Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton

CHAPTER VII: Fleet Street--Its Ancient Life, Etc.


CHAPTER VII: Fleet Street--Its Ancient Life, Etc.




"LET us take a walk up Fleet Street." Not the Fleet Street of to-day, nor of Dr. Johnson's day, but of the days of "Good Queen Bess" and the first Stuart. We might go back to the days of the Plantagenets and still find it a busy, shop-lined thoroughfare, when the Strand was only a grassy highroad leading from the city to the village of Charing. But at the opening of the seventeenth century the world-famous street was in all its glory.

There is ancient St. Dunstan's Church, thrusting itself right across the roadway, and the bells are giving forth a merry peal. The shops are only open, windowless booths, like the stalls at a fair, and over each gaily painted signboard hangs a flag, for every tradesman has a sign; men buy their hosiery at the Lamb, their boots at the Jolly Tanners, and so on. Pavement there is none; road and footpath are not divided, are full of ruts, and an open gutter or sewer runs down the centre; the gable ends of the picturesque houses, which are entirely of wood, with their overhanging



storeys, stand out against a bright blue sky.[1]  There is no dense throng of people, no vehicles, yet the scene is full of animation; splendidly dressed cavaliers are riding to and fro between the city and Whitheall, and every variety of costume is to be seen among the pedestrians. Here comes an Alsatian of Whitefriars, whom we have met at St. Paul's, his ragged cloak fluttering in the breeze as he clanks along fiercely twirling the ends of his moustache and glaring at every peaceful citizen; here are a party of Mercutios and Gratianos, just come out of the Blackfriars Theatre, and on their way to the Devil Tavern, where they will meet Ben Jonson and Will Shakespeare and Dick Burbage. In contrast to these splendid butterflies is the sober cit. in sad-coloured suit, with perhaps a pretty daughter in prim grey and with a neat little ruff encircling her throat, who demurely gazes from under her lowered eyelids at Mercutio or Gratiano as he passes. Now and again the black shadow of an evilvisaged Puritan falls like a blighting cloud upon the sunshine. In front of every shop is a smart apprentice, sometimes two, in close-fitting jerkin and flat cap, who saucily assail every pedestrian with " What d'ye lack? What d'ye lack?" with the same monotonous iteration as a Clare Market butcher. They are satirical dogs too, who have a quip and a crank suitable


to every one. "What d'ye lack, noble sir?"-this to the Alsatian-" A pair of scissors to clip your lovelocks, or a new cloak to cover your noble shoulders ? Your own has grown too thin for a blanket when you sleep out at nights." "What d'ye lack, pretty miss ? "to the cit.'s daughter-" A bunch of ribbons to catch a sweetheart with ? You've caught me without it."

All of a moment a distant cry of "Clubs, clubs! 'Prentices, 'prentices " is heard coming from Ludgate, and each moment nearer and nearer. It is a cry to arms that no flat cap dare, if he desired, to disobey. In an instant every 'prentice seizes upon his club, which is always handy, abandons the shop to take care of itself, and fleet as the wind rushes in the direction of the call. Certain apprentices for some offence have been ordered to be whipped from Aldgate to Temple Bar, and the fraternity have resolved to rescue them. The halberds of the marshal men are shivered by the rain of clubs, they themselves driven back, and the liberated offenders, amidst a shouting, singing crowd, are escorted to Temple Bar in triumph.[2] 

Such scenes of turmoil are of almost daily occurrence. But the unruly 'prentices are not the only offenders. The gentlemen students of the Temple are equally addicted to rioting, especially at Christmastide. Picture a cold, clear, winter's night, the hoarfrost glistening in the moonlight, the tall houses standing out stark and grim against the glittering stars, but


the street below in darkness. The shops are closed, the lights out in all the windows, and the good cits. are snoring upon their pillows. All is silent and dim as the grave. Suddenly there is a muffled din of voices that swells into clamour, then the gates of the Temple are swung open and a ruddy glare of smoky light dances on the grey and black fronts of the opposite houses, and out pours a throng of boisterous Templars who have been carousing pottle deep. At their head marches a student wearing a tinsel coronet; he is the Lord of Misrule, and with drawn sword and unsteady gait he leads on his roistering crew. One of his henchmen raising a horