas Burke’s The Streets of London that the citizens’ “progress through the streets is marked by impetuosity and a constant exertion of strength.” We learn further from Pierre Jean Grosley’s A Tour of London in 1772 that “the English walk very fast; their thoughts being entirely engrossed by business, they are very punctual to their appointments, and those, who happen to be in their way, are sure to be sufferers by it; constantly darting forward, they justle them with a force proportioned to the bulk and velocity of their motion.”

A century later a Parisian traveller noted that throughout London “there surges a bustling thrusting crowd such as our busiest boulevard gives no idea of … the cabs move twice as fast, watermen and ‘bus conductors run a whole sentence to a single word … the last atom of value is extracted from every action and every minute.” Even the entertainments were energetic, and at Greenwich “the rabble of London assemble on Easter Monday and roll down its green side, men and women promiscuously.” Sexual licence and commercial energy are all mixed, to send the citizens whirling forward. A twentieth-century French traveller believed that in London “English legs move with greater velocity than ours. And this whirl carries even the ancient with it.” The “whirl” is part flux and disorder, but it is also an aspect of the ceaseless movement of people, goods and vehicles. Tobias Smollett, in Humphry Clinker, noted only “rambling, riding, rolling, rushing, justling, mixing, bouncing, cracking, and crashing … All is tumult and hurry; one would imagine they were impelled by some disorder of the brain, that will not suffer them to be at rest.” It does indeed on occasions appear to be a kind of fever. Maurice Ash, the author of A Guide to the Structure of London in 1972, when confronted with the continuous “hurrying to and fro,” was tempted to conclude that there is no real business other “than the business of traffic itself”; the city, in other words, represents movement for its own sake. It is reminiscent of the scene of “shooting the bridge” out of George Borrow’s Lavengro when a London boatman fearlessly navigated the rush of water through the middle arch of London Bridge “elevating one of his sculls in triumph, the man hallooing and the woman … waving her shawl.” It is a picture of the intense vitality of London life.

When Southey asked a pastry-cook why she kept her shop open in harsh weather she replied that she would lose much custom, “so many were the persons who took up buns or biscuits as they passed by and threw their pence in, not allowing themselves time to enter.” That pace has hardly slowed in a century, and one of the latest social surveys of London, Focus on London 97, reveals that “the economic activity rates for London have consistently been between 1 and 2 percentage points higher than those for the United Kingdom as a whole.” This infinite motion has continued for more than a thousand years; fresh and ever renewed, it still partakes of antiquity. That is why the “whirl” and business of the streets comprise only an apparent disorder, and some observers have noticed a central rhythm or historical momentum which propels the city forward. This is the mystery-how can the endless rush itself be eternal? It is the riddle of London, which is perpetually new and always old.

There are days of rest, however, even in the turbulent city. It has often been remarked that Sunday is dreariest in London, of all cities, perhaps because restfulness and silence do not come easily or naturally to it. It was not always so. Londoners have characteristically used their holidays or holy days for “violent delights.” From the early medieval period there have been archery and jousting, bowls and football-as well as the “hurling of Stones and Wood and Iron”-but the taste of the London crowd could also be less healthful. There were cock-fights and boar-fights, bull-baiting, bear-baiting and dog-baiting. The bears were given affectionate names, such as “Harry Hunks” or “Sacherson,” but the treatment of them was vicious. One visitor to Bankside, in the early seventeenth century, watched the whipping of a blind bear “which is performed by five or six men, standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy, as he cannot escape from them because of the chain: he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them.” In the late seventeenth century we read of horse-baiting at Bankside where several dogs were set upon a “great horse”; it defeated its persecutors but then “the Mobile [mob] in the house cryed out it was a cheat, and thereupon began to untyle the house, and threatened to pull it quite down, if the Horse were not brought again and baited to death.” This was the sport of the London crowd.

Bulls were baited with dogs, also, but they were sometimes maddened by having peas placed in their ears, or fireworks stuck on their backs. In the eighteenth century there was bullock-hunting in Bethnal Green, badger-baiting in Long Fields by the Tottenham Court Road, and ferocious wrestling matches at Hockley-in-the-Hole. This area, just across the Fleet from Clerkenwell, was one of the most dangerous and unruly in all London where “all sorts of rough games” were provided.

The more respectable seventeenth-century citizens were not necessarily amused by these diversions. Instead there were healthful “walks” in a number of carefully planned and plotted public areas. By the early seventeenth century Moorfields had been drained and laid out, creating “upper walks” and “lower walks,” and a few years later Lincoln’s Inn Fields were also designed for “common walks and disports.” “Grays Inn Walks” were highly favoured and Hyde Park, although still a royal park, was open to the public for horse-racing and boxing. St. James’s Park was designed a little later; here, in the words of Tom Brown, a contemporary journalist, “The green Walk afforded us varieties of discourses from persons of both sexes … disturbed with the noisy milk folks-crying-A Can of Milk, Ladies; A can of Red Cow’s Milk, Sir.”

But the true “nature” of London is not shrubbery or parkland, but human nature. At night beneath the shade of the trees, according to the Earl of Rochester, “Are buggeries, rapes and incests made” while Rosamond’s Pond on the south-west side of St. James’s Park became notorious for suicides.

In Spring Gardens were a bowling green and butts for target practice. In the New Spring Gardens, later Vauxhall Gardens, there were avenues and covered walks. Small green refreshment huts sold wine and punch, snuff and tobacco, sliced ham and quartered chicken, while ladies of doubtful morals sauntered among the trees with gold watches dangling from their necks as a token of their trade. The apprentices and their girls would visit Spa Fields in Clerkenwell or the Grotto Gardens in Rosoman Street, where they were encouraged to consume tea or ices or alcohol, to the accompaniment of song, music and generally “low” entertainment.

Much of that vigour has now vanished. The parks are now characteristically restful places within the noise and uproar of London. They attract those who are unhappy or ill at ease. The idle and the vagrant sleep more easily beneath the trees, together with those who are simply exhausted by the city. London parks have often been called the “lungs” of the city, but the sound is that of sleep. “It being mighty hot and I weary,” Pepys wrote on 15 July 1666, “lay down upon the grass by the canalle [in St. James’s Park], and slept awhile.” It is a world of weariness which Hogarth depicted in an engraving that shows a London dyer and his family return from Sadler’s Wells. The landscape behind them is one of sylvan charm but they are returning on the dusty road to the city. The plump and pregnant wife is dressed according to city fashion, and sports a fan with a classical motif upon it; but she is pregnant because she has cuckolded her husband, and the man himself looks tired and dejected as he carries an infant in his arms. Their two other children fight, and their dog looks at the canal which takes water from Islington into the conduits of London. Everything denotes heat and enervation, as an expedition out of London comes to its inevitable end. In more recent days, too, exhausted and fretful citizens still come back to London from their “outings” like prisoners returning to gaol.

CHAPTER 17. Music, Please

By the middle of the nineteenth century the pleasure gardens were outmoded, and their legacy lay in the concert rooms which sprang up within the city. In 1763 it was advertised that in the “great room” of Spring Gardens the seven-year-old Mozart would be seen “playing the Harpsichord in a Perfection it surmounts all … Imagination.” But formal music-making was not the only music of London. London’s arias and laments began with the first street trader and have continued ever since. It has often been noted that the “low” culture of the native Londoner can revitalise and refashion the forces of traditional culture. The spectacle of the infant Mozart playing in a music room is complemented by Handel’s remark that “hints of his very best songs have several of them been owing to the sounds in his ears of cries in the streets.” In the city, “high” and “low” are inextricably mingled.

We hear the merchants of medieval Cheapside, singing out in London Lickpenny with “Strabery ripe” and “Cherryes in the ryse.” “Here is Parys thred, finest in the land … Hot shepe’s feete … Makerell … ryshes grene!” The costermonger sold “Costards!,” which were big apples, but in later centuries the “coster,” with his horse and cart, cried out, “Soles, oh! … Live haddick … Ee-ee-eels alive, oh! … Mackareel! mack-mack-mackareel!” So it continued, down other streets and other centuries. “Pretty Maids Pretty Pins Pretty Women … Buy My Great Eeels … Diddle Diddle Diddle Dumplens Ho … Any Card Matches or Savealls … Buy any Wax or Wafers … Old Shoes for Some Brooms … Buy a Rabbit a Rabbet … Buy a Fork or Fire Shovel … Crab Crab Crab any Crab … Buy my fat Chickens … Old Chairs to mend … Any Kitchen Stuff Have You Maids … 4 Pair For A Shilling Holland Socks … Buy My 4 Ropes of Hard Onyons … Any Work for John Cooper … New River Water.”

Volumes have been written about these London cries, and we also have images of the tradespeople who uttered them. This identification was another way of deciphering the chaos of the city and of creating out of the poor or “lower order” a gallery of characters. The seller of cod, for example, wears an old apron, while the vendor of shoes sports a cape. The seller of dried hake carries the basket of that commodity upon her head, but the vendor of oranges and lemons carries her bounty at her waist. The Irish were known to sell rabbits and milk, the Jews old clothes and hare-skins, the Italians looking-glasses and pictures. The old woman selling fire-shovels dresses herself in an old-fashioned cone-shaped hat as a representation of the wintry months. Countrywomen entering the metropolis to sell their wares characteristically wore red cloaks and straw hats, while the countrymen wove flowers in their hair. Those who sold fish were generally the poorest, while women selling clothes were the most smartly dressed.

Yet the clothing of most street vendors bears the unmistakable mark of destitution, with worn and tattered dresses or coats. Many of these tradespeople were crippled or deformed and, as the editor of Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life, Sean Shesgreen, has noted, “If they give one impression more than any other, it is a care-worn melancholy.” Laroon’s portraits are distinctly individual, unlike “types” or categories, and in his art we can see the lineaments of specific fate and circumstance. The distinctive features he depicted in the 1680s remain the silent token of many generations who have walked crying through the streets of the city.

Even as the poor trader died-or left some scanty stock to another-his or her cry was taken up like an echo. It was certainly true that, as Addison wrote in 1711, “People know the Wares they deal in rather by their Tunes than by their Words.” The words were often indistinct or indistinguishable: the mender of old chairs was recognised by his low and melancholy note, while the retailer of broken glass specialised in a sort of plaintive shriek quite appropriate to his goods. But even the music itself might become confused and confusing. The vendor of shrimps could adopt the same tune as the vendor of watercress, and potatoes were sold with the same cry as that of cherries.

There was also in the passage of years, or centuries, the steady clipping or abbreviation of jargon. “Will you buy any milk today, mistress” became “Milk maids below,” then “Milk below,” then “Milk-o” and, finally, “Mieu” or “Mee-o.” “Old clothes” became “Ogh clo” or “owld clo.” “Salted hake” became “Poor Jake” or “Poor Jack”; then “Poor John” became the recognisable phrase for the vendors of dried cod. The chimney-sweep’s cry became “’we-ep” or “’e-ep” and Pierce Egan, author of Life in London, recalled “one man from whom I could never make out more than happy happy happy now.”

As London grew larger and noisier, the cries became louder-perhaps, even, more desperate and more hysterical. From a distance of half a mile, they were a low, steady and continuous roar much like a fall of water; they became a Niagara of voices. But in the middle of the city, they were a great turmoil of notes. London to foreign observers was “a distracted City” and Samuel Johnson noted that “The attention of a new-comer is generally first struck by the multiplicity of the cries that stun him in the street.” Stun, stunner, stunning-it is a true London word. As the print salesman said of his wares placed in an upturned umbrella-“It’ll show stunnin’, and sell as yer goes.”

The cries of the street-seller were joined by those of the “common criers” who announced such items of public news as “If any man or woman can tell any tydyngs of a grey mare, with a long mane and a short tayle …” There were the shopkeepers of Cheapside, Paternoster Row, East Cheap and a hundred other localities calling out continually “What do you lack … Will you buy …” The cry of the “mercury-women,” “Londons Gazette here,” was eventually superseded by that of the newsboy with his “Pa-a-par! ainy of the mornin’ pipers.” The horn of the sow-gelder plying his trade mingled with the bell of the dustman and the sound of the “Twancking of a brass Kettle or a Frying-pan” together with the myriad and unending sounds of the London traffic.

Today, street markets are still alive with chatter and patter; most of the cries have vanished, although even in the twenty-first century you might still hear the bell of the muffin-man or the horn of the knife-grinder and see the pony-and-trap of the “any-old-iron” or rag-and-bone man. There were also the barrow man with “Shrimps and winkles all alive-o,” the lavender seller, and the “lilywhite” celery and watercress man who cried out, “’Ere’s yer salory and watercreases.”

In the past there were also the ballad-singers and the street patterers and the peripatetic vocalists and the almanac vendors and the “flying stationers” who would take up their pitch on any corner and sell single sheets on juicy murders or fashionable songs.

Perhaps the oldest form was the broadside, a sheet printed on one side which bore the latest news and the newest sensations. From the earliest years of the sixteenth century this was the language of the street-“Sir Walter Raleigh His Lamentations! … Strange News from Sussex … No Natural Mother But a Monster …” Alongside these “headlines,” as they might appropriately be called, were such broadside ballads as “A Maydens Lamentation For A Bedfellow Or I Can Nor Will No Longer Lye Alone … The Mans Comfortable Answer To The Mayden … This Maid Would Give Ten Shillings For A Kiss.” These were the songs which were shouted down the streets and pasted on the walls. Their vendors did not expect to get paid for their voices but, instead, drew a crowd and then sold their wares for a halfpenny a sheet. There was of course an especial delight in “Last Dying Speeches” sold to the crowd at the very moment of execution by “flying patterers” otherwise known as “death hunters.” In a city which lived upon rumour, sensation and sudden alterations of mass feeling, the crying out of news and the singing of popular ballads were the perfect forms of communication. The politic John Dryden was not able to compete with the political ballad, “Lillibullero,” which outsold him in every sense, and another balladeer wrote: “Dryden thy Wit has catterwauld too long,/Now Lero Lero is the only song.” Songs, like slogans and catchphrases, could sweep through the streets for days or weeks before being utterly forgotten.

Then new songs, together with an old ballad for company, would in turn become part of a “long song” which comprised several ballads printed together on a roll of paper. They might also come into the hands of the “pinner up” who fastened many hundreds of ballads on iron railings or an area of “dead wall.” In the 1830s some eight hundred yards of wall on the south side of Oxford Street were used to display these song-sheets, until the arrival of shops and shop-fronts transformed the thoroughfare.

Yet some ballads retained their individual popularity for many years. “Willikins and his Dinah,” “Billy Barlow” and “The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter” remained great favourites with the London crowd-the pretty daughter of the rat-catcher herself having “such a sweet loud voice, sir,/You could hear her all down Parliament Street/And as far as Charing Cross, sir.” She was representative of those itinerant street-performers whose lives were often as pathetic and terrible as the ballads they sang. They performed mainly in the evening, sometimes accompanied by a flute or a cracked guitar, and were to be found upon every corner from the Strand to Whitechapel. Charles Dickens recalled his encounter with one such “itinerant singer” by the Upper Marsh on the south side of the river-“Singing! How few of those who pass such a miserable creature as this, think of the anguish of heart, the sinking of soul and spirit, which the very effort of singing produces!”

The ballad-singer had as a counterpart in the London streets the “running patterer” who cried out the romances and tragedies of the day. Henry Mayhew described their activities in his usual laconic style: “It is … a ‘mob’ or ‘school’ of the running patterers (for both these words are used) and consists of two, three or four men. All these men state that the greater the noise they make, the better the chance of sale.” They would often take up positions in different parts of the street and pretend to vie with each other for attention, thus heightening interest in the latest crime, murder, elopement or execution. Once again, the requisite in the city is sheer volume of noise.

Commotion and rumour are certainly more important than “truth,” if that commodity can ever actually be found in London, and the patterer often supplied his auditors with “cock”-politely described as a “pleasing fiction”-which was then sold as a “catchpenny.” The offender was known as a “cock-crower” and sometimes advertised his false wares with a lurid picture, often incorporating the London motifs of blood and flame mounted upon a pole.

It would be unfair to scorn these products of native art. Joshua Reynolds confessed that he borrowed a motif from a woodcut he had found pinned to a dead wall; Walter Scott studied street literature, chapbooks and ballads to stimulate his interest in folk myth and history. It is important to emphasise once again how Cockney taste can enter and animate a more “refined” cultural tradition.

The voices of the running patterers and the itinerant singers were invariably joined by the often discordant airs of the street musicians. Hector Berlioz, visiting London in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote that “no city in the world” was consumed so much by music; despite his profession, he was concerned less with the melodies of the concert hall than with those of the barrel-organ, the barrel-piano, the bagpipes and the drums which filled the streets. As Charles Booth noted in his survey of the East End, “let a barrel organ strike up a valse at any corner and at once the girls who may be walking past, and the children out of the gutter, begin to foot it merrily. Men join in sometimes, two young men together as likely as not,” while an appreciative crowd watched the dancing.

There were German bands, as well as Indian drummers and blacked-up “Abyssians” who played violin, guitar, tambourine and castanets; there were glee singers, and minstrels (generally a couple) who could be heard crooning “Oh where is my boy tonight?” and “Will you meet me at the Fountain?” In the 1840s there was a blind musician who played the violoncello with his feet, and a crippled trumpeter who drove around in a dog-cart.

The cacophony was immense and yet, in one of those gradual but necessary transitions of London life, most of it has passed away leaving only buskers to entertain cinema queues and inventive players of illegal music in the underpasses of London’s transport system.

CHAPTER 18. Signs of the Times

An eighteenth-century traveller remarked that “if towns were to be called after the first words which greeted a traveller on arrival, London would be called Damn it!” At the beginning of the twentieth century it would have been called “Bloody” and today “Fuckin’.”

“Fucking” is one of the longest-serving terms of abuse, having been heard on the London streets since the thirteenth century, and it is perhaps no surprise that the prevalent adjective applied to the language of Londoners is “disgusting.” The “disgust” is a response to that undertow of violence and anger which exemplifies life in the city, while such miseries as sexual abuse may have testified to the distaste which Londoners have had for their own fallen and once dirty condition. Contemporary standards of hygiene and more liberal sexual mores have not, however, materially diminished the “fucking” and “cunts” heard in the street. Perhaps modern Londoners are simply mouthing the words which the city itself has bequeathed to them.

In this context the obscene gesture should not be forgotten. In the sixteenth century a biting of the thumb represented aggression; this in turn led to the hat being cocked backwards and, in the late eighteenth century, “by a jerk of the thumb over the left shoulder.” The thumb then moved to the tip of the nose to represent contempt, and by the twentieth century two fingers were raised in the air as a “V” sign. The arm and elbow were then employed in an upward thrust to suggest derision.

The hand gestures of the street could also be free of sexual innuendo. There was once, everywhere, a pointing hand on the palm of which a destination was offered-“please to go this way,” whether to an eating-house or a toyshop. London was a city of signs. In 1762, according to Jenny Uglow’s Hogarth, the “Society of Sign Painters” announced a “Grand Exhibition” of its products, and in some rooms off Bow Street were exhibited “Keys, Bells, Swords, Poles, Sugar-Loaves, Tobacco Rolls, Candles,” all the “ornamental Furniture, carved in Wood.” It was meant as a reproof to the more tasteful productions of the Society of Arts, but its comic variety was also a testimony to an ancient but still living tradition of street art.

Once a pole draped with red rags was the emblem of the barber-surgeon who was permitted to bleed customers on his premises, the pole itself a token of the wooden rod which the customer held to keep his arm steady. The red rag later turned into a red stripe, until it became the customary barber’s pole of succeeding centuries. Almost every house, and certainly every trade, had its own sign so that the streets of the city were a perpetual forest of painted imagery: “Floure de Lice … Ravyns Head … Corniyshe coughs … The Chalice … The Cardinal’s Hat.” There were images of chained bears and of rising suns, of sailing ships and angels, of red lions and golden bells. There were also simple tokens of residence. Mr. Bell, for example, might hang the sign of a bell outside his house. But there were also well-known, if somewhat surprising, conjunctions in pub signs such as the Dog and Gridiron or the Three Nuns and a Hare. There were unusual attributions, too. As Addison pointed out, “I have seen a Goat set up before the Door of a Perfumer, and the French King’s Head at a Sword-Cutlers’s.” Tom Jones, in Henry Fielding’s novel of that name, takes up the litany: “Here we saw Joseph’s Dream, the Bull and Mouth, the Hen and Razor, the Ax and Bottle, the Whale and Crow, the Shovel and Boot, the Leg and Star, the Bible and Swan, the Frying Pan and Drum.” Adam and Eve represented a fruiterer, while the horn of a unicorn symbolised the shop of an apothecary; a bag of nails denoted an ironmonger, a row of coffins a carpenter. A sign of male and female hands conjoined might sometimes be completed by the message “Marriages performed within.”

It was a question of reading the street, of making the right associations and connections in an environment which needed a thorough decoding to mitigate its chaos and variety. Interpretative tracts, such as the elegantly titled Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, were also published. In 1716 John Gay gave best expression to the situation, however, in “The Art of Walking The Streets in London”-a theme taken up by many writers-with his portrait of a stranger who “dwells on ev’ry Sign, with stupid Gaze/Enters the narrow Alley’s doubtful Maze.”

There were also signs and plaques carved into the stone of London’s buildings. Small tablets marked newly laid-out streets-“This is Johns Street Ano Dom 1685”-while corporate heraldry was employed in the “arms” of a district or company affixed to various buildings; the symbol of St. Marylebone contains lilies and roses, because these were the flowers found in the grave of St. Mary after whom the district is named. At a later date even the lowly coal-hole covers were richly decorated, so that those who preferred to look down upon the ground were still assaulted by symbols of dogs and flowers. A nailed hoop upon a door or wall denoted the presence of fresh paint, while a small bouquet of straw meant that building work was taking place in the vicinity.

The city is indeed a labyrinth of signs, with the occasional but unnerving suspicion that there may exist no other reality than these painted symbols which demand your attention while leading you astray. As one commentator said of the modern and brilliantly illuminated Piccadilly Circus, “it is a wonderful sight-unless you can read.”

The signs of the city were distracting in another sense. They hung out so far from the wall that they touched those on the opposite side of the street, and they were sometimes so large that they blocked out sight of the sky. They could also be dangerous; they were meant to be placed at least nine feet above the level of the pavement, so that a horse and rider could pass beneath, but the regulation was not always obeyed. They were very heavy and there were occasions when the weight of sign and leaden support was too great for the wall to which they were fixed-one “front-fall” of this kind in Fleet Street injured several people and killed “two young ladies, a cobbler, and the king’s jeweller.” On windy days in the capital, the noise was ominous, their “creaking Noise” a sure sign of impending “rainy Floods.” So, in the same years as the exhibition of street signs off Bow Street, the city authorities concluded that they had become an impediment to the ever increasing traffic of the streets and ordered that they be taken down. Ten years later came street numbers.

But all colour was not lost. The passion for street art simply changed its form, with the expansion of advertising. There had always been posters wrapped around the wooden posts of the street to publicise the latest auction or the latest play, but only after the demise of street signs did other forms of public art properly emerge. By the early nineteenth century London had “grown wondrously pictorial” with a variety of papier-mâché ornaments or paintings placed in shop windows to denote the trade of the occupant. An essay in The Little World of London, entitled “Commercial Art,” lingers pleasurably on these objets d’art. Many coffee houses had a symbol of loaf and cheese together with cup; fishmongers painted the walls of their premises with “a group of fish in the grand style” all variously and picturesquely coloured, while grocers specialised in “conversation pieces” which portrayed various benevolent London matrons “assembled round the singing kettle or the simmering urn.” Boots, cigars and sealing wax, in gigantic form, were also suspended over the doors of various premises, while the destruction of Pompeii seemed a fitting advertisement for a patent cockroach exterminator.

One great innovation of the nineteenth century was the advertising hoarding, and in some of the earliest photographs of London they can be seen lining the streets and the new railway stations offering everything from Pear’s Soap to the Daily Telegraph. Advertising was in that sense very much part of the ideal of “progress,” since the hoardings themselves had first been erected to protect the streets from the myriad building sites and railway improvements. Once posters had been enlarged to cover these wooden frames, then advertising images appropriate to the city itself-large, gaudy, colourful- began to emerge. There were certain popular sites, among them the north end of Waterloo Bridge and the dead wall beside the English Opera House in North Wellington Street. Here, according to Charles Knight’s London, could be found “rainbow-hued placards vying in gorgeous extravagance of colour with Turner’s last new picture … pictures of pens, gigantic as the plumes in the casque of the Castle of Otranto … spectacles of enormous size … Irishmen dancing under the influence of Guinness’s Dublin Stout.”

“A London Street Scene,” painted by J.O. Parry in 1833, could serve as an introduction to any street scene over the last two centuries. A small blackened sweep-boy looks up in admiration as a poster for a new performance of Otello is placed over one advertising John Parry in The Sham Prince; there is a bill proclaiming “Mr. Matthews-At Home,” “Tom amp; Jerry-The Christening-!!!!!!” and a narrow strip asking “Have You Seen The Industrious Fleas?” Thus the walls of the city become a palimpsest of forthcoming, recent and old sensations.

On a dead wall today, close to where I am now writing this book, and not far from the site of the 1833 painting, can be seen posters for “Armageddon,” “To Heathrow in Fifteen Minutes,” “Mr. Love Pants Is Coming,” “Meltdown ’98 Festival,” “Drugstore-Sober-New Single Available,” “Apostle” and “The Girl With Brains In Her Feet.” More mysterious advertisements suggest that “There’s A Revolution In Sight,” that “The Magic Is Closer Than You Think,” and that “Nothing Else Moves Me.”

“Peripatetic placards” appeared on the streets in the 1830s. These were such a novel phenomenon that Charles Dickens interviewed one and, by describing him as “a piece of human flesh between two slices of pasteboard,” created the phrase “sandwich man.” George Scharf drew many of them, from a small boy in surtout overcoat holding a barrel inscribed “Malt Whiskey John Howse” to an old woman holding up a sign for “Anatomical Model of the Human Figure.”

Then in characteristic London fashion the single placard-carriers were put together in order to create a kind of pageant or pantomime; a group of them were placed inside paste models of blacking pots, for example, and paraded in line to advertise the efficacy of “Warrens Blacking, 30 Strand,” the very place where Dickens himself began his tortuous London childhood. Then arrived the advertisement as the horse-drawn gig, surmounted by an enormous hat or an Egyptian obelisk. The search for novelty was always intense and the passion for posters blossomed into the “electric advertisements” of the 1890s when “Vinolia Soap” was hailed in illuminated letters above Trafalgar Square.

Advertisements in lights soon began to move; at Piccadilly Circus could be seen a red crystal bottle pouring port into a waiting glass, and a car with turning silver wheels. Soon they were everywhere-above the ground, under the ground, and in the sky. The plethora of advertising in London helped fashion Huxley’s vision of the future city in Brave New World where above Westminster “The electric sky-signs effectively shut off the outer darkness. ‘Calvin Stopes and His Sixteen Sexophonists.’” Buses of the twenty-first century, perhaps beyond the purview of dystopian fiction, are now plastered with gaudy images like the pageant wagons of medieval London.

The pavement artists have had a less glorious career in the city. They commenced their work only when the streets were paved with stone rather than cobbles, and in that sense theirs is a recent London profession. There was a time when beggars scrawled their messages of supplication upon the stones- “Can You Help Me Out” being a favourite expression-but the pavement artist supplied a variant in the 1850s with the chalked words “All My Own Work” or “Every Little Helps. I thank you.” These street artists, or “screevers” as they were once called, had their own particular pitches. The corners of fashionable squares were considered to be ideal territory but Cockspur Street and the site opposite Gatti’s restaurant in the Strand were favoured locales. There was also a line of such street artists along the Embankment, with twenty-five yards between each pitch. Many of these “screevers” were demoralised artists whose orthodox work had not prospered-Simeon Solomon’s career as a Pre-Raphaelite painter had been applauded, for example, but he ended up as a pavement artist in Bayswater. Others were the homeless or unemployed who realised that they had a talent for the job; it required only coloured chalks and a duster, and a scene or portrait could be conjured upon the stone. Some specialised in portraits of contemporary politicians, or of sentimental domestic situations; one artist painted religious scenes along the Finchley Road, while in the Whitechapel Road another specialised in scenes of fire and burning houses. In all cases, however, they satisfied the taste of London by painting in the crudest and most garish tones, although by curious association they are related to the night sky above the city. In The Highways and Byways of London, Mrs. E.T. Cook reported that the sky behind the artists’ lodging houses in Drury Lane or Hatton Garden would often be robed “in intense hues of orange, purple and crimson” as if mimicking their colours. George Orwell, in Down and Out in Paris and London, recalls the conversation of one screever, Bozo, whose pitch was close to Waterloo Bridge. He was walking with Orwell back to his lodgings in Lambeth, but was all the time looking up at the heavens. “Say, will you look at Aldebaran! Look at the colour. Like a-great blood orange … Now and again I go out at night and watch the meteors.” Bozo had even engaged in correspondence with the Astronomer Royal on the subject of the sky above London, so that for a moment the city and the cosmos were intimately connected in the life of one wandering artist of the street.

But no account of London art can be complete without the history of its graffiti. One of the first is a curse by one Londoner upon two others, written in a Roman hand-Publius and Titus were “hereby solemnly cursed.” It is matched by a late twentieth-century graffito recently recorded by the contemporary London novelist Iain Sinclair, “TIKD. FUCK YOU. DHKP,” and suggests a characteristic of London street-writing. “For the stone shall cry out of the wall,” according to Habakkuk 2:11, and in London the cries are frequently those of anger and hostility. Many are entirely personal, with no meaning except to the one who carved or sprayed the words upon a wall, and remain the most enigmatic features of the city; one moment of anger or loss has been inscribed upon its surface, to become part of the chaos of signs and symbols which exist all around. Outside Paddington station can be found “Fume” everywhere together with “Cos,” “Boz” and “Chop.” “Rava” can be seen upon the bridges of the south bank. “Great Redeemer, People’s Liberator” adorned Kentish Town Station in the 1980s. “Thomas Jordan cleaned this window, and damn the job, I say-1815” was written on an ancient window and on a London wall a Thomas Berry scribbled “Oh Lord, cut them with thy sword.” As one exponent of the art of graffiti put it to Iain Sinclair, “If you’re going to be around the city all the time, you’d better put your name up,” which is the reason why people over many centuries have simply written down their names or initials on any tractable surface with the occasional amendment of “was here” or more frequently “woz ’ere.” It is a way of asserting individuality, perhaps, but it becomes immediately part of the anonymous texture of London; in that sense graffiti are a vivid token of human existence in the city. They may be compared to footprints or handprints, laid into cement, which become part of the city’s fabric. Hand impressions have been found in Fleet Road, Hampstead, as mysterious and poignant as symbols carved on ancient stones.

Sometimes graffiti have a relevance to the immediate locality-“James Bone is a bad kisser” or “Rose Maloney Is A Thief”-where they serve as silent messages, the written equivalent of drum-taps in the jungle. But there are also more general admonitions. In one of his prose works Thomas More quotes a fifteenth-century slogan written upon many walls-“D.C. hath no P”-which can perhaps be deciphered with the help of More’s summary that it “toucheth the readiness that woman hath to fleshly filth, if she fall in drunkenness.” One may surmise that D.C. denotes “drunken cunts” but the “P” is mysterious.

Any particular year, over the last thousand, will provide its own litany of curses, execrations and imperatives. In 1792, for example, these were some of the graffiti: “Christ Is God … No Coach Tax! … Murder Jews … Joanna Southcott … Damn the Duke of Richmond! … Damn Pitt!” In 1942 the most prominent graffiti remained “Strike in the West Now!,” and in the later part of the century the two most formidable slogans were “George Davis Is Innocent” and “No Poll Tax.” The city seems almost to be speaking to itself by means of these messages, in a language both vivid and cryptic. Some recent graffiti have been more reflective in tone-“Nothing Lasts” painted upon a brick wall, “Obedience Is Suicide” upon a bridge in Paddington, “The Tigers of Wrath Are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction” inscribed above “Rangers,” “Aggro,” “Boots” and “Rent Revolt” on the corner of Basing Street, Notting Hill Gate-the last being a potent example of the phenomenon of clustering. A wall may remain inviolate for many years but, as soon as one graffito is placed upon it, others ineluctably follow in competitive or aggressive display. Aggression can often be associated with sexuality. Many of these messages have an anonymous sexual intent which suggests isolation as well as desire-“Oh please don’t cane me too hard master … 23/11 I am 30 I have a/place at Victoria SW/I love dressing up I am wearing/pink panties now.”

The proper locale for these harsh and impersonal messages of love is, naturally enough, the public lavatory. It has become the principal source of all urban graffiti; here, in confinement and secrecy, the Londoner speaks to the entire city with words and signs that are as old as the city itself. One attendant told Geoffrey Fletcher, the author of The London Nobody Knows, that “the lavatory in Charing Cross Road was the place to go if you want the writing on the wall … make your blood run cold, it would.” In fact London lavatories have been notorious for centuries, and in 1732 Hurlo Thrumbo printed at Bethlehem Wall, Moorfields, a compilation entitled The Merry Thought or the Glass window and Bog House Miscellany. We may extract from these some of the more salient and, perhaps, immortal epigrams. From the “bog-houses” of Pancras Wells comes

Hither I came in haste to shit

But found such excrements of wit

That to shew my skill in verse

Had scarcely time to wipe my arse.

There then ensues a dialogue or chorus of other costive notes in which “write” is frequently rhymed with “shite” and “London” with “undone.” The anonymous authors’ clothing is “undone,” literally, in the London “bog-house”; but perhaps there is also a more plaintive suggestion that they have themselves been “undone” in London. From the “bog-house” by the Temple comes

No hero looks so fierce in fight

As does the man who strains to shite

and upon a tavern wall in Covent Garden

There’s nothing foul that we commit

But what we write and what we shit.

Sometimes there is a grand riposte to this city scatology. “It is the vanity of degenerates,” one Londoner inscribed, “to write their names here.”

The other principal source of London graffiti has always been the prison house, from the inscription of Thomas Rose upon the wall of the Beauchamp Tower in the Tower of London-“Kept close/By those to whom he did no wrong. May 8th, 1666”-to the cell of a modern prison where one inmate has written “You may be guilty/But what must this/be like for those/who are not.” These men also have been undone in London. Thomas Mehoe writes in 1581: “bi-tertvre-strange-my-trouth-was-tryed-yet-of-my-libertie-denied,” with words painfully but carefully inscribed with an iron nail. They are still preserved within the Tower, and in that ancient prison are many carvings, crosses, skeletons, death-heads and hour-glasses carved as tokens or symbols of suffering. There are words which are supposed to provide comfort-“Hope to the end and have patience … Spero in Deo … patience shall prevail” which can be contrasted with the graffiti found in the modern London prison-“Home by May … This is where I spent most of my life … It was just one/time I never got away by someone who got caught … Treat me carefully/I’m seven years/bad luck.” In many inscriptions the prison itself seems to be treated as an image of the world, or of the city, which will perhaps lend further significance to another graffito found upon a London wall-“I cant breathe.”

CHAPTER 19. All of Them Citizens

There are other kinds of anonymity. Dickens knew of a woman, seen in the streets about the Strand, “who has fallen forward, double, through some affliction of the spine, and whose head has of late taken a turn to one side, so that it now droops over the back of one of her arms at about the wrist. Who does not know her staff, and her shawl, and her basket, as she gropes her way along, capable of seeing nothing but the pavement, never begging, never stopping, for ever going somewhere on no business! How does she live, whence does she come, whither does she go, and why?” Dickens saw her many times; he never knew her name, and she could not have seen the famous novelist as he passed her and, perhaps, looked back.

I used to pass a dwarf, dressed in old clothes and with wizened features, who in a hoarse voice would direct the traffic at the crossroads of Theobalds Road and Grays Inn Road; he was there every day and then suddenly, in the summer of 1978, he was gone. There was, even more recently, a young West Indian who would walk up Kensington Church Street dressed in silver foil and with balloons tied to his wrists. A gentleman, known colloquially as “The King of Poland,” used to walk barefoot along the Strand in red velvet robes and with a wreath upon his head. He, too, vanished without warning.

These London particulars have their own locale and are rarely seen beyond it; they are the sprites or spirits of a specific place, and belong exclusively to the city. There was the “musical small-coal man” of Clerkenwell who, after his daily round was over, organised concerts in his lodgings in Jerusalem Passage; he died when as a practical joke a ventriloquist, known as “Talking Smith,” pretended to be the voice of God proclaiming his doom. There was Lord Queensberry, “Old Q,” who every day sat at the window of his house at 138 Piccadilly; although he had only one eye, he leered and winked at every pretty female who passed in the street. And there was “the afflicted girl-white faced and expressionless” who sat for many years close to the Horse-Shoe of Tottenham Court Road, “oblivious of time and inured to suffering through all the noise and tumult.”

There were always such familiar faces in every locality. Today there are the lollipop men and women, helping children to cross the road, but until the early decades of the twentieth century the best known were the crossing-sweepers. Many crossing-sweepers remained at their posts-or on their particular “property,” as it was called-for thirty or forty years. There was the bearded crossing-sweeper at Cornhill-“Sometimes I get insulted, only in words; sometimes I get chaffed by sober people.” And there, at the corner of Cavendish Square, was Billy who could remember ancient riots-“The mob was carrying a quartern loaf dipped in bullock’s blood, and when I saw it I thought it was a man’s head; so that frightened me, and I run off.” One elderly sweeper “kept” the narrow passage from Berkeley Street into Stratton Street, and wore an old huntsman’s coat and hat. He once came into the police court as a witness, and the following exchange is recorded by Mayhew.

JUDGE: Are you a field-marshal?

WITNESS: No, my lord. I am the sweeper of the Lansdowne Passage.

There was “Sir” Harry Dimsdale of Seven Dials, according to Old and New London, “a poor diminutive creature, deformed and half an idiot” who hawked laces and threads at the turn of the nineteenth century; he followed the same routes, along Holborn or Oxford Street, and suffered the jeers of the children and the watermen who washed down the hackney-coach stands. He had only four or five teeth, but could bend a silver coin with them “when he could induce anybody to trust him with one.” His favourite amusement was to torment children by pinching them or throwing them to the ground, but his chief pleasure was found in drink. He was “helplessly drunk every evening … howling in the frenzy produced by his fiery draughts or uttering the low, dismal plaint caused by hunger or pain.” It is reported that his expression was one of “idiotcy, physical suffering and a propensity to mischief” but the mistress of his wretched lodgings-a back attic laid with straw-reported that at night she heard him praying. “Sir” Harry was known throughout London, and there is an extant engraving of him at the age of thirty-eight; but then he, too, suddenly disappeared. His is a curious story of suffering and isolation, but one with echoes and parallels in the modern city.

Other eccentric tradesmen led more amiable lives in the street. There was the famous character Peter Stokes, the “flying pie-man” of Holborn Hill in the early nineteenth century; as described by “Aleph” in London Scenes and London People, he “always wore a black suit, scrupulously brushed, dress coat and vest, knee breeches, stout black stockings, and shoes with steel buckles.” This tradesman, with an expression “open and agreeable, expressive of intellect and moral excellence,” would dash out of Fetter Lane on the stroke of twelve noon and run through the streets of the neighbourhood for the next four hours, dodging horses and wagons and coaches, incessantly crying “Buy! Buy! Buy!” He too was famous throughout London, and sat to an engraver with the basket of pies balanced neatly on his right arm.

Equally notable, in the streets of London, a little more than a century earlier, was “Colly Molly Puffe,” a short hunch-backed man who also sold pastries. He preferred to balance his basket upon his head rather than his arm and, despite his frail form, he had a stentorian voice with which he sang out his wares. His cry was unmistakable, and he was to be seen at city parades or public hangings, always brandishing a big stick to ward off any thief or urchin who tried to steal his goods.

Tiddy Doll was a vendor of gingerbread in the Haymarket who wore ornate and brightly coloured dress, complete with feathered cap, and had the distinction of being drawn by Hogarth; he was so well known by Londoners that “once being missed from his usual stand … on the occasion of a visit which he paid to a country fair, a ‘catch-penny’ account of his alleged murder was printed and sold in the streets by thousands.” His actual death was almost equally sensational: during a Frost Fair, when a festival was held upon the iced surface of the Thames, Tiddy Doll plunged through a sudden crack and was drowned.

There have been any number of London eccentrics and exhibitionists who achieved fame in the streets. There was a celebrated miser, Thomas Cook of Clerkenwell, who on his death-bed demanded his money back from the surgeon who had not cured him. There was a notorious doctor, Martin Van Butchell, who rode around the West End on a pony upon whose flanks he had painted spots. When at home in Mount Street he sold oranges and gingerbread on his doorstep and kept his first wife embalmed in the parlour. “He dressed his first wife in black, and his second in white,” according to Edward Walford in Old and New London, “never allowing either a change of colour.” He astonished his contemporaries by growing a beard-this at the end of the eighteenth century-and, equally astonishing to his fellow citizens, was “one of the earliest teetotallers.”

Benjamin Coates first came to public notice in 1810 when he hired the Haymarket Theatre so that he might play Romeo for one night; he appeared on stage “in a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, and a wig of the style of Charles II, capped by an opera hat.” Unfortunately he had a “guttural” voice and the laughter which greeted his performance was increased by the fact that “his nether garments, being far too tight burst in seams which could not be concealed.” He was known, ever after, as Romeo Coates and was often seen driving through the streets in a carriage manufactured in the shape of a sea shell. For sheer vigour and energy we may put him beside the engraver William Woolett who, each time he finished a new work, fired a cannon from the roof of his house in Green Street, Leicester Square.

Certain women also made a singular impression. There was the rich and learned Miss Banks who wore a quilted petticoat with “two immense pockets, stuffed with books of all sizes.” When she wandered on her book-hunting expeditions through the streets she was always accompanied by a six-foot manservant “with a cane almost as tall as himself.” In this state she was, again according to Walford, “more than once taken for a member of the ballad-singing confraternity.” Miss Mary Lucrine of Oxford Street kept the shutters of her windows barred and never left her lodgings for some fifty years, one of several London spinsters who closed themselves off from the anxiety and violence of the city.

Some Londoners became notorious through their diet. In the middle years of the seventeenth century Roger Crab of Bethnal Green subsisted on “dock-leaves, mallows or grasse” and plain water, while in the late twentieth century Stanley Green, wearing cap and blazer, paraded in Oxford Street with a banner proclaiming “Less Passion from Less Protein.” For twenty-five years, crowds swirled about him, almost oblivious of his presence, engaged only in their usual uproar.

Pestilence and Flame

The causes and consequences of the Great Plague of 1665 were endlessly described, but most considered it to be God’s punishment upon a heathen city.

CHAPTER 20. A Plague Upon You

London is a city perpetually doomed. It has always been considered the Jerusalem about which the prophets were so clamant, and the words of Ezekiel have often been applied to curb its mighty spirit-“Say unto them which daub it with untempered mortar, that it shall fall … and a stormy wind shall rend it” (Ezekiel XIII: 11). In the fourteenth century John Gower lamented its approaching destruction, and in 1600 Thomas Nashe wrote that “London doth mourn, Lambeth is quite forlorn; Trades cry, woe worth that ever they were born … From winter, plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us!” In 1849 the Earl of Shaftesbury described London as the “City of the Plague,” and one of the characters in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying talks of “a city of the dead.”

Much has been written about the nature of fear in London. James Boswell arrived in the city in 1762. “I began to be apprehensive that I was taking a nervous fever, a supposition not improbable, as I had one after such an illness when I was last in London. I was quite sunk.” The editor’s commentary upon Laroon’s depiction of street traders emphasises the traces of anxiety upon their faces, in particular “hollow, frightened eyes.” In the poem “London” William Blake’s narrator wanders through the streets by the river, “And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe” together with the “Infants cry of fear … Soldiers sigh … Harlots curse … new-born Infants tear.” In the illustration with which he has adorned the right-hand side of the poem, a child is warming itself beside a great fire which may itself be a token of calamity. In his account of the plague of 1664 and 1665, Daniel Defoe depicted the city itself torn by fever and nervous fear. It was said of Thackeray that “it seemed as if London were his disease, and he could not help telling all the symptoms” to which is appended the remark, “that is another sign of a true Londoner.” In a poem by Thomas Hood, the stones of London cry out against a woman careering through the streets upon a horse-“Batter her! shatter her! Kick her brains out! Let her blood spatter her!”

There has always been so much to create anxiety in the city-the noise, the endless rush, the violence of the mob. London has been compared to a prison and to a grave. To the German poet, Heinrich Heine, “this overdriven London oppresses the fancy and tears the heart.” Heckethorn’s London Memories records that when in 1750 one soldier prophesied an earthquake “vast multitudes left London for the country, and the fields around were crowded with fugitives from the threatened catastrophe.” The unfortunate seer was later confined to a madhouse. But the symptoms of fear have never materially diminished. In times of pestilence many citizens simply died of fright, and it has been remarked that in nineteenth-century discourse the word “gloom” emerges frequently. It is related to the fogs or “London particulars” of that century, but it seems also to have possessed an intimate and more unnerving significance. November was the month for London suicides and, when the fog was at its thickest, “people who experienced this phenomenon said it seemed as if the world was coming to an end.” These last words were exactly those used by the inhabitants of Whitechapel Road, when a firework manufactory exploded. The phrase came readily and easily to the lips-as if, perhaps, there was some unconscious wish for this mighty cessation. Dostoevsky noted, after visiting the Great Exhibition in London, “And you feel nervous … a feeling of fear somehow creeps over you. Can this, you think, in fact be the final accomplishment of an ideal state of things? Is this the end, by any chance?”

Death has always been one of London’s devices. “The Dance of Death” was painted on the wall of St. Paul’s Churchyard, so that the people who thronged that church for business or amusement were always aware of their mortality. In June of 1557 the registrar of a parish records the following causes of death within that one month-“a swellynge … ague … consumption … thought [cough] … blody fluxe … poches [pox] … postum which brake … browce [bruise?] … famyne … consumed away.” The bills of mortality in London, published every Thursday, include those who were “planet struck,” or who suffered from “horseshoe head” or “rising of the lights,” the latter now quite uninterpretable; there are entries on those “killed in the pillory” or who “died from want in Newgate.” Even before the plague of 1665 and the Fire of 1666 memento mori motifs were “one speciality of the seventeenth century City churchyards.” “Nobody is healthy in London,” Mr. Woodhouse complains in Emma, “nobody could be.” A character in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, Matthew Bramble, suffered certain symptoms in London “which warn me to be gone from this centre of infection.” A century later London was described as the “Great Wen” or fleshy excrescence indicative of poor health.

There have always been epidemics and waves of death within the metropolis. The “Black Death” of 1348 killed approximately 40 per cent of London’s population. Many were buried outside the walls in no-man’s-land, otherwise known as Pardon Churchyard or Wilderness Row, now part of the Clerkenwell Road behind the Charterhouse. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries epidemics of the “sweating sickness” fell upon the capital on at least six occasions; that of 1528 “visited London with such violence that it carried off thousands in the space of five or six hours.” The quagmires and open sewers of the city turned it into “a paradise for mosquitoes,” thus causing the “ague” which is now known as malaria.

The plague came early to London; the first recorded instance is from the seventh century. Between the years 1563 and 1603 there were five severe attacks, in the latter year killing some 30,000 Londoners when “Feare and Trembling (the two Catch-polles of Death) arrest every one … no voyce heard but Tue Tue, Kill, Kill” and Watling Street was “like an empty Cloyster.” No one was ever safe. No one was ever entirely well in a city “full of pits and sloughs, very perilous and noyous,” dirty and filled with “corrupt savours.” London itself had become a sink of disease. Yet nothing in its history could have prepared its citizens for the events which unfolded between the fated and fateful years of 1664 and 1666.

There had been intimations of catastrophe. In 1658 Walter Costello wrote that “if fire make not ashes of the city, and thy bones also, conclude me a liar for ever. Oh London! London!” In the following year a Quaker tract entitled A Vision concerning London contained the prophecy that “And as for the city herself, and her suburbs, and all that belonged to her, a fire was kindled therein; but she knew not how, even in all her goodly places, and the kindling of it was in the foundation of all her buildings and there was none could quench it.” In his Monarchy Or No Monarchy, published in 1651, the London astrologer William Lilly inserted an hieroglyphical plate “representing on one side persons in winding streets digging graves; and on the other a large city in flames.” Wenceslaus Hollar had noticed the vigour and energy of the citizens in 1647 but, on his return in 1652, “he found the countenances of the people all changed, melancholy, spight full, as if bewitched.” Mother Shipton predicted a general conflagration, and a Quaker walked naked through Bartholomew Fair with a pan of fire and brimstone on his head as a prophecy. A man in a narrow passage by Bishopsgate convinced all those around him that a ghost there was making “signs to the houses, and to the ground” suggesting plainly that “abundance of people should come to be buried in that churchyard.”

There is an area adjacent to Goswell Road known as Mount Mills. It is now an open space, used as a car park. It is unusual in this part of London to find what is essentially a patch of waste ground. The answer lies in its history. Here, according to Daniel Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year, on “a piece of ground beyond Goswell Street, near Mount Mill … abundance were buried promiscuously from the parishes of Aldersgate, Clerkenwell, and even out of the city.” It was a plague pit, in other words, where, during the Great Plague of 1664 and 1665, thousands were taken in “dead carts” and dumped in the loose soil.

It was comparable to the burial pit in Houndsditch, about forty feet in length, sixteen feet broad and twenty feet in depth, containing more than a thousand corpses. Some of the bodies “were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart.” It was reported that the living, out of despair, sometimes flung themselves among the dead. The Pye tavern was very close to the Houndsditch pit itself and when, at night, the drunken heard the rumble of the dead cart and the noise of the iron bell they came to the window and jeered at anyone who mourned for the newly dead. They also uttered “blasphemous expressions” such as There is no God or God is a devil. There was one driver who “When he had any children in his dead cart could cry ‘Faggots, faggots, five for sixpence’ and take up a child by the leg.”

The area of Mount Mills is waste ground still.

· · ·

These reports are all taken from Defoe’s chronicle. He was only six years old at the time of the visitation, and much of his evidence is anecdotal, but there are also contemporary accounts which furnish additional material for contemplation. Any observer willing to enter the city during the plague would first have noticed the silence; there was no traffic except for the dead carts, and all the shops and markets were closed. Those who had not fled had locked themselves within their houses, and the river was deserted. Any citizens who did venture upon the streets walked in the middle, down the kennel, away from the buildings; they also avoided chance meetings. It was so quiet that the rush of the water beneath the bridge could distinctly be heard throughout the old City. Great bonfires were placed at intersections and in the middle of main thoroughfares, so that the streets were filled with smoke as well as the miasma of the dead and dying. The life of London seemed to be over.

The plague had begun, in the parish of St. Giles, at the close of 1664. It is understood now that the infection was carried by the black rat, known also as rattus rattus, otherwise called the ship rat, or the house rat. These rats are old inhabitants of London, their bones being discovered in excavations of fourth-century Fenchurch Street. It is likely that they arrived from South Asia in Roman ships, and they have remained ever since. The severe cold of the early months of 1665 prevented any spread in the infection for a while, but from the beginning of spring the bills of mortality began to rise. By July the plague had entered the city from the western suburbs. It was a dry, hot summer without any wind. Grass grew in the abandoned streets.

John Allin, a clergyman, stayed in the city and sent many letters to those at a safe distance; they are reprinted in W.G. Bell’s Unknown London. On 11 August he wrote: “I am troubled at the approach of the sicknesse neerer every weeke, and at a new burying place which they have made neer us.” “They,” indicating some indeterminate authority all the more pressing for being so vague, has always been part of the London vocabulary. Thirteen days later: “I am, through mercy, yet well in middest of death and that, too, approaching neerer and neerer: not many doores off, and the pitt open dayly within view of my chamber window.” In the following week, at the beginning of September, he described “the dolefull and almost universall and continuall ringing and tolling of bells.” So this was the noise that broke the silence. In the same letter he mentioned that his brother had left the house one morning and, on his return from the streets, had found “a stiffness under his eare, where he had a swelling that could not be brought to rise and breake, but choacked him; he dyed Thursday night last.” Five days later Allin wrote of the distemper: “it is at the next doore on both hands of mee, and under the same roofe … These 3 dayes hath bene sea cole fyres made in the streets about every 12th doore, but that will not do the worke of stopping God’s hand.” His anxiety is palpable. It was not until the middle of September that some rain mitigated the appalling heat, but after that modest abatement the plague raged again.

John Allin told the story of six physicians who, believing that they had found a remedy, opened up an infected body-“it is said that they are all dead since, the most of them distractedly madd.” Six days later there came report of “that word spoken by a child here concerning the increase of the Plague, until 18,317 dye in a weeke.” The child died. Yet the rates began to fall. In the last week of February 1666, there were only forty-two deaths reported, whereas more than eight thousand died each week of September 1665.

Within the texture of Defoe’s prose London becomes a living and suffering being, not the “abstract civic space” of W.H. Auden’s poem. London is itself racked with “fever” and is “all in tears.” Its “face” is “strangely altered,” and its streets circulate “steams and fumes” like the blood of those infected. It is not clear whether the whole sick body of London is an emanation of its citizens, or whether the inhabitants are an emanation or projection of the city. Certainly its conditions were responsible for much death. In the great centre of trade and commerce, the process of buying and selling itself destroyed the citizens-“this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city.” The people “dropped dead in the very markets” in the act of trading. They would “just sit down and die” with the tainted coins still in their pockets.

There is another melancholy image which issues from the pages of Defoe. It is of a city where there “were so many prisons in the town as there were houses shut up.” Metaphors of incarceration are persistent throughout London writing, but during the Great Plague there emerged vivid and literal examples of urban imprisonment. The symbolism of the red cross and the words “Lord have mercy on us” has not been wasted on mythographers of the city, but the measure of societal control has perhaps not been fully recognised. Of course many people escaped, often by the expedient of going over a garden wall or travelling along the roofs-even with some “watchmen” murdered to ensure liberty-but, in theory, each street and each house became a gaol.

One ordinance has remained in force for three centuries with the proclamation that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.” All beggars were expelled. Public assemblies were banned. In a city which had shown its manic propensities in a thousand different ways, order and authority had to be imposed directly and harshly. Hence the turning of houses into prisons by “shutting up,” a measure which even at the time was considered by many to be both arbitrary and pointless. But in a city of prisons it was the natural and instinctive response of the civic authorities.

By means of anecdote and circumstantial detail, Defoe provides a Londoner’s vision of a city “quite abandoned to despair.” It is clear from his report that the citizens very quickly reverted to superstition and apparently primitive belief. A genuine madness was in the streets, with prophets and interpreters of dreams and fortune-tellers and astrologers all terrifying “the people to the last degree.” Many, fearful of sudden death, ran out into the streets to confess that “I have been a murderer” and “I have been a thief.” At the height of the plague it was fully believed that “God was resolved to make a full end of the people of this miserable city,” and as a result the citizens became “raving and distracted.” Daniel Defoe knew London very well-perhaps better than any man living in his period-and he declared that “the strange temper of the people of London at that time contributed extremely to their destruction.”

There were “conjurors and witches … quacks and mountebanks” who placed posters all over the city advertising their services and who dispensed pills and cordials and treacles and “plague waters” to the desperate. A list of cures was published at the “Sign of the Angell, neare the Greate Conduit in Cheapside,” and it was possible for “An Excellent Electuary against the plague, to be drunk at the Green Dragon Cheape-side at Sixpence a pint.”

London has always been a centre for healers and doctors, surgeons and magnetisers, of all descriptions. Perhaps its nervous fear has in turn promoted symptoms to be cured by “physic.” In fourteenth-century London, calendars of saints, as well as various charts of astrology, were used to determine the efficacy of particular herbs. Ecclesiastics were the first surgeons. In the thirteenth century the papal authorities banned them for shedding blood. After that date, lay surgeons and physicians were ubiquitous. Not all of them had undergone the usual apprenticeship of ten years, however, and in the early sixteenth century it was proclaimed that “the science and cunning of physick and surgery” were being exercised by “smiths, weavers and women” who used “sorcery and witchcraft” to effect their cures. It was believed, for example, that water drunk from the skull of a hanged man or the very touch of a dead man’s hand were efficacious.

Earlier Londoners admiring “London Stone,” which has been considered alternately as a milestone or a symbol of civic power. It now lies almost unseen in Cannon Street.

John Stow: the great sixteenth-century antiquary whose Survey is the first complete and authentic description of London. His bust still survives in the church of St. Andrew Undershaft.

William I’s charter: this small document marked the king’s authority over London and its citizens, and was one of the first salvoes in the continual struggle between the monarchy and the city.

“Buy my fat chickens,” “Fair lemons and oranges,” “Knives, combs and inkhorns”: images of street sellers, drawn by Marcellus Laroon, c. 1687. They are the ragged emblems of London life, confident or careworn, animated or depressed, as the eternal crowd melts around them.

London, 1560. Note the Bankside bear-baiting arenas in the foreground.

A panorama of London Bridge and the northern areas of London in the sixteenth century. The bridge was then a great thoroughfare, complete with shops, houses and public lavatories. Note the number of churches which Wyngaerde has depicted.

Hollar’s panorama of London is one of the most striking and evocative images of the seventeenth-century city before the Fire. The endless activity on the river is a testimony to London’s commerce, while the streets and buildings are an emblem of its magnificence.

A view of old St. Paul’s, completed by Hollar in the mid-seventeenth century. This was the magnificent church quite destroyed in the Great Fire, a reminder of all that London lost in that conflagration.

The Royal Exchange, forerunner of the Stock Exchange, as depicted by Hollar, is packed with merchants and brokers; they are part of a commercial life which was established as early as the Roman period and has continued ever since.

A detail of a map showing the devastation wreaked by the Great Fire of 1666. Even churches did not survive.

Rowlandson’s depiction of a public hanging outside Newgate Prison. The rituals of executions provided unrivalled entertainment for the London crowd, and fresh anatomical specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons.

Seventeenth-century firemen at their trade; they were indispensable in a city notorious for fires, and their call of “Hi! Hi! Hi!” was as ubiquitous as the modern siren.

Rowlandson’s depiction of a public hanging outside Newgate Prison. The rituals of executions provided unrivalled entertainment for the London crowd, and fresh anatomical specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons.

Moll Cut-Purse: an engraving of the most notorious of the “roaring girls,” those women who wore masculine costume in order to confront a male-dominated city on its own terms. The animals and birds depicted were part of her own private menagerie.

Newgate Prison showing the windmill which supposedly helped provide air for the inmates. The gaol was the most notorious within the city, commemorated in songs, pamphlets and plays. London writers of all periods have compared the city to a prison, in implicit homage to the pervasive power and presence of that “hell on earth.”

“The Modern Plague of London.” A temperance map: each dot represents a public house. London is so large, and so diverse, that a thousand different maps or topographies have been drawn up in order to describe it. Here is a map of drunkenness in the city always notorious for its drunkards.

A photograph of the Café Monico, on Piccadilly Circus, in a period where horse-drawn vehicles competed with motor cars in the busy streets. Note that the age of advertising is in full swing.

In seventeenth-century London, too, “quacks” or “healers” were in the ascendant and have been duly catalogued in Charles Mackay’s volume of popular delusions and superstitions. When Valentine Greatraks, a “healer,” moved to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the early 1660s, “Nothing was spoken of in London but his prodigies; and these prodigies were supported by such great authorities, that the bewildered multitude believed them almost without examination.” Thus did another showman succeed in “magnetising the people of London.” “Scurvy quacks” used spoonwart which grew by the banks of the Thames, while more noxious treatments such as “Spirit of Pearl” or “Essence of Gold” were also dispensed. There were “wise-women” and “wise-men” who examined urine (known as practitioners of “piss-pot science”) or pored upon moles to discover the source of illness. The seventh child of a seventh child invariably entered the business, although many claimed that distinction without having attained it.

One William Salmon practised at the very gates of Bartholomew Hospital and claimed to have cured “Ambrose Webb at the Three Compasses in Westbury-street of a great bleeding at Nose; a youth, a son of William Ogben, a Taylor, near the Black Boy in Barnaby-street, of a long and tedious ague and madness … Nicholas Earl at the Cup in Long alley, of dropsy; Joan Ingram near the Bear in Moor Fields of the Gout, and Anthony Geasture at the Cock in Wapping of a consumption.” The circumstantial detail is compelling. The advertisement also serves to elucidate the manner in which Londoners identified each other by citing location in terms of the nearest tavern.

There seems little doubt that William Salmon did indeed effect cures; like a modern psychiatrist, he was particularly effective at dispelling or exorcising that “melancholy” which was a recurring London condition. He was himself a London original, part showman, part sorcerer and part physician. He was born in the summer of 1644 and began life as “an assistant to a mountebank” before establishing his own career as the seller of “Elixir Vitae.” He was also a popular educator, and in 1671 published Synopsis Medicinae, or a Compendium of Astrological, Galenical and Chymical Physick which passed through at least four editions. He wrote several other popular books, upon mathematics and drawing as well as medicine, but his most successful work was his London Almanack in which he prophesied in a manner to be later adopted or stolen by Old Moore. His practice across London can be traced with some accuracy-from Smithfield to Salisbury Court off Fleet Street, from there to the Blue Balcony by the ditch near Holborn Bridge and then on to Mitre Court beside Fleet Street. Like many Londoners he became a radical Dissenter; he joined a sect called the “New Religious Fraternity of Freethinkers” which assembled near the Leather-sellers’ Hall. Then, at a somewhat late age, he began to practise anatomy. On his death in 1714 he left two microscopes and a library of over three thousand volumes.

Of course there were more genteel, if not more learned, practitioners of healing who came under the aegis of the Company of Barber Surgeons (they were later to split in two, becoming barbers or surgeons) or the College of Physicians. The latter institution, with a roof described as “the distant sight of a gilded pill,” was in Warwick Lane, near Newgate Prison from which many of its anatomical subjects came. Anatomy lessons were its principal and compelling feature. They were conducted in a central chamber, used as the setting for Hogarth’s The Reward For Cruelty in which the corpse of a wretched murderer, Tom Nero, is thoroughly anatomised and degraded. It was known as a “theatre,” and indeed it became an intrinsic part of London spectacle. The taking of the corpses of the hanged for dissection and dispersal was an old custom-we read of the necessity of “a wax candle to look into the body”-but in later years the corpses were also used to test the properties of electricity. One recently deceased killer was “galvanised” in 1803, with the result that one of his eyes opened and he raised his right hand. It is reported by Charles Knight that the instructor “died that very afternoon of the shock.” At an earlier date, in 1740, a specimen was about to be anatomised when “he threw his Hand in the Surgeon’s face, and accidentally cut his Lips with the Lancet.” After this escape from the knife he sat in a chair, groaning, and “in great Agitation”; eventually he recovered and “heartily” asked for his mother.

Hogarth’s engraving is a swirling composition, in which the round complementarity of all parts evokes the circles of Tom Nero’s life within the inferno of London; it also seems to demonstrate the connection between Nero’s own cruelty and that of the physicians who are presently disembowelling him. The violence of the streets fashions Nero’s character so that he becomes an emblem of the worst London “type.” Yet he is not so different from the surgeon delightedly plunging a scalpel into his eye-socket. Hogarth based his portrait upon a surgeon named Dr. John Freke. In this city everything connects.

The skeletons of two famous malefactors, which once hung in the alcoves of the anatomical theatre, can still be seen in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Jonathan Wild, the most notorious villain of eighteenth-century London, and William Corder, the killer of Maria Martin in the Old Red Barn murder, now hang together as part of a truly old-fashioned London spectacle. In the same gallery can be seen the Irish giant Charles Byrne, whose skeleton of seven feet ten inches has been placed beside the diminutive remains of Caroline Crachami who was only one foot ten and a half inches in height. They were London “freaks” and, in death, they still satisfy the taste for urban theatre.

The apothecaries of London, like the anatomists, were accustomed to stage management. They customarily wore black and it was almost mandatory that their shops, however humble, would contain a skull as well as a folio written in some ancient tongue. Here were sold herbs and powders, pills and electuaries, drugs and dentifrices, pomades and love-charms. In Camomile Street and Bucklersbury, in particular, all herbal remedies were to be found. In Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) there is a summary of the trading arts-“Oyster-shells he could convert into crab’s eyes; common oil into oil of sweet almonds … Thames water into aqua cinnamoni … when any common thing was ordered for a patient, he always took care to disguise it in colour or taste, or both, in such a manner as that it could not possibly be known.”

The drugs themselves came and went according to the fashion of the age. In the seventeenth century, these included moss, smoked horses’ testicles, may dew and henbane. In the eighteenth century, we find nutmeg and spiders wrapped in their own silk. In the nineteenth century, we read of “Turkey rhubarb and sulphuric acid.” In the early twentieth century, in the East End, there are reports of “Iron Jelloids, Zam Buk ointment, Eno’s Fruit Salt, Owbridge’s Lung Tonic, Clarke’s Blood Mixture.” Anderson’s Scots Pills, first given to the world in 1635, “were still being sold in 1876.”

In his account of the Great Plague Defoe emphasises the credulity of ordinary Londoners, who wore “charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets” in order to ward off the encroaching disease. Some kept signs of the zodiac, or the written phrase “Abracadabra,” in pockets and seals. They had reverted to the paganism that had dominated the city ever since the first wooden idol was carved in Dagenham (2200 BC).

There is a museum south of the river, off the Walworth Road, which contains the “Lovett Collection” of London charms, amulets and relics. It is the true home of urban superstition, with a range of artefacts which suggests that the city has absorbed all the traditions of magic and ritual from both native and immigrant populations. From the East End came, in 1916, “five uneven shaped stones on a string”; these were, according to the museum’s catalogue, “hung on the corner of the bed to keep nightmares away.” In the same year was deposited a “greyish white tubular bottle sealed at each end with thread. Mercury inside.” This was used as a cure for rheumatism. A grey cat’s skin was employed as a remedy for whooping cough, and a “leather slipper painted gold” was a symbol of good luck. From Clapham arrived a pincushion in the form of a domino piece, marked with seven dots. From east London came a key attached to a rope, as a talisman to safeguard the wearer against witches, as well as a necklace of amber and other gems worn in 1917 “to bring good health.” Barking was the area in which to search for mandrake roots, which scream like a child when taken out of the ground. There are coins to bring wealth, iron pyrite acorns to prevent lightning strikes (the acorn from the tree of the thunder god), cows’ hearts and rams’ horns and donkeys’ shoes to act as charms. The museum also contains the head of a London magician’s wand or staff, engraved with Solomon’s seal; it was carved in the fourteenth century, and then lost in the depths of the river. As recently as 1915, it was common practice, in the East End, to cut off some of the hair of a sick child. The hair was placed in a sandwich, and given to the first dog that was encountered; the illness then left the child and entered the body of the unfortunate animal. In the East End, too, it was customary for women and female children to wear blue glass beads around the neck “as a preventive charm against bronchitis”; these necklaces were sold in hundreds of small shops, “usually presided over by an aged woman,” at the price of one halfpenny. It became a custom that the beads were eventually buried with the woman who had worn them. In the early twentieth century, too, young women all over London were visiting herbalists in order to purchase “tormentil root” or “dragon’s blood”-gum from a Sumatran tree-as love philtres.

In a suggestive book written by Edward Lovett, Magic in Modern London, published in 1925, it is reported that sharks’ teeth taken from the London clay were said to cure cramp. In Camberwell it was customary to cover a horseshoe with red cloth in order to ward off nightmares, while Mile End was known as the place where children could be “charmed” and healed. When market business was bad in the East End the trader would exclaim: “Ah! I expect I forgot to bow to the new moon!” It is appropriate, in a city of commerce, that it was customary to call out “money” at the sight of a falling star. Strangely shaped stones were placed on London mantelpieces as a “votive offering,” in the same manner that silver representations of limbs were hung in medieval city churches. A woman in Whitechapel told an investigator that, when moving house, it was customary to swing the cat around one room in order to induce it to stay. There are also interesting records of “cat sacrifice” in the walls of certain houses. Cauls in which children had been born were on sale for eighteen pence each as a safeguard against drowning but, at the time of the First World War, when the danger of death was very close, the price rose to £2. In London markets it was possible, until recent times, to buy neolithic stone axes or flint arrowheads as another precaution against thunderbolts.

London resembles a prison, and it is perhaps not surprising to discover that keys have always been an object of taboo. They were associated with magic and the presence of demons; thus “The art of lock-picking was known as the ‘Black Art,’” according to Peter Linebaugh in The London Hanged, and “the most common lock-picking tool was called a ‘charm.’” Keys were used to investigate suspected persons; the name was placed in the stem of a key and guilt was established if the key then moved or shook. The lodgings of prostitutes were often symbolised by “the drawing of a large key,” and many ladies of the night wore keys around their neck as a symbol of their trade.

There is a suggestive eighteenth-century passage, connected with the storming of Newgate Prison. One rioter came back to his lodging house and announced: “I have got the keys of Newgate.” At his subsequent trial, a fellow lodger was questioned by the magistrate about these keys. “You would not touch them for fear that they would contaminate you?” “I would not come near them.”

Patients at Bedlam who refused to swallow their drugs had their mouths opened by a specially designed metal key.

At the time of the plague, spectres were seen in the thoroughfares of the city; indeed London has always been troubled by ghosts. A fine brick house on the south side of the churchyard in Clerkenwell was “seldom tenanted” because of its reputation. Number 7 Parker Street, off Drury Lane, had a name for “ill luck” and was eventually torn down. Another house in the same street, No. 23, was haunted by “fearful noises” in a corner where death had occurred. There was a haunted house in Berkeley Square which was “empty for a long time,” and another in Queen’s Gate.

P.J. Grosley, visiting the city in the eighteenth century, remarked upon “the great practical fear” of ghosts there, even while Londoners “make a jest of them in theory.” Another stranger in the same period visited the theatres and noticed that the ghosts of Shakespearean drama provoked “surprise, fear, even horror … to such a degree, as if the scenes which they saw were real.” It has often been remarked that, in a city of spectacle, Londoners find it difficult to distinguish theatre from reality but, more significantly, such reports suggest a surprising credulity. In the middle of the sixteenth century a young girl was found to have counterfeited a supernatural voice in a house near Aldersgate, “through which the people of the whole city were wonderfully molested.” We must imagine flying rumour, and reports, and fear.

The London writer “Aleph” has another story. In the early months of 1762 it was firmly believed that, within a house in Cock Lane, that once “dingy, narrow, half-lighted street,” there dwelled a ghost known as “Scratching Fanny” responsible for certain knockings and bangings. A young girl was believed to be possessed by this spirit, and “was constantly attended by mysterious noises, though bound and muffled hand and foot.” Thousands of Londoners visited Cock Lane and the more genteel were permitted to visit the girl’s bedroom, fifty at a time, “almost suffocating her from the stench.” A committee of eminent Londoners was set up to investigate the claims-one of their number was the superstitious Samuel Johnson-and concluded that the girl “had some art of counterfeiting noises.” Her father was put in the pillory at the end of Cock Lane, where “the populace treated him with compassion.” And so the affair ended, after London had once again been “wonderfully molested.” It is almost as if it were itself a spectral city, so filled with intimations of its past that it haunts its own inhabitants.

The “Islington Ghost” visited a patch of ground beside Trinity Church in Cloudesley Square causing “a wondrous commotion in various parts, the earth swelling and turning up every side”; Michael Faraday is supposed to haunt a telephone exchange in Bride Street which was once the chapel of his Sandemanian congregation. Lord Holland and Dan Leno, Dick Turpin and Annie Chapman, have variously been seen. Old hospitals and the city churches have proved fruitful ground for phantoms, and the stretch of Swains Lane in Highgate beside the cemetery has been the home of many “sightings.” There is apparently a ghost in the Oriental Department of the British Museum, and a phantom blackbird haunted a house in Dean Street for many generations. The daughter of the Earl of Holland, walking in Kensington Gardens, “met with her own apparition, habit and everything, as in a looking glass”; she died a month later. The rector of St. Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, saw in his pulpit the ghost of a divine “in the black gown of Geneva … exhorting the unseen audience with the greatest fervour, gesticulating vehemently, bending first to the right and then to the left over the pulpit, thumping the cushions in front of him, and all the while his lips moving as though speech was pouring from him.”

The Tower of London has of course been the natural haven of many spirits. Familiar figures have glided by, among them Walter Raleigh and Anne Boleyn. The latter was “seen” by three witnesses as a “white figure,” and a soldier on duty at the door of the Lieutenant’s Lodgings “fell in a dead faint.” He was court-martialled but later acquitted. The ghost of a bear “issued from beneath the door” of the Jewel House, and the sentry who saw it died two days later. It might be recalled that there was indeed a menagerie, or a zoo, within the Tower itself. One of the most ambiguous apparitions was that vouchsafed to the Keeper and his wife; they were at table in the sitting room of the notorious Jewel House when “a glass tube, something about the thickness of my arm” hovered in the air. It contained some “dense fluid, white and pale azure … incessantly rolling and mingling within the cylinder.” It approached the Keeper’s wife who exclaimed “Oh Christ! it has seized me!” before it crossed the room and disappeared.

Other places have remained objects of London fear. It is believed the cries of drowned Jews, murdered in the great expulsion of 1290, can still be heard at low tide near Gravesend. The “Field of Forty Footsteps,” which now lies beneath Gordon Square, was considered to be “charmed” or “blasted,” according to taste. Here were once picked plantain leaves which were supposed to influence dreams but, more importantly, on the same spot two brothers killed each other in a duel. The imprint of their fatal footsteps was thought to have lingered, while the area of the killings could produce no grass. Southey did indeed decipher the outlines of seventy-six footsteps “the size of a large human foot about three inches deep” and in the summer of 1800, just before the area was built upon, Moser “counted more than forty.”

Washington Irving observed the inhabitants of Little Britain, behind Smithfield and beside Aldersgate, in the 1830s. “They are apt to be rendered uncomfortable by comets and eclipses,” he wrote in the guise of “Geoffrey Crayon, gent,” “and if a dog howls dolefully at night, it is looked upon as a sure sign of death.” He also listed the “games and customs” of the people. We may include here the ancient ceremony of beating the bounds, an act of parish assertiveness which derives from the importance of beating the devil out of the locality; once charity children were whipped at each boundary with white willow wands, but in more recent years the particular walls are simply beaten with sticks. There are altogether some fifty-six annual customs and ceremonies in the city, ranging from the “Swearing on the Horns” in Highgate to “The Verdict of The Trial of the Pyx” in Goldsmiths’ Hall, but the rituals of May-day are the most enduring if not necessarily the most endearing.

In the first recorded ceremonies the “merry Milk Maids” of London would carry upon their heads a “Pyramid” of “Silver plate” instead of their usual pails; this may sound quaint, but the connotations of the practice were more ritualistic and barbaric. The maids were hardly “merry”-they were some of the most poorly paid and heavily worked of all city trades-and this parade of silver plate, borrowed for the occasion from pawn-brokers, can be seen as a token of their financial enslavement during the rest of the year. The first of May was also a day of sexual licence and, in recognition of this lubricious fact, young chimney-sweeps joined the maids in a later version of the spectacle. Grosley reports that their black faces “are whitened with meal, their heads covered with periwigs powdered as white snow, and their clothes bedaubed with paper-lace; and yet, tho’ dressed in this droll manner, their air is nearly as serious as that of undertakers at a funeral.” Chimney-sweeps, like miners, have always been associated with the dark and promiscuous forces of the world; hence their appearance on “May-day.” But the young sweeps, with their “serious” air, were also the most harshly treated of all London children. Many were killed, burned or deformed in the exercise of the trade, which was literally to climb up the flues of the chimneys and dislodge any soot or cinders. So their labour, and suffering, were paraded for one day of levity.

There is a painting of great interest, dated around 1730 and entitled The Curd and Whey Seller, Cheapside; it depicts a blind girl sitting at the foot of the conduit in that street, holding out her hand to three young sweeps. This conduit was their usual haunt, and their expressions are of startling vivacity. The faces of two of them are so blackened that only their eyes and mouths are visible. They are all very small, and one of them seems to have a deformed back. They do indeed seem like the grotesques of the city, with a suggestion of threat or menace directed against the blind and very pale street-seller. It can be suggested, therefore, that the procession of sweeps on May-day was a re-enactment of their threat which was to be symbolically alleviated by laughter. Like all London rites, however, the ceremony gradually became more fanciful, with the introduction in the late eighteenth century of a “Green Man” covered in twigs and leaves. He was known as “Jack-in-the-Green” or simply “Green” and, accompanied by milkmaids and sweeps, was paraded in various parishes as some garish token of spring. May-day ceremonies were eventually taken over by street performers, before disappearing altogether.

Yet the superstitions of London have not wholly departed. The city itself remains magical; it is a mysterious, chaotic and irrational place which can be organised and controlled only by means of private ritual or public superstition. That great adopted Londoner, Samuel Johnson, felt obliged to touch every post in Fleet Street when he walked down that thoroughfare. In similar spirit, many London streets have refused to countenance a No. 13-among them Fleet Street, Park Lane, Oxford Street, Praed Street, St. James’s Street, Haymarket and Grosvenor Street.

But the very line of a thoroughfare has, for some, a more numinous function. There have been many attempts to plot the trajectory of the city by means of “ley-lines” or “leys” which connect certain sites in straight alignment. One such line connects Highgate Hill in the north with Pollard’s Hill in Norbury to the south, on the way touching a surprising number of churches and chapels. Efforts have been made to connect the various churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, or to align St. Pancras Old Church, the British Museum or the Greenwich Observatory within a significant topography. In one sense it marks a revival of the earth magic once practised by the Celtic tribes of this region, yet it also gives due recognition to the power of place.

This is the power that William Blake celebrated in his vision of Los treading through London “Till he came to old Stratford, amp; thence to Stepney amp; the Isle/of Leutha’s Dogs, thence thro’ the narrows of the River’s side/And saw every minute particular.” In those particulars, like the mournful days of the Great Plague, the life and history of the city can be revived.

CHAPTER 21. Painting the Town Red

Red is London’s colour. The cabs of the early nineteenth century were red. The pillar boxes are red. The telephone boxes were, until recently, red. The buses are characteristically still red. The Underground trains were once generally of that colour. The tiles of Roman London were red. The original wall of London was built from red sandstone. London Bridge itself was reputed to be imbued with red, “bespattered with the blood of little children” as part of the ancient rituals of building. Red is also the colour of violence.

The great capitalists of London, the guild of the mercers, wore red livery. The Chronicles of London for 1399 describe “the Mair, Recourdour, and Aldermen off London in oon suyt, also in Skarlett,” while a poem commemorating Henry VI’s triumphal entry into London, in 1432, depicts “The noble Meir cladde in Reede velvette.” The pensioners of the Chelsea Hospital still wear red uniforms.

Red was the colour used to mark street improvements on the maps of London, and to indicate the areas of the “well-to-do” or wealthy. “Red” was also the Cockney slang for gold itself. The London river-workers, who supported the mobs that poured through the streets in the spring of 1768, invented the red flag as a token of radical discontent.

Novelists have also identified the colour of red with the nature of the city. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Chesterton’s vision of a future London, a protagonist asks: “I was wondering whether any of you had any red about you” and then stabs his left palm so that “The blood fell with so full a stream that it struck the stones without dripping.” This is a prelude to the success of “the red Notting Hillers” in that novel.

Red crosses were placed upon the doors of households shut up with the plague, thus confirming the symbolic association of the colour with that London disease which was once considered “always smouldering” like covered embers. The fire-fighters of London wore red jackets or “Crimson Livery Cloth.” Their commander, dying in a great fire in 1861, performed one telling act-“pausing only for a moment to unwind the red silk Paisley kerchief from his neck.” The colour is everywhere, even in the ground of the city itself: the bright red layers of oxidised iron in the London clay identify conflagrations which took place almost two thousand years ago. Yet there is one fire which has always remained in the memory of Londoners-a fire which, as John Locke noted, created “Sunbeams of a strange red dim light” which covered the whole of the city and could be seen even from his library in Oxford.

“The Great Fire of London”of 1666 was considered to be the greatest of fires, but in truth it was only one of a series of devastations. The fires of AD 60 and AD 125 destroyed most of the city, for example, creating what is described by archaeologists as a “fire destruction horizon.” This is the horizon of the city itself. London burned in 764, 798, 852, 893, 961, 982, 1077, 1087, 1093, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220 and 1227. R.S. Fitter, writing London’s Natural History after the Second World War, noted that “The constant laying waste of large areas of the city must have made the aspect of medieval London often a good deal more like the blitzed London of 1945 than most people realise.” James Pope-Hennessy, compiling a book on that wartime destruction, found in the ruins of London churches “a kind of continuity.” He recalled that “The city fire of December 1940 did at one moment look like Pepys’ famous description of the fire of 1666. The night sky, lit by a wavering orange glare, seemed to display an aura not at all unlike his ‘bow of flame.’”

London seems to invite fire and destruction, from the attacks of Boudicca to those of the IRA. In the literature of the subject, there are references to particularly incandescent areas. Arthur Hardwick’s Memorable Fires in London revealed Watling Street to be “the region in the heart of the City [that] has always been a ‘fiery’ one.” Aldersgate and Silver Street have “the reputation of the ‘danger zone,’” while areas such as Cheapside and Bread Street have been repeatedly subject to flame. Wood Street, too, “has proved a notoriously fiery street”-perhaps because of its name-and mysterious fires have broken out in Paternoster Square. The area of St. Mary Axe was destroyed in 1811, 1883, 1940 and then again in 1993. It is significant, too, that, in the city of spectacle, theatres continually go up in flame; thirty-seven were destroyed in 130 years, from 1789 to 1919, providing an appropriately theatrical scene for those who flocked to watch them. The nature of London fires has also been conceived in theatrical terms. During one conflagration in Paternoster Square, in 1883, “the flames burst through the roof and brilliantly illuminated the City”; a fire two years later in the Charterhouse sent out a fiery glow “as though the sun shone over everything.”

London Bridge has been destroyed by fire, as have the Royal Exchange, the Guildhall and the Houses of Parliament. In the nine years from 1833 to 1841 there were 5,000 fires in the city “yielding an average of 556 per annum, or about three in two days.” In the city of 1833 there were some 750 fires; in the “Great London region” of 1993 occurred 46,000 “primary” and “secondary” fires. In 1833 there were approximately 180 chimney fires; in 1993 215 such events. More fires spring up in December, and fewer in April, than in any other months; Friday is the worst day of the week for conflagrations, and Saturday the best. The most hazardous time is ten in the evening, and the most benign seven in the morning. Some fires begin with arson, but most by accident-a great conflagration of 1748, consuming more than a hundred houses in the streets and passages by Exchange Alley and killing a dozen people, began “through the servant leaving a candle burning in the shed whilst she was listening to a band performing at the Swan Tavern.” An engraving of the fiery ruins was promptly issued by a printer in Scalding Alley.

Yet fire can also reveal the forgotten or neglected history of the city. The site of Winchester Palace, on the south bank of the Thames, was first uncovered after a fire at Bankside Mustard Mills. The remains of a thirteenth-century barbican, or watch-tower, were revealed in 1794 after a fire in St. Martin’s Court, Ludgate. Flame can recreate, therefore, as well as destroy. It is perhaps significant that, in London folklore, a dream of fire denotes “health and happiness” or “marriage with the object of the affections.”

A nineteenth-century correspondent of Le Temps noticed that in comparison with Parisians, Londoners showed “astonishing promptitude” in their reaction to the call of “Fire! Fire!” It was the war cry of the city. In first-century London vigiles or “bucket boys” patrolled the city by night; already there was some fascination or mystery concerned with fire, since they were known for “their liveliness and devilry.” Their organised system of watching decayed in succeeding centuries, but it can be inferred that the early medieval wards assumed responsibility for locating and putting out fires in their vicinity. The next attempt at precaution was the simple curfew or “couvre-feu”; on the ringing of the evening bell, resounding all over the eleventh-century city, all fires were supposed to be covered and the ashes raked. If a fire did rage, then the bells of the churches rang backwards to spread the alarm; it was as if the devil had suddenly re-emerged in the roar of the flames. Barrels of water were kept outside the larger houses and, by the twelfth century, there were elaborate regulations for the quenching of the flames and the pulling down of burning thatch.

In the fifteenth century it was decreed that each new sheriff and alderman, within a month of taking up office, “shall cause 12 new buckets to be made of leather for the quenching of fire.” The successor of the humble bucket was “a kind of syringe or squirt,” which was in turn followed by an early pumping device; this was pulled by the firemen, calling out their familiar cry of “Hi! Hi! Hi!,” and has been termed “the first ‘fire engine’ to reach the streets of London.” It was succeeded in the early seventeenth century by “an Engine or Instrument” which “with the help of tenne men to labor” could pump more water “than five hundred men with the helpe of Bucketts and laydels.” This was the engine celebrated by Dryden, in Annus Mirabilis; he described the spectacle of the flames, and how “streets grow throng’d, and busy as by day.” The impression, again, is of fire as some alternative sun flooding the streets with light. One of the earliest fire insurance companies named itself “The Sun,” and its mark can still be seen on many houses. Fire by a sudden leap of metaphor then becomes the source of energy and power, as if it represented the sporadic and violent irruption of the city’s own heated life. One of the greatest maps of London, “Horwood’s Plan” of 1799, was dedicated to the Phoenix Fire office in Lombard Street which had risen soon after the fire of 1666; again it is a mark of the importance of those who deal with fire in the capital. Curiously enough, the first chief executive of the Phoenix was a Mr. Stonestreet.

Over the centuries the shouts of the firemen were replaced by handbells, then by mechanical and electric bells. Then came the siren, replaced in turn by a complex system of sound including the “two-tone,” the “wail” and the “yelp.” The first firemen themselves were placed in colourful regalia. One company, for example, was arrayed in “blue jackets with elaborate gold cuffs, and gold braiding” with “black knee-breeches, white stockings and gold garters”; on days of ceremony they marched with silver staffs and badges. They were themselves fired by duty-“hearts aglow,” as Hilaire Belloc appropriately put it. Such was their prestige that the headquarters of many fire offices were described as “resembling in design highly-enriched palaces.”

Two children pass the Phoenix Fire office in a novel by Edith Nesbit. “Fire?” one says. “For altars, I suppose?” Yes, for the great sacrificial altar of London.

Fire became one of the principal characteristics of the city. It was even known as “the Fire King.” Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the fires “grew in size and frequency” and, perhaps as a consequence, the crowds became larger. A conflagration at Tooley Street took more than a month to die away; the House of Commons was destroyed by fire in 1834, which provoked some of the most picturesque London paintings. The Westminster burning became, according to the authors of London In Paint, “the single most depicted event in nineteenth century London … attracting to the scene a host of engravers, water-colourists and painters,” among them Constable and Turner. These artists recognised that in the heart of the flame they might also evoke the spirit and presence of the city itself. There are reports of great crowds assembling to view the destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936, as well as of many dock fires and warehouse fires where “the ghost of Victorian” conflagrations was said to walk.

The consuming appetite for fire among the citizens did not diminish until the “blitz” of 1940. On the night of 29 December, the raid timed when the water of the Thames was at its lowest, some 1,500 fires were burning at the same time in the city. It was said then that the “Great Fire” had truly come again.

That Great Fire, one of the most formative events of the city’s history, may be dated from 1 September 1666, when Pepys and his wife were “horribly frightened to see Young Killigrew come in [to a place of public resort] with a great many more young sparks.” These “young sparks” represented the fiery youth of the city. Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys returned to their house in Seething Lane where, at three on the following morning, they were roused by a maid with news of a fire in the City. Pepys saw some flames at the lower end of a neighbouring street, and then went back to sleep. The fire had started one hour before at the house of the king’s baker, Mr. Farryner, in Pudding Lane. At the later enquiry Farryner insisted that before retiring to bed he had “gone through every room, and found no fire but in one chimney, where the room was paved with bricks, which fire he diligently raked up in embers.” The cause of the Great Fire was never discovered. It just happened.

The month of August had been unusually hot, “characterised by an extraordinary drought,” so that the thatch and timber of the neighbouring buildings in the narrow streets and alleys were already “half-burned.” The fire found friendly territory, in other words, and was further aided by a strong south-east wind; it was carried onward from Pudding Lane towards Fish Street and London Bridge, then down through Thames Street into Old Swan Lane, St. Lawrence Lane, and Dowgate. Everyone in a position to do so took to the water with boats, lighters and skiffs carrying the goods of their houses threatened by the flames. Pepys also took to the river, where with his face in the wind he was “almost burned with a shower of fire drops.” He observed that most households took with them a pair of virginals. He also noticed that the “poor pigeons were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they burned their wings and fell down.”

The fire was now out of control, burning steadily to the north and to the west; Pepys eventually took refuge from the incendiary river in an alehouse on the other bank, and there “saw the fire grow … in corners, and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid, malicious bloody flame, not like the fire flame of an ordinary fire.” It was then that he noticed the arch or bow of flame, about a mile in width (which Pope-Hennessy was to observe during the fire-raids of 1940).

That night the fire spread from Cheapside down to the Thames, along Cornhill, Tower Street, Fenchurch Street, Gracechurch Street and to Baynard’s Castle. It had gone so far down Cheapside that it took hold of St. Paul’s which, by chance, was surrounded by wooden scaffolding. John Evelyn, who walked among the streets even at this hour, noted that “the noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it.”

The unprepared citizens were left bewildered; they made no attempt to put out the fires, and simply fled. Those who remained, of the “lower” sort, stole whatever they could take from the burning dwellings. Those who did not take refuge upon the river, itself now choked with smoke and deluged by “fire drops,” went into the surrounding fields of Islington, Finsbury and Highgate, watched and wept.

By the following day, Monday, the fire had spread down Ludgate into Fleet Street and had burned down the Old Bailey; Newgate and Billingsgate were gone, while the molten lead from the roof of St. Paul’s ran through the streets “glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse or man was able to tread on them.” By now the smoke stretched for fifty miles, so that those leaving the city could travel for hours in its shadow.

That night several fires met together. One came down Cornhill, and one down Threadneedle Street; which, uniting together, in turn met two separate fires coming from Walbrook and Bucklersbury. John Evelyn remarked that “all these four, journeying together, break into one great flame at the corner of Cheapside, with such a dazzling light and burning heat, and roaring noise by the fall of so many houses together, that was very amazing.” It was as if some ancient spirit of fire had reared its head in the very middle of the city.

By Tuesday the wind had abated, and the fire stopped at the top of Fetter Lane in Holborn. The deeds of the Mitre Tavern, at the other end of Fetter Lane, described a boundary by “the tree where the Fire of London divides.” The fire was still raging in the north at Cripplegate and in the east by the Tower but the authorities, advised by Charles II, who had always evinced a strong interest in fire-prevention, were able to stop its growth by blowing up with gunpowder houses in its path.

On Thursday John Evelyn once more walked the streets of his city, now a ruin, “through the late Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill, by St. Pauls, Cheapside, Exchange, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate”-all gone. He found himself “clambering over heaps of yet smoking rubbish, and frequently mistaking where I was.” This was also the experience of Londoners after the bombing raids of 1940; their city was suddenly unknown and unrecognisable. It had become an alien place, as if they had woken from some dream to encounter a quite different reality. “Nor could anyone have possibly known where he was,” wrote Evelyn, “but by the ruins of some church or hall that had some remarkable tower or pinnacle remaining.” The ground under his feet was so hot that he could hardly walk; the iron gates and bars of the prisons had all melted; the stones of the buildings were all calcined and rendered a brilliant white; the water left in fountains was still boiling while “subterranean cellars, wells and dungeons” were belching forth “dark clouds of smoke.” Five-sixths of the city were thus consumed, the area of devastation encompassing a mile and a half in length and half a mile in breadth. Fifteen of the city’s twenty-six wards were thoroughly destroyed and, in total, 460 streets containing 13,200 houses were razed. Eighty-nine churches had gone, and four of the seven city gates were reduced to ashes and powder. It was officially reported that only six people were killed, one a watch-maker in Shoe Lane where on excavation “his bones, with his keys, were found.”

Perhaps the most notable image of this extraordinary fire was that from a clergyman, the Revd. T. Vincent, in a book entitled God’s Terrible Advice to the City by Plague and Fire. He too had seen “the dreadful bow” of light across the city. He had witnessed the burning of the Guildhall “which stood the whole body of it together in view for several hours together after the fire had taken it, without flames, (I suppose because the timber was such solid oak), in a bright shining coal, as if it had been a palace of gold, or a great building of burnished brass.”

In the aftermath of the Great Fire emerged a yellow-flowering plant known as London Rocket and, in 1667 and 1668, “it grew very abundantly on the ruins around St. Paul’s”; it was seen again, in 1945, “just outside the City boundary.” It is the true flower of fire. The Monument, erected on the site of the Fire’s first emergence, is also a form of rocket or vehicle of fire; it was first proposed that a statue of the king, or a great phoenix, should be placed upon its summit. But it was eventually agreed that an urn of flames, known as “the Blaze,” should furnish the column. Daniel Defoe deciphered the object as a great candle, with the urn as “handsome gilt flame!”

There were many representations of the events of those five days of fire, not least a series of long poems which can be found in an anthology entitled London in Flames, London in Glory. The burning city is severally compared to Rome, to Carthage, to Sodom and to Troy; the classical gods are depicted as wandering through the burning streets, together with Virgil and Jezebel, as the spectacle of flaming London conjures up images of dead or dying civilisations in past ages of the world. The painted images of the Fire were equally ostentatious, although some of them seem literally to have been sketched at the very time of the blaze itself. There are sober studies, including those of Hollar showing “A True and Exact Prospect of the Famous Citty of London” before the autumn of 1666 together with the same “As It Appeareth Now After the Sad Calamitie And Destruction by Fire”; it was sketched from the south bank of the river, and it is possible to see through the ruins right into Cheapside itself. But most works were in the style of “conflagration painting,” according to London in Paint, which found their inspiration in “biblical or mythic city fires.” Two of the most famous paintings, “after Jan Groffier the Elder,” depict the towers and portcullis of Ludgate in flames as if it were the entrance to Hell itself; there may be another explanation for the appearance of Ludgate, however, since the area beside it was considered an “artists’ quarter” in the middle of the seventeenth century. There are many small scenes and episodes reflected in these paintings: the woman running with wild face and arms outstretched from the encroaching fire, the man carrying a bundle of silver plate upon his head, the carts and horses being driven in a great crowd towards the open fields. But the most striking image is that of a man carrying a child on his shoulders against a backdrop of flame; it was re-employed by Blake, Doré, and other artists as a true representation of the mysteries and sufferings of London.

The Great Fire was not simply the inspiration, therefore, of contemporary artists. For over two hundred years it remained the most arresting image of the seventeenth century. Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, a great scenic designer in the London theatres, painted his own version at the end of the eighteenth century and in the following century the Great Fire was recreated every night at the Surrey Gardens.

But the conflation of the city and fire goes deeper than theatre or spectacle. To Panizzi, in the mid-nineteenth century, London had the appearance of a city that had somehow already been burned. In Night and Day Virginia Woolf describes it as “eternally burnt”; it seemed that “no darkness would ever settle upon those lamps, as no darkness had settled upon them for hundreds of years. It seemed dreadful that the town should blaze for ever in the same spot.” In 1880 a Frenchman believed the entire capital to be “a temple of fire-worshippers”; his companion on this urban pilgrimage, Arthur Machen, went on to describe “all the fires of London reflected dimly in the sky, as if far away awful furnace doors were opened.” Mirbeau talked of London in terms “of mystery, of the conflagration, of the furnace” while Monet, at the end of the nineteenth century, wished to depict the sun “setting in an enormous ball of fire behind Parliament.” In some of that artist’s paintings, in fact, London seems to breathe and live within an atmosphere of fire surrounding all streets and buildings with the same unearthly glow.

By the mid-nineteenth century the sky above London was notable for “the glowing atmosphere that hangs over the capital for miles”; the brick kilns on the perimeter of the city in that period created a ring as if of stage fire, while the great dust mountains inside the capital had the appearance of volcanoes. It was a city “where fires can scarcely be kept under” while, in twentieth-century terms, it is characterised as an “urban heat island.” London was popularly known as the “Great Oven” and, in the 1920s, V.S. Pritchett confessed to the sensation of being “smoked and kippered” in the depths of the city. When the fire does eventually go out the city is forbidding, blackened and relentless, some charred monument of eternity filled with what Keats called “the Burden of Mystery.”

It became clear, after the Great Fire, that fire itself must be controlled. The twin visitations of flame and plague had been interpreted by moralists as the handiwork of a God enraged by the sinfulness and dissipation of London. But there were others, including Christopher Wren and Edmond Halley, who began to question the wisdom of placing all responsibility for its disasters on fate or divine displeasure. The Royal Society had been established in London in 1660, and the two visitations prompted its members to find “scientific” or “objective” causes for such violent events. In the name of “Reason”-what is “simple, solid, sensible”-it was hoped that London consciousness might be changed so that, in future ages, such pestilences and conflagrations might be averted. The greatest effect of the Fire, paradoxically, was to promote the advancement of science. Even before the end of September 1666, according to a quotation in London in Flames, London in Glory, “Men begin now everywhere to recover their spirits again, and think of repairing the old and rebuilding a new City.” Specifically it seemed an opportunity to exorcise “the rebellious Humours, the horrid Sacriledges … and gingling Extravagances” of the previous age. This refers to the civil war, and to the execution of Charles I, but it also suggests that extravagant piety and superstitious practice-precisely the citizens’ responses to the plague, as documented by Defoe-were no longer permitted. It was to be a new city in every sense.

After the Fire

Two plans of a London reconstructed after the Great Fire of 1666, one by Christopher Wren and the other by John Evelyn. Their theoretical and hypothetical city had no chance against the twin forces of tradition and commerce which obstinately recreated London in its former image.

CHAPTER 22. A London Address

The Great Fire had stopped by Fetter Lane which, for most of its existence, has been border territory. It runs from Fleet Street to Holborn, and the ancient route is now lined with twentieth-century air-conditioned office-blocks and some nineteenth-century survivals. In the stretch of Fetter Lane which leads directly out of Fleet Street, with, on the respective corners, a bookshop and a computer supplier, is Clifford’s Inn, the oldest Inn of Chancery and once the most important edifice in the street. Rebuilt now, and partitioned into offices and apartments, it is situated beside a modern restaurant, the Café Rouge, and opposite a new drinking establishment called the Hogshead. The judicial air of the lane has not entirely disappeared, however, since beside Clifford’s Inn is a building which contains the “Technology and Construction Court.” This stretch of the lane is continually busy with traffic, in particular with taxis decanting into Fleet Street.

Upward from this site, towards Holborn, the lane divides and the eastern fork is turned into New Fetter Lane. But the old Fetter Lane still pursues its course northward, albeit now with difficulty. Its whole eastern side has been demolished, as the foundations of taller and greater buildings are sunk within the ever receptive London earth. The former Public Record Office is still visible, to the west of the statue of John Wilkes down Rolls Buildings, while closer to Holborn the Mucky Duck and the Printer’s Devil have survived as public houses. Three mid-nineteenth-century houses remain, as if they were some ancient terrace preserving the memory of the street, and their ground floors are now occupied by coffee shops and sandwich bars.

And where did Fetter Lane get its name? John Stow, who knew it well, believed that “Fetter” was “so called of fewters (or idle people) lying there, as in a way leading to gardens.” Others, however, have suggested that the word is derived from the Norman defaytor “defaulter.” Some prefer another French origin in foutre, “blackguard.” But there are other possibilities. Fetter may derive from the feuriers, or felt-makers, who are deemed to have inhabited the street in the fifteenth century. Or it may spring from the name of the landlord Viteri or Viter who lived there a century earlier. More ingenious antiquarians have in turn suggested that the name sprang from fetor or “offensive smell,” on the face of it unlikely in an area surrounded by gardens and orchards-unless the fewters, or foutres, or defaytors, were in some way responsible for the stink. Another connection has been made with frater, “brother,” which was a characteristic address between the men of law who frequented the area. A more simple connection has been made with the workshops of the street which manufactured fetters or lance vests for the Knights Templar who also congregated in the vicinity. The confusion and speculation will never be resolved, and the obscurity of Fetter Lane’s derivation serves only to demonstrate the unknowability of many London names. It is as if the city was striving to conceal its origins. Yet, as G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “The narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention, the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon: every slate on the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate covered with addition and subtraction sums.” It might also be suggested that every object, every doorway, throws a light upon the ancient territory of which the present Fetter Lane is now the custodian.

A Roman urn filled with coins was found beneath the surface of the lane, confirming Stow’s observation that an old Roman road had been located in the immediate vicinity. There was a wooden bridge over the Fleet here, too, so the early inhabitants of Fetter Lane and its environs had the advantage of living beside a swiftly flowing river. A ninth-century sword handle was also discovered within the depths of the lane. Its manufacture and material were of fine quality, indicating that it was employed for ceremonial rather than sanguinary purposes. It may then have some connection with a charter of 959 by which King Edgar of Wessex granted the neighbouring land to the monks of Westminster Abbey, one boundary of which was marked by a line parallel to Fetter Lane.

Throughout its history Fetter Lane acted as a boundary, or has been recorded as frontier territory; it was where the Great Fire stopped, and it marks the area where the City’s influence ceases. It is also the area where two parishes, St. Andrew’s, Holborn, and St. Dunstan’s in the West, meet. We may find, in turn, that it has attracted those who live upon “the edge.”

At the beginning of the fourteenth century its present contours emerged. In 1306 it was known as the “neu strete” but in 1329 it is styled as “a new lane called Faiteres Lane.” The earliest records suggest, however, that it had already acquired an ambiguous reputation. There is a report on one “Emmade Brakkele, a harlot,” living in Fetter Lane. A keeper of a house harbouring “prostitutes and sodomites” was noted as living in “fayters lane.” Yet it must already have been a “mixed” neighbourhood in a thoroughly medieval spirit, since there is a tradition of an “Inne or Court” in “Fewter Lane” and the fact that Clifford’s Inn was established here in 1345 suggests that some original foundations may have been maintained here even before Fetter Lane appeared in the public records. The religious establishments in the immediate vicinity will also have provided some measure of extra-mural control with St. Dunstan’s to the south, St. Andrew’s and Ely Place to the north. In 1349, John Blakwell, “Cetizen of London,” purchased with his wife property in “Faytourslane,” and Henry VI is recorded as collecting rents from the dwellings there. This in itself is not necessarily a guarantee of respectability, but these bare records suggest that throughout the medieval period it was a well-known and well-documented “subarbe” of London. By the early fifteenth century there was a famous tavern on the corner of Fetter Lane with Holborn, known as Le Swan on Le Hope, which contained rooms for travellers. There were complaints about its overhanging roof, and some “barriers which had been erected outside the inn and so distracted the roadway,” but it survived until the middle of the eighteenth century under the revised name of the Black Swan. A few yards down the lane there now stands the Mucky Duck as a plaintive reminder of a more graceful presence.

On a mid-sixteenth-century map Fetter Lane is clearly marked with fifteen houses down its eastern side and twelve down its western; the topography may not be entirely accurate, but it is in contrast to “Liver Lane” (Leather Lane) to the north which proceeds among gardens and open fields. At the northern end of Fetter Lane Barnard’s Inn can be seen and, down towards Fleet Street, Clifford’s Inn is already visible; a stone archway spanning the lane, almost at its midway point, has also been marked. The map is less than accurate in one respect, however, since it does not convey the continual encroachment of new buildings in and around the lane itself; on land once owned by St. Bartholomew’s “ten tenements with gardens” were erected by 1555 and by 1580 a further thirteen “illegal new houses” had been constructed. Neither does the map reveal the narrow yards and alleys, like Fleur de Lys Alley and Crane Court, which ran off the main thoroughfare and which exist still.

Like other areas of London, it had its share in fires and executions. Both entries to the lane were in fact customary sites for the gallows. There are records of Catholic recusants, in 1590, being hanged and quartered at the Fleet Street end; it is, according to one Catholic history, Catholic London by W.D. Newton, “one of our sacred spots.” The melancholy Catholic composer John Dowland, who died in 1626, had been living in Fetter Lane. In 1643 two plotters against Parliament were hanged at the Holborn end, having arranged their conspiracy in a lodging in the lane, and for two centuries this spot was often a place of execution. It has been the site of death in more than one form, however. There was a distillery on the corner of Fetter Lane and Holborn in the mid-eighteenth century; it was on the site of the Black Swan, formerly Le Swan on Le Hope, and so had a long association with drink. During the most violent days of the Gordon Riots in 1780, with the mob’s cry of “No Popery!” rising through the streets, it was rumoured that the owner of the distillery was a Catholic. So it was ransacked and fired, with fatal results. “The gutters of the street, and every crack and fissure in the stones, ran with scorching spirit, which being dammed up by busy hands, overflowed the road and pavement, and formed a great pool, into which the people dropped down dead by dozens.” This account is written by Charles Dickens, who like many Londoners was obsessed with fiery death, but his version is authenticated by several contemporary sources. So by Fetter Lane “some stooped with their lips to the brink and never raised their heads again, others sprang up from their fiery draught, and danced, half in mad triumph, and half in the agony of suffocation, until they fell, and steeped their corpses in the liquor that had killed them.” Others, leaving the distillery with their clothes on fire, actually rolled in the spirit mistaking it for water until they “became themselves the dust and ashes of the flames they had kindled, and strewed the public streets of London.” They became part of Fetter Lane.

There have been other fires and explosions over the centuries. Curiously enough, one upon 10 April 1679 was believed to be the consequence of a “Papist Plot”; the hanging of the recusants, and the firing of the distillery, then become part of a morbid Catholic trinity. Then again, in 1583, just after the neighbouring church of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, had been “new glazed” to remove all signs of popish superstition, a large explosion of gunpowder in Fetter Lane caused all its windows to shatter and fall. By use of gunpowder, too, the Great Fire was “quenched” in the vicinity. The Fire Court, established to adjudicate claims of ownership, sat in Clifford’s Inn itself. So Fetter Lane became a famous boundary.

With its legal Inns beside its taverns, and its churches beside the houses of pimps, it always possessed an intermediary status. The more dubious healers lived here: in the seventeenth century one Bromfield at the Blue Balls in Plow Yard, Fetter Lane, advertised “Pills against all Diseases.” Samuel Johnson’s friend, a poor apothecary named Levett, met “a woman of bad character” by a coal-shed in Fetter Lane and was duped into marrying her. He was then nearly imprisoned for her debts, the whole story according to Johnson being “as marvellous as any page of the Arabian Nights.” The lane was also the haunt of pawn-brokers, to which reference is made in one seventeenth-century drama, Barry’s Ram-Alley:

Take thou these books

Go both to the broker’s in Fetter Lane.

The allusion to books is appropriate in another sense since Fetter Lane has become associated with several London writers. Henry Peacham, the author of The Art of Living in London, dwelled here. Michael Drayton, the author of Poly-Olbion, lived at No. 184. Thomas Hobbes, according to John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, “lived most part in Fetter-lane where he writ, or finished, his book De Porpore, in Latin and then in English.” He preferred his Fetter Lane life to any in the country where “the want of learned conversation was a great inconvenience.” John Dryden lived at the corner of Fetter Lane and Fleur-de-lys Court, in one of the houses newly fashioned after the Fire; he remained here for nine years, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, and for a while his neighbour across the street was another dramatist, Thomas Otway, who died of drink in an adjacent tavern. Charles Lamb attended school in an alley off the lane. Coleridge lectured in the lane and, at different times, Samuel Butler, Lionel Johnson and Virginia Woolf lived in Clifford’s Inn. Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Swift’s novel, is also recorded as having dwelled in Fetter Lane.

One of the most notorious, if now least known, residents of Fetter Lane was Isaac Praisegod Barebone; he pursued his trade as a leather-seller on the corner of Fleet Street which by some atavistic remembrance may have prompted George Eliot, in the nineteenth century, to remark that Fetter Lane “had something about it that goes with the smell of leather.” But Barebone was also a fiery and assiduous Anabaptist preacher who in the 1640s stirred up various tumults in the neighbourhood with his “disorderly preachment, pratings and prattlings.” At Oliver Cromwell’s instigation he entered Parliament as a member for the City of London; even though it was christened by its enemies as “Barebone’s parliament,” he did not speak in the chamber. He was imprisoned after the Restoration but, on his release, returned to his old parish; his burial is registered in St. Andrew’s, Holborn, the church to the north of Fetter Lane.

But Barebone’s presence was not the only element of dissent in that street. A group of sixteenth-century Puritans met in a carpenter’s yard midway down the eastern side of the lane; during the reign of Mary, their persecutor, they prayed in a simple saw-pit, and in later years an anonymous pamphlet, Our Oldest Chapel, declared that the site was regarded by Dissenters “with feelings akin to veneration.” It contrasts strangely with the “sacred spot” of Catholic veneration a few yards further south, where the gallows was situated on the corner of Fleet Street, and it is suggestive that one small London street can harbour contrasting spiritual memories.

In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) the Puritans were permitted to build a wooden temple on the site of the saw-pit; then the Presbyterians migrated to the location, and erected a brick chapel on the same spot. Their interest in Fetter Lane, like that of their nonconformist predecessors, lay in secrecy and seclusion. The chapel itself “could only be reached through a long narrow passage” known as Goldsmith or Goldsmith’s Court; a seventeenth-century map of Fetter Lane reveals that there were a number of such courts and small yards aligned to it, so that its irrepressible life seemed to flow in all directions. The chapel was also concealed “by the continuous row of houses which even at that early date fringed the east of Fetter Lane” while upon the other side “tall buildings to the west … effectually masked it from the notice of any passer-by.” So in the middle of London it was possible to find seclusion. Yet the London mob knew the byways of the city very well, and in 1710 the chapel was torched by rioters. It was rebuilt, but then adopted by the radical and sectarian Moravian Brethren who maintained their presence in the area for the next two centuries. The Wesleys worshipped here with the Brethren, and on the first day of 1739 John Wesley recorded that “the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground.” So the “sudden effusion of the holy Ghost” had touched a small court in Fetter Lane, from where a “Revival … spread into other parts of England.”

Other radicals and Dissenters were drawn to the same place. The con-venticler Richard Baxter gave lectures in Fetter Lane; there was a Baptist congregation in Black Raven Passage, and another Dissenters’ chapel in Elim Court between 104 and 107 Fetter Lane. A number of Moravians inhabited the area in “community houses,” in Nevill’s Court and elsewhere. They were living on the borders of orthodox faith, just as they were living on the borders of the city. Certain groups and people are undoubtedly attracted to a certain locality, the topography of which is strangely analogous to their own situation. That is why political, as well as religious, radicals were drawn to the same area. A “Jacobin” and member of the London Corresponding Society, Thomas Evans, established the centre of his operations in Plough Court, Fetter Lane. A public house in Fetter Lane, the Falcon, was also under surveillance as a centre for subversive political activity. Evans himself, who lived in Fetter Lane throughout the 1790s, laced his revolutionary zeal with strong drink, and financed his activities by selling ballads and pornography. In that, he was perfectly congruent with his equally ambiguous surroundings. He was elusive enough to have adopted numerous professions, among them pornographer, printer, coffee-house keeper and paint-colourer, all trades that were associated with Fetter Lane itself, so that in another sense he becomes as protean and as shiftless as the lane. Is it possible, then, that certain inhabitants acquire their identity, or temperament, from the circumstances of their immediate locale?

Other names can be enlisted in light of this radical connection. Tom Paine, whose Rights of Man became the unofficial bible of eighteenth-century radicalism, lived at No. 77 Fetter Lane. William Cobbett wrote and published his Political Register from No. 183 Fetter Lane. Keir Hardie lived at No. 14 Nevill’s Court, off Fetter Lane, at the beginning of the twentieth century. For 6s 6d a week he lodged in one of the oldest houses in London, a “late-medieval, half-timbered five-storey tenement building”; so he was inhabiting the history of Fetter Lane, although perhaps unaware that Cobbett and Paine had trod the same street before him. As if in implicit homage to that past, the statue of John Wilkes, the great London radical, now stands at the place where Fetter Lane and New Fetter Lane converge. It has the incidental merit of being the only cross-eyed statue in London, adding to the ambiguous status of its locale.

In the nineteenth century the lane suffered a fate similar to many other streets of the period; it was overwhelmed by the size of London, seeming somehow to become smaller and darker. “Those who live in Fetter Lane and the adjoining streets,” one church report stated, “are of the poorest and most irreligious class. The neighbourhood is simply a labyrinth of business premises.” This was the condition of many streets close to the ancient centre of London. The Inns were demolished; in their place were constructed a workhouse and a great General Records Office. Of the buildings which were to be destroyed by that Office, an anonymous surveyor commented that “Those in Fetter Lane are principally occupied by persons not concerned in lucrative business, and it is believed that none of the leases are for a longer period than 21 years.” It was always the character of Fetter Lane to have a migrant population. Except for the Moravian settlers, who knew that on this earth there is no abiding city, the pattern is one of transience.

And yet, in the city, there are always other patterns within the general pattern. In a street directory of 1828 there are no fewer than nine taverns listed; the relatively large number in so relatively short a street is an indication of early nineteenth-century London, but it also suggests elements of a mobile and perhaps anonymous population. In the commercial directory of 1841 there is a preponderance of printers, publishers, stationers, engravers and booksellers-some nineteen altogether-rivalled only by the proprietors of coffee houses, hotels and eating-houses. These are all trades reliant upon passing taste and what might be considered “news.” It might be imagined, therefore, that Fetter Lane was not a stable or a settled place but one which participated in the City’s usual uproar.

In a street directory of 1817 no fewer than three “oil and colour men” are listed. In the Post Office directory of 1845 are two painters and an “oil amp; colorman” and in 1856 an “oil and colour warehouse” appears; in one of his sketches, Charles Dickens describes a certain “Mr. Augustus Cooper, of Fetter-lane” as “in the oil and colour line.” Dickens may have discerned a remarkable coincidence of trade. Alternatively he was somehow divining the spirit of the lane in his usual fashion. He also mentions that “over the way” from Augustus Cooper was “the gasfitters”; curiously enough in the directory for 1865 appears a “brass finisher amp; gasfitter.” In that charmed urban space where reality and imagination mingle it may also be noted that, in a street where Lemuel Gulliver was a surgeon, two other surgeons are listed in the 1845 directory.

A sketch of 1900, showing the west side of Fetter Lane, reveals that many houses were of seventeenth-century date; but it is also clear that the thoroughfare was lined with ground-floor shops. One representative section, in a street directory of 1905, manifested in sequence a butcher, a dairy, an ironmonger, a tool-maker, a watch-maker, an electric bell manufacturer, a pub, a baker, a printer, a coffee house, another pub, another coffee house, a hairdresser and a map-mounter. Yet down the courts and alleys-Blewitt’s Buildings, Bartlett’s Buildings, Churchyard Alley and many others-there were tenants and lodgers who were often registered as “Poor,” “Can’t Pay” or “Won’t Pay” in the local rate books. In Nevill’s Court, where Keir Hardie lodged, once spacious houses were divided into tenements. Some predated the Great Fire, while others were built immediately after the conflagration, but they were characterised by small front gardens. In a report for the London Topographical Society, in 1928, Walter Bell noted how well tended these gardens were and suggested that “it is the poor man who keeps intact for us this fragment of London’s older self.” In that sense the vicinity was reclaiming its sixteenth-century identity, as a place of straggling courts and gardens. But in the early twentieth century “You rub your eyes and wonder. Can this really be the City-this hidden place, where people live their lives, and tend their flowers, and die? It is false that no one dies in the City.”

In Fetter Lane they do not die; they move on. It is clear from the records of the parish and the post office that businesses remained only for a short period and then dissolved. At No. 83, over a period of seventy years, there was in turn a razor-maker, an eating-house, a beer retailer, a coffee room, a printer and a dairy man, all passing away into the fabric and texture of the street. In the dwelling today, on the ground floor, can be found Tucker’s Sandwich Bar.

The pattern of small businesses persisted until the Second World War, when in 1941 firebombs razed the area. When it arose again, Fetter Lane reasserted itself as a street of stationers, printers and cafés. But all the inhabitants had gone. Now the remaining courts and alleys are lined with office accommodation and business premises, while in the lane itself the sandwich bars are a present reminder of the coffee rooms and eating-houses which were once so familiar a presence. But the principal sights, and sounds, are those of demolition and rebuilding in this lane of perpetual change.

CHAPTER 23. To Build Anew

In 1666 many of the citizens immediately returned to the smoking ruins, in order to discover where their houses had once stood; they then laid claim to the area by erecting some kind of temporary shelter. On the very day that the Fire was extinguished Charles II was informed that “some persons are already about to erect houses againe in the Citty of London upon their old foundations.”

Three days later the king issued a proclamation to the citizens in which he promised that rebuilding would proceed quickly but declared that no new work could begin until “order and direction” had been introduced. He then went on to formulate certain principles, the chief of which was that all new dwellings were to be built of brick or stone. Certain streets, such as Cheapside and Cornhill, were to “be of such breadth as may with Gods blessing prevent the mischief that one side may suffer if the other be on fire, which was the case lately in Cheapside.” The monarch also showed some concern for the health of his subjects by declaring that “all those Trades which are carried on by smoak,” such as brewers and dyers, should “inhabit together.”

Certain schemes had already been propounded, most notably by Wren and Evelyn, in which the reconstruction of London was planned upon a grand and elaborate scale. Wren proposed a series of intersecting avenues on a European model; Evelyn’s new city resembled a giant chessboard dominated by twelve squares or piazzas. None was accepted, none acceptable. The city, as always, reasserted itself along its ancient topographical lines.

But first the work of demolition had to begin. Those who had lost their trades, or who were otherwise unemployed, were called into city service; the ruins had to be levelled, and the debris carted away. The smoking streets must be cleared, and opened up, while the quays were once again made safe for trade. Makeshift markets were established on the perimeters of the city while the more enterprising bankers and merchants set up their businesses in the area by Bishopsgate which had not been touched by the flames. By the end of the year the tradesmen of the Royal Exchange, for example, had removed to Gresham College. There was in one sense a new, and exhilarating, atmosphere of freedom. Debts and property, mortgages and buildings, were destroyed by the Fire in equal measure. Yet, against this financial cleansing there must be put the loss of stock and of goods, the spices and the wine, the oil and the cloth, all destroyed in the warehouses and manufactories which contained them.

It was a sign of the city’s vitality, however, that within a year the busy round of trade had been resumed. It was still the same city in another sense; thieves and footpads found the new conditions good for their own trade, and “there are many people found murdered and carried into the vaults among the ruins.” This additional detail prompts further speculations. What happened to those prisoners who had, before the Fire, been inhabiting such “vaults”? Many of the compters and gaols were below the surface of the city, and it is hard to believe that all the prisoners were liberated and escaped with their lives. Is it not more likely that they burned or were suffocated to death? The stated mortality was six, but that extraordinarily low figure may in fact obfuscate the loss of life due to official negligence. Did many of those incarcerated escape as their prison bars melted? And what of the others?

A committee of six was established to direct the rebuilding of the city. One of its members was Christopher Wren who knew already that his idealised version of London was not to be achieved. A “Fire Court” was set up to adjudicate all the claims and disputes which arose over the ownership of land and property. By February of the following year Parliament had enforced what the commission suggested. Certain streets were widened but, not surprisingly, very few alterations were made. King Street was formed, and a small thoroughfare widened into Queen Street, so that the Guildhall could be approached directly from the Thames. A more noticeable change, however, was enforced upon the size and fabric of the houses themselves. They were to be built of brick or stone, as the king had declared, and there were to be four classes or types of houses “for better regulation, uniformity and gracefulness.” Those on the principal streets were to be four storeys in height, for example, while in lanes and by-streets two storeys were considered sufficient. In other respects the old lines of the city were to be renewed.

Then the work began. The citizens and private householders were compelled to rely upon their own resources, while money for public works such as the rebuilding of the churches was funded by a tax on sea-coal. By the spring of 1667 the lines of the streets had been staked, and the entire country was advertised for “all persons who are willing to serve and furnish this City with timber, brick, lime, stone, glass, slates and other materials for building.” Thus ensued one of the great changes in London’s population.

It can be assumed that many of those who had lived in the city before the Fire did not return to the scene of devastation. Some migrated to the country districts, others travelled to the United States; in both instances the presence of relatives, and the possibility of work, affected their decision. But once the rebuilding of the city began, thousands of new people were drawn within its orbit. There were earth-movers and brick-makers, carters and moulders, who dwelled just outside the walls; in addition, hundreds of hawkers and traders moved into the city which had lost half of its markets and most of its shops. And there, of course, came the builders who took advantage of the situation to run up whole streets of houses. Roger North has described how the most celebrated of these speculators, Nicholas Barbon, eventually transformed part of London “by casting of ground into streets and small houses, and to augment their number with as little front as possible.” Barbon understood the virtues of simplicity and standardisation-“It was not worth his while to deal little,” he once remarked. “That a bricklayer could do.” But the bricklayers had already been heavily employed.

Within two years of the Fire twelve hundred houses had been completed, and in the following year another sixteen hundred. It was not quite the rapid and vigorous process which some historians have assumed, and for some years London had all the aspects of a ruined city, yet gradually it was rising once again.

John Ogilby’s map of 1677, only eleven years after the Great Fire, shows its new appearance. Most of the city has been rebuilt, although some of the churches are missing and a proposed development of the quays beside the Thames never occurred. The new brick narrow-fronted houses are drawn as square rectangles; already they are packed tightly together, making room for lanes and small alleys which thread among them. Many of these houses have small gardens or courtyards behind them, but the general impression is once more of dense and constricted life. If you were to walk eastwards down Leadenhall Street, one hundred yards from Billiter Lane to the junction with Fenchurch Street, you would pass on the left-hand side no fewer than seven small lanes or alleys-categorised by John Strype as “indifferent good” or “small, nasty and beggarly,” which were either simple “dead-ends” or issued into tiny courtyards. Much of the area is shaded grey to mark small dwellings of brick and stone.

Ogilby’s map reveals the steady spread of London. The area around Lincoln’s Inn in the western district has been marked out for streets and houses; to the north, in Clerkenwell, there are already many new lanes and courts. Nicholas Barbon created Essex Street, Devereux Court, Red Lion Square, Buckingham Street, Villiers Street and Bedford Row. With his skills as a builder and developer, he was surpassed only by Nash in his influence upon the appearance of London. The pragmatism and financial opportunism of Barbon seem subtly to suit the nature and atmosphere of the city which he did so much to extend; both prospered together. Partly as a result of his activities, wealthier merchants and businessmen moved away from the smell and noise of the older trading areas. It was a means of escaping from the “fumes, steams and stinks of the whole easterly pyle.”

Much of the development had in fact taken place before the Fire hastened its progress. The piazza of Covent Garden had been planned and rebuilt in 1631; it was followed by Leicester Fields four years later. The construction of Seven Dials linked the churches of St. Giles and St. Martin, both “in the fields.” Great Russell Street was completed by 1670. In the year before the Fire Bloomsbury Square was laid out. By 1684 the process of western expansion had spread as far as Red Lion Square and St. James’s Square.

The principle of these squares lay in the creation of what John Evelyn called a “little town,” which in theory was not so different from the independent sokes of Anglo-Saxon London controlled by one great lord. In the seventeenth century a lord of the manor, such as Lord Southampton who owned Bloomsbury, might realise that there was money to be earned from his land. He himself would live in one of the residences upon his estate, but the rest was divided into units which were then leased to speculative builders, who constructed the housing before letting or re-leasing it. After ninety-nine years, the houses became the property of the landlord.

The other features of the squares lay in their civic aspect. They were, in the best circumstances, regarded as small communities with church and market attached to their development. It seemed to be a way of creating an attractive and humane city outside the old walls. When the squares were first erected they were considered to be, in Macaulay’s words, “one of the wonders of England,” combining convenience and gentility. The regularity and uniformity of these squares, so unlike the baroque vistas of Paris or of Rome, might have been derived from the example of old monastery courtyards or convent gardens with which London was once familiar. To walk through Queen Square, Russell Square, Torrington Square and Bedford Square was to sense that “the traditions of the Middle Ages had been handed down” and that the tranquillity of the ecclesiastical establishments had been carried westward.

Yet it is never wise to underestimate the atavistic elements of London life, even as it grows beyond all of its old boundaries. Expansion takes place in waves, with a sudden movement and roar succeeded by a calm. The city will on one occasion brush against an area, or on another colonise it wholly. Leicester Fields and Soho Square, for example, were already so close to the burgeoning capital that no attempt at creating a graceful public or communal space was ever made. In this context, too, it is important to note that the restless movement of the city was, in the words of John Summerson, established upon “the trade cycle rather than the changing ambitions and policies of rulers and administrators.” For a while the city stopped to the west at what is now New Bond Street but what was then “an open field.” Building had come to a temporary halt on the southern side of Oxford Street which was little more than “a deep hollow road, filled with sloughs” and bordered by hedges. Regent Street was then a “solitude” and Golden Square, previously employed as a plague pit, “was a field not to be passed without a shudder by any Londoner of that age.”

The new squares did not necessarily remain models of civic or communal harmony for very long. Macaulay notes that by the end of the seventeenth century the centre of Lincoln’s Inn Field “was an open space where the rabble congregated every evening” and where “rubbish was shot in every part of the area.” St. James’s Square became “a receptacle for all the offal and cinders, for all the dead cats and dead dogs of Westminster”; at one time “an impudent squatter settled himself there, and built a shed for rubbish under the windows of the gilded saloons.” It is further evidence of the contrast and contrariness of London life, but it is also suggestive of a city which was even then established upon a basic brutality and offensiveness. It is tempting to think of the new squares as separate communities still surrounded by fields, for example, but in fact the fields themselves were being built upon. “At this end of town,” one resident of Westminster complained, “whole fields go into new buildings and are turned into alehouses filled with necessitous people.”

Where most of the developments of the western suburbs of London were conducted by means of leasehold arrangements and governed by Acts of Parliament, the extension of the eastern regions was confused and haphazard, governed as it was by ancient statutes of the manors of Stepney and Hackney which provided for only short “copyholds” of thirty-one years. Thus from the beginning the expansion of the city at the east end remained unplanned and underdeveloped. Wapping and Shadwell had taken shape ten years after the Fire, while Spitalfields was “almost completely built over” by the end of the century. Mile End was emerging as a populous district while the bankside from Ratcliffe to Poplar was a continuous mean street of houses and of shops.

The Ogilby map does not include the meaner streets of the east, nor the confused development of the west. Instead it reveals what in his poem, Annus Mirabilis, Dryden glorified as “a city of more precious mold.”

More great then humane now, and more August,

New deified she from her fires does rise:

Her widening Streets on new Foundations trust,

And, opening, into larger parts she flies.

A view of Lambeth Palace, painted in the 1680s, reveals a distant prospect of Westminster and the Strand. It is altogether a model of elegance, with the spires of St. Clement Danes and St. Giles-in-the-Fields clearly visible together with stately representations of Durham House and Salisbury House. If the artist had turned his eyes only slightly to the east he would have seen, within the newly built city, the tower of the re-erected Royal Exchange which, as the financial centre of London, was naturally graced with the very first of the brand-new steeples. The great steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow had also been rebuilt, and was followed by that of St. Clement Eastcheap and St. Peter upon Cornhill, St. Stephen Walbrook and St. Michael Crooked Lane, as well as those of forty-seven other churches designed by Wren and his colleagues.

· · ·

In Wren’s visionary design of London, the great cathedral of St. Paul had been the central point from which the streets were to be extended, and he tried to hold fast to his original conception of its grandeur and immensity. He had found the old cathedral in ruins where, Pepys noted, “strange how the very sight of the stones falling from the top of the steeple do make me sea-sick.” As late as 1674, eight years after the Fire, the ancient edifice had been neither replaced nor restored. London was still in part a ruined city. But Wren then began the task of demolishing the old walls with gunpowder and battering rams, and the first stone was laid in the summer of 1675. Thirty-five years later Wren’s son, in the presence of his father the master architect, placed the highest stone of the lantern upon the cupola of the cathedral in order to mark its completion. “I build for eternity,” Wren had said. Yet in that sentiment he was pre-empted by the poet, Felton, who predicted that nothing would last as long as the stones of Newgate.

Crime and Punishment

A London hanging evoked by Rowlandson; the children in the crowd seem delighted by the spectacle, and a mother carries her infant without the least disquiet. It was often said, by foreigners, that Londoners did not fear death.

CHAPTER 24. A Newgate Ballad

Within four years of the Great Fire Newgate Prison was near to completion, rebuilt with a design which the London Encyclopaedia describes as one of “great magnificence” and “sumptuousness.” It was, in a sense, the very symbol of London. It had stood on the same site since the twelfth century and was, almost from its beginning, an emblem of death and suffering. It became a legendary place, where the very stones were considered “deathlike,” and it has inspired more poems, dramas and novels than any other building in London. Its role as gateway also created elements of myth, since it was the threshold from which prisoners left the earthly city and were dispatched to Tyburn or Smithfield or the gallows just beyond the walls of Newgate itself. It became associated with hell, and its smell permeated the streets and houses beside it.

In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries Newgate Prison had begun to decay and to collapse upon itself; sixty-four prisoners died in an epidemic of “gaol fever” in 1419, while the various keepers were regularly charged with afflicting torture and unjust punishment upon the inmates. Jews falsely accused of circumcising Christian children, clippers and coiners, and murderers, were placed within deep underground dungeons where they were loaded with chains or confined in stocks. A bequest of money by Richard Whittington ensured that the prison was completely rebuilt in 1423 but it soon reverted to its natural state of gloom and horror. Approximately three hundred prisoners were confined within the space of half an acre, in a building divided into three sides-the Master’s side for prisoners who could pay for food and drink, the Common side for impecunious debtors and felons, and the Press Yard for “prisoners of note.” It can be inferred, then, that the Common side was the site of hardship and indignity.

The keepers of Newgate had always been notorious for their violence and intemperance. In 1447 James Manning left the body of one of his prisoners in the thoroughfare “causing a nuisance and great danger to the King who was passing there”; when he refused to remove it after several warnings, and after his wife had spoken “shameful words,” they were both taken to the compter. Two years later his successor was also imprisoned for “a dreadful assault” upon a female prisoner. So the keepers snuffed up the contagion of brutality as well as that of gaol fever. Perhaps the most famous of these gaolers, in the years before the Fire, was Andrew Alexander who in the reign of Mary I hurried his Protestant inmates to the fires of Smithfield with the words “Rid my prison! Rid my prison!” One favoured prisoner who played the lute for Alexander and his wife, who “do love music very well,” was granted the best lodgings in the prison. But the conditions of the gaol could not be escaped- the “evil savours … threw the poor gentleman into a burning ague.” Alexander offered to keep him in his own parlour “but it was near the kitchen, and the smell of the meat was disagreeable.” The smell is pre-eminent in these accounts from The Chronicles of Newgate while, in the dungeons themselves, “there was turbulence, rioting, disorders.”

Those who could afford liquor were continually drunk on “sherry sack … amber-coloured canary or liquorish Ipocras” while those imprisoned for their religious or political beliefs raved amid their shackles. “There are seditious preachings by fifth monarch men at Newgate,” according to the records “and prayers for all righteous blood,” while the prison was so overcrowded that the majority of prisoners had “an infectious malignant fever.” It was “a place of infamy and great distress” where lice were the prisoners’ “constant companions.” One inmate was forced to lie in a coffin for a bed, while another spent fourteen days “without light or fire, living on half penny worth of bread a day.” Here in 1537 eleven Catholic monks “were left, standing and chained to pillars, to die of starvation.”

It was in this period that there first emerged the legend of the “Black Dog”-“a walking spirit in the likenesse of a blacke Dog, gliding up and down the streets a little before the time of Execution, and in the night whilst the Sessions continued.” Some believed the creature to be an emanation of the miseries of twelfth-century Newgate, when famine compelled certain prisoners to cannibalism. Others surmised that it was a being which walked “in the Name of Service and Office”; that it was, in other words, a phantom created by the wickedness of the gaolers. By the early eighteenth century, however, “Making The Black Dog Walk” was the phrase used to designate “the prisoners’ brutal treatment of new inmates.” The present ivy-covered wall at the bottom of Amen Court, close to the old Sessions House yard, is supposed still to be the haunt of this malign spirit.

In the sixteenth century, however, the Black Dog was only one of the many terrors of Newgate. An underground dungeon, known as “Limbo,” was described as being “full of horrors, without light and swarming with vermin and creeping things.” This was the condemned hold beneath the gates which was “a most fearful, sad, deplorable place … They lie like swine upon the ground, one upon another, howling and roaring-it was more terrible to me than death.” This is the constant refrain of those who had entered Newgate-“being more full of horror than death”-which of course marked one of the entrances to London itself. When one prisoner, imprisoned for his religious beliefs, cried out: “I would not change my chain for my Lord Mayor’s great chain” he was in his agony making the connection between the sufferings of Newgate and the oppression of the city.

An anonymous drama of the early seventeenth century, Dick of Devonshire, contains the plea of a man as “loaden with gyves shackles amp; fetters” as any thief that lay in Newgate, confirming the notion that it was a prison from which it was impossible to escape. But it also became a symbol of brotherhood among thieves-“bothe shakeled in a fetter”-or, as Bardolph says to Falstaff, “Two and two, Newgate fashion” and, in Dekker’s Satiro-mastix:

we’ll walk arme in arme

As tho’ we were leading one another to Newgate.

It is in part a symbol of defiance under oppression and the prospect of death. That is why one cry of the rogue or thief was “Newgate or Victory!” The prison becomes the central token of authority and thus, as we shall see, the first object of London rioters who were determined to destroy the order of the city. In that capacity, too, it has often been the object of fire and flame, with the Great Fire itself as a notable token of wrath or vengeance.

· · ·

So it rose again in 1670, embellished and decorated in a manner appropriate to one of the city’s greatest public monuments. There was even a bas-relief model of Richard Whittington’s cat, and for a while the prison was known popularly as “the Whit”; no more lucid demonstration could be given of its intimate connection with London. It rose five storeys, spanning the entry to Newgate Street from Giltspur Street and the steep incline of Snow Hill. There were now five “sides” for various felons and debtors, together with a newly designed press room (the object of “pressing to death” was to extort confessions), condemned holds, a chapel and “Jack Ketch’s kitchen.”

On arrival the prisoners were fettered and “ironed,” passing under the gate to be led to their appropriate dungeon; they passed, on the left, the keeper’s house beneath which was the “hold” for those condemned to hang. A prisoner confined in this subterranean area, which did not perhaps differ very much from the dungeon before the Fire, is quoted in Anthony Babington’s The English Bastille as saying that there were “some glimmerings of light … by which you may know that you are in a dark, opaque, wild room.” Entered by a hatch, it was entirely constructed of stone with an “open sewer running through the middle” which diffused a “stench” that entered every corner. Fastened into the stone floor itself were hooks and chains to castigate and confine those who were “stubborn and unruly.”

Immediately to the right of the gate was the drinking cellar. This was run by a prisoner who was allowed a profit on sales. Since it was also below ground it was lit by candles “placed in pyramidal candlesticks made of clay”; those inmates who could afford the prices were allowed to drink themselves into senselessness day or night, with gin variously known as “Cock-my-Cap,” “Kill-Grief,” “Comfort,” “Meat-and-Drink” or “Washing-and-Lodging.” One prisoner recalled that “such wretchedness abounds there that the place has the exact aspect of hell itself.” Beyond this cellar tap-room, going along Newgate Street, were located a “stone hall” for common debtors and a “stone hold” for common felons. These were “virtually unlighted dungeons” strewn with “unutterable filth.” “Trampling on the floor, the lice crawling under their feet made such a noise as walking on shells which are strewn over garden walks.” The rest of the prison rose upward, for “master” prisoners and female prisoners.

So these were the quarters which greeted each new arrival, a place which no physician would enter. In the 1760s Boswell noticed the cells, “three rows of ’em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron windows, and within these, strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined.” These “dismal places” stayed with him all that day, “Newgate being upon my mind like a black cloud.” Casanova, briefly imprisoned there, described it as an “abode of misery and despair, a hell such as Dante might have conceived.” Wilhelm Meister, crossing the Press Yard on a tour of inspection, was “attacked as by a swarm of harpies and had no means of escaping but to throw a handful of half-pence amongst them for which they scrambled with all the fury of a parcel of wild beasts” while others “who were shut up, stretched forth their hands through the iron bars, venting the most horrible cries.” This is the yard to which Daniel Defoe consigned Moll Flanders in his narrative of her adventures; since the author himself spent some time incarcerated in Newgate in 1703, his account bears the mark of genuine remembrance. It is “impossible to describe the terror of my mind, when I was first brought in, and when I looked round upon all the horrors of that dismal place … the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful afflicting things that I saw there, joined to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.” In more than one passage, however, it is emphasised that the inmates by degrees grow accustomed to this hell so that it becomes “not only tolerable but even agreeable” with its inhabitants “as impudently cheerful and merry in their misery as they were when out of it.” “‘It is natural to me now,’ one female prisoner declares, ‘I don’t disturb myself about it.’” This is of course an astute observation of Newgate manners, but it might perhaps be construed in the wider context of London itself. In the company of this “crew” Moll herself “turned first stupid and senseless, and then brutish and thoughtless” until she becomes “a mere Newgate-bird, as wicked and as outrageous as any of them.”

Some inmates were far from “thoughtless,”however, and contrived many ingenious plans of escape. The great heroes of London have often been those who freed themselves from the constraints of Newgate. The greatest of them all, Jack Sheppard, escaped from confinement on six separate occasions; for two centuries he remained a type or symbol of those who elude the practices of oppression with effrontery and bravery as well as skill. It is worth noticing, for example, that a report of the Children’s Employment Commission in the 1840s remarked that poor London children who had never heard of Moses or Queen Victoria had “general knowledge of the character and course of life of Dick Turpin, the highwayman, and more particularly of Jack Shepherd [sic], the robber and prison breaker.”

Jack Sheppard was born in White’s Row, Spitalfields, in the spring of 1702, and then placed in the Bishopsgate workhouse-built on the perimeter of the city, like Newgate itself-before being apprenticed to a carpenter in Wych Street. He broke free of his apprenticeship after six years of industry, even though he was within ten months of completing his terms, and turned to theft for his trade. In the spring of 1724 he was first imprisoned in the St. Giles Roundhouse, but was free within three hours after cutting open the roof and lowering himself to the ground with sheet and blanket. There “he joined a gathering throng” and made his escape through the lanes of St. Giles. A few weeks later he was arrested again, for a pickpocketing offence in Leicester Fields, and was incarcerated in the New Prison of Clerkenwell. He was taken to the “Newgate Ward” there and pinioned with links and fetters of great weight; he sawed through the fetters and somehow cut through an iron restraint before boring his way through an oaken bar some nine inches thick. The severed chairs and bars were afterwards kept by the prison authorities “to Testifie, and preserve the Memory of this extraordinary Event and Villain.”

For three months he was at liberty before being found by the notorious criminal and “thief-taker,” Jonathan Wild; Sheppard was now escorted to Newgate and, after being sentenced to death for three robberies, was consigned to the condemned hold. Even within that dreadful place, by some means or other, he managed to smuggle in a “Spike” and with that began to carve an opening in the wall (or perhaps ceiling); with the help of accomplices on the other side he was dragged out. It was the week of Bartholomew Fair, and he made his escape through the crowds of those going up Snow Hill and Giltspur Street into Smithfield. From there he travelled eastwards into Spitalfields, where he stayed at the Paul’s Head; on an eighteenth-century map, like that of John Roque, it is still possible to track his route. It is in any case a potent image-of a prisoner almost miraculously escaping from incarceration to join the crowds celebrating their own temporary liberty among the booths and shows of Bartholomew Fair.

During the next few days, according to Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, he was seen by a “cobbler in Bishopsgate and a milkman in Islington.” In Fleet Street he entered a watch-maker’s shop and addressed the apprentice there, bidding him “stick to his Tools, and not use his Master to such ill Habits of working so late.” He promptly robbed the premises, but was pursued and taken. Then, once again, he was led to Newgate and in a secluded gaol was “fastened to the floor with double fetters.” Everyone came to see him, and everyone talked about him. He had become a true London sensation, the people “Mad about him” at a time of the greatest “idleness among Meckanicks that has been known in London.” They had all gone to the taverns and ale-houses, in other words, to discuss the prodigy. When certain reverend gentlemen visited his cell he declared that they were “Ginger-bread Fellows” and that “One File’s worth all the Bibles in the world.” The pagan temper of the Londoner is here revealed. “Yes, sir, I am the Sheppard,” he said while in confinement, “and all the jailors in the town are my flock.” A file was found upon him and he was removed to the “Stone Castle” on the fifth storey where he was chained to the floor, his legs secured with irons and his hands cuffed. These instruments were inspected daily, and Sheppard himself was under regular supervision.

And then, wonderfully if not miraculously, he escaped again. Somehow he managed to slip his hands through his handcuffs, and with a small nail managed to loose one of the links in the chains about his legs; like some “posture master” from Bartholomew Fair he then squeezed through the great chains which held him. With a piece of this broken chain he worked out a transverse bar from the chimney and climbed upwards into the “Red Room,” “whose door had not been unbolted for seven years.” With a nail he freed its bolt in seven minutes and got into a passage which led to the chapel; then with a spike from one of the interior railings he opened four other doors which were all locked and bolted from the other side. On opening the final door he found himself on the outside of the prison, with the roofs of the city below him. Then he remembered his blanket. He had left it in his cell. He returned all the way to the “Stone Castle,” through the chapel and down the chimney, in order to retrieve it. He returned to the outer air and, with the blanket spiked to the stone wall, slid down quietly.

Over the next few days, he disguised himself as a beggar and as a butcher, the two most familiar London types, while the streets around him were filled with ballads and broadsides proclaiming his latest escape. In the disguise of a foot porter he visited the printer of those “Last Dying Speeches” which, as he knew or guessed, would accompany his own journey to the scaffold. He robbed a pawn-broker in Drury Lane and, with the proceeds, bought a fashionable suit and a silver sword; then he hired a coach and, with that innate sense of theatre which never seemed to desert him, he drove through the arch of Newgate itself before visiting the taverns and ale-houses of the vicinity. Recaptured on that evening, two weeks after his escape, he was taken back to the prison from which he had effected such a remarkable exit, and constantly watched; when he was led to the court where the punishment of death was again pronounced, he was surrounded by “the most numerous Croud of People that ever was seen in London.” He was sentenced to be hanged within a week. There were reports that he would break away at Little Turnmill along Holborn-and on the road to Tyburn a penknife was taken from him-but there was to be no reprieve from what Peter Linebaugh has called his “final escape.”

It is an intensely private as well as a very public London story. We may infer that his youthful experience in the workhouse of Bishopsgate prompted his obsessive desire for escape, while it is likely that he somehow acquired his extraordinary skills while working as a carpenter’s apprentice; certainly he would have learned the uses of files and chisels while practising upon wood. He was a violent and dishonest man, but his series of escapes from Newgate transformed the atmosphere of the city, where the prevailing mood became one of genuine collaborative excitement. To escape from the most visible and oppressive symbol of authority-that “black cloud” which pursued Boswell-was in a sense to be freed from all the restraints of the ordinary world. We might then equate the experience of the prison with the experience of the city itself. It is indeed a familiar and often an accurate analogy, and the history of Jack Sheppard suggests another aspect of it. He hardly ever left London, even with the opportunity and indeed the pressing necessity of doing so; after three days “on the run” in Northamptonshire, for example, he rode back to the city. After his penultimate escape from Newgate he returned to Spitalfields, where he had spent his earliest days. After his final escape he was determined to remain in London, despite the pleas of his family. He was in that sense a true Londoner who could not or would not operate outside his own territory.

He possessed other urban characteristics. After his escapes he disguised himself as a variety of tradesmen, and generally behaved in a thoroughly dramatic fashion. To ride in a coach through Newgate was a mark of theatrical genius. He was profane to the point of being irreligious, while his violence against the propertied interests was not inconsistent with the egalitarianism of the “mob.” After one of his escapes a pamphleteer declaimed: “Woe to the Shopkeepers, and woe to the Dealers in Ware, for the roaring Lion is abroad.” So Jack became an intrinsic part of London mythology, his exploits celebrated in ballads and verses and dramas and fiction.

In 1750 the smell of Newgate had become pervasive throughout the neighbourhood. All its walls were then washed down with vinegar and a ventilation system was installed; seven of the eleven men working on that project were themselves infected with “gaol fever,” which suggests the extent of the pestilence within. Five years later, the inhabitants of Newgate Street were still “unable to stand in their doorways” and customers were reluctant to visit the shops in the vicinity “for fear of infections.” There were even directions for those who might come close to the criminals-“he should prudently empty his stomach and bowels a few days before, to carry off any putrid or putrescent substance which may have lodged in them.”

The prison was rebuilt in 1770 by George Dance, and was described by the poet Crabbe as a “large, strong and beautiful building,” beautiful, no doubt, because of its simplicity of purpose. “There is nothing in it,” one contemporary wrote, “but two great windowless blocks, each ninety feet square.” It was fired by rioters in 1780, and rebuilt two years later upon the same plan. It was in many respects now more salubrious and hygienic a prison than many others in London, but its ancient atmosphere lingered. A few years after the rebuilding, the new gaol “begins to wear a brooding and haunted air already.” The old conditions also began to re-emerge within the prison and, in the early years of the nineteenth century, it was reported in The Chronicles of Newgate that “lunatics raving mad ranged up and down the wards, a terror to all they encountered … mock marriages were of constant occurrence … a school and nursery of crime … the most depraved were free to contaminate and demoralise their more innocent fellows.”

The ministrations of Elizabeth Fry in 1817 seem to have produced some effect upon this “Hell above ground,” but official reports in 1836 and 1843 from the Inspector of Prisons still condemned the squalor and the misery. Immediately before the first of these reports, Newgate was visited by a young journalist, Charles Dickens, who from childhood had been fascinated by the looming gatehouse of the dark prison; by his own account in Sketches by Boz he had often contemplated the fact that thousands of people each day “pass and repass this gloomy depository of the guilt and misery of London, in one perpetual stream of life and bustle, utterly unmindful of the throng of wretched creatures pent up within it.” A “light laugh or merry whistle” can be heard “within one yard of a fellow-creature, bound and helpless, whose days are numbered” and who waits for execution. In his second novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens returns to those “dreadful walls of Newgate, which have hidden so much misery and such unspeakable anguish.” Here Fagin sits in one of the condemned cells-Dickens notes that the prison kitchen is beside the yard where the scaffold is erected-and an engraving by George Cruik-shank, drawn after a visit to one such “hold,” shows a stone bench with a mattress across it. Nothing else is visible except the iron bars set in a thick stone wall, and the blazing eyes of the prisoner himself. The young Oliver Twist visits the condemned cell, through “the dark and winding ways” of Newgate, even though the gaoler has said that “It’s not a sight for children.” Dickens might be revisiting his own childhood, since his most formative early experience of London was of attending his father and family lodged in the Marshalsea Prison of Southwark. Perhaps that is why the image of Newgate always haunted him and why, towards the end of his life, at night, utterly wearied and demoralised, he returned to the old gaol “and, touching its rough stone” began “to think of the prisoners in their sleep.”

Dickens was writing of a period when Newgate had ceased to be a general prison and was instead used to confine those who had been sentenced to death (as well as those waiting to be tried in the adjacent Central Criminal Courts), but a further refinement was added in 1859 when the prison was redesigned to house a series of separate cells where each inmate was held in silence and isolation. In a series of articles published in the Illustrated London News the prisoner awaiting a flogging is described as “the patient.” The prison becomes a hospital, then, or perhaps the hospital is no better than a prison.

In this manner the institutions of the city begin to resemble one another. Newgate also became a kind of theatre when, on Wednesdays or Thursdays between the hours of twelve and three, it was open to visitors. Here sightseers would be shown casts of the heads of notorious criminals, as well as the chains and handcuffs which once held Jack Sheppard; they could at their wish be locked into one of the condemned cells for a moment, or even sit within the old whipping post. At the end of their tour they were conducted along “Birdcage” walk, the passage from the cells of Newgate to the Court of Sessions; here also they could read “curious letters on the walls” denoting the fact that the bodies of the condemned were interred behind the stone. The name of the walk is strangely reminiscent of a scene from Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago where an infant visits her father “before a double iron railing covered with wire netting” at Newgate-“carrying into later years a memory of father as a man who lived in a cage.”

The last execution at Newgate took place at the beginning of May 1902, and three months later the work of demolition began. At a quarter past three in the afternoon of 15 August, according to the Daily Mail of the following day, “a piece of stone about the size of a foot fell on the pavement, and a hand with a chisel in it was seen working away in the breach. A little crowd soon gathered to watch the operations.” It was noticed, too, that the “old pigeons, rough and grimy as the prison itself compared with the other flocks in London,” fluttered about the statue of liberty on the pinnacle of the prison. These birds, at least, had no wish to leave their London cage.

Six months later an auction of Newgate relics was held within the prison itself. The paraphernalia of the execution shed sold for £5 15s 0d while each of the plaster casts of the famous criminals was “knocked down” for £5. Two of the great doors, and the whipping post for the “patients,” may now be seen by the curious in the Museum of London. The Old Bailey now lies upon the ancient site.

CHAPTER 25. A Note on Suicide

Many inmates committed “self-murder” within the walls of Newgate, but in London suicide assumes many forms. People have hurled themselves from the Whispering Gallery in the cathedral of St. Paul’s; poisoned themselves in the solitude of London attics; and drowned themselves for love in the waters of St. James’s Park. The Monument was another favourite location: the unhappy subject would throw himself or herself from the summit of the pillar and fall upon its base rather than the street. On 1 May 1765, according to Grosley’s A Tour of England, “the wife of a colonel drowned herself in the canal in St. James’s park; a baker hanged himself in Drury-lane; a girl, who lived near Bedlam, made an attempt to dispatch herself in the same manner.” In the summer of 1862 “the Suicide Mania” became a topic of public attention. In that same century the Thames was wreathed with the bodies of the drowned.

London was the suicide capital of Europe. As early as the fourteenth century Froissart described the English as “a very sad race,” which description applied particularly and even principally to Londoners. The French considered that the London vogue for suicides was owing to “the affectation of singularity,” although a more perceptive observer believed that it was “from a contempt of death and a disgust of life.” One Frenchman described the plight of London families “that had not laughed for three generations,” and observed that citizens committed suicide in the autumn in order “to escape the weather.” Another visitor remarked that self-slaughter was “no doubt owing to the fogs.” He also suggested that beef was another essential cause, since “its viscous heaviness conveys only bilious and melancholic vapours to the brain”; his diagnosis has a curious resemblance to the folk superstition of Londoners, in which to dream of beef “denotes the death of a friend or relation.” The modern connection between beef and “BSE” may be noted here.

It was also remarked by Grosley that “melancholy prevails in London in every family, in circles, in assemblies, at public and private entertainments … The merry meetings, even of the lowest sort, are dashed with this gloom.” Dostoevsky observed the “gloom” which “never forsakes” the Londoner even “in the midst of gaiety.” The wine sold in London taverns was also considered “to occasion that melancholy, which is so general.” Even the theatre was held responsible for the unhappy distemper; one traveller described how the son of his landlord, after being taken to see Richard III, “leaped out of bed and, after beating the wainscot with his head and feet, at the same time roaring like one possessed, he rolled about the ground in dreadful convulsions, which made us despair of his life; he thought he was haunted by all the ghosts in the tragedy of Richard the Third, and by all the dead bodies in the churchyards of London.”

Everything was blamed except, perhaps, for the onerous and exhausting condition of the city itself.

CHAPTER 26. A Penitential History

There have been more prisons in London than in any other European city. From the penitential cell in the church of the Knights Templar to the debtors’ prison in Whitecross Street, from the Clink situated in Deadman’s Place, Bankside, to the compter in Giltspur Street, London has been celebrated for its places of confinement. There was a prison in Lambeth Palace where early religious reformers, the Lollards, were tortured, and a roundhouse in St. Martin’s Lane where twenty-eight “were thrust into a hole six-feet square and kept there all night,” four of the women being stifled to death. New prisons were always being built, from the Tun in Cornhill at the end of the thirteenth century to Wormwood Scrubs in East Acton at the end of the nineteenth century. The prisoners were obliged to wear masks in the new “model prison” at Pentonville, while the “new prison” of Millbank was supposed to have been built as a “panopticon” whereby each cell and inmate could be individually scrutinised.

By the early seventeenth century the London prisons, like its churches, were celebrated in verse:

In London and within a mile I weene

There are of layles or Prisons full eighteene

And sixty Whipping-posts and Stocks and Cages.

The first prison mentioned in this sorrowful litany is the “Gatehouse” at Westminster, and it is followed by an encomium upon the Fleet Prison.

The Fleet was the oldest of them all, older even than Newgate, and had once been known as the “Gaol of London”; it was also one of the first of the medieval city’s stone buildings. It was situated on the east side of the Fleet and surrounded by a moat with “tree clad banks” where now Farringdon Street runs down to the Thames. The lowest “sunken” storey was known as Bartholomew Fair, although the usual reports of brutality, immorality and mortality render it an ironic sobriquet. The prison was, however, most notorious for its “secret” and unlawful marriages performed by “degraded clergymen” for less than a guinea. By the early eighteenth century there were some forty “marrying houses” in taverns of the vicinity, with at least six known as the Hand and Pen. Women, drugged or intoxicated, could be taken there and married for their money; innocent girls could be duped into believing that they were lawfully joined. There was a watch-maker who impersonated a clergyman, calling himself “Dr. Gaynam”-or, perhaps, gain them. He resided in Brick Lane and it was his practice to walk up Fleet Street. Crossing Fleet Bridge “in his silk gown and bands,” he was known for his commanding figure, and a “handsome though significantly rubicund face.” In the locality he was named as the “Bishop of Hell.”

On several occasions the Fleet Prison was itself consigned to the flames, the last notable fire taking place in 1780 when a mob-led, perhaps appropriately, by a chimney-sweep-mounted an incendiary assault upon it. It was rebuilt in its old form, with many of its more interesting details left intact. Along what is now Farringdon Street, for example, the wall of the gaol had one open grating with bars across it. Here was placed an iron box for alms and, from within, one chosen inmate would call out perpetually “Remember the poor prisoners.” This was the prison in which was incarcerated Samuel Pickwick who, after speaking to those who lay there “forgotten” and “unheeded,” muttered, “I have seen enough … My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too.”

The Fleet Prison was demolished in 1846, but the site was not cleared for another eighteen years. Where once were walls and cells there emerged “blind alleys” which, even on summer days, were so narrow and crowded that they “are bleak and shadowed.” The atmosphere of the ancient place lingered even after its material destruction.

It is likely that the Fleet inspired Thomas More’s famous metaphor of the world as a prison, “some bound to a poste … some in the dungeon, some in the upper ward … some wepying, some laughing, some labouring, some playing, some singing, some chiding, some fighting.” More eventually himself became a prisoner, too, but, before that time, as under-sheriff of London, he had sent many hundreds of Londoners to gaol. He consigned some to the Old Compter in Bread Street and others to the Poultry Compter near Buck-lersbury; in 1555 the prison in Bread Street was moved a few yards northward to Wood Street, where one of the inmates might have been echoing the words of Thomas More. He is quoted in Old and New London: “This littel Hole is as a little citty in a commonwealth, for as in a citty there are all kinds of officers, trades and vocations, so there is in this place as we may make a pretty resemblance between them.” The men consigned here were known as “rats,” the women as “mice.” Its underground passages still exist beneath the ground of a small courtyard beside Wood Street; the stones are cold to the touch, and there is a dampness in the air. Once a new prisoner drank from “a bowl full of claret” to toast his new “society,” and now the Compter is on occasions used for banquets and parties.

The image of the city as prison runs very deep. In his late eighteenth-century novel Caleb Williams, William Godwin described “the doors, the locks, the bolts, the chains, the massy walls and grated windows” of confinement; he affirmed then that “this is society,” the system of prison representing “the whole machine of society.”

When Holloway Prison was opened in 1852 its entrance was flanked by two stone griffins which are, of course, also the emblems of the City of London. Its foundation stone carried the inscription “May God preserve the City of London and make this place a terror to evil doers.” It is perhaps suggestive that its architect, James B. Banning, used the same principles of design in his work upon the Coal Exchange and the Metropolitan Cattle Market. There was a visible affinity between some of the great public institutions of the city.

In the 1970s V.S. Pritchett described London as “this prison-like place of stone” and in 1805 Wordsworth cursed the city as “A prison where he hath been long immured”; in turn Matthew Arnold in 1851 depicted it as this “brazen prison” where the inhabitants are “Dreaming of naught beyond their prison-wall.” In 1884 William Morris added his own note to this vision of incarceration with his account of

this grim net of London, this prison built stark

With the greed of all ages

A mean lodging was his “prison-cell/In the jail of weary London.” Keir Hardie, on returning to his native Ayrshire in 1901, wrote that “London is a place which I remember with a haunting horror, as if I had been confined there.” A report on London prisoners themselves, in London’s Underworld by Thomas Holmes, in the very same period as Keir Hardie’s observations, notes that “the great mass of faces strikes us with dismay, and we feel at once that most of them are handicapped in life, and demand pity rather than vengeance.” The conditions of poverty in the city were such that “the conditions of prison life are better, as they need to be, than the conditions of their own homes.” So they simply moved from one prison to another. But gaol was the place, in Cockney idiom, “where the dogs don’t bite.”

There were also areas of “sanctuary rights” in London, apparent neighbourhoods of freedom over which the prisons failed to cast their shadows. These areas were once within the domains of great religious institutions, but their charm or power survived long after the monks and nuns had departed. Among them were St. Martin’s le Grand and Whitefriars; they had been respectively the home of secular canons and of the Carmelites, but as sanctuaries from pursuit and arrest became in turn havens “for the lowest sort of people, rogues and ruffians, thieves, felons and murderers.” One of the presumed murderers of the “Princes in the Tower,” Miles Forest, took refuge in St. Martin’s and stayed there “rotting away piecemeal.” “St. Martin’s beads” became a popular expression for counterfeit jewellery. The privileges of St. Martin’s le Grand were abolished at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but the sanctuary of Whitefriars lasted for a longer period. The area became popularly known as “Alsatia” (named after the unhappy frontier of Alsace) because no parish watch or city officials would dare to venture there; if they did so, there was a general cry of “Clubs!” and “Rescue!” before they were seized and beaten. It is the area now marked by Salisbury Square and Hanging-Sword Alley, between Dorset Street and Magpie Alley.

Two other sanctuaries were connected with the coining of money. They were located by the Mints at Wapping and in Southwark, as if the literal making of money were as sacred as any activity which took place in monastery or chapel. In the mid-1720s legal officers attempted to infiltrate and expel the “Minters” of Wapping but were fought back. One bailiff was “duck’d in a Place in which the Soil of Houses of Office [lavatories] had been empty’d” while another was force-marched before a crowd with “a turd in his mouth.” The connection between money and ordure is here flagrantly revealed.

Other sanctuaries still clung around the churches, as if the tradition of begging for alms had continued in a more dissipated form. The area which had once been dominated by Blackfriars was a notorious haunt of criminals and beggars. A sanctuary in the neighbourhood of Westminster Abbey was for centuries “low and disreputable,” and Shire Lane beside the church of St. Clement Danes was known as Rogues’ Lane. Here were houses known as “Cadgers’ Hall,” “The Retreat” and “Smashing Lumber,” the last being a manufactory for counterfeit coin, wherein according to Old and New London “every room had its secret trap or panel … the whole of the coining apparatus and the employés could be conveyed away as by a trick of magic.” In any alternative London topography, sanctuaries, like prisons, become highly specific sites of ill fame. Tread there who dares.

CHAPTER 27. A Rogues Gallery

If the places of crime and punishment do not necessarily change, but leave a steady mark, there may also be continuity among the criminals of London. We read of fourteenth-century forgers and blackmailers, and the coroners’ inquests of 1340 reveal a long tally of “bawdy-house keepers, night-walkers, robbers, women of ill fame.” The city was even then so filled with thieves that in this period the right of “in-fangthief” was given to the city authorities; it permitted them “to hang thieves caught redhanded (cum manu opere)” without trial by jury.

It was not until the sixteenth century, however, that the literature of London crime becomes extensive. The works of Robert Greene and Thomas Dekker, in particular, reveal an underworld of thieves and imposters which remains as old and as new as the city itself. Certainly the argot or cant of the thieves had very ancient roots, while some of its more expressive phrases endured well into the nineteenth century. “And bing we to Rome-vill, to nip a bung” can be translated as “Now let us travel to London, to cut a purse.” How London acquired the name of “Rome-vill,” long before it was ever compared to that imperial city, is something of a mystery. “Yonder dwelleth a queer cuffin. It were beneship to mill him” (“There lives a difficult and churlish man. It would be a very good thing to rob him”).

The individuals, as well as their words, come to life in the pages of these old catalogues of crime-“John Stradling with the shaking head … Henry Smyth who drawls when he speaks … John Browne, the stammerer”-each of them engaged in some kind of fifteenth-century cheating trade. That trade, too, has survived. The game of cups, in which the spectator must choose which one conceals the ball, is still played on the streets of London in the twenty-first century; the fraud has now existed for over a thousand years in the capital.

In their record of “abraham men” (who pretended to be mad), “clapper dodgers” (who fished for goods from open windows) and “priggers of prancers” (horse thieves), Dekker and Greene may on occasions be guilty of over-emphasis; the streets of sixteenth-century London might not have been quite as violent or as perilous as they suggest. Nevertheless real criminality could be found in many specific areas. The neighbourhood of Chick Lane and Field Lane in Clerkenwell, for example, was always notorious. In Chick Lane itself there was a dwelling, once known as the Red Lion inn, which upon its demolition in the eighteenth century was discovered to be three centuries old; C.W. Heckethorn, in London Souvenirs, reveals that it contained “dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and secret recesses.” One of these trap-doors opened upon the Fleet Ditch, and “afforded easy means of getting rid of the bodies.” There was a morass of lanes off Ratcliffe Highway, with names like Hog Yard and Black Dog Alley, Money Bag Alley and Harebrain Court, which were known for “moral degradation.” There was also a dwelling near Water Lane, off Fleet Street, known as “Blood Bowl house” named “from the various scenes of blood that were almost daily exhibited, and where there seldom passed a month without the commission of a murder.”

In perhaps less sensational a context, a city recorder of the seventeenth century gave evidence of a raid upon Watton’s alehouse at Smart’s Key beside Billingsgate. The tavern was in reality a school “set upp to learne younge boys to cutt purses.” Pockets and purses were hung upon a line with “hawkes bells” or “sacring bells” attached to them; if a child could remove a coin or counter without setting off the bell “he was adjudged a judiciall Nypper.” During the following century there was another such school in Smithfield, where a tavern-keeper taught children how to pick pockets, to pilfer from shops by crawling through their wooden hatches, and to break into buildings by a simple expedient: they pretended to be asleep against the wall while all the time they were actively chipping away at the bricks and mortar until a hole had been breached.

It is curious, in this description of crime, that the criminals themselves adopted the terminology of “law.” “Cheating law” was the term for playing with false dice, “versing law” the art of passing counterfeit coin and “tigging law” that of cutting purses. It was the alternative law of “low” London.

Yet new crimes could also evolve. In the seventeenth century, for example, highway robbery became known as “high law.” The age of coaches meant also the age of coach theft, and in the last days of 1699 John Evelyn wrote: “This week robberies were committed between the many lights which were fixed between London and Kensington on both sides, and while coaches and travellers were passing.” Between flaring lights along the high road, there was at night absolute darkness where the robbers could easily strike. We may even hear them talking in the pages of The London Hanged. One drover, Edward Smith, suggested to a companion that they “go upon the Accompt” (take up highway robbery). “Let us enter into Articles to have no others than ourselves concerned for the future.” And if they were caught? There is an account of one thief taken and led back to London-“he was very unruly, pulling the horse about, making Motions with his Hands at every Body that came near him, as if he was firing a Pistol, crying Phoo!” Hounslow Heath and Turnham Green, Marylebone and Tottenham Court Road, were particular areas of danger for the unwary. These were the places for footpad robberies, known to the criminal fraternity as “low Tobies.” It became customary in the early eighteenth century for travellers into London to gather in bands for mutual protection, beginning their perilous journey only on the sounding of a bell; at night they would also be accompanied by link-boys carrying lights.

The same flaring torches were necessary for journeys within the city itself. “A gentleman was stopt in Holborn about twelve at night by two footpads, who on the gentleman’s making resistance shot him dead and then robbed him … One Richard Watson, tollman of Marybone turnpike, was found barbarously murdered in his toll-house.” A female who served in a public house in Marylebone is quoted in Charles Knight’s London as having “often wondered why I have escaped without wounds or blows from the gentlemen of the pad, who are numerous and frequent in their evening patroles through these fields; and my march extended as far as Long Acre, by which means I was obliged to pass through the thickest of them.” A commentator in the same volume has remarked that the citizens of London “looked upon the worshipful company of thieves much in the same way that settlers in a new country regard the wild beasts prowling in the forests around them.”

The “judiciall Nyppers” of one period had migrated into another, and it was reported that eighteenth-century London “swarms with pickpockets, as daring as they are subtile and cunning.” They stole under the very gibbet from which they might one day be suspended and “there never is any execution without handkerchiefs and other articles being stolen.” If they were caught in the act, by Londoners themselves, they were dragged to the nearest well or fountain “and dipped in the water till nearly drowned.” If they were taken up by the authorities, a more severe penalty was imposed. By the middle of the eighteenth century the number of offences, for which men and women could be hanged had risen from 80 to over 350. Yet this may not have been a powerful deterrent. A few years later, in a Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, it was reported that “115,000 persons in London were regularly engaged in criminal pursuits.” This would amount to one-seventh of the population. So, in 1774, it was recorded by the Gentleman’s Magazine that “The papers are filled with robberies and breaking of houses, and with the recital of the cruelties committed by the robbers, greater than ever before.” We may surmise, therefore, that in a period of affluence and “conspicuous” wealth, crimes against property were as numerous as crimes against people-and this despite the fact that the larger the sum involved in theft or cheat, the greater the possibility of being hanged.

Peter Linebaugh has scrutinised the statistics for hanging all through the eighteenth century, and has arrived at interesting conclusions. Those born in London tended to hang in their early twenties, an earlier age than that of immigrants to the city. The main trades of those who reached the scaffold were butchers, weavers and shoe-makers. There was a pronounced association between butchers and highway robbers (Dick Turpin himself had been apprentice to a butcher). Cultural and sociological interpretations of this correspondence have been made, but, in general terms, the butchers of the city were always known for their boisterous, individualistic and sometimes violent nature. Certainly they were the most prominent of all London tradesmen, and one foreign visitor to London reported that it was “a marvel to see such quantities of butchers shops in all the parishes, the streets being full of them in every direction.” They were often the leaders of their little communities, too; those of Clare Market, for example, worked and dwelled among the patent theatres of the area and were described as “the arbiters of the galleries, the leaders of theatrical rows, the musicians at actresses’ marriages, the chief mourners at players’ funerals.” They were also leaders of the community in times of scarcity and disorder. It was reported of one violent assault, for example, that “The Buttchers have begun the way to all the rest, for within this toe days they all did rise upon the exise man.” It is not inconsistent, then, that they or their apprentices should be at the very forefront of adventurous or desperate crime.

In 1751 Henry Fielding published his Inquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, and a year later the Murder Act added a further terror to death by declaring that the bodies of the hanged should be publicly dissected by surgeons and anatomists. A measure such as this may have been prompted by a perceived increase in crime, but it was also a direct product of panic fear among the gullible and the anxious.

London has always been the centre of panic, and of rumour. At the end of the twentieth century, for example, an official survey reported that “fear of crime is a social problem in itself” with a significantly higher proportion of Londoners-as opposed to those living elsewhere-feeling unsafe both in their dwellings and in the streets. They might have been echoing the sentiments of a Londoner in 1816 who stated that “from the author’s own experience in almost every part of Europe … he can mention no place so full of peril as the environs of London.” Of course it was then still a relatively compact and enclosed city-the crucial intensity of crime has in fact diminished with London’s growth-and indeed its criminals seem to have borrowed their habits and demeanour from its earlier eighteenth-century life.

The “low Toby” or footpad was known in the early nineteenth century, for example, as a “Rampsman” but the violent assault had not changed. The house-breaker of this period was called a “Cracksman,” while a “Bug Hunter” was one who picked the pockets of drunks; a “Snoozer” was one who booked into a hotel before robbing its guests, while an “Area Sneak” called at kitchen doors in the hope of finding them open and unattended. These were the crimes typical of the city, and their perpetrators were generally thieves, pickpockets, burglars, and those fraudulent merchants and tricksters who took advantage of the gullibility or credulousness of the passing transient crowd.

Although it would be going too far to say that “the man who knew his London-could recognise each type by his dress and manner,” as Thomas Burke puts it in The Streets of London, criminals were still a particular and distinguishable element of city life until the middle of the nineteenth century. Their language, too, like that of the “abraham men” of a previous century, was itself pronounced and peculiar-“Stow that … pottering about on the sneak, flimping or smashing a little … If I’m nailed it’s a lifer.” This existence had its own kind of music also. A villain was known as a “sharp” and his victim a “flat.”

It was reported, in 1867, that this “criminal class” amounted to 16,000. Yet the streets were by then safer than they had ever been. Five years before there had been an outbreak of “garrotting,” the popular name for violent robberies, but that had been effectively suppressed by means of equally violent floggings. It was no longer possible to claim, as the Duke of Wellington had done forty years before, that “the principal streets of London” were “in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds” as well as “organised gangs of thieves.” Where in previous periods of the city’s history the “vagabonds” and “thieves” were scattered indiscriminately in various “islands” off the main thoroughfares, they had by the middle of the nineteenth century retreated into various quarters on the fringes of the now more civilised metropolis. They were often located in the eastern suburbs or, as it soon became known, the “East End.” That area, some sixteen years before “Jack” rendered the region of Whitechapel notorious, was reputed to be a place of thieves’ kitchens and ragged public houses “charged with the unmistakable, overpowering damp and mouldy odour” attendant upon street crime. In Bethnal Green, too, there were pubs and houses which acted as “a convenient and secluded exchange and house of call” filled with “dippers” and “broads” and “welshers.” These are the words of Arthur Morrison, writing A Child of the Jago at the end of the nineteenth century when once more the slang or “patter” had changed in order ever more colourfully to depict the familiar crimes of London. A “house of call,” like “exchange,” was in fact a word used to describe a dealing room of city business. So, in mockery as well as implicit deference, the terminology of financial and commercial London was parodied by the more secretive, if more notorious, speculators in urban goods.

In Bethnal Green and its environs, Morrison noticed the presence of the most successful late nineteenth-century criminals who belonged to “the High Mobs” or, as one resident put it, “’Igh mob. ’Oohs. Toffs.” Morrison was in fact depicting a traditional London pursuit-that of an organised gang, generally of more than usually skilful or vicious practitioners of the criminal arts, with one or two leaders. The “mob” or gang controlled a certain area of the city or certain specific activities. Dick Turpin led “the Essex Gang” of thieves and smugglers in the 1730s; while a decade earlier such gifted individuals as Jonathan Wild could dominate the general course of London crime. But, as the city expanded, it became divided into separate territories controlled by specific gangs.

In the nineteenth century, rival gangs vied for territory and for influence. In the early twentieth century, east London once again became the scene of murderous conflict. The opposition of the “Harding Gang” and the “Bogard Gang” culminated in a violent confrontation in the Bluecoat Boy public house in Bishopsgate. In the 1920s and 1930s the crime families of the Sabinis and Cortesis fought against each other in the streets of Clerkenwell, over the control of clubs and racetracks, while in the next decade the White family of Islington were challenged by Billy Hill and his “heavy mob” from Seven Dials.

There were other criminal fraternities, known variously as “the Elephant Gang,” “the Angel Gang” and “the Titanic Gang.” These dealt in organised shoplifting or “smash-and-grab” raids as well as the general business of drugs, prostitution and “protection” racketeering. In the late 1950s and 1960s the Kray brothers of the East End, and the Richardsons from “over the water” in the southern suburbs, controlled their respective areas with notable success. In the Krays’ own territory, “the popular admiration for great thieves,” to use a phrase of the mid-nineteenth century, had never seriously abated. In 1995, the funeral procession for Ronnie Kray, along Bethnal Green Road and Vallance Road, was a great social event; as Iain Sinclair wrote of the East End in Lights Out for the Territory, “no other strata of society has such a sense of tradition.” The memories of grand criminality in that neighbourhood go back to Turpin’s “Essex Gang” and beyond.

It is hard to say that any aspect of crime or criminal behaviour is altogether new. “Smash and grab” became popular, for example, in the 1940s and 1950s although it did not originate then; there are records of that offence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The gangs of the Krays and the Richardsons have now been displaced by those with other ethnic origins, the Jamaican “Yardie” and Chinese “Triad” groups, for example, working their own particular areas. In the 1990s, as the trade in drugs such as heroin, khat, crack and ecstasy became ever more lucrative, gang elements from Nigeria, Turkey and Colombia participated in the city’s new criminal activity. The “Yardies” are considered to be, in the twenty-first century, responsible for the largest proportion of killings in a city where murder is perpetual. Murder, to paraphrase Thomas de Quincey, is one of London’s fine arts.

CHAPTER 28. Horrible Murder

It has come in many different forms. In the eighteenth century it was often remarked that the noses of the victims were bitten off during the act of strangling. Strangulation and stabbing were popular at the end of that century, succeeded in the early nineteenth century by slashed throats and clubbing; at the end of the nineteenth century poison and various forms of mutilation or hacking to death became more favoured.

Yet the element of mystery remains perhaps the most interesting and suggestive aspect of the London murder, as if the city itself might have taken part in the crime. One of the unsolved murders of the seventeenth century, in an age when all were inured to death, concerned a man known variously as Edmund Berry Godfrey or Edmunsbury Godfrey. He was found in 1678 upon what is now known as Primrose Hill, with his own sword thrust through his body but “no blood was on his clothes or about him” and “his shoes were clean.” He had also been strangled, and his neck broken; when his clothes were taken off, his breast was found to be “all over marked with bruises.” Another curious element lay in the fact that “there were many drops of white wax lights on his breeches.” A Catholic plot was suspected and, on concocted evidence, three members of the royal court at Somerset House were arrested and executed; their names were Green, Berry and Hill. The earliest name of Primrose Hill, where the body was found, was Greenberry Hill. The real murderers were never discovered, but it would seem that the topography of London itself played a fortuitous if malign part.

One evening at nine o’clock, in Cannon Street in the spring of 1866, Sarah Millson went downstairs to answer the street-bell. An hour later a neighbour who lived above her discovered her body at the bottom of the stairs. She had been killed by a number of deep wounds to the head but “her shoes had been taken off and were lying on a table in the hall”; there was no blood upon them. The gaslight had been quietly extinguished after the murder, presumably in order to save expense. The neighbour opened the street door to find help, and saw a woman on the doorstep apparently shielding herself against the heavy rain which was then falling. She was asked for assistance but moved away, saying, “Oh! dear no; I can’t come in.” The murderer was never apprehended, but the characteristics of London mystery are here found in almost emblematic detail-the lodging house in Cannon Street, the heavy rain, the gaslight, the perfectly cleaned shoes. The strange woman shielding herself from the rain only contributes to the air of intimacy and darkness that characterises this crime. Once more it is as if the spirit or atmosphere of the city itself played its part.

That is why the murders committed by “Jack the Ripper” between August and November 1888 are an enduring aspect of London myth, with the areas of Spitalfields and Whitechapel as the dark accomplices of the crimes. The newspaper accounts of “Jack’s” murders were directly responsible for parliamentary inquiries into the poverty of these neighbourhoods, and of the “East End” in general; in that sense, charity and social provision followed hard upon the heels of monstrous death. But in a more elusive way the streets and houses of that vicinity became identified with the murders themselves, almost to the extent that they seemed to share the guilt. One scholarly account by Colin Wilson refers to the “secrets” of a room in the Ten Bells public house of the neighbourhood, in Commercial Street, which suggests that the walls and interiors of the then impoverished streets were the killer’s confessional. There are contemporary reports of the panic engendered by the Whitechapel killings. M.V. Hughes, author of A London Girl of the Eighties, has written that “No one can believe now how terrified and unbalanced we all were by his murders.” This is recorded by one who lived in the west of London, many miles from the vicinity, and she adds: “One can only dimly imagine what the terror must have been in those acres of narrow streets where the inhabitants knew the murderer to be lurking.” It is testimony to the power of urban suggestion, and to the peculiar quality of late Victorian London, that popular belief lent “a quality of the supernatural to the work.” The essential paganism of London here reasserts itself. Even as the murders were continuing, the books and pamphlets began to appear, among them The Mysteries of the East End, The Curse Upon Mitre Square, Jack the Ripper: Or the Crimes of London, London’s Ghastly Mystery. The place becomes the central interest, therefore, and soon after the crimes sightseers were flocking through Berners Street and George Yard and Flower and Dean Street; a Whitechapel “peep-show” even provided wax figures of the victims for the delectation of the spectators. Such is the force of the area, and of its crimes, that several daily tours are still organised- mainly for foreign visitors-around the Ten Bells public house and the adjacent streets.

The connection between London and murder is, then, a permanent one. Martin Fido, author of The Murder Guide to London, states that more “than half the memorable murders of Britain have happened in London,” with the prevalence of certain killings within certain areas. Murder may appear “respectable” in Camberwell, while brutal in Brixton; a litany of cut throats in nineteenth-century London is followed by a list of female poisoners. Yet, as the same narrator has pointed out, “there has been too much murder in London for a comprehensive listing.”

There are episodes and incidents, however, which remain emblematic, and it is noticeable that certain streets or areas come to identify the crimes. There were “the Turner Street murders” and the “Ratcliffe Highway murders,” for example, the last of which in 1827 prompted de Quincey’s memorable essay on “The Fine Art of Murder.” He begins his account of a series of killings, “the most superb of the century by many degrees,” with an invocation of Ratcliffe Highway itself as “a most chaotic quarter of eastern or nautical London” and an area of “manifold ruffianism.” An entire family had been found murdered in a shop beside the highway, in the most gruesome circumstances; less than three weeks later in New Gravel Lane, very close to that highway, a man called out “They are murdering people in the house!” Seven citizens altogether, including two children and one infant, had been dispatched within eight days. One of the killers, John Williams, committed suicide in his cell within Coldbath Fields Prison at Clerkenwell; his dead body, together with the bloody hammer and chisel which had been the means of his crimes, were paraded past the houses where he had assisted in the murders. He was then buried beneath the crossroads of Back Lane and Cannon Street Road or, as de Quincey puts it, “in the centre of a quadrivium or conflux of four roads, with a stake driven through his heart. And over him drives for ever the uproar of unresting London.” So Williams became part of London; having marked a track through a specific locality, his own name was buried in the urban mythology surrounding “the Ratcliffe Highway murders.” He became instead the city’s sacred victim, to be interred in a formalised and ritualistic manner. Some hundred years later workmen, digging up the territory, found his “mouldering remains”; it is appropriate that his bones were then shared out in the area as relics. His skull, for example, was granted to the owner of a public house still to be seen on the corner of the fatal crossroads.

Other roads and streets can prove to be injurious. Dorset Street was the site of Mary Kelly’s murder in the winter of 1888, at the hands of “Jack”; it reclaimed its original name of Duval Street after this peculiarly savage crime, as a way of preserving anonymity, only to be the site of a fatal shooting in 1960. In both cases no murderer was ever convicted.

There are many accounts of such anonymous killers, wandering through crowds and crowded thoroughfares, concealing a knife or some other fatal instrument. It is a true image of the city. The remarks of the killers have on occasion been recorded. “Damn her! Dip her again and finish her … Yours to a cinder … Get the knives out!” The streets themselves then become the object of fascinated enquiry. We read, for example, in The Murder Guide to London that the “murder victim in Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, had his office in Lombard Street. In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone the gem was pledged to a banker in Lombard Street.” An actual police station in Wood Street has been used as an imaginative location by several writers of mysteries, and Edgar Wallace turned All Hallows by the Tower into “St. Agnes on Powder Hill.” In a city where spectacle and theatre become an intimate part of ordinary reality, fact and imagination can be strangely mingled.

A complex of streets can also become haunted by crime, so that Martin Fido, himself an eminent criminologist, writes of “the dense murder area of Islington” located “in the back streets behind Upper Street and the City Road”; in this neighbourhood the sister of Charles Lamb killed her mother in the autumn of 1796, only a few yards from the room where Joe Orton was murdered by his lover in 1967. In the early decades of the twentieth century there were killings known generically as the “North London murders,” although they were in fact separately conducted by Hawley Harvey Crippen and Frederick Seddon.

The list of London murderers is long indeed. Catherine Hayes, proprietress of a tavern called the Gentleman In Trouble, severed her husband’s head in the spring of 1726 and tossed it into the Thames before strewing other parts of the corpse all over London. The head was recovered and placed upon a pole in a city churchyard, where eventually it was recognised. Mrs. Hayes was committed for trial and sentenced to death, earning the further distinction of being one of the last women ever to be burned at Tyburn.

Thomas Henry Hocker, described by an investigating policeman as “a fellow in a long black cloak,” was seen springing from behind some trees in Belsize Lane on a February evening in 1845. Singing to himself, he walked past the scene of the murder he had just committed and, still undiscovered, conversed with the policeman who had found the body. “It is a nasty job,” he said and then took hold of the dead man’s hand. “This site was his own handiwork,” as The Chronicles of Newgate puts it, “yet he could not overcome the strange fascination it had for him, and remained by the side of the corpse until the stretcher came.”

One of the most celebrated of London’s mass murderers was John Reginald Christie, whose house at 10 Rillington Place itself became so notorious that the name of the street was changed. Eventually the house was itself torn down, after harbouring a variety of transient lodgers. Extant photographs reveal a characteristic London location. It was a typical example of a Notting Hill tenement in the early 1950s with tattered curtains, cracked and badly stained plaster, bricks dark with soot. Murder, in such a context, can be concealed.

There is another aspect of London killings to be fathomed in the career of Dennis Nilsen who, while living in Muswell Hill and Cricklewood during the late 1970s and early 1980s, murdered and dismembered many young victims. The details of the lives of these murdered men may no longer seem of much significance except that, in the words of one report, “few of them were missed when they disappeared.” This is the context for many London murders, where the isolation and anonymity of strangers passing through the city leave them peculiarly defenceless to the depredations of an urban killer. One of Nilsen’s victims, for example, was a “down-and-out” whom he had met at the crossroads by the church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields; Nilsen, apparently “horrified by his emaciated condition,” killed him and burned him in the garden of his house in Melrose Avenue. Another victim was a young “skinhead” who had inscribed graffiti upon his own body, among them a dotted line around his neck together with the words, “cut here.” Here in these brutal and brutalising circumstances the darker face of London seems to emerge.

All that was known of Elizabeth Price, condemned to death for theft in 1712, was that she “had follow’d the Business of picking up Rags and Cinders and at other times that of selling Fruit and Oysters, crying Hot Pudding and Grey Pears in the Streets.” We read of “Mary Cut-and-Come-Again” who, when arrested by the watchmen, took out her breasts “and spurted the milk in the fellows’ faces, and said, damn your eyes, What do you want to take my life away?” That spirit of contempt against the forces of law and order is characteristic of London life. It is connected, too, with a buoyant paganism, as in the case of a domestic servant charged with murder who was reported to take “a mighty disgust at Things of Religion.” In similar spirit Ann Mudd, who was convicted of murdering her husband, was equally defiant. “Why, said she, I stabb’d him in the Back with a Knife for Funn.” She spent her last hours singing obscene songs in the condemned cell.

The Whitechapel murders encouraged the earliest use of police photographs recording “the scene of the crime,” while a murder in Cecil Court off St. Martin’s Lane, in 1961, resulted in the first success of the Identikit picture. The device of placing the head of Catherine Hayes’s husband upon a stake, as a means of identification, has had some interesting successors. The essential point remains that crime, and in particular murder, enlivens the urban populace. That is why, in London mythology, the greatest heroes are often the greatest criminals.

CHAPTER 29. London’s Opera

The exploits of Jack Sheppard proved how intense could be the excitement aroused in London by the adventures of a criminal. The most notable painter of the day, Sir James Thornhill, visited him in 1724 in order to complete a portrait which was then sold to the public as a mezzotint.

Nine years later, in 1732, Thornhill’s son-in-law, William Hogarth, made a similar journey to Newgate; here he sketched another famous malefactor, Sarah Malcolm, herself held in the condemned cell. She had strangled two elderly parties, and then cut the throat of their maid, the recklessness of the crimes lending her notoriety among the London public. She was very young-only twenty-two-and very composed. At her trial she declared the blood on her shift to be the issue of menstruation rather than of murder and, after the sentence of death had been pronounced upon her, confessed that she was a Roman Catholic. Hogarth painted her sitting in her cell, her rosary beads before her, and announced in the public press that his print would be ready within two days. It was an advertisement of his skill as well as a tribute to the notoriety of his subject. In her biography of Hogarth, Jenny Uglow describes how Sarah arrived at her hanging, by the scene of her crimes according to custom, “neatly dressed in a crape mourning hood, holding up her head in the cart with an air, and looking as if she was painted.” After she had been cut down, it was reported that there was “among the rest a gentleman in deep mourning, who kissed her, and gave the people half a crown.”

Here are all the elements of drama and intrigue which rendered memorable such rituals of crime and punishment in London. Hogarth himself could not resist the lineaments of the condemned. When in 1761 Theodore Gardelle was about to be hanged at the corner of Panton Street and the Haymarket, Hogarth captured his countenance of despair “with a few swift strokes.”

It is of some interest, then, that in February 1728 Hogarth attended and enjoyed The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay. In this drama the “low” criminal life of London is presented in bright theatrical guise. A true London production, part burlesque and part burletta, it was a parody of fashionable Italian opera, as well as a satire upon governmental cabal. With its main characters of Macheath, a highwayman, and Peachum, a receiver of stolen goods, it aspired to be a spirited representation of the London criminal world appropriately completed by the portrait of Lockit, the keeper of Newgate.

The dramatic scenes within Newgate itself confirm two of the city’s most permanent images: the world as a stage and the world as a prison. There are other aspects of London life within the drama. Its constant references to commerce and to currency, together with its tendency “to treat people and relationships in commodity terms” according to John Gay’s latest and best biographer, David Nokes, mark the powerful and possibly corrupting atmosphere of trade and finance which lingers over all the activities of the city. How else is it possible that the characters from the London streets should reach so casually and easily for “mercantile metaphors”? These people “are invariably valued in trading terms, that is, according to how much may be ‘got’ by them.” Here is the true spirit of city commerce, but it has an interesting and significant ramification. This trading activity is pursued by both “high” and “low,” by courtiers as well as highwaymen, so that the gaiety and exuberance of the “opera” are in part based upon its implicit denial of all distinctions of rank and class. It is the egalitarian-one might almost say, antinomian-instinct of the London populace, represented upon the stage in a colourful and spirited form.

In turn, Gay himself was accused of glamorising thieves and receivers of stolen goods, as if in the act of equalising the activities of the beggars and their “betters” he was somehow lending vulgar distinction to the more disreputable elements of London life. It was reported by one contemporary moralist that “several thieves and street robbers confessed in Newgate that they raised their courage at the playhouse by the songs of their hero Macheath, before they sallied forth in their desperate nocturnal exploits.” If that was indeed the case, then we see in the fervent and fevered context of London that street life feels no compunction in taking on the lineaments of dramatic art.

That is the significance of Hogarth’s admiration for The Beggar’s Opera. This quintessentially London artist saw the possibility of channelling his own genius through it. He painted the same scene from the play on six separate occasions, in the process, according to Jenny Uglow, “bursting into life as a true painter.” It is not hard to understand how this intense depiction of London life invigorated and animated the artist, since in his subsequent work he reveals his own vital engagement with the scenic possibilities of street life. In fact he creates his own tradition of London villains, in the characterisation of “Tom Nero” in The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) and “Thomas Idle” in the Industry and Idleness series (1747); both end as murderers, suspended on the gallows, but the course of their fatal careers is given a lurid and sensational aspect by being placed within the context of the streets and “low” haunts of the city.

Everything there conspires to engender dreadful deeds. In The Four Stages of Cruelty the life of the city itself is the true engine of that cruelty; as Hogarth put it in his disquisition on these prints, the work was done “in hopes of preventing in some degree that cruel treatment of poor Animals which makes the streets of London more disagreeable to the human mind, than any thing what ever, the very describing of which gives pain.” In one scene outside Thavies Inn coffee house in Holborn, along the main route to Smithfield from the rural areas of Islington and Marylebone, the driver of cab number twenty-four is mercilessly belabouring his horse while a sheep is being clubbed to death in the foreground; a child unnoticed falls under the wheel of a brewer’s cart while on the wall there is a poster advertising a cock-fight.

At the execution of Thomas Idle, the drunken and violent rabble beneath the gallows act as a mirror of his existence and are an emblem of it. Recognisable figures are also part of the Tyburn crowd-Tiddy Doll, the eccentric seller of gingerbread, Mother Douglas, the fat and drunken procuress, and, on the gallows itself, half-witted “Funny Joe” who amused the populace at executions with his jokes and speeches. A suggestive biblical motto, from Proverbs, at the bottom of the print announces that “then they shall call upon God, but he will not answer.” Hogarth is depicting a pagan society from which these criminals have ineluctably emerged.

· · ·

If John Gay was intent upon turning thieves or receivers into dramatic heroes or characters, then he was himself following a distinguished London tradition. In the four years before The Beggar’s Opera had appeared on stage there had been other theatrical representations of Harlequin Sheppard and A Match in Newgate, the former suggesting a remarkable link between pantomime and crime. More than a century earlier Beaumont and Fletcher, in The Beggar’s Bush, had given dramatic currency to the tricks and slang of London criminals-again with the powerful insinuation that they were behaving no worse than those “betters” who ruled them. In 1687 Marcellus Laroon similarly depicted in elegant style and form “the Squire of Alsatia,” a notorious thief and confidence man, called “Bully” Dawson, who is nevertheless posed in Laroon’s print in the manner of a great fop and gentleman. The theatrical manner, and disguise, are emblematic of the contrasts and variety of the streets. All these various works manifest in turn a strange fascination for the life of the vagrant and the outcast, as if the conditions of London might propel anyone into a state of need or outlawry. Why else should the streets of London so haunt Hogarth’s own imagination?

The tradition continued in the sensational accounts of the lives of famous criminals, whose exploits were every bit as melodramatic as the characters upon the stage. “You cannot conceive,” wrote Horace Walpole in the latter part of the eighteenth century, “the ridiculous rage there is for going to Newgate, the prints that are published of the malefactors, and the memoirs of their lives set forth with as much parade as Marshal Turenne’s.” Swift satirised that “rage” some decades earlier with his description of “Tom Clinch” being driven to the scaffold:

The maids to the doors and the balconies ran,

And said, “Lack-a-day! he’s a proper young man.”

In the nineteenth century an essay was written on “Popular Admiration for Great Thieves,” in which it is noted that in the previous century Englishmen were no less “vain in boasting of the success of their highwaymen than of the bravery of their troops.” Hence the widespread popularity of The Newgate Calendar, the general title given to a succession of books which began to emerge at the end of the eighteenth century; the first was The Malefactor’s Register or New Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, and its popularity was such that it can be compared to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in the mid-sixteenth century or perhaps the ubiquitous legends about saints of the medieval period. It might even be compared to the vogue for fairy tales emerging in the early nineteenth century. The ambiguity of the genre is further compounded by the school of the “Newgate novel” which emerged in the same period, with such celebrated practitioners as Harrison Ainsworth and Bulwer Lytton. It is perhaps significant that in Newgate itself the inmates were addicted to “light literature … novels, flash songs, plays, books.” Everyone was copying everyone else.

The content of these various publications was equally ambiguous, hovering somewhere between celebration and condemnation. In similar fashion skill and cunning, disguise and stratagem, were commonly admired as the dramatic expedients of street life. There was the infamous “Little Casey,” a nine-year-old pickpocket whose skills made him the wonder of late 1740s London. There was Mary Young, known as Jenny Diver, who practised in the same streets some forty years before; she would dress up as a pregnant woman and, hiding a pair of artificial arms and hands beneath her dress, opened pockets and purses with ease. She, in turn, was celebrated by the London populace for her “skills of timing, disguise, wit and dissimulation.”

At a later date there emerged Charles Price or “Old Patch”; he committed sophisticated forgeries, and passed off his bank-notes in a variety of elaborate disguises. He was a “compact middle-aged man” but typically would dress as an infirm and aged Londoner, wearing “a long black camlet cloak, with a broad cape fastened up close to his chin.” He had a large “broad-brimmed slouch hat, often green spectacles or a green shade.” He dressed up, in other words, as the “old man” of stage comedy.

In the late nineteenth century Charles Peace was also celebrated as a master of disguise and manipulation; the son of a file-maker, he conducted an ordinary life as a suburban householder variously in Lambeth and in Peck-ham. Yet “by shooting forward his lower jaw he could entirely alter his appearance. He had been a one-armed man, the live limb being concealed beneath his clothes … The police declared that he could so change himself, even without material disguises, that he was unrecognisable.” He even designed a folding ladder eight feet long which folded down to a sixth of that length, fifteen inches, and could be concealed under the arm. He had once been a street musician and had a great love for fiddles; he even contrived to steal them, although on occasions they furnished an awkward addition to his “swag.” After his death on the scaffold, his collection of instruments was put up for auction. Yet in a city of character and spectacle, it was his ability to disguise himself which exerted the most fascination. In the “Black Museum” of Scotland Yard there used to be exhibited the pair of blue goggles “he was accustomed to wear in his favourite character of eccentric old philosopher.”

He was also a callous criminal, who murdered anyone who got in his way, and so the celebration of disguise is tempered by disgust at the nature of his crimes. This indeed was a feature of The Newgate Calendar itself, as in “A Narrative of the horrid Cruelties of Elizabeth Brownrigg on her Apprentices.” She was a midwife chosen by the overseers of the poor of St. Dunstan’s parish “to take care of the poor women who were taken in labour in the workhouse.” She had several penniless girls working as her servants, at her house in Fleur-de-lis Court off Fleet Street, and she systematically tortured, abused and killed them. As she was led to her death, in the autumn of 1767, the London mob shouted out that “she would go to hell” and that “the devil would fetch her.” Her body was anatomised, and her skeleton displayed in a niche of Surgeon’s Hall.

After such events came the trade in “Last Dying Confessions.” Some were genuinely composed by the felons themselves-who often took great delight in reading their “Last Speeches” in their cells-but customarily it was the “Ordinary” or religious minister of Newgate who wrote what were essentially morbid and moralistic texts. The city then became a stage upon which were presented spectacles for the delight and terror of the urban audience.

There is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle concerning Sherlock Holmes’s exposure of what were then known as “fraudulent mendicants.” In “The Man with the Twisted Lip” Neville St. Clair, a prosperous gentleman living in the suburbs of Kent, travelled to his business in the City every morning and returned on the five fourteen from Cannon Street each evening. It transpired, however, that he had secret lodgings in Upper Swandam Lane, a “vile alley” to the east of London Bridge, where he dressed up as a “sinister cripple” called Hugh Boone who was well known as a match-seller in Threadneedle Street with his “shock of orange hair, a pale face disfigured by a horrible scar.” This tale was published in 1892, as part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Twelve years later there was a beggar who sold matches in Bishopsgate; he was well known in the vicinity, since he was “paralysed … He could be seen dragging himself painfully along the gutter, his head hanging to one side, all his limbs trembled violently, one foot dragged behind him and his right arm limp, withered and useless. To complete the terrible picture his face was most horribly distorted.” This account was written by a chief detective inspector of the City police force, Ernest Nicholls, in Crime within the Square Mile. In the autumn of 1904 a young detective constable from that force decided to “tail” the match-seller; the policeman discovered that the beggar would drag his paralysed body into Crosby Square and then “make his exit at another corner as a nimble young man.” He turned out to be a gentleman, by the name of Cecil Brown Smith, who lived in “the genteel suburbs of Norwood” and who earned a prosperous living from the charity of those who passed him in Bishopsgate. It is a curious coincidence, if no more, and may be accounted as one of the many strange coincidences which life in the city creates.

In the same book of police cases, there is the story of a bloodstained razor being discovered behind the seat of a bus; the young man who found the blade hesitated a few days before giving it to the police, because some years before he himself had slashed the throat of his “sweetheart” with just such a murder weapon. It is as if the city itself brought forth evidence from its own history. The stories of the mendicant beggars may imply that Cecil Brown Smith had read Conan Doyle’s story of London vagrancy, and had decided to bring it to life; or it may be that certain writers are able to divine a particular pattern of activity within the city.

In any case that connection of fact and fiction, in the realm of crime, was not wholly lost in the twentieth century. Tommy Steele played Jack Sheppard in Where’s Jack, Phil Collins was “Buster” Edwards in Buster, Roger Daltrey was John McVicar in McVicar and two performers from Spandau Ballet enacted the Kray brothers in The Krays. The tradition of The Beggar’s Bush and The Beggar’s Opera continues.


Raw Lobsters and Others

If villains become heroes, it has been the fate of policemen to become figures of fun. Shakespeare satirised Dogberry, the constable in Much Ado About Nothing, in what was already a long tradition of city humour at the expense of its guardians.

At first “the watch,” as the police forces were called for many centuries, were literally watchers upon the walls of London. In a document of 1312 it is stipulated that “two men of the watch, well and fittingly armed, be at all hours of the day ready at the gate, within or without, down below, to make answer to such persons as shall come on great horses, or with arms, to enter the City.” But what of the enemy within? The “good men” of each ward were by custom responsible for maintaining order, but in 1285 an informal system of mutual protection was supplanted by the establishment of a public “watch” comprising the householders of each precinct under the jurisdiction of a constable. Each householder, when not assuming the offices of beadle, constable or scavenger, had to serve as part of the watch operating under the rules of “hue and cry.” So we hear of unruly apprentices being chased, and “nightwalkers” arrested. There are constant descriptions of roreres-roarers-who drink and gamble and beat people in the streets. These are taken up, locked up, and brought before the city magistrates the following morning.

To act as a member of the watch was considered a public duty, but it became customary for the hard-pressed householder to hire another to take his place. Those who took the job were generally of a low calibre, however; hence the description of the London watch made up of old men “chosen from the dregs of the people; who have no other arms but a lanthorn and a pole; who patrol the streets, crying the hour every time the clock strikes.” We also have the watch organised by Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing: “You are thought here to be the most senseless and fit man for the constable of the watch; therefore bear you the lantern.” In the 1730s a Watch Act was introduced to regularise the situation; a system of payment out of the rates was supposed to encourage the employment of better watchmen, in some cases by hiring disbanded soldiers or sailors rather than the old pensioners of the parish, but it seems to have made little difference. There is a mid-nineteenth-century photograph of William Anthony, one of the last of the London watch, grasping a pole in his right hand and a lantern in his left. He is wearing the peculiar broad-brimmed hat and greatcoat which marked his profession, and his expression hovers somewhere between sternness and imbecility.

They were known as “Charleys,” and were continually mocked. They patrolled certain streets and were supposed to act as guardians of property. “The first time this man goes on his rounds,” César de Saussure remarked in 1725, “he pushes the doors of the shops and houses with his stick to ascertain whether they are properly fastened, and if they are not he warns the proprietors.” He also awakened early any citizens “who have any journey to perform.” But the Charleys were not necessarily reliable. The report of one high constable, who made an unannounced visit to their various lock-ups and boxes, included remarks such as “called out ‘Watch!’ but could get no assistance … No constable on duty, found a watchman there at a great distance from his beat; from thence went to the night-cellar … and there found four of St. Clement’s watchmen drinking.” In the sixteenth century they were well known for “coming very late to the watch, sitting down in some common place of watching, wherein some falleth on sleep by reason of labour or much drinking before, or else nature requireth a rest in the night.” Three hundred years later they were still being reviled as old codgers “whose speed will keep pace with a snail, and the strength of whose arm would not be able to arrest an old washerwoman of fourscore returned from a hard day’s fag at the washtub.” The watchmen were in turn the targets of rowdy or drunken “bloods” or “bucks.” It was reported that a “watchman found dozing in his box in the intervals of going his rounds to utter his monotonous cry was apt to be overturned, box and all, and left to kick and struggle helplessly, like a turtle on its back, until assistance arrived.” The Charley was often assaulted by roarers, as he made his way through the dark streets.

It is unlikely, therefore, that London was well policed through the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries. The evidence suggests that the medieval concept of co-operation within ward and precinct prevailed for many hundreds of years; the citizens of London themselves ensured that their city was at least relatively safe, and an informal system of local justice prevailed. Pickpockets and prostitutes were ducked, as were fraudulent doctors or merchants. A cuckolded husband was given a “charivari” or scornful music of “tin cans, kettles and marrow bones.” It was a system of self-policing which must have been effective, if only because the calls for a city police force were so long rejected.

But the growth of London demanded more effective measures of control. In the 1750s Henry Fielding almost single-handedly established at Bow Street a police office which acted as a kind of headquarters for the suppression of London crime. His “thief takers” or “runners” were known as “Robin Redbreasts” or “Raw Lobsters” because of their red vests. Their numbers increased from six to seventy by the end of the century, while in 1792 seven other “police offices” were set up in various parts of the capital. The old City of London, protecting its medieval identity, had already established its own regular police patrols-the Day Police were formed in 1784, and were immediately identified with the blue greatcoat which they wore, according to Donald Rumbelow in The Triple Tree, to “lend them an air of distinction when they provided the prisoner’s escort on execution day.” From such unhappy origins did the conventional police uniform emerge. In 1798 the Thames Police Office was instituted to protect quays and warehouses as well as the newly built docks along the river; it was outside the usual system of ward and precinct. Seven years later a horse patrol was established to deter highwaymen.

There is a painting, dating from 1835, of a watch house. It is a two-storeyed building of early eighteenth-century construction, with shuttered windows on the ground floor. It is situated on the west side of the piazza, just beside the church of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, and shows several blue-coated and black-hatted policemen milling about its iron gateway. There are potted plants on the top window ledge, and the words “Watch House” vividly painted on to the white brick façade. The impression is that of an establishment nicely suited to its surroundings, with the potted plants as a picturesque emblem of Covent Garden. But the appearance is, perhaps, deceptive. There are underground dungeons behind the Queen Anne façade, and the painting was completed some six years after the passing of a Metropolitan Police Act which profoundly altered the face of “law and order” in London.

The problem had been one of corruption. As so often happens in the city, those who were supposed to regulate criminal activity eventually began to condone or even encourage it. The Bow Street Runners were found to be receiving money and goods, while congregating with “villains” in taverns. This is illustrative of the city’s demotic as well as commercial spirit. It was with great difficulty, therefore, that Robert Peel was able to enforce proposals to establish an organised and centralised police force for London. It was considered by some to be a direct threat to the city’s liberty and, according to The Times, “an engine … invented by despotism.” Yet by excluding the old city police from his ministrations, and by regaling a Select Committee with episodes of street crime and statistics of vagrancy, he ensured the success of his proposals.

In 1829 the office of the “New Police” was established in a small Whitehall courtyard known as Great Scotland Yard, with a force of some three thousand men organised into seventeen divisions. These are the officers to be seen in the painting of the Covent Garden watch house, with their black top hats and blue “swallow-tail” coats. Not popular in the streets of London, they were known as “Blue Devils” or “Real Blue Collarers,” the latter an allusion to the depredations of cholera in the 1830s. When in 1832 an unarmed police constable was stabbed to death near Clerkenwell Green, the coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of “Justifiable Homicide.”

The police came from the same class and neighbourhoods as the policed; they were in that sense considered to be attempting to control and to arrest their own people. Like the “runner” before them they were also open to the charges of drunkenness and immorality. But such offences were punished with summary dismissal, with the result that, according to the London Encyclopaedia, “within four years fewer than one sixth of the original 3000 remained.” Those who survived were known as “crushers” or “coppers,” with the less vivid terms of “peelers” and “bobbies” coming from their association with Robert Peel. Those terms have been transmogrified into the modern “old Bill” which in turn seems to share some of the derogatory tone of the previous “Charleys.” There is in fact a continuity in these forms of address. In the middle of the twentieth century a policeman was often known as a “bluebottle” which is precisely the term that Doll Tearsheet hurls at a beadle in the second part of Henry IV-“I will have you as soundly swindg’d for this, you blew bottle Rogue.” Over more recent years they have also been known as “bogeys” or “rozzers,” “slops” or “narks,” “fuzz” or “pigs,” “creepers” or “flatties.” Yet historians of the London police have noted that within two or three decades Robert Peel’s force had acquired some degree of authority, and success, in its pursuit of crime.

Allusions to the demeanour and appearance of the individual police officer are often made in this context. “The habitual state of mind towards the police of those who live by crime is not so much dislike as unmitigated slavish terror,” one observer wrote. It was a way of suggesting that the darkness of London had been effectively dispelled by the “bull’s-eye” lamp of the constables on the beat. In 1853 a foreign traveller, Ventura de la Vega, noted their quasi-military uniform, with their blue coats “closed in the front with a straight collar on which a white number is embroidered” and their hats lined with steel. When necessary, he goes on, “they take from the back pocket of their coat a stick a half a yard long in the shape of a scepter, which has an iron ball on the tip.” It is never used, however, since “on hearing a policeman’s voice nobody answers and everybody obeys like a lamb.” So against the records of the violence and energy of the London crowd, we must place this evidence of almost instinctive obedience. Of course this is not to claim that every costermonger or street trader cowered in fright at the advancing uniform. The statistics of attacks upon the police, then and now, are testimony to that. But the observers are correct in one general respect. There does seem to be a critical point or mass at which the city somehow calms itself down and does not consume itself in general riot or insurrection. A level of instability is reached, only to retreat.

Other shapes emerge to touch upon the very nature of London even in the twenty-first century. It might be suggested, for example, that the “Fenian” explosion at Clerkenwell prison in 1867 was part of a pattern which manifested itself at the Canary Wharf explosion by the IRA in 1996. The Trafalgar Square riots of 1887 occupied the same space as the poll tax riots of March 1990. Complaints about police incompetence and corruption are as old as the police force itself. In 1998 an official investigation into the murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, revealed many instances of bad judgement and mismanagement; it also suggested implicit racial prejudice within the police force which has indeed been bedevilled by that charge for fifty years. Ever since the first “peeler” put on his blue “swallow-tail” coat, the London police have been the object of derision and suspicion. Yet those officers lingering outside the Covent Garden watch house would no doubt have been surprised to learn that their arm of investigation would be extended to almost eight hundred square miles with the number of offences, according to the latest statistical survey, rising to over 800,000. They would not have been quite so surprised to learn, however, that the “clear-up” rate was only 25 per cent.


Thereby Hangs a Tale

There can be no calculation of the numbers of burnings and stonings, beheadings and drownings, hangings and crucifixions practised in Roman and Saxon times. But by the fourteenth century we have written reports of a condemned man wearing “a striped coat and white shoes, his head covered with a hood” and pinioned to a horse; the hangman rode behind him, the rope in his hand, while his “torturers” rode beside him mocking him all the way from Cheapside to Smithfield. This was a very public, and formalised, ritual of death making its way through the streets of London. Contrition and penance, however, were as important as any severity of punishment. The penalty for one convicted of insulting an alderman was to walk with bare feet, from the Guildhall into Cheapside and through Fleet Street, carrying a three-pound candle in the hands. This carrying of a lighted candle was a common punishment for assaults upon the authority of civic leaders or the Church, and it suggests an atonement to London itself.

The preferred punishment for false trading was the pillory. There the shopkeeper came literally face to face with those whom he had deceived. The convicted man was drawn upon a horse, facing the tail, and wore a fool’s cap; he might be preceded by a band of pipers and trumpeters. On arrival at the pillory-there was one in Cheapside and another in Cornhill- the goods deceitfully sold were burned before his face. If he had committed fraud, false coins or dice were suspended about his neck. If he had been found guilty of lying, a whetstone was hung around him, as if representing a sharpened tongue. The time of the punishment in the pillory was exactly measured. For spreading lying reports that foreign merchants were to be allowed the same rights as freemen-one hour. For selling cups of base metal rather than silver-two hours. For selling stale slices of cooked conger-one hour. Yet the timing was only one measure of pain and humiliation. To be identified and paraded in front of neighbours and fellow tradesmen was, for any citizen of London, the cause of extreme embarrassment and shame. It could also be perilous. Some were plied with rotten fruit, fish and excrement, but the most unpopular or unprincipled offenders were in danger of being pelted to death with sticks and stones. It is a measure of London’s conservatism, or strictness, that the pillory was not abolished until the summer of 1837.

Among the other sights of the city were the impaled heads of traitors. Above the main gateway of London Bridge rose iron spikes upon which the remnants of condemned men were fixed; in most illustrations five or six of these mementoes are generally depicted, although it is not clear if demand outstripped supply. In 1661 a German traveller counted nineteen or twenty, which suggests that the civil conflicts of that unhappy period were fruitful in at least one respect.

In the following century the heads migrated to Temple Bar, “where people make a trade of letting spy-glasses at a halfpenny a look”; they were also visible from a telescope set up in Leicester Fields, which suggests that heads were a city attraction. Certainly the citizens seem to have become inured to these solemn spectacles of punishment except, according to “Aleph,” “when there had been a recent sufferer; the curious would then stop to ask ‘What new head is that?’”

In the late 1760s Oliver Goldsmith was wandering in Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey with Samuel Johnson who, surveying the memorial stones to the great dead, muttered “Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis” (There may be a chance that our name will be mingled with these). But when they walked up to Temple Bar and observed the heads, Goldsmith stopped Johnson “and slily whispered me ‘Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis.’”

During one memorable storm in March 1772, two heads of decapitated Jacobites fell down. Mrs. Black, the wife of the editor of the Morning Chronicle, recalled how “Women shrieked as they fell; men, as I have heard, shrieked. One woman near me fainted.” Thirty years later the iron spikes were finally removed from the malevolent Bar.

There was no respite in hanging, however. In the fifteenth century eight offences merited that fate, among them arson and “petty treason (the killing of a husband by his wife).” Anyone who could read a passage from the Bible, known as the neck verse, was deemed to be a cleric and therefore given over to the ecclesiastical authorities. Averting death was thus, for two centuries, one of the primary gifts of literacy.

From the twelfth century the favoured site for a hanging was Tyburn, the first (of William Longbeard) being noted in 1196 and the last (of John Austen) in 1783. The actual site of the gallows has been disputed, the notoriety being given variously to Connaught Place or Connaught Square, both on the edge of the desolate Edgware Road slightly to the north of Marble Arch. But antiquarian research has revealed that the site lies on the south-east corner of Connaught Square. A carpenter recalled that his uncle “took up the stones on which the uprights [of the gallows] were placed.” When the square itself was being built in the 1820s, a “low house” on the corner was demolished and quantities of human bodies were found. So some of the victims of the gallows were buried in situ. Other remains were discovered when the neighbouring streets and squares were laid out in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and a house in Upper Bryanston Street which overlooked the fatal spot “had curious iron balconies to the windows of the first and second floors, where the sheriffs sat to witness the executions.” There were also wooden galleries erected around the area, like stands at a race course, where seats were hired by curious spectators. One notorious stallkeeper was known as “Mammy Douglas, the Tyeburn pew-opener.”

Yet, of course, and more especially, the executioners themselves became notorious. The first known public hangman was one Bull, who was followed by the more celebrated Derrick. “And Derrick must be his host,” Dekker wrote of a horse-thief in his Bellman of London (1608), “and Tiburne the land at which he will light.” There was a proverb-“If Derrick’s cables do but hold”-which referred to an ingenious structure, like a crane, upon which twenty-three condemned could be hanged together. This device was then put in more general use for unloading and hoisting vessels on board ships, and still bears the executioner’s name.

Derrick was succeeded by Gregory Brandon upon whose name several puns were elaborated-“Gregorian calendar” and “Gregorian tree” among them-and who was in turn succeeded by his son, Richard, who claimed the public office by inheritance. “Squire” Dun followed, and the post was then given to the notorious Richard Jaquet, alias Jack Ketch, in the 1670s. There were many tracts and ballads directed against Ketch, among them The Tyburn Ghost: or, Strange Downfal of the Gallows: a most true Relation how the famous Triple Tree, near Paddington, was pluckt up by the roots and demolisht by certain Evil Spirits, with Jack Ketch’s Lamentation for the loss of his Shop, 1678. It was known as the triple tree because the gallows was triangular in shape, with three posts or legs acting as supports. Each of the three beams could accommodate eight people and so, marginally more effective than the derrick, it was possible to hang twenty-four at the same time.

“Execution Day” was a Monday. Those about to be hanged were taken in an open cart from Newgate, generally attended by a huge and enthusiastic crowd. “The English are a people that laughs at the delicacy of other nations,” one foreign traveller reported, “who make it such a mighty matter to be hanged. He that is to be takes great care to get himself shaved and handsomely dressed either in mourning or in the dress of a bridegroom … Sometimes the girls dress in white with great silk scarves and carry baskets full of flowers and oranges, scattering these favours all the way they go.” So the ceremonial way to Tyburn was also the site of celebration. It was customary for famous London criminals to wear white cockades in their hats as a sign of triumph or derision; they were also an emblem, occasionally, of their innocence. The more dashing or notorious criminals were handed a nosegay “from the hand of one of the frail sisterhood”-one of the prostitutes who stood before the Church of Holy Sepulchre opposite the prison.

The procession made its way down Snow Hill and across Holborn Bridge, down Holborn Hill and into Holborn itself, with those about to be hanged greeted with cheers or execrations; they were always surrounded by a group of officers on horseback who restrained the crowds. Ferdinand de Saussure, in A Foreign View of England, noted some eighteenth-century criminals “going to their death perfectly unconcerned, others so impenitent that they fill themselves full of liquor and mock at those who are repentant.” At the church of St. Giles-in-the-Field the malefactors were ritually handed jugs of ale. After the prisoners had quenched their thirst, the procession moved forward down Broad St. Giles, into Oxford Street, and on to Tyburn itself.

The cart was halted just before the gallows. Those about to die were escorted on to another carriage especially built like a platform for the occasion; it was driven beneath the triple tree. The halters were placed around the necks of the condemned, the horses kicked into action, and there the malefactors would be suspended until death overtook their pains. At this point friends and relatives might be seen “tugging at the hanging men’s feet so that they should die quicker, and not suffer.”

When the corpses were cut down there was a general rush for them, since the bodies of the hanged were believed to be of curious efficacy in the healing of disease. The London Encyclopaedia remarks upon one Frenchman who noted “a young woman, with an appearance of beauty, all pale and trembling, in the arms of the executioner, who submitted to have her bosom uncovered in the presence of thousands of spectators and the dead man’s hand placed upon it.” There was a disturbing paganism latent beneath the surface of this piece of dramatic theatre. In the mid-seventeenth century such a severed hand could command the price of ten guineas, since “the possession of the hand was thought to be of still greater efficacy in the cure of diseases and prevention of misfortunes.”

There was also a general struggle over the body, conducted between those who wished to retain it for their own purposes and those hired assistants come to transport it to the surgeons for dissection. In the mêlée “the populace often come to blows as to who will carry the bought corpses to the parents who are waiting in coaches and cabs to receive them.” It was all “most diverting,” again according to Ferdinand de Saussure, who was sitting in one of the stands which surrounded the whole event.

One thief and housebreaker, John Haynes, displayed signs of life after being escorted to the house of a famous surgeon. He was asked what he remembered-“The last thing I recollect was going up Holborn Hill in a cart. I thought then that I was in a beautiful green field; and that is all I remember till I found myself in your honour’s dissecting room.” So he came to death, and to life, babbling of green fields.

London did indeed become the city of the gallows. In 1776 the Morning Post reported “that the criminals capitally convicted at the Old Bailey shall in future be executed at the cross road near the ‘Mother Red Cap’ inn, the half-way house to Hampstead, and that no galleries, scaffolds or other temporary stages be built near the place.” This measure was promoted in order to curb rioting among the spectators at a time when a fierce radicalism characterised the politics of London. The site of the executions was, typically, at a crossroads where the present Camden Town Underground Station now stands. Other crossroads were also used as a natural location for the gallows, sending travellers upon their ambiguous journey-the division between the City Road and Goswell Road in Islington was once in use-but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was also customary to hang offenders on or near the spot where their crimes had been committed. In 1790, for example, two arsonists were hanged in Aldersgate Street immediately opposite the house which they had fired. The last recorded example of topographical killing occurred in Skinner Street, in 1817, when a thief was despatched in front of the shop of a gunsmith which he had plundered.

At Wapping lay Execution Dock, the place of punishment for all those who had committed high crimes upon the high seas, while the suspended bodies of the hanged could be seen swaying opposite Blackwall and other sites along the Thames such as Bugsby’s Hole. The bodies of the condemned could also be seen at Aldgate and Pentonville, St. Giles and Smithfield, Blackheath and Finchley, Kennington Common and Hounslow Heath, so that these mementoes caught the attention of all those travelling into, or out of, London. It was not a pleasant prospect. Murderers, for example, were “first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet … and there it hangs till it falls to dust.” Why this should have been considered an appropriate spectacle for those leaving or entering London is another matter; it is curiously reminiscent of the fact that the principal gates or entrances to the city were also used as prisons, and suggests an attitude both defensive and minatory.

Some forms of punishment, however, were more secret. In Newgate was a “press” reserved for those who refused to plead to their indictments. Here they were stripped “and put in low dark chambers, with as much weight of iron placed upon them as they could bear, and more, there to lie until they were dead.” There is an eighteenth-century engraving of a felon, one William Spiggot, “under pressure” in Newgate; he lies naked upon a bare floor, his arms and legs stretched and pinioned to hooks against the walls. Upon his naked chest is a wooden board loaded down with great weights. One gaoler, bearing keys, stands over him while another moves forward with a lighted candle to observe his sufferings. This quasi-medieval torture, known as “pressing to death,” continued until 1734-an apt indication of the barbarity of city justice.

In that spirit, too, the number of hanged rose in the latter part of the eighteenth century. In one month of 1763, for example, “near one hundred and fifty persons have been committed to New Prison and Clerkenwell for robberies and other criminal offences.” It was said in The Annual Register that the “reckless wretches seem almost to have crowded in, crying, ‘You cannot hang us all.’” But they could try.

Soon enough, however, the venue of slaughter had changed. The gradual spread of gentility to the west meant that the old tribal route from Newgate to Tyburn began to impinge upon the fashionable quarters close to Oxford Street. So in 1783 the authorities removed the gallows to Newgate itself, thus cutting off the procession at its source. The populace at large felt deprived of the spectacle of “the cheat,” to use the cant term for the gallows, and the more scholarly Londoners felt that an habitual aspect of the city was being removed in an untimely fashion. “The age is running mad after innovation,” Samuel Johnson told Boswell, and “Tyburn is not safe from the fury of innovation … No, Sir, it is not an improvement: they object that the old method drew together a number of spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they don’t draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties: the public was gratified by a procession: the criminal was supported by it. Why is all this to be swept away?” Boswell might have had his own answer. He himself was addicted to the watching of executions-“I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there,” he once wrote of Tyburn-and through the good offices of Richard Ackerman, the Keeper of Newgate, was able to witness many hangings outside that prison.

The first Newgate hanging was conducted on 9 December 1783, but its revolutionary system of “the new drop” soon claimed more victims. A few days after the sentence of death had been pronounced in the courtroom, the malefactor was “cast” and the “dead warrant” sent down to his cell. The Newgate Chronicles themselves detail the hours leading up to his appearance on the “stage.” On the first night in the condemned cell “the solemn notification of the impending blow keeps nearly all awake,” but soon they slept more easily. “All too have a fairly good appetite,” the same chronicler reports, “and eat with relish up to the last moment.” The “Italian boy” condemned for murdering a French woman in the Haymarket ate “constantly and voraciously,” as if to stuff himself before the final exit. One Jeffreys, who hanged his child in a cellar in Seven Dials, called for roast duck as soon as he entered the condemned cell.

In the hour before execution the condemned man was led from his cell into a “stone-cold room” which was the place where he was pinioned by the “yeoman of the halter” before being taken to “the new drop.” The engine of death, which was transportable, was dragged by horses into grooves marked upon Newgate Street itself. It consisted of a stage upon which were constructed three parallel beams. The part of the stage next to the gaol had a covered platform; here were the sheriffs’ seats, while around it stood the interested spectators. In the middle of the stage was a trap-door, ten feet long by eight feet wide, above which the beams were placed. The hour of execution was always eight o’clock in the morning and, a few minutes before that time, the sheriffs brought out the prisoners. Upon the dropping of a flag, the bolts holding up the trap were pulled and the convicted men or women fell or “dropped” to their deaths.

There are several contemporaneous prints displaying “The New Gallows in the Old Bailey” with those about to suffer praying or weeping with halters about their necks. Around them, hemmed in by soldiers, are the crowd, who stare up with fascination at the fatal stage. In fact a contributor to The Chronicles of Newgate wrote that “the change from Tyburn to the Old Bailey had worked no improvement upon the crowd or its demeanour. As many spectators as ever thronged to see the dreadful show, and they were packed into more limited space, displaying themselves as heretofore by brutal horseplay, coarse jests, and frantic yells.”

On one occasion, “A few minutes of most dreadful suspense” took place; “the culprits stood gazing at each other … at last the chime struck upon the ear, and the poor fellows seemed startled.” In Defoe’s account of Moll Flanders’s period in Newgate, the sound of the bell of Holy Sepulchre set up “a dismal groaning and crying … followed by a confused clamour in the house, among the several prisoners, expressing their awkward sorrows for the poor creatures that were to die … Some cried for them, some brutishly huzzaed, and wished them a good journey; some damned and cursed those that had brought them to it.”

The night before an execution, outside Newgate, all the paraphernalia of execution-the gallows, the barriers, the platforms-had to be set up. These preparations naturally attracted a crowd of idle or interested observers. The “low taverns and beer-houses about Newgate Street, Smithfield, and the Fleet district, are gorged with company, who sally out at intervals to see how the workmen get on” and “knots of queer-looking fellows form here and there” to discuss the following morning’s proceedings. The police moved them on, but they clustered elsewhere. Just after midnight on Sunday, when most of the night-revellers had been cleared, the gin shops and coffee houses opened their doors and hired out their rooms-“Comfortable room!,” “Excellent situation!,” “Beautiful prospects!,” “Splendid view!” Both roofs and windows in the vicinity were hired out; five pounds were “given for the attic storey of the Lamb’s Coffee House” and a first-floor front could command five times as much. The crowd began to assemble at four or five in the morning, and the whole area in front of Newgate was packed by seven o’clock. By the time of the ceremony itself some of the spectators, pressed up against the barriers for several hours, had “nearly fainted from exhaustion.”

When Governor Wall was marched from the press yard towards the place of execution, he was greeted with howls of abuse and execration from the other prisoners of Newgate. While the governor of Goree, in Africa, he had been responsible for the death of a soldier by excessive flogging-one of those abuses of authority which Londoners most detest. His appearance on the scaffold was then accompanied by three harsh and prolonged shouts from the crowd assembled in Newgate Street. After the hanging was over the yeoman of the halter offered portions of the rope for sale at one shilling per inch; a woman known as “Rosy Emma,” rumoured to be the yeoman’s wife, “exuberant in talk and hissing hot from Pie Corner, where she had taken her morning dose of gin-and-bitters,” was selling parts of the fatal cord at a cheaper rate.

Governor Wall met his fate with fortitude and in silence. Arthur Thistle-wood, condemned as one of the Cato Street conspirators in 1820, ascended the scaffold and exclaimed, “I shall soon know the last grand secret!” Mrs. Manning, convicted in 1849 of a more than usually unpleasant murder-with the connivance of her husband she had murdered her lover with a ripping chisel-appeared upon the scaffold in a black satin dress; her “preference brought the costly stuff into disrepute, and its unpopularity lasted for nearly thirty years.” It is curiously reminiscent of the case of Mrs. Turner, a notorious poisoner in the reign of James I; she was a woman of fashion who had invented yellow-starched ruffs and cuffs. Hence her sentence was to be “hang’d at Tiburn in her yellow Tinny Ruff and Cuff, she being the first inventor and wearer of that horrid garb.” To emphasise the moral the hangman on that day “had his hands and cuffs” painted yellow, and from that time the coloured starch, like Mrs. Manning’s black satin, “grew generally to be detested and disused.” It is a measure of the central importance of this ritual of execution that Newgate, and Tyburn, could affect the fashions of the day. Once more the idea of the city as spectacle asserts itself. Hanging, then, was essentially a form of street theatre. When five pirates were hanged for mutiny in front of Newgate, the Chronicles record that “the upturned faces of the eager spectators resembled those of the “gods” at Drury Lane on Boxing Night … The remarks heard amongst the crowd were of course ones of approval. ‘S’help me, ain’t it fine?’ a costermonger was heard to exclaim to his companion.” Theatricality and savagery are subtly mingled.

The “unceasing murmur” of the crowd broke into “a loud deep roar” as the condemned man appeared; there were calls of “Hats off!” and “Down in front” as he approached the halter. There followed a moment of silence, abruptly broken by the drop itself. At the moment of descent “every link in that human chain is shaken, along the whole lengthened line has the motion jarred.” The silence was replaced, after that sudden “jarring” of the body of the city, by a noise from the crowd “like the dreamy murmur of an ocean shell.” And then, more distinctly, the familiar cries of the sellers of “ginger-beer, pies, fried fish, sandwiches and fruit,” together with the names of famous criminals whose tracts were still being advertised on the spot where they, too, once fell. With these were soon mingled “oaths, fighting, obscene conduct and still more filthy language,” together, perhaps, with the faintest note of disappointment. There was always the hope or expectation that something might go wrong-that the condemned man might fight for his liberty or the engine of death might not function satisfactorily. Charles White, condemned for arson in 1832, sprang forward at the exact moment the trap was opened and balanced on its edge while “the crowd roared their encouragement as he struggled furiously with the executioner and his assistants.” He was eventually thrown down the drop with the hangman clinging to his legs. In these instances, the sympathy of the London crowd flooded instinctively to the condemned, as if they were watching their own selves in the act of being despatched by the authorities of the state.

There were occasions when death upon the scaffold was accompanied by death upon the streets. The execution of two murderers, Haggerty and Holloway, took place in February 1807; the anticipation was so great that close to 40,000 people were packed in front of the prison and its vicinity. Even before the murderers appeared upon the scaffold, women and children were trampled to death amid cries of “Murder.” At Green Arbour Court, opposite the debtors’ door of the prison, a pieman stooped to pick up some of his broken wares and “some of the mob, not seeing what had happened, stumbled over him. No one who fell ever rose again.” Elsewhere a cart filled with spectators broke down, “and many of those who were in it were trampled to death.” And yet amid these scenes of chaos and death the rite of execution continued. Only after the gallows had been taken down, and the mob partly dispersed, did the officers find the bodies of twenty-eight dead and hundreds injured.

Two great nineteenth-century novelists seemed implicitly to recognise the emblematic significance of these Monday mornings, when the city gathered to acclaim the death of one of its own. William Makepeace Thackeray rose at three on the morning of 6 July 1840, in order to witness the hanging of a manservant, Benjamin Courvoisier, convicted of killing his master. He recorded the scene in an essay, “Going to See a Man Hanged.” In a carriage bound for Snow Hill, Thackeray followed the crowd intent upon seeing the execution; by twenty minutes past four, beside Holy Sepulchre, “many hundred people were in the street.” Here Thackeray registered his “electric shock” when he first caught sight of the gallows jutting from the door of Newgate. He asked those around them if they had seen many executions? Most assented. And had the sight done them any good? “For the matter of that, no; people did not care about them at all,” and, in a transcription of genuine London speech, “nobody ever thought of it after a bit.”

The windows of the shops were soon filled with dandies, and with “quiet, fat, family parties,” while from a balcony an aristocratic rowdy squirted those assembled with brandy and soda from a siphon. The crowd grew more eager as the hand of the clock came closer to eight. When the bell of Holy Sepulchre tolled the hour, all the men removed their hats “and a great murmur arose, more awful, bizarre and indescribable than any sound I had ever before heard. Women and children began to shriek horribly” and then “a dreadful quick, feverish kind of jangling noise mingled with the noise of the people, and lasted for about two minutes.” This was a scene of fever and alarm, as if the whole body of London was starting up from an uneasy sleep. It was the noise, almost inhuman, which Thackeray immediately noticed.

The man about to be hanged emerged from the prison door. His arms were tied in front of him but “he opened his hands in a helpless kind of way, and clasped them once or twice together. He turned his head here and there, and looked about him for an instant with a wild imploring look. His mouth was contracted with a sort of pitiful smile.” He walked quickly beneath the beam; the executioner turned him round, and put a black nightcap over “the patient’s head and face.” Thackeray could look no more.

The episode left him with “an extraordinary feeling of terror and shame.” It is interesting that, apparently inadvertently, he uses the word “patient” to describe the condemned; it was the same term applied to the prisoners of Bridewell about to be flogged. It is as if the city were a vast hospital, filled with the diseased or the dying. Yet the city is also a surgeon’s hall, where the novelist and the crowd were all the spectators of the doomed and the dead. Thackeray described it as a “hidden lust after blood.” He was suggesting that there were permanent and atavistic forces at work.

Charles Dickens had gone down to Newgate early that same morning. “Just once,” he told his friends, “I should like to watch a scene like this, and see the end of the Drama.” Here a great London novelist instinctively reaches for the appropriate word to mark the fatal occasion. He found an upper room in a house close to the scene, and paid for its hire; from there he eagerly watched the movement of the London crowd, which he was soon to revive in his account of the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge. And as he watched the mob, he saw a tall familiar figure-“Why, there stands Thackeray!” Chance encounters in the streets of London suffuse the novels of Dickens and in front of Newgate, amid the great crowd, the actual life of London confirmed his vision.

Nine years later, on a cold November morning, he rose from his bed to watch another execution. The Mannings were to be hanged outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark, and immediately after the event Dickens wrote a letter to the Morning Chronicle. There, in the mob assembled before the prison, he saw “the image of the Devil.” “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd … could be presented in no heathen land under the sun.” Here the evident paganism of London is given express form.

Dickens, like Thackeray, is appalled by the noise of the mob, in particular “the shrillness of the cries and howls,” like that “feverish kind of jangling noise” which Thackeray heard. There were “screeching and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah” … faintings, whistlings, imitation of Punch, brutal jokes.” Another “Mrs. Manning,” in the crowd itself, “proclaimed that she had a knife about her and threatened to murder another woman so that she might step up to the gibbet after ‘her namesake.’” The fury and excitement of the mob, expressive of “general contamination and corruption,” fill Dickens’s account of the proceedings. He declared that “there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me.” But he was astonished and alarmed by this experience.

The crowd outside Newgate and Horsemonger Lane often jeered and hissed the executioner. That of Courvoisier and the Mannings was one Calcraft, who had previously earned his living by flogging boys in Newgate. The Mannings were his only victims in 1849, and his services were less and less frequently required. Between 1811 and 1832 there were approximately eighty executions a year but from 1847 to 1871 that figure was reduced to 1.48 per annum. William Calcraft was succeeded by William Marwood who perfected the “long drop” method. He once declared that “It would have been better for those I execute if they had preferred industry to idleness,” thus in a fatal thread connecting the exercise of his craft with Hogarth’s depiction of the hanging of the idle apprentice.

Marwood died of drink. His most recent and celebrated successor within this unique profession was Albert Pierrepoint who boasted that he could kill a man within twenty seconds. Pierrepoint’s ministrations, however, were performed in silence and secrecy. The last public hanging outside Newgate was held in 1868, and from that time forward hangings took place in an especially constructed shed or hut behind prison walls. Ruth Ellis was hanged within Holloway Prison in 1955; her execution, and that of eighteen-year-old Derek Bentley two years before, materially assisted the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. The last execution in London took place in 1964, more than a hundred years after Thackeray prayed for God “to cleanse our land of blood.”

Yet here is another mystery of London: according to city superstition, to dream of the gallows is a prophecy of great good fortune. Money and blood still run together.

Voracious London

A detail from an aquatint by Rowlandson entitled “Revellers at Vauxhall”; the gardens of that area had been known for their gentility, but they eventually degenerated into a place of drunkenness and sexual licence.


Into the Vortex

When in the early months of 1800 de Quincey travelled towards London in an open carriage he experienced a “suction so powerful, felt along radii so vast, and a consciousness, at the same time, that upon other radii still more vast, both by land and by sea, the same suction is operating.” The image here, from his essay “The Nation of London,” is of a “vast magnetic range” drawing all the forces of the world towards its centre. When he was within forty miles of London, “the dim presentiment of some vast capital reaches you obscurely, and like a misgiving.” An unknown, and unseen, area of energy has found him out and leads him onwards.

One characteristic phrase, “London conquers most who enter it,” is perhaps now a truism. There is a famous early nineteenth-century cartoon, which has been embellished and elaborated in a thousand different ways. Two men meet beside a London milestone. One, returning from the city, is bowed and broken down; the other, advancing upon him, full of animation and purposefulness, shakes his hand and asks him, “Is it paved with gold?”

“Long ago,” Walter Besant remarked in East London, “it was discovered that London devours her own children.” It seems as if great city families die out or disappear within a century; the principal names of the fifteenth century, Whittington and Chichele, had vanished by the sixteenth. The families of seventeenth-century London were no longer active in the eighteenth. That is why London must continue to exert a continual attractive energy, and pull in new people and new families to replenish the constant loss. On the road to London de Quincey had noted the “vast droves of cattle,” all with their heads directed towards the capital. But the city needs animal spirits as well as animals.

In 1690 records show that “73 per cent of those given the freedom of the City by apprenticeship were born outside London”: an astonishing figure. The annual migration to London in the first half of the eighteenth century was approximately ten thousand, and in 1707 it was observed that for any son or daughter of an English family “that exceeds the rest in beauty, or wit, or perhaps courage, or industry, or any other rare quality, London is their North star.” The city is the lodestone, or magnet. By 1750 the capital was home to 10 per cent of the population, prompting Defoe’s remark that “this whole Kingdom, as well as the people, as the land, and even the sea, in every part of it, are employ’d to furnish something, and I may add the best of every thing, to supply the city of London with provisions.” A million people swarmed in the metropolis by the end of the eighteenth century; within fifty years that figure had doubled, and there was no sign of abatement. “Who could wonder,” wrote an observer in 1892, “that men are drawn into such a vortex, even were the penalty heavier than this?” Until the middle of the twentieth century the figures bear in one direction only-ever upward, counting by the millions, until in 1939 eight million are recorded to have inhabited Greater London.

Nearer our time these figures have diminished, yet still the power which De Quincey felt exerts its attraction. A recent survey at the Centrepoint night shelter, only a few hundred yards from the old haven of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, discovered that “Four fifths of young people … were from outside London and most were recent arrivals.”

As Ford Madox Ford has put it, “It never misses, it never can miss anyone. It loves nobody, it needs nobody; it tolerates all the types of mankind.” Yet if London needs nobody in particular, it requires everything to sustain its momentum. It draws in commodities, and markets, and goods. The anonymous author of Letter from Albion (1810-13) was suitably exultant. “It is impossible not to be astonished in seeing these riches displayed. Here the costly shawls from the East Indies, there brocades and silk tissues from China, now a world of gold and silver plate … an ocean of rings, watches, chains, bracelets.” Voracity, repeating itself in endless different ways, is one of the most prominent characteristics of London.

It was said of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, a somewhat disturbing collection of anatomical specimens, that “the whole earth has been ransacked to enrich its stores.” To ransack is to pillage and to destroy-that, too, is the nature of the city. Addison was worked up into a similar enthusiasm by the spectacle of the Royal Exchange, “making this Metropolis a kind of Emporium for the whole Earth.” Emporium in turn excites Imperium, since the master of trade is the master of the world. The fruits of Portugal are bartered for the silk of Persia, the pottery of China for the drugs of America; tin is converted into gold, and wool into rubies. “I am wonderfully delighted,” Addison wrote in the Spectator of 19 May 1711, “to see such a Body of Men thriving in their own private Fortunes, and at the same time promoting the Public Stock … by bringing into the Country whatever is wanting, and carrying out of it whatever is superfluous.”

Here is an indication that London had become, by the early eighteenth century, the centre of world commerce. It was the age of lotteries and flotations and “bubbles.” Everything was for sale-political office, religious preferment, landed heiresses-and, said Swift, “Power, which according to the old Maxim, was used to follow Land is now gone over to Money.” In The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) John Bunyan had also derided London’s vanity, whereby “houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts” all come under the general denomination of “trade.”

By 1700, 76 per cent of England’s commerce with the world passed through London.

There was trade in money, as well as goods. The centre of commerce was also the centre of credit, with the banker and the jobber taking over the spirit of the merchant adventurer. The bankers emerged out of the Company of Goldsmiths. Goldsmiths knew how to protect their goods, and for a time their offices had been used as informal places of safety for the deposit of money. Yet during the seventeenth century this primary function of hoarding and protecting was subtly supplanted by the issue of banking orders or cheques to facilitate the passage of revenue throughout the capital and beyond. Francis Child and Richard Hoare had both been goldsmiths before establishing their banking houses; with three or four others they were, as Edward, Earl of Clarendon put it in his autobiography of 1759, “men known to be so rich, and of so good reputation, that all the money of the kingdom would be trusted or deposited in their hands.” Out of these banking ventures emerged the Bank of England, the single greatest emblem of the City’s wealth and confidence; the principal stockholders of this new bank were themselves London merchants, but this essentially speculative venture was soon lent constitutional status when it was guarded by soldiers during the Gordon Riots of June 1780. Its gold was turned into guineas at the Mint of the Tower of London, and its huge reservoir of bullion was the prime agent in maintaining the financial stability of the nation through a succession of bubbles, panics and wars. Yet even as it maintained good governance, it expedited the adventures and trades of London businessmen-from linen and diamond merchants to small-coal men, from the exporters of hats to the importers of sugar.

One of the key figures of the period, derided in verse and drama, was the stockbroker or “jobber.” Gay denounced a capital and an age where “In sawcy State the griping Broker sits.” They sat, in fact, in the coffee houses of Change Alley. Jobbers were the lineal descendants of the London scriveners who set up documents for the exchange of land or of houses, but now they were concerned with the floating of companies and the transfer of stock or assets. Cibber anatomised the scene in his play The Refusal, of 1720. “There (in the Alley) you’ll see a duke dangling after a director; here a peer and a ’prentice haggling for an eighth; there a Jew and a parson making up differences; there a young woman of quality buying bears of a Quaker; and there an old one selling refusals to a lieutenant of grenadiers.”

Eventually the noise in the coffee houses, such as Jonathan’s or Garraway’s in Change Alley, grew too loud, and the jobbers removed to New Jonathan’s which in the summer of 1773 was renamed “The Stock Exchange.” A little more than twenty years later, a new building arose in Capel Court, its voices recorded in The Bank Mirror of 1795. “A mail come in- what news? What news? Steady, steady-consols for tomorrow-A great house has stopt-Payment of the Five per Cents commences-Across the Rhine-the Austrians routed!-the French pursuing! Four per cents for the opening!”

The Bank of England and the Stock Exchange still dominate this small compact area of land. The Mansion House stands close by, on the site of the original Stocks Market, where fish and flesh were traded from the thirteenth century. And so this trinity of institutions may mark one of the city’s sacred sites. A study of successive maps shows the area being more and more darkly engraved, as the building of the Bank of England gradually grew in size until it took up the entire area between Lothbury and Threadneedle Street. To the south of this site, during the Great Fire of 1666, John Evelyn observed the concurrence of the two great fireballs. It is not necessary to be a psychogeographer to recognise that this area is devoted to energy and to power.

And as the city incorporated more money, and more credit, so steadily it grew. It stretched out to the west and to the east. By 1715 the scheme of building Cavendish Square, as well as certain streets to the north of the Tyburn Road, was first suggested. Then came Henrietta Street and Wigmore Road, the development of which prompted the extraordinary growth of Marylebone. In the 1730s Berkeley Square emerged on the western side. Bethnal Green and Shadwell were built up in the east, Paddington and St. Pancras to the west. The maps grew denser, too, so that one square of the 1799 map covered six squares of the 1676 map. “I have twice been going to stop my coach in Piccadilly, thinking there was a mob,” wrote Horace Walpole in 1791, only to realise that it was the usual Londoners “sauntering or trudging” down the thoroughfare. “There will soon be one street from London to Brentford,” he complained, “and from London to every village ten miles round.” He was announcing a law of life itself. The direct consequence of power and wealth is expansion.

The eighteenth-century “improvements” within the capital were also an aspect of that power and wealth. Lincoln’s Inn Fields was enclosed in 1735 and, four years later, the increasingly squalid Stocks Market was removed from the centre of the city. In 1757 the houses upon London Bridge were demolished and, in the same year, the noisome Fleet Ditch was filled and covered and the Fleet River itself embanked. Four years later, the City gates were removed in order to encourage freer access into the centre of London. As the gates went, so did the street-signs, making the thoroughfares “more airy and wholesome” but also divesting London of its old identity. All these measures were designed to encourage the traffic of goods as well as of people, allowing a freer circulation throughout the urban body with a novel emphasis placed upon speed and efficiency.

In this spirit, too, the Westminster Paving Act of 1762 inaugurated legislation for lighting and paving throughout the city, and thus initiated a general cleansing and clearing of the civic thoroughfares. And, in a city which brought in silk and spice, coffee and bullion, why should not light also be imported? In the 1780s a German visitor wrote that “In Oxford Road alone there are more lamps than in all the city of Paris.” They represented more illumination for the burgeoning centre of world commerce. These measures had, according to Pugh’s Life of Hanway, altogether “introduced a degree of elegance and symmetry into the streets of the metropolis, that is the admiration of all Europe and far exceeds anything of the kind in the modern world.” “Symmetry” is another expression of uniformity and in the Building Act of 1774 there was a further attempt at standardisation; it categorised the types of London houses in a series of “grades” or “rates” so that the city might become as infinitely reproducible and as uniform as its currency. This was the age of stucco, or white light.

The public monuments were also a credit to commerce, with such homages to trade as the new Custom House, the Excise Office in Old Broad Street, the Corn Exchange in Mark Lane and the Coal Exchange in Lower Thames Street. South Sea House in Threadneedle Street and East India House in Leadenhall Street vied with one another for magnificence, while the Bank of England in 1732 rose to be continually embellished and enlarged. The livery halls of the various trades, too, were constructed in terms of munificent display.

And then there was Westminster Bridge, opened in the winter of 1750 to the accompaniment of trumpets and kettledrums. Its fifteen arches of stone spanned the river to create “a bridge of magnificence.” It had a decisive effect upon the appearance of the city in another sense, since its commissioners persuaded Giovanni Canaletto to visit London in order to paint it. It was still in the course of construction when he depicted it in 1746, but already his vision of London was tempered by his Venetian practice. London became subtly stylised, Italianate, stretching out along the Thames in a pure and even light. A city aspiring to fluency and grace had found its perfect delineator.

Yet the diversity and contrast of London are nowhere better exemplified than in the fact that at the same time the city was being celebrated by William Hogarth. In the foreground of a “new improved” street, Hogarth shows a beggar child scoffing pieces of a broken pie.


A Cookery Lesson

One of the most cheerful origins of “Cockney” is coquina, the Latin term for cookery. London was once seen as a vast kitchen and “the place of plenty and good fare.” Thus, as has already been observed, it became “Cockaigne” or the fabled land of good living.

In one year, 1725, it consumed “60,000 calves, 70,000 sheep and lambs, 187,000 swine, 52,000 sucking pigs” as well as “14,750,000 mackerel … 16,366,000 lb of cheese.” The Great Fire began in Pudding Lane and ended at Pie Corner, where the golden figure of the fat boy still occupies a site; he was once accompanied by an inscription noting “This boy is in memory put up of the late fire of London, occasioned by the sin of gluttony, 1666.”

Pie Corner itself was known for its cook-shops and, in particular, its dressed pork. Shadwell writes of “meat dressed at Pie Corner by greasy scullions” while Jonson describes a hungry man there “taking his meal” by sniffing the steam from the stalls. The steam of cooked meat drifted just a few yards from Smithfield, where the cooked flesh of the saints once also rose in smoke. A twenty-first century restaurant, beside Smithfield, offers spleen and tripe, pig’s head and veal hearts, as part of its menu.

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A kitchen of the second century AD has been reconstructed in the Museum of London; it shows a large stove upon which were cooked portions of beef and pork, duck and goose, chicken and deer. Such was the profusion of wild life in the neighbouring woods and forests that London became a meat-eater’s haven. And so it has remained.

In recent years deep excavation of Roman London has also revealed evidence of scattered oyster shells, the stones of cherries and of plums, the remnants of lentils and cucumbers, peas and walnuts. One surviving beaker or amphora from Southwark bears the advertisement: “Lucius Tettius Aficanus supplies the finest fish sauce from Antipolis.”

The diet of the Saxon Londoner was less exotic. At the times of “noon-meat” and “even-meat,” a staple diet of flesh was enlivened by leeks, onions, garlic, turnips and radishes. An ox had a value of six shillings, a pig one shilling, but there is also evidence that at a slightly later date Londoners demanded a plentiful supply of eels. At various spots along the Thames there were eel fisheries which date back at least as far as the eleventh century. From this century, too, excavations beneath St. Pancras have uncovered more plum-stones and cherry-stones.

Bread was the most important commodity throughout London’s history. There are many city regulations of the thirteenth century concerning the conduct of bakers, whose profession was divided into those who made “white bread” and those who made “tourte bread.” “Pouffe” was French bread; “simnel” or “wastel,” white bread, fine as well as common; “bis,” brown bread; and “tourte,” the inferior bread. The principal bakers were situated to the east, in Stratford, and the loaves were carried by long carts to the various shops and stalls within the city. Bread was indeed the staple of life. Scarce supplies in 1258, for example, had the direct consequence that “fifteen thousand of the poor perished.” Shiploads of wheat and grain were imported from Germany, and certain London nobles distributed bread to the crowd, but “innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were all lying about swollen from want.” The permanent contrast in London, between need and abundance, has taken many different forms. In the more prosperous years of the thirteenth century, however, the diet of the citizen included beef, mutton and pork together with lampreys, porpoise and sturgeon. Vegetables were not greatly in demand but there was a particular delicacy known as “soup of cabbage.” Londoners had also invented a kind of mixed meat dish, created by pounding together pork and poultry into one concoction. A household book at the end of the thirteenth century reveals that on fish days there was also a choice of “herrings, eels, lampreys, salmon” and on meat days a similar variety of “pork, mutton, beef, fowls, pigeons and larks” together with “eggs, saffron and spices.”

The records of the fourteenth century are less descriptive, but Stow denotes 1392 and 1393 as years of want, when a diet of “apples and nuts” was forced upon the poor. It is an open question whether the poor ever lived well, even in years of prosperity. The average wage of a London labourer was sixpence a day, while a capon pasty cost eightpence and a hen pasty fivepence. A roast goose could be purchased for sevenpence, while ten finches cost one penny. Ten cooked eggs also cost a penny, and a leg of pork threepence. Oysters and other shellfish were cheap, as were thrushes and larks. Here, then, is evidence of a strangely assorted diet, complemented by rich delicacies-“gruel of almondes … a potage of whelks … Blancmaung of fysshe … Gruel of porke … Pigges in sawce.” In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1387-1400) the Cook is employed “To boil the chicken and the marrow bones … maken mortrewes and well bake a pie”-a mortrewe being a soup whose ingredients included fish, pork, chicken, eggs, bread, pepper and ale. One must also imagine the hasty Londoner picking up a roasted lark or thrush from a cook’s stall and eating it as he makes his way along the thoroughfare, perhaps picking his teeth with the bones before discarding the remains by the side of the road.

In the fifteenth century the main dish remained that of meat-“swan, roasted capons … venison in broth, coney, partridges and roasted cocks”- together with very sweet compound desserts such as Leche Lombarde, which was “a kind of jelly made of cream, isinglass, sugar, almonds, salt, eggs, raisins, dates, pepper and spices.” All dishes seem to have been highly spiced, with herbs for meat in particular demand. The author of London Lickpenny is assailed by merchants of Newgate-“Comes me one, cryd hot shepes feete/One cryd mackerel”-and as he wanders down into East Cheap “One Crys rybbs of befe, and many a pye.” The evidence of fifteenth-century kitchens and monastic gardens, given by an authority known simply as “Mayster Ion Gardener,” is of sage, chickweed, borage, rosemary, fennel and thyme as the staple “vegetable” diet. The other favoured vegetables were “garlike, onions and lekes,” which does not suggest much taste for green vegetables.

A change in that diet is marked by the Tudor chronicler, Harrison, who notes that “in old days”-by which he means the thirteenth century-herbs and roots were in great demand, but that they became less frequently used in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Yet “in my time their use is not only resumed among the poore comons-I mean of melons, pompines, gourds, cucumbers, radishes … carrots, marrowes, turnips, and all kind of salad herbes-but they are also looked upon as deintie dishes at the tables of delicate merchants, gentlemen.” At times of commercial success and plenty, however, meat is often required to maintain the animal spirits of Londoners. That is perhaps why there is so much emphasis in the contemporary chronicles on feasting, as a way of exemplifying the power and wealth of the city. Stow writes of one such occasion that “it would be tedious to set down all the preparation of fish, flesh and other victuals spent in this feast” but then goes on to enumerate the twenty-four oxen, the hundred sheep, the fifty-one deer, the thirty-four boars, the ninety-one pigs …

There were variations in diet according to the season, with fresh herrings at Michaelmas, pork and sprats at All Saints, veal and bacon at Easter. In the summer of 1562, a Venetian observer noticed that the native population enjoyed raw oysters with barley bread.

Other dietary habits were changed by law. After the partial relaxation of the intricate fast laws, for example, cheap meat was often substituted for fish. Alterations were also fostered by voyages of discovery; yams or sweet potatoes from Virginia and rhubarb from China became sixteenth-century commodities in a city which plucked its fruits from every known country.

In the early seventeenth century we read of the almost emblematic significance of roast beef, as well as fresh oysters, as a token of civic existence. These were invariably followed by a dessert of milk puddings or “apple pippin”; “To come in pudding time is as much as to say, to come in the most lucky moment in the world,” according to Misson de Valbourg in the early years of the century. In the houses of the more affluent citizens roast beef and pudding were sometimes exchanged for “a Piece of boil’d Beeff, and then they salt it some Days beforehand, and besiege it with five or six Heaps of Cabbage, Carrots, Turnips, or some other Herbs or Roots, well pepper’d and salted and swimming in Butter.” For more delicate fare, the London household would sit around a gridiron “roasting slices of buttered bread … This is call’d ‘toast.’”

From the seventeenth century, too, comes evidence of the food available from the hawkers of London. The illustrator Marcellus Laroon places the costermonger or “regrater” crying out “Buy my fat chicken!” next to the female huckster selling “ripe speragas,” because chicken and asparagus together were considered by Londoners to be a dainty dish. Chicken was cheap, too; that, and rabbit, seem to have been the only meats on sale in the streets. The rabbit-seller, shouting “Buy a rabbet a rabbet,” was likely to have been an Irishman who came to London in the autumn with his wares. Those sent out to buy from him were advised that “For being new killed, you must judge by the Scent.” Milk and water were carried through the streets in vessels, but not wine. Cherries were available in early summer, followed by strawberries later in the season, and apples in the autumn. From autumn to winter the costermonger sold her pears or “wardens” baking hot from a pot she balanced upon her head. The countryman’s attitude to these city fruits is perhaps best exemplified by Matthew Bramble in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771), who declared that “I need not dwell upon the pallid, contaminated mash which they call strawberries, soiled and tossed by greasy paws through twenty baskets crusted with dirt.” Here the emphasis is upon dirt, of course, but also the endemic overpopulation of London wherein every item is passed through a selection of anonymous “paws.” Eels were a cheap element of the Londoner’s diet; sold alive, generally by female vendors, they were skinned on the spot before being used in pies or pastries. They were not the only fish hawked about the main thoroughfare; crabs were cheap, as were mackerel and flounders, while oysters were purchased for “twelve pence a peck” or approximately two gallons.

From the countryside came the young man trading “Lilly white Vinegar, three pence a quart!” Made from cider or white wine, vinegar was employed as a sauce and as a preventive against disease; but its main use was as a preservative. Almost anything could be pickled, including walnuts, cauliflowers, peaches, onions, lemons, oysters and asparagus.

By the eighteenth century roast beef was described as being of “Old England,” although in fact it had been only one of many meats burdening the tables of earlier centuries. As a token of national character the myth of roast beef may owe more to the observations of foreign visitors that Londoners were “entirely carnivorous,” with the prevailing assumption of voraciousness. In May 1718 a great meat pudding, eighteen feet two inches in length and four feet in diameter, was dragged by six asses to the Swan Tavern in Fish Street Hill but apparently “its smell was too much for the gluttony of the Londoners. The escort was routed, the pudding taken and devoured.” “A foreigner,” wrote a German pastor visiting London in 1767, “will be surprised to see what flesh-eaters the English are. He will be struck with the sight of an enormous piece of beef such, perhaps, as he never saw in his life, placed before him upon the table.” The same observer also noted that “the common people in London” insisted upon “daily beef or mutton” together with white bread and strong beer. The meat may not necessarily have taken the form of rib or haunch, however, since in the 1750s beef sausages became the culinary fashion.

One other aspect of the pastor’s account is of interest, in those passages where he remarks upon the fact that Londoners require their food and drink to be vivid in colour. The brandy and wine must be “deeply coloured,” the vegetables as bright and as green “as when gathered”; cabbage and peas, for example, are not boiled “for fear they should lose their colour.” It is, perhaps, an intimation of the unnaturalness of the London palate; in a city of spectacle, even the food must be completely seen before being understood. But it may also be a symptom of a certain craving after effect which may itself be unhealthy. He observes the whiteness of the veal and mentions that the calves are made to lick chalk in order to procure that colour. He also notices that the poorer Londoners “are much prejudiced in respect of the colour … the whiter the bread is, the better they think it to be.” One of Smollett’s characters considered the white bread to be nothing more than “a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone-ashes.” So Londoners mistake the nature of things by judging upon appearances alone. This, of course, was also the criticism of social moralists who saw villains and parvenus accepted as gentlemen because of their dress and manners.

Yet there are also intimations of a revulsion against so much greedy consumption. “What should they do,” as the poet John Lewkenor put it, “with all this greasie Meat?” Another of Smollett’s heroes enters a cook-shop filled “with steams of boiled beef” where the sight of “skin-of-beef, tripe, cow-heel or sausages … turned my stomach.” In this same period the Worshipful Company of Butchers, in debt and pestered by competition in the suburbs, proved wholly incapable of enforcing regulations on the sale of meat. Every kind of shoddy or mouldy flesh could be purchased. Once more the unchecked reign of commerce becomes a symbol of city life.

So it was that in the early part of the nineteenth century “food processing” took its place beside the manufactories along the Thames; essences of meat and meat sauces came from London Bridge, while tinned meat or “patent beef” came from Bermondsey. This was the century of anchovy paste and preserved tongue, of clarified butter and tinned pâté de foie gras. There were also more familiar items. Accounts describe nineteenth-century travellers breakfasting off ham, tongue and “a devil” (kidney), or dining off mutton chop, rump steak and a “weal cutlet,” while in less splendid establishments the fare included “hams, and sirloins, the remnants of geese and turkeys, codfish reduced to the gills, fins and tail.”

But the overwhelming mass of evidence still concerns food provided by the street-sellers of the period. With a restless, large and rapidly moving population the equivalent of fast-food was the most characteristic and appropriate form of sustenance. Whether they bought fried fish sold in oily paper, or boiled puddings in cotton bags, it was the custom of the poorer citizens to eat “upon the stones.” New-laid eggs were for sale on Holborn Hill and pork in Broad St. Giles. There was also the ubiquitous baked-potato stall, as well as the shops plying roly poly or plum duff. One trader in Whitechapel informed Henry Mayhew that “he sold 300 pennyworths of pudding in a day. Two thirds of this quantity he sold to juveniles under fifteen years of age … The boys are often tiresome: ‘Mister,’ they’ll say, ‘can’t you give us a plummier bit than this?’ or ’Is it just up? I likes it ’ot, all ‘ot.’” In competition with these hot delicacies came sandwiches, hailed as “one of our greatest institutions” by Charles Dickens, who saw them, in an image of perpetual activity and perpetual consumption, being engorged by the shelf-load at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton.

The times of that consumption have changed, both in the commercial and the fashionable areas of the city. An entire history of social manners might be constructed from the essential fact that, over the last five centuries, the time for eating dinner, or the main meal of the day, has advanced by approximately ten hours. In the late fifteenth century, many Londoners dined “at ten o’clock in the forenoon,” although others delayed for a further hour; in the sixteenth century, the hour for meat varied between eleven and twelve but no later. In the seventeenth century, the hours of twelve and one became common. But then in the early decades of the eighteenth century there was a rapid acceleration of mealtime. By 1740 two o’clock was the appropriate hour, and by 1770 three was considered the vital moment. In the last decades of the eighteenth, and the first of the nineteenth, the dinner hour slid to five or six. Then Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing about London life in the 1850s, noted that dinner at eight or even nine o’clock in the evening was considered appropriate at “aristocratic” tables.

The reason for this postponement of the main meal was credited by eighteenth-century moralists to the decline of moral fibre and the rise of social decadence, as if it were important to devour food before successfully devouring the day. But a more specific circumstance may have assisted the process, particularly in the early decades of the eighteenth century when, according to Grosley, “the hour of going to Change interfered with dinner time, so that the merchants thought it most advisable, not to dine till their return from Change.” Once more commercial imperatives play their part within the intimate texture of London life.


Eat In or Take Away

Eating-houses, or restaurants, have for many centuries been an intricate part of that texture. In the twelfth century one monk describes a great “public place of cookery” by the Thames where ordinary flesh and fish could be purchased-roasted, fried or boiled-while the more dainty could order venison, no doubt with ale or wine for refreshment. It may lay claim to being the first London restaurant, except that one historian of London believes that this place of city refreshment was in fact a survival of a Roman public kitchen. In that case the tradition of London hospitality is ancient indeed. The twelfth-century version included, for example, “a dining room for the rich man, an eating-house for the poor man” with a version of “take-away” in the event of friends calling unexpectedly. Certainly it was a large operation, perhaps equivalent to Terence Conran’s vast eateries in Soho and the West End, since according to William Fitz-Stephen “whatsoever multitude of soldiers or other strangers enter into the city at any hour of the day or night, or else are about to depart, they may turn in.”

The number of these eating-houses multiplied as the population increased, so that by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were many cook-shops clustered in Bread Street and East Cheap. These thoroughfares were known as the quarters for eating-houses where, under the supervision of the civic authorities, the price of meals was strictly controlled. Sometimes the customers would bring their own food with them, to be cooked in ovens on the spot, with the price varying from a penny to twopence for the cost of fire and labour.

The “ordinaries” were a sixteenth-century variation upon the cook-shop. There were twelve-penny ordinaries as well as three-penny ordinaries, the price varying according to style and comfort as well as the cost of the main meal. Wooden benches and trestle tables stood on a rush-strewn floor and the tapster or his boy wandered among the customers crying out, “What do you lack?” or “What is it that you would have brought?” Meat, poultry, game and pastry were served in succeeding order; “to be at your woodcocks” meant that you had almost finished eating. The citizens arrived about eleven thirty, and wandered about singly or in groups waiting for their meat to be served while some “published their clothes, and talked as loud as they could in order to feel at ease.” It was indeed an easy environment, and it became the pattern of the London eating-house, continuing well into the succeeding century.

In the late seventeenth century there is a description by François Misson of the butchers’ meat on the menu in just such a place-“beef, mutton, veal, pork and lamb; you have what quantity you please cut off, fat, lean, much or little done; with this a little salt and mustard upon the side of a plate, a bottle of beer and a roll.” At the end of the meal, when the payment or “reckoning” was made, the server carried a basket to the table and with a knife cleared away the crumbs of bread and morsels of meat. In many such establishments there was a “best room” for those with delicate or expensive appetites, while for the ordinary citizen a sixpenny plate in the “publick room” would suffice.

These eating-houses had by now migrated far beyond the bounds of East Cheap and Bread Street, towards the populous areas of the capital. Bishopsgate Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Old Bailey, Covent Garden, Haymarket and many others besides, all had their local and well-frequented places of call.

In the eighteenth century they became known as “beef-houses” or “chop-houses,” together with taverns specialising in more formal or protracted meals. Dolly’s Chop-house in Paternoster Row was a particular favourite, serving its meats “hot and hot”-which is to say, delivered up as quickly as they were cooked. There was also a famous resort of cook-shops behind St. Martin-in-the-Fields, known to the natives as “Porridge Island”; it was a somewhat unsavoury haunt, however, where gin and ale provided as much sustenance as the food carried from the cook “under cover of a pewter plate.”

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Yet of course the most famous establishments of eighteenth-century London were the coffee houses. In fact, they found their origins in the middle of the previous century when, according to a contemporary note recorded in The Topography of London, “theire ware also att this time a Turkish drink to be sould almost in eury street, called Coffee, and another kind of drink called Tee, and also a drink called Chacolate, which was a very harty drink.” The first coffee house was set up in St. Michael’s Alley, off Cornhill, in 1652; two or three years later a second was established close by, in St. Michael’s Churchyard. A third, the Rainbow, located in Fleet Street by the gate of the Inner Temple, was prosecuted in 1657 for being “a great nuisance and prejudice to the neighbourhood”; the principal complaint was of “evil smells” as well as the danger of fire. Yet the popularity of coffee houses among Londoners immediately became apparent, both from “the convenience of being able to make appointments in any part of town,” as Macaulay said, and the further convenience “of being able to pass evenings socially at a very small charge.” By the turn of the century, there were some two thousand of them in the capital.

An anonymous painting of one, dated approximately 1700, shows several bewigged gentlemen sitting down to “dishes” of coffee; there are candles upon the tables, while the floor is of bare wood. One customer is smoking a long clay pipe, others are reading periodicals. One such periodical, the Spectator, opened its first number in the spring of 1711 with an account of the world of coffee houses: “sometimes I am seen thrusting my Head into a Round of Politicians at Will’s, and listning with great Attention to the Narratives that are made in those little Circular Audiences. Sometimes I smoak a Pipe at Child’s, and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Post-Man overhear the Conversation of every Table in the Room. I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James’s CoffeeHouse, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner Room, as one who comes there to hear and to improve. My Face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa-Tree …” In all these coffee houses the news and rumours of the day were disseminated.

There were coffee houses for every trade and every profession, and Macaulay noted that “Foreigners remarked that the coffeehouse was that which especially distinguished London from all other cities; that the coffeehouse was the Londoner’s home, and that those who wished to find a gentleman commonly asked, not whether he lived in Fleet Street or Chancery Lane, but whether he frequented the Grecian or the Rainbow.” The famous doctor, John Radcliffe, travelled from Bow Street to Garraway’s Coffee House, in Change Alley, Cornhill, where at a particular table he was always “to be found, surrounded by surgeons and apothecaries.” He timed his visits “at the hour when the Exchange was full,” no doubt in the hope of also being attended by rich merchants and brokers.

In other coffee houses, lawyers met clients and brokers met each other, merchants drank coffee with customers and politicians drank tea with journalists. The Virginia and Maryland Coffee House in Threadneedle Street became a recognised meeting-place for those engaged in business with Russia, and so changed its name to the Baltic. The Jerusalem in Cornhill was the haven of West Indies trade, while Batson’s in Cornhill was a kind of “consulting room” for doctors waiting to receive their clients in the City. Old Slaughter’s Coffee House, in St. Martin’s Lane, became the recognised centre for London artists. St. James’s of St. James’s Street was for Whigs, while down the road the Cocoa-Tree at the corner of Pall Mall was the haunt of Tories and Jacobites. The Grecian in Devereux Court catered for lawyers; Will’s on the north side of Russell Street, Covent Garden, was a haven for wits and authors. There was even a floating coffee house, a boat moored off the stairs of Somerset House, which was called the Folley. It was as “bulky as a man-of-war” and was divided into several rooms serving coffee, tea and “spiritous liquours.” Like many London establishments on the river it began with fashionable company but, by degrees, attracted drunken or disreputable customers until it seems to have become little more than a floating brothel. At length it decayed, and was sold for firewood. Not being on land, it had no tenacity of purpose.

Coffee houses, on land or on water, were generally somewhat dingy places, reeking of tobacco. The wooden floor was often sanded, with spittoons liberally placed. In some, the tables and chairs were stained and dirty, while in others there were “boxes with upright backs and narrow seats”; the lamps smoked and the candles spluttered. So why were they thronged with ordinary citizens and why did they, like the twentieth-century public house, become a token of city life? There was, as always, a commercial reason. The coffee houses acted as counting-houses and auction rooms, offices and shops, in which merchants and agents, clerks and brokers, could engage in business. Agents who sold estates or property would meet their clients in such places, while the sale of other goods was also encouraged. In 1708, for example, one could read the somewhat chilling notice, “A black boy, twelve years of age, fit to wait on a gentleman, to be disposed of at Denis’s coffeehouse, in Finch Lane.”

The ambience itself could also be used to commercial advantage and sales by auction became a coffeehouse speciality. At the “inch-of-candle sales” at Garraway’s, coffee, alcohol and muffins were employed to encourage the bidding. Garraway’s was opposite the Exchange and therefore a harbour “for people of quality who have business in the City, and for wealthy citizens”; as a result there were sales of books and pictures, tea and furniture, wine and hard wood. Wide and low-roofed, with boxes and seats running down its sides, it had a broad central stairway that led to the sale room upstairs, in such proximity that business and entertainment were curiously mingled. Its genial aspect, complete with sea-coal fire and muffins toasting on forks, is compounded by the description of its customers, by “Aleph” in London Scenes and London People, in “admirable humour; sly jokes were circulating from ear to ear; everybody appeared to know everybody.” But in London, appearances can be deceptive. Swift, commenting upon the effects of the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, in which fortunes were lost upon the crash of the South Sea Company in 1720, describes the speculators “on Garraway’s cliffs” as “A savage race by shipwrecks fed.”

“I am quite familiar at the Chapter Coffeehouse,” wrote Thomas Chatterton to his mother in May 1770, “and know all the geniuses there.” The haunt of booksellers and aspiring writers, the Chapter was situated on the corner of Paternoster Row, opposite Ivy Lane, and was characteristic of its class with small-paned windows, wainscoted walls and low ceilings with heavy beams, making it dark even at noon. When Chatterton wrote of the geniuses he may have been referring to a small club of publishers and writers who always sat in the box in the north-east corner of the house and called themselves the “Wet Paper Club.” When they chose to recommend “a good book,” it was of course one that had sold extensively and rapidly. In this context, and company, it is perhaps worth recalling that Chatterton’s apparent suicide was considered to be the direct result of his inability to profit from the commercial practices of the London publishing world.

The Chapter was also known for its custom among the clergy, since according to “Aleph” “it was a house of call for poor parsons who were in hire to perform Sunday duty” and who also wrote sermons on request. The discourses varied in price from 2s 6d to 10s 6d-“A buyer had only to name his subject and doctrine” and the appropriate pious lesson would be delivered. If there was “a glut of the commodity” of charity sermons, “a moving appeal,” for example, “for a parish school” could be obtained at a very cheap rate.

Prices at the Chapter were on a par with other such establishments. At the turn of the nineteenth century, a cup of coffee was fivepence while four ham sandwiches with a glass of sherry cost twopence; a pot of tea, serving three cups, together with six slices of bread and butter, a muffin and two crumpets, cost tenpence-or, rather, a shilling since twopence extra went to the head waiter, William, one of those London types who seem forever fixed in the establishment where they work, a figure entirely made out of the quintessence of London. Of average height, somewhat stout, William was rumoured to have money “in funds.” He was imperturbable, always civil and, as the ever observant “Aleph” put it, “carefully dressed in a better black cloth suit than many of the visitors, wearing knee breeches, black silk hose and a spotless white cravat.” Of few words, he was always attentive; “his eyes were in every corner of the room.” He expected his “tip” of a penny or twopence but had moments of unexpected generosity; when “he suspected a customer was very needy, he would bring him two muffins and only charge for one.” He was on easy terms with regulars, who always called him simply “William,” but he inspected strangers “with inquisitive looks.” Those whom he deemed not suitable for admission were dismissed by suggesting that they “must have mistaken the house-the Blue Boar was in Warwick Lane.”

To this coffee house of hacks or “pen-drivers,” seventy years after Chatterton, came Charlotte and Emily Brontë en route to Belgium. Charlotte recalled a head waiter, a “grey-haired, elderly man.” It is likely to have been William. He led them to a room upstairs which looked out upon Paternoster Row. Here they sat by the window, but “could see nothing of motion, or of change, in the grim dark houses opposite.” The street itself was so quiet that every footfall could be distinctly heard. One of Charlotte Brontë’s heroines, Lucy Snowe in Villette (1853), spends her first night in London in the very same coffee house. She looks out of her window on the following morning and “Above my head, above the house-tops, co-elevate almost with the clouds, I saw a solemn orbed mass, dark-blue and dim-THE DOME. While I looked my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who have never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life.” So, in the shadow of St. Paul’s, the London coffee house could produce revelations.

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The coffee houses lingered well into nineteenth-century London. When some became specialised exchanges, others turned into clubs or private hotels, while others again became dining-houses complete with polished mahogany tables, oil-lamps and boxes with green curtains dividing them. At the beginning of the nineteenth century another kind of coffee house altogether emerged which catered for the breakfasts of labourers or porters on their way to work. It served chops and kidneys, bread and pickles; one familiar order was “tea and an egg.” In many of them different “rooms” charged different prices for coffee. At four o’clock in the morning the poor customer would have a cup of coffee, and a thin slice of bread and butter, for one penny halfpenny; at eight o’clock breakfast for the less impoverished would include a penny loaf, a pennyworth of butter and a coffee for threepence. Arthur Morrison in A Child of the Jago (1896) describes a coffee house with “shrivelled bloaters … doubtful cake … pallid scones … and stale pickles.” Yet it was still a more respectable establishment than the neighbouring cook-shop, filled with steam, and may have given rise to that Cockney expression in the depths of poverty or despair-“I wish I was dead; an’ kep’ a cawfy shop.” In one of his visitations to the East End Charles Booth entered a “rough coffeehouse,” and found a long counter “on which were piled, in rude plenty, many loaves of bread, flitches of bacon, a quantity of butter, two tea-urns … three beer pumps for Kop’s ale … and a glass jar filled with pickled onions.” Note the ubiquity of the pickle; Londoners love sharpness. Thirty years later George Orwell entered a coffee house on Tower Hill, and found himself in a “little stuffy room” with “high-backed pews” that had been fashionable in the 1840s. When he asked for tea and bread and butter-the staple of the working-class breakfast since the beginning of the nineteenth century-he was told “No butter, only marg.” There was also a notice upon the wall, to the effect that “Pocketing the sugar is not allowed.”

There were other places for a meagre breakfast. “Early breakfast houses” were essentially coffee shops by another name, “stiflingly hot,” with the flavour of coffee mingling with the “odours of fried rashers of bacon, and others not by any means so agreeable.” Ever since the eighteenth century there had also been “early breakfast stalls,” which were essentially kitchen tables set up at the corner of a street or the foot of a bridge, purveying halfpenny slabs of bread and butter together with large pots of tea or coffee heated over charcoal fires. These in turn were succeeded by more elaborate coffee stalls, which were constructed on the pattern of a medieval London shop with a wooden interior and shutters. They were generally painted red, ran on wheels, and were led by a horse to familiar locations at Charing Cross, at the foot of Savoy Street, on Westminster Bridge, below Waterloo Bridge, by Hyde Park Corner, and by West India Dock gates. They sold everything from saveloys to hard-boiled eggs, as well as coffee and “woods” (Woodbine cigarettes).

There is an animated painting, dated 1881, which depicts a variety of Londoners congregating around a “day stall” set up outside the gates of a park or square. The female proprietor is washing up a cup-most of the stalls were indeed run by women on the principle, maintained by many public houses of the present day, that aggressive customers were less likely to cause trouble and offence if a female was present. There is bread on the table, but no sign of the ham sandwiches and “water cresses” which were also part of the daily menu. A boy in a red jacket, bearing the livery of the City of London, sits in a wheelbarrow and blows upon his saucer of liquid; he was one of those employed by the City to run after horses in the street and scoop up their manure. A female crossing-sweeper and a female vendor, both with expressions of sorrow or perplexity, seem to be looking on at the feast. A well-dressed young lady, with umbrella and band-box, sips delicately from her cup on the other side of the stall. It is a suggestive picture of late Victorian London. In competition with such a stall was the baked-potato van, a portable oven wheeled around the streets. There were also oyster stalls where Londoners, as the saying goes, ate “on their thumbs.”

The ordinaries and the eating-houses continued well into the nineteenth century as chop-houses or ham-and-beef shops or à-la-mode beef-houses. There were also taverns or public houses where it was customary for the client to bring in his own piece of meat which was then dressed and cooked upon a gridiron by a waiter, who charged a penny for the service. The origin of twentieth-century pub food lies in these nineteenth-century establishments where “fine old cheese” and mutton pies and baked potatoes were generally on sale by the counter.

The old chop-houses and beef-houses were not necessarily of good reputation. Nathaniel Hawthorne described one such establishment, in The English Notebooks (1853-8), with “a filthy table-cloth, covered with other people’s crumbs; iron forks, a leaden salt cellar, the commonest earthen plates; a little dark stall, to sit and eat in.” He noticed that the conditions of this place, the Albert Dining-Rooms, were not uncommon. It was a measure of the discomfort and dirtiness to which Londoners, historically, have accommodated themselves. There were gradations in service and comfort, however. In the more formal dining-house a waiter, with napkin over his left arm, would announce to the client what was “just ready”; in a “rapid but monotonous tone” he would go through the list of “Roast beef, boiled beef, roast haunch of mutton, boiled pork, roast veal and ham, salmon and shrimp sauce, pigeon-pie, rump-steak pudding.” In the à-la-mode beef-houses there was a sixpenny plate and a fourpenny plate-“Two sixes and a four” the waiter would call out to the cook in a nearby kitchen.

Such places of resort, having dominated London in various forms for several centuries, were displaced in the latter half of the nineteenth century by “dining-halls,” “restaurants” associated with the new hotels, and “refreshment rooms,” connected to the new railway stations. They were not necessarily an improvement on their predecessors. In fact London’s reputation as the purveyor of drab and unpalatable food began essentially in the mid-nineteenth century. Henry James, in 1877, was scathing about London’s restaurants “whose badness is literally fabulous.” And yet they flourished. The St. James’s Hotel was reputed to be the one in which “separate tables for dining were first introduced,” but it was M. Ritz who capitalised upon the idea; the advent of his hotel restaurant effectively ended the old London fashion “of people dining together at large tables.” From the 1860s, the number of restaurants, “dining-rooms” and “luncheon bars” multiplied-the Café Royal opened in 1865 and the Criterion Restaurant (like many, named after an adjacent theatre) in 1874. Spiers and Pond Gaiety Restaurant, next to the Gaiety Theatre in the Strand, opened in 1869. There is a photograph of its “Restaurant amp; Ballroom”; a hansom is parked outside with men in top hats milling about the entrance. A contemporary description in Building News mentions a luncheon bar, a café and two dining-rooms all fitted out with an “ostentation of design” worthy of “the stained glass designer, or even the scene painter.” Restaurant and theatre were eventually swept aside for the construction of Aldwych.

Social changes were engineered by the advent of the restaurant. Women, for example, were no longer excluded from dinner. Walter Besant wrote in the early twentieth century that “Ladies can, and do, go to these restaurants without reproach; their presence has made a great alteration; there is always an atmosphere of cheerfulness, if not of exhilaration,” a description which by indirection suggests the somewhat mournful or low tone of the old-fashioned, all-male chop-house. The first restaurant to introduce music during meals was Gatti’s at Charing Cross, and the fashion spread quickly until by the 1920s only the Café Royal remained defiantly silent. With the new century, too, came the fashion for dancing at dinner and even between the courses. Other alterations were more gradual and subtler. Ralph Nevill, the author of Night Life in 1926, noted that the pace of the Victorian restaurant had been much slower with “always a pause between the appearance of the various dishes” as opposed to the speed and hustle of modern restaurants which the author ascribed to the advent of “the motor” on the streets of London. In the city everything connects.

In the new century, too, emerged the great chain of Lyon’s Corner Houses; they were instituted in 1909, and sprang from a number of tea shops and restaurants established at the very end of the nineteenth century-including the first entirely underground restaurant, Lyons of Throgmorton Street, with a grill room forty feet below ground level. All types of Londoners mingled within the plainer London coffee houses; similarly the London tea shops were considered to be “democratic … in the mixture of classes that you see therein seated together eating and drinking the same things.” Theodore Dreiser visited a “Lyons,” just above Regent Street, in 1913 and observed “a great chamber, decorated after the fashion of a palace ball-room, with immense chandeliers of prismed glass hanging from the ceiling and a balcony furnished in cream and gold.” Yet the dishes were “homely” and the customers “very commonplace.” Here, then, the demotic and theatrical characteristics of city living were effortlessly combined.

There is a vivid account of East End food at the beginning of the twentieth century in Walter Besant’s East London, with descriptions of salt fish for Sunday morning breakfast, of slabs of pastry known as “Nelson,” of the evening trade in “faggots, saveloys and pease pudding” and of course of the ubiquitous pie-houses or “eel-pie saloons” where jellied eels, saveloys or hot meat pies with mashed potatoes were the standard fare. These were rivalled only by the fish-and-chip shops.

In the years before the Second World War, a typical “Cockney” menu would comprise saveloy and pease pudding, German sausages and black pudding, fried fish and pickles, pie crust and potatoes, faggot and mustard pickle. Strong tea and lashings of bread and butter were the other staples of life. The situation was more complex in other parts of London, where there was much less emphasis upon a traditional cuisine, but the standard dish was always meat, potatoes and two veg swimming in gravy, thus reinforcing London’s reputation as a city with no real culinary skills.

Between the wars, and after the Second World War, London’s restaurants were considered very much below the standard of other European capitals. Some were restaurants of the middling English sort, serving beef and mutton and greens, sausage and mash, apricots and custard. But in Soho the restaurant trade flourished because of the influence of French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Chinese cooking. In the purlieus of Soho, too, an informality of eating was introduced or, rather, reintroduced. The first sandwich bar, Sandy’s of Oxendon Street, was opened in 1933; very soon sandwich bars and the new snack bars were springing up all over the capital. This revolution in taste was complemented, twenty years later, by the opening of the first coffee bar, also in Soho, the Mika, in Frith Street.

The world of quick eating and quick drinking, a phenomenon previously noted in the pie-shops of the fourteenth century no less than in the baked-potato vans of the nineteenth, thus re-established itself. Sandwiches are now the staple ingredient of the London lunch, from the Pret A Manger chain to the corner shop on a busy junction. There has been a concomitant increase in fast food, from burgers of beef to wings of chicken. The staple of the city diet remains the same, therefore, while the statistics of its voracious appetite also remain constant. The budget of London households, for “restaurants and cafés … take-aways and snacks” is, according to a survey of national statistics, approximately “a third higher than for the United Kingdom as a whole.”

London’s reputation as a culinary inferno was gradually dispelled during the 1980s, when large restaurants catering to every taste in food or ambience became fashionable. Now the London customer can choose between monkfish tempura and chilli breast of chicken with coconut rice, grilled rabbit with polenta and braised octopus with chickpeas and coriander. Many of these restaurants soon became flourishing commercial enterprises; their chefs were recognised and controversial London figures, their owners part of a chic world of art and society. In the 1990s the connection between food and commerce was rendered all the more distinctive by the “floating” of certain restaurants on the Stock Exchange; others have been bought by large companies as a profitable form of speculation. Some of the more recently established restaurants are very large indeed, and the fact that few tables remain unbooked is testimony to the permanent and characteristic voracity of Londoners. That is why it has always been known as a city of markets.


Market Time

The first markets were upon the streets. In fact it is possible to envisage the central axis of twelfth-or thirteenth-century London as one continuous street-market from the Shambles at Newgate to Poultry by Cornhill. At the Shambles, in 1246, “all the stalls of the butchers are to be numbered and it is to be asked who holds them and by what service and of whom.” Down the street, in the shadow of St. Michael “le Querne,” stood the corn-market. Corn, the staff of life, therefore lies under the aegis of the Church. Just beyond the corn-market were established the markets for fish in Old Fish Street and Friday Street (on Fridays people were to refrain from meat). Bread Street and Milk Street are adjacent, thus setting up a topographical alignment of great significance to the city. The naming of the streets is established upon the food which is purchased there. The city may be defined, then, as that place where people come to buy and sell.

As the citizens of thirteenth-century London walked down West Cheap-now Cheapside-away from the smell of the Shambles and the fish stalls, they passed shops where harnesses and saddles were sold, where cord-wainers plied their trade, and where mercers and the drapers laid out their fabrics upon their stalls. Beyond these lay Poultry, of which the meaning is self-explanatory, and Coneyhope Lane where rabbits were sold. Gracechurch Street was originally “Grass Church” street, named after the herbs which were sold within it.

There are some energetic if idiosyncratic drawings of adjacent street-markets in A Caveatt for the Citty of London (1598). Beside St. Nicholas Shambells, flanks of beef, whole pigs and lambs, hang outside a row of butchers’ shops. In Gracechurch Street, purveyors of apples, fish and vegetables have set up their stalls beneath pillars and awnings which proclaim their origin in Essex, Kent and “Sorre.” Yet not all goods were sold on open stalls, and it has been estimated that there were some four hundred small shops-perhaps like wooden kiosks-along the length of Cheapside. The noise and tumult were intense, and several laws were passed in order to prevent crowds. There were other perils, too, with strict measures against the resale of stolen articles. The clothes-market of Cornhill, for example, was notorious; it was here that the narrator of London Lickpenny recognised the hood which had been lifted from him at Westminster. In light of “many perils and great mischiefs … many brawls and disorders” during the “Evynchepynge” or evening market at “Cornhulle” it was ordained that “after the bell has been rung that hangs upon the Tun at Cornhulle,” no more items were to be taken to the market. One bell rang an hour before sunset, and another thirty minutes later; it is possible to imagine the traders calling out to the slowly diminishing crowds, as the sun begins to decline over the towers and rooftops of the city.

The general confusion of trades was one of the reasons why in 1283 a general “Stocks Market” was established at the eastern end of Poultry, where “fish and flesh” could be sold as well as fruit, roots, flowers and herbs. Its name came not from its “stocks” of provisions but from the stocks set up in that area for the punishment of city offenders. A “privileged market” which remained on the same site for 450 years, before being removed to Farringdon Street in the mid-eighteenth century, it acquired a reputation for having the choicest of all provisions. There is an engraving, limned just before its removal, which shows the statue of Charles II erected in the very heart of the market; two small dogs look up at a stall selling cheeses, while a woman and child sit with their baskets against the steps of the statue. In the background there is an animated scene of trading and bargaining. A pair of lovers meet in the foreground, apparently oblivious to the noise around them, while a Londoner is pointing out directions to a foreign visitor. Here we may remark upon the testimony of a stranger, one of the many hundreds in the three volumes of Xavier Baron’s wonderful London 1066-1914: “Whatever haste a gentleman may be in, when you happen to meet in the streets; as soon as you speak to him, he stops to answer, and often steps out of his way to direct you, or to consign you to the care of someone who seems to be going the same way.” On a balcony above the scene, a young woman is beating out a carpet. In such visions, London may be said to live again.

Billingsgate was perhaps the most ancient of London’s markets with its foundation supposedly some four hundred years before the beginning of the Christian era; it is not impossible that fishermen landed their catches of eel and herring here in remote antiquity, but the official records date only from the beginning of the eleventh century. That it was a place apart, from the rest of London, is not in doubt; here, in an atmosphere of reeking fish, with fish-scales underfoot and a “shallow lake of mud” all round, specific types and traditions had sprung up.

There were the “wives” of Billingsgate-perhaps the descendants of the devotees of the god Belin who was once purported to be worshipped here- who dressed in strong “stuff” gowns and quilted petticoats; their hair, caps and bonnets were flattened into one indistinguishable mass, because of the practice of carrying baskets upon their heads. Called “fish fags,” they smoked small pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin, and were known for their colourful language. Thus came the phrase to shriek like a fishwife. A dictionary of 1736 defined a “Billingsgate” as “a scolding impudent slut.” But gradually throughout the nineteenth century the fish fags were extirpated, to make way for a breed of London porters who wore helmets made of hide with a flap which reached down to their necks so that they could more easily carry their baskets of fish. These fish porters were complemented by the fish salesmen who wore straw hats even in winter. So a definite tradition of dress, and of language, emerges from this small area of London.

The same phenomenon can be witnessed at a variety of sites. Smithfield does not have as long a history as Billingsgate but by the eleventh century the “smothe field” just beyond the City walls was a recognised area for the sale of horses, sheep and cattle, known for drunkenness, rowdiness and such general violence that it had earned the name of “Ruffians’ Hall.” That violence did not stop with the granting of a royal charter to the cattle-market in 1638.

Market days were held on Tuesday and Friday; the horses were kept in stables in the neighbourhood, but the cattle and other livestock were driven in from the outlying areas causing much distress to the animals and inconvenience to the citizens. It is recorded in Smithfield Past and Present by Forshaw and Bergstrom, that “Great cruelty was practised, the poor animals being goaded on the flanks and struck on the head before they could be marshalled in their proper places.” In the early part of the nineteenth century a million sheep and a quarter of a million cattle were sold annually; the noise, and the stench, were considerable. The danger, too, was significant. On one day, in 1830, “a gentleman was knocked down by a very powerful bull” in High Holborn and “before he could recover himself he was severely trampled on and gored.” In Turnmill Street, another thoroughfare into the market from adjacent fields, a hog “mangled a young child and ’tis judged would have eaten it.” The animals were sometimes goaded into stampedes down the narrow and muddy lanes off Clerkenwell and Aldersgate Street, while the general air of chaos and intemperance was exploited by various louche persons who preyed on the drunkenness and unwariness of others.

Dickens had an intuitive sense of place, and fastened upon Smithfield as a centre of “filth and mire.” In Oliver Twist (1837-9) it is filled with “crowding, pushing, driving, beating” among “unwashed, unshaven, squalid and dirty figures.” The protagonist in Great Expectations (1860-1) becomes aware that “the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me.” Eight years before this was written, the market for live animals had been transferred to Copenhagen Fields in Islington, but the atmosphere of death remained; when the Central Meat Market was instituted on the Smithfield site in 1868, it was described as “a perfect forest of slaughtered calves, pigs and sheep, hanging from cast-iron balustrades.”

Of vegetable markets, there is no end. Borough Market in Southwark can claim to be the first ever recorded, having its origins at some time before the eleventh century, but Covent Garden remains the most illustrious. Once it was truly a garden, filled with herbs and fruit which seem uncannily to anticipate their later profusion on the same spot; then it was the kitchen garden of Westminster Abbey, contiguous with the garden of Bedford House erected at the end of the sixteenth century. But the market itself sprang from the Earl of Bedford’s proposals to build an ornamented and ornamental piazza as part of his grand scheme of Italianate suburban development; the plaza and adjoining houses began to rise in 1630, and very soon afterwards the trade of the populace began to flow towards the area. On the south side of the square, beside the garden wall, sprang up a number of sheds and stalls selling fruit and vegetables; it was a local amenity which had the additional merit of being financially successful, and in 1670 the estate obtained a charter authorising a market “for the buying and selling of all manner of fruits flowers and herbs.” Thirty-five years later, permanent single-storey shops were set up in two rows. Gradually, inexorably, the market spread across the piazza.

It became the most famous market in England and, given its unique trading status in the capital of world trade, its image was endlessly reproduced in drawings and in paintings. It was first limned in an etching by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1647, which work, according to the editors of London in Paint, has the merit of being “the first close-up depiction of one of London’s quarters.” Another work, of the early eighteenth century, shows a group of early morning shoppers making their way between lines of wooden shops and open stalls; fresh fruit and vegetables can be seen in wicker baskets, while a horse and cart are driving away from the main scene. Twenty years later, in 1750, the painted image has entirely changed; instead of ramshackle sheds there are now two-storey buildings, and the market activity stretches over the entire square. Everything is in life and motion, from the young boy struggling with a basket of apples to the middle-aged female trader who portions out some herbs. Here are cabbages from Battersea and onions from Deptford, celery from Chelsea and peas from Charlton, asparagus from Mortlake and turnips from Hammersmith; carts and sedan chairs jostle, while the covered wagons from the country make their way through the crowds. This picture depicts the very essence of a trading city, while another painting of slightly later date betrays the evidence of pickpockets and street musicians among the assembly.

The drawings of George Scharf, dated 1818 and 1828, depict in minute and various detail the life of the market. The shop of J.W. Draper “Orange Merchant” has a sign painted “yellow and green,” according to Scharf’s notes, while there are drawings of the shops of “Potatoe Salesman Whitman” and of “Butler,” seller of herbs and seeds. There are wheelbarrows filled with cabbages and turnips and carrots and cocoa nuts, alongside mobile stalls with apples and pears and strawberries and plums. One young costermonger’s barrow has a red, white and blue flag flying from it, with the sign that four oranges will cost a penny.

In 1830 a permanent market, with avenues and colonnades and conservatories in three parallel ranges, was completed; it gave the market an institutional aspect, as well as confirming its status as an emporium of world trade. “There is more certainty of purchasing a pineapple here, every day in the year,” John Timbs’s Curiosities of London declares, “than in Jamaica and Calcutta, where pines are indigenous.” Steam boats carried articles from Holland, Portugal and the Bermudas.

Order was introduced to the market, also, with vegetables to the south, fruit to the north, and flowers to the north-west. It became customary for Londoners to come and look upon the cut flowers, stealing “a few moments from the busy day to gratify one of the purest tastes.” They gazed at the daffodils, roses, pinks, carnations and wallflowers before once again withdrawing into the usual noise and uproar of the city.

The New Market, as it was called, continued for more than a century until in 1974 it was moved to a site in Battersea. The spirit of Covent Garden has of course changed since that removal, but it is still a centre of noise and bustle; the hucksters and hawkers are still there, but the sounds of the basket-sellers have changed into those of travelling musicians and the agile porters have turned into a different kind of street artist.

The great markets-Smithfield, Billingsgate, Covent Garden, the Stocks- were seen as central to London life, and somehow emblematic of it. Charles Booth, in his Life and Labour of the People in London (1903), revealed that in Petticoat Lane, on Sunday morning, could be found “cotton sheeting, old clothes, worn-out boots, damaged lamps, chipped china shepherdesses, rusty locks,” together with sellers of “Dutch drops” and Sarsaparilla wine, bed knobs, door knobs and basins of boiled peas. Here, in the early twentieth century, Tubby Isaacs set up his stall selling bread and jellied eels: the same small firm remains there at the beginning of the next century. In nearby Wentworth Street there were bakers and fishmongers. In Brick Lane were sold “pigeons, canaries, rabbits, fowls, parrots or guinea pigs.” Hungerford Market was known for its vegetables, Spitalfields for its potatoes, and Farringdon for its watercress. In Goodge Street there was a market for fruit and vegetables, while in Leather Lane tools, appliances and peddlers’ wares were sold together with “old bed knobs, rusty keys or stray lengths of iron piping.” Leadenhall Market, established since the thirteenth century, was first known for its supply of woollen cloths while its main courtyard was used alternately by butchers and tanners. Clare Market, off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was notorious for its butchers. Bermondsey Market was known for hide and skin, Tattersall’s for horses. Fish-wives held their own market along the Tottenham Court Road “with paper-lanthorns stuck in their baskets on dark nights.” The litany of markets is a litany of London itself-Fleet Market, Newgate Market, Borough Market, Lisson Grove Market, Portman Market, Newport Market, Chapel Market in Islington.

The metaphor of the market has now spread all over London, and across its trading systems, and yet it springs from places such as Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane, Leather Lane, Hoxton Street and Berwick Street. All these, and almost a hundred others, survive still as street-markets, the majority of them on sites where they first flourished centuries before. Here the poor buy at fifth hand what the rich bought at first hand. Some street-markets, however, have vanished. Rag Fair, by Tower Hill, has gone: a woebegone place, where “raggs and old clothes” were sold beside rotten vegetables, stale bread and old meat, it disappeared beneath its own waste.


Waste Matter

What the voracious city devours, it must eventually disgorge in rubbish and excrement. Thomas More, who as under-sheriff knew the malodorous and insanitary conditions of London at first hand, decided that in his Utopia (1516) anything sordidum (dirty) or morbum (diseased) should be forbidden within the walls. In the early sixteenth century, this was indeed a utopian state.

The sanitary conditions of London in the centuries of Roman civilisation, when a system of public baths and latrines helped actively to promote urban cleanliness, were as good as anywhere within the empire. Yet it would be unwise to depict a marbled city without stain; refuse heaps, containing the bones of oxen, goats, pigs and horses, were found in the open areas of the city still within the walls, although it is likely that semi-domesticated ravens were always ready to consume offending garbage littered upon the street. The practice of throwing the contents of urine jars out of the window is well known, as is attested by numerous court cases. In the entrance to Roman taverns and workshops, however, have been uncovered large stone vessels which can best be described as urinals. Here is the first physical evidence of London’s toilet facilities (in one such site, along Fish Street Hill, was found a bag of cannabis which also testifies to the longevity of the drug culture of the city).

In the period of Saxon and Viking occupation there is evidence of excrement dropped anywhere and everywhere, even within the houses, which suggests a deterioration in healthy practice. In turn we may imagine the medieval town littered with horse dung and cesspools, strewn with the offal of butchers, with wooden chips and kitchen refuse, human excrement and daily rubbish, generally impeding the “channels” which ran down both sides of the street. Regulations of the thirteenth century ordained that “no one shall place dung or other filth in the streets or lanes, but cause the same to be taken by the rakers to the places ordained”; these “places” were an early version of the rubbish tip from which the contents were taken by cart or boat to outlying areas where the dung could be used as manure for the fields. Pigs were allowed to roam through the streets as natural consumers of rubbish, but they proved a considerable nuisance with their custom of blocking narrow lanes and straying into houses; their place after a cull was taken by kites who performed the same function as ravens in first-century London. Indeed there were laws that forbade on pain of death the killing of kites and ravens, which became so tame that they would snatch a piece of bread and butter from a child’s hands.

In 1349 Edward III wrote to the mayor, complaining that the thoroughfares were “foul with human faeces, and the air of the city poisoned to the great danger of men passing.” As a result the civic authorities issued a proclamation denouncing the “grievous and great abomination” to be found in filth, dung and other nuisances obstructing the streets. From entries in the Letter Books and the Plea and Memoranda Rolls it is clear that the city leaders, fearing epidemic disease, accepted the need for sanitary legislation. Four scavengers (scawageours) were to be held responsible for rubbish in each ward, and each householder had a duty to ensure that the street outside his door was cleared of noisome waste. There were fines for any citizen found dumping refuse into the Fleet or Walbrook, and a “serjeant of the channels” was appointed to ensure that the rivulets of street and stream remained unimpeded. But old habits persisted. Households overlooking the Walbrook paid a tax or toll in order to build their latrines over the running water of the river, and upon London Bridge itself there were 138 houses as well as a public latrine which showered down upon the Thames.

Public places, in that capacity, were used more often than private spaces. Pissing Lane, later known as Pissing Alley, “leadinge from Paules Church into Pater Noster Rowe,” may be mentioned, along with two other alleys of the same name dating variously from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. Similarly there were Dunghill Lanes beside Puddle Dock and Whitefriars as well as Queenhithe, while Dunghill Stairs was located to the front of Three Cranes Wharf.

The first public lavatories, since the urns of Roman London, were constructed in the thirteenth century. The new bridge across the river was equipped with one of these modern conveniences, which had two entrances, while the smaller bridges across the Fleet and the Walbrook also made provision for them. Against the streams and tributaries there were “houses of office,” too, although many consisted simply of wooden planks with holes carved out of them. More elaborate public privies were constructed, some with four or more holes, culminating in Richard Whittington’s fifteenth-century “House of Easement” or “Long House” over the Thames at the end of Friar Lane. It contained two rows of sixty-four seats, one row for men and the other for women, while the refuse dropped into a gully washed with the tides. Public exposure in the city’s privies, however, could be dangerous. A quarrel between two men in a privy beside the wall of Ironmonger Lane ended in murder. Death came in other forms from the same source. The privy above the Fleet, near the mouth of the Thames, caused much discomfort to the monks of White Friars who in 1275 declared to Edward I “that the putrid exhalations there from overcame even the frankincense used in their Services and had caused the death of manie Brethren.”

Certain other parts of London were renowned, and arraigned, for their dirtiness-Farringdon Without and Portsoken were known for their dung-heaps and rubbish dumps while the inhabitants of Bassinghall Ward and Aldrich Gate [Aldersgate] Ward were fined for “casting out of ordure and urine.” One may add to this noisome list the place known as Moorfields which, before being drained in 1527, was said to be “a melancholy region, with raised paths and refuse-heaps, deep black ditches, not unodourous and detestable open sewers.” It was a walk, according to one city history, suitable for London suicides and London philosophers.

The London memoranda (court records) of the fourteenth century are filled with complaints and exhortations. A wall “fallith down gobet-mele into the hie strete, and makith the wey foule … the commin privey of ludgate is full difectif and perlus, and the ordur thereof rotith the stone wallys.” In the parish of St. Sepulchre one Halywell was indicted “for anoyng the feld with donge on both sides horspole,” and one Norton for a similar offence “that there may neythir hors ne cart pas for his dong.” Fourteen households in Foster Lane were indicted “for castyngh out of ordour amp; vrine,” and in the parish of St. Botolph a nuisance was created by “stuppyng of the water, for by cause that the dunghe and the Robous that is dreuen doune ther-to.” All the cooks of Bread Street were arraigned for keeping their “dung and garbage” under their stalls, while a dung-hill in Watergate Street was deemed to create “ordour of Prevees and other orrible sigtis.” We can hear the voice of Londoners in these denunciations, and join in their very local vision of the “filth that cometh doun be Trinite Lane and Cordwanerstrete by Garlekhith and goth doun in the lane by twix John Hatherle shop and Rick Whitman shop, of whiche dong moche goth in to Thamise.”

The same kind of complaint emerges in every century, and there is a plaintive echo of these London memoranda in Samuel Pepys’s words from Seething Lane: “Going down to my cellar, I put my foot in a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr. Turners house of office is full and comes into my cellar.”

Londoners are fascinated by excrement. Sir Thomas More, in the early sixteenth century, uses five names of shit-cacus, merda, stercus, lutum, co-enum-in his polemical work. These are Latin terms but in the English of the same century homage was paid to human excrement with the nickname of “Sirreverence.” In the late twentieth century those quintessentially London artists, “Gilbert and George” of Spitalfields, arranged large exhibitions of their Shit Paintings.

The very houses of London are built upon refuse. Discarded and forgotten objects, left among old foundations, help to support the weight of the modern city, so that beneath our feet are copper brooches and crucibles, leather shoes and lead tokens, belts and buckles, broken pottery and sandals and figurines, tools and gloves, jars and pieces of bone, shoes and oyster shells, knives and toys, locks and candlesticks, coins and combs, plates and pipes, a child’s ball and a pilgrim’s amulet, all spreading their silent ministry through the earth. But the city is built upon remains and ruins in a more literal sense. In Chick Lane, in 1597, it was discovered that thirty tenements and twelve cottages had been erected upon a great dump of public refuse, while Holywell Street was built upon a site of rubbish and waste which had accumulated for a hundred years after the Great Fire. Even the pavements of the modern city are made, according to The Stones of London by Elsden and Howe, “with slabs produced from clinkered household refuse by the municipal authorities.”

The streets also bear the marks of waste. Maiden Lane is named after middens, Pudding Lane after the “pudding” sent down it to the dung boats moored on the Thames. Public dumps were also known as laystalls and there is still a Laystall Street in Clerkenwell. Sherborne Lane was once known as Shiteburn Lane.

In the period when Pepys was complaining about the substances in his cellar, the privy was being used in most households for kitchen and domestic as well as human refuse. The streets, despite all the prohibitions and regulations, were still offensive “with dust and unwholesome stenches in summer and in wet weather with dirt.” This passage occurs in a report of 1654, and eight years later the city made one of its periodic efforts to cleanse itself with injunctions that householders on Wednesdays and Saturdays should put their refuse in “basket tubs or other vessels ready for the Raker or Scavenger”; the approach of his cart or carriage was meant to be heralded by “a bell, horn, clapper or otherwise,” thus alerting the inhabitants to bring out their rubbish. Excrement itself was removed from the cesspits by “night-soil men,” whose carts were notoriously leaky; they dropped “near a quarter of their dirt” and the great eighteenth-century philanthropist Jonas Hanway remarked that they subjected “every coach and every passenger, of what quality whatsoever, to be overwhelmed with whole cakes of dirt at every accidental jolt of the cart, of which many have had a most filthy experience.” It might be thought the Great Fire would bring a speedy and fiery end to the city’s problems of waste, but the habits of the citizen were not to be easily changed. The novels of the eighteenth century pay horrified, if somewhat oblique, attention to the malodorous and generally offensive conditions of the capital.

Yet if the Great Fire did not cleanse London, it is appropriate that commerce should do so instead. Improved methods of agriculture meant that, by 1760, manure had become a valuable commodity. Since household ash and cinders also began to be employed in brick-making, a whole new market for refuse emerged. Now there came new dealers, competing upon the exchange of the streets. In 1772 a city scavenger of St. James, Piccadilly, reported that he was “greatly injured by a set of Persons called Running Dustmen who go about the streets and places of this Parish and collect the Coal Ashes.” He begged the parishioners only “to deliver their Coal Ashes but to the Persons employed by him the said John Horobin who are distinguished by ringing a Bell.” One eighteenth-century advertisement parades the benefits of Joseph Waller, residing by the Turnpike at Islington, who “keeps Carts and Horses for emptying Bog-Houses.” When rubbish became part of commerce, the conditions of the city were improved more speedily than by any Paving Acts or Cleansing Committees.

In the nineteenth century, the history of city refuse became part of the history of city finance. The dust-heap in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, modelled upon a real and ever more offensive pile off the King’s Cross Road, was believed to contain buried treasure and had already made a fortune for its owner. “I’m a pretty fair scholar in dust,” Mr. Boffin explains, “I can price the Mounds to a fraction, and I know how they can be best disposed of.” There were “Mounds” or “Mounts” of refuse in various parts of London. One immediately to the west of the London Hospital was known as “Whitechapel Mount,” and from its summit could be seen “the former villages of Limehouse, Shadwell and Ratcliffe.” Another was situated at Battle-bridge and was known to the author of Old and New London as a mountain with “heaped hillocks of horse-bones” together with cinders, rags and ordure. It became the resort of “innumerable pigs” but its true commercial worth was proved in a remarkable manner when, in the first years of the nineteenth century, the Russians purchased all the ashes from that site to assist in the rebuilding of Moscow after its burning by the French. The area itself, just north of the present King’s Cross Station, had become the quarters of “dustmen and cinder-sifters” as well as more general scavengers, or, in other words, all those who lived upon the refuse of the city. In that sense it was a benighted place and, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is characterised by its bleakness and ugliness. The atmosphere of dereliction hangs over it still.

At Letts Wharf, on the southern bank of the Thames near the Shot Tower at Lambeth, another band of Londoners used to sift and pick through the refuse. Most of them were women, who smoked short pipes and wore “strawboard gaiters and torn bonnet boxes for pinafores.” Theirs was an old profession, passed from mother to daughter, generation after generation. “The appearance of these women is most deplorable,” one medical officer wrote, “standing in the midst of fine dust piled up to their waists, with faces and upper extremities begrimed with black filth, and surrounded by and breathing a foul, moist, hot air, surcharged with the gaseous emanations of disintegrating organic compounds.” The dust was sifted into its coarse and fine components, while old pieces of tin were salvaged together with old shoes and bones and oyster shells. The tin often went to make “clamps” for luggage, while the oyster shells were sold to builders; old shoes went to the manufacturers of the famous dye, “Prussian blue.” Nothing was wasted.

It was once rumoured that the streets of London were paved with gold and so it is perhaps no surprise that, in the nineteenth century, the refuse “daily swept up and collected from the streets … is turned into gold to the tune of some thousands of pounds a year.” In photographs of the Victorian city, the gutters are filled with litter and street-sweepings with the added nuisance of multifarious orange peel. The rewards of the city sweepers were based entirely upon locality, but the most obvious product was “street mud” which was sold to farmers or market gardeners. The thoroughfares most highly prized were those where “locomotion never ceases”-Haymarket being “six times in excess of the average streets,” followed by Watling Street, Bow Lane, Old Change and Fleet Street. So even movement itself creates profit in a city based upon speed and productivity.

“Street orderlies” swept the streets and crossings. Some were “pauper labourers” set to the task as a convenient method of combining discipline with efficiency, while others were “philanthropic labourers” who were paid by various charitable concerns. By the middle of the century, all were in competition with the new “street-sweeping machines” which had a mechanical power “equal to the industry of five street-sweepers.”

The industry was complex, however, and different forms of scavenging were specific. Horse manure was collected by boys in red uniforms, who ran among the traffic shovelling it up and placing it in receptacles by the side of the road; this represented yet more London “gold,” at least to farmers in dire need of fertiliser. There were bone-pickers and rag-gatherers, cigar and cigarette pickers, old wood collectors, sweeps and dredgermen, dustmen and “mud larks,” all intent upon collecting up “the most abject refuse” of the city in case it might become “the source of great riches.”

From one owner of a beer-shop on the Southwark Bridge Road Henry Mayhew, who chronicled the street-finders as a different class of city dwellers, learned how the bone-grubbers took their bags of bones to his establishment. Here they received payment and “sat … silently looking at the corners of the floor, for they rarely lifted their eyes up.” The rag-finders had their own separate “beats.” The “pure” finders took up dog excrement from the street; in the early nineteenth century it had been the profession of women who were known as “bunters” but the increasing demands of the tanning trade, for which the excrement was used as an astringent, meant that male workers were also in demand.

In the hope of “finding fitting associates and companions in their wretchedness … or else for the purpose of hiding themselves and their shifts and struggles for existence from the world” the “pure” finders tended to congregate within tenements in the east of the City, just past the Tower of London, between the docks and Rosemary Lane. This was an area, according to Mayhew, “redolent of filth and pregnant with pestilential disease.” The inadvertent use of “pregnant” suggests here the general association of dirty people with sexual depravity. Indeed the attempt to take prostitution off the streets of London was itself linked with the removal of excrement for the cleanness of the city. In a similar spirit there were also warnings concerning the revolutionary potential of the poor, with their “fevers and … filth.” Once more is made the implicit connection between poverty, disease and excrement. It was an association which occurred to the “pure” finders themselves. “There’s such a dizziness in my head now,” one told Mayhew, “I feel as if it didn’t belong to me. No, I have earned no money to-day. I have had a piece of bread that I steeped in water to eat. I could never bear the thought of going into the great house [the workhouse]; I’m so used to the air that I’d sooner die in the street, as many I know have done. I’ve known several of our people, who have sat down in the street with their basket alongside them, and died.”

And thus the dead in turn became rubbish to be removed by the parish and swept away. The cycle of life was completed.

The outlines of age may be seen in the features of the very young. The youthful collectors of river refuse, known as “mud larks,” scavenged for pieces of coal or wood which they would then put in kettles, baskets, or even old hats. Many of them were small children, approximately seven or eight years old, and Mayhew questioned one of them. “He had heard of Jesus Christ once … but he never heard tell of who or what he was and didn’t ‘particular care’ about knowing … London was England and England, he said, was in London but he couldn’t tell in what part.” For him the condition which made up “London” was everywhere, therefore; and, as Mayhew observed, “there was a painful uniformity in the stories of all the children” of the city.

Another group of scavengers were known as “toshers,” hence the pejorative expression “tosh.” They were the sewer hunters, burrowing beneath the surface of the city in search of valuable waste. In the early part of the nineteenth century they could enter by the holes along the Thames, braving the crumbling brickwork and rotten stone, in order to creep along the underground labyrinth. But then, in the 1850s and 1860s, everything changed as a result of what was called London’s “sanitation revolution.”

It is a curious fact of city life that the sanitation of the early nineteenth century did not differ materially from that of the fifteenth century. There had been attempts at superficial improvement, with efforts to maintain the cleanliness of the Kilbourne and the Westbourne, the Ranelagh and the Fleet, the Shoreditch and the Effa, the Falcoln Brook and the Earl, all important rivers and streams. But the central feature of London’s sanitation remained its greatest disgrace; there were still cesspools beneath some 200,000 houses. Effluent was forced upwards through the wooden floors of the poorer households.

The solution of the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1847, that all privy refuse was to be discharged directly into the sewers, seemed convincing at the time. But the effect was that the effluent was transported straight into the central reaches of the Thames. As a result the swan and the salmon, together with other fish, vanished in an open sewer. In the words of Disraeli, the river had become “a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror.” Where once rose petals had been papered across the windows of the Westminster Parliament building, now sheets soaked with chlorine were used instead. The problem was compounded by the fact that the water supply for many Londoners was taken directly from the Thames, and from this time forward it was often described as of a “brownish” colour. The prevalence of cholera in the same period, when it was believed that “all smell is disease,” only increased the noxious horror of the city where the discharges of three million people were running through its midst. The concentration of people seeking work in the capital, and the rising consumption of the Victorian middle class, had led to a complementary rise in effluence. The pervasive smell may in that sense be regarded as the odour of progress. These were the conditions of London as late as 1858, the year of the “Great Stink.”

In 1855, under the pressure of extreme circumstances, a Metropolitan Board of Works had been established to remedy the unhappy situation. Three years later, during a long and hot summer, Joseph Bazalgette began his scheme to divert all sewage from the Thames through different types of sewer (main line and intercepting, storm relief and outfall) to outfalls at Barking and Crossness; it was described by the Observer as “the most extensive and wonderful work of modern times,” and by the end of this great engineer’s ministrations 165 miles of main sewers had been reconstructed in Portland cement with a further 1,100 miles of new local sewers. For all practical purposes, large parts of Bazalgette’s system remain in place at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It was a signal example of public health enterprise in the face of a rapidly deteriorating urban environment; characteristic of London administration, however, was that it occurred very quickly and in conditions of near panic. All the great works of the city seem to be in one sense improvised and haphazard.

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By the early twentieth century the dust mounds and open ash-pits were removed from the capital, and most of the rubbish was pulverised, burned or treated with chemicals; the environmental theory of disease, which simply prescribed that waste should be removed to as distant a point as possible, was replaced by the “germ” theory, which meant that waste had effectively to be neutralised. So changes in epidemiological research can affect the topography of the city. The fabric of London is susceptible to theory, therefore, and in the previous century huge areas of sewage purification were complemented by vast incineration plants. The enormous Solid Waste Transfer Station by Smugglers Way in Wandsworth and the great Sewage Works of Beckton are largely unseen; they are monuments to the city’s secret industry.

There are still rubbish tips located in various parts of the capital and, although gulls and pigeons have now taken the place of ravens and kites, the vagrant scavenger (once known as a “totter”) is still to be seen in the streets of London searching through bins and garbage for cigarette ends, food or drink. The ability-in fact the necessity-of the city to discharge its own rubbish continues in various guises. The quantity of waste in the ever-increasing city has risen higher than any nineteenth-century dust mound, with an average of ten million tonnes produced by the capital each year, among it almost one and a half million tonnes of scrap metal, and half a million tonnes of paper. It is only to be expected, too, that the history of modern effluent is still part of the history of commerce. In the sixteenth century it was discovered that the nitrogen from excreta could be used in the manufacture of gunpowder, but in the twentieth ce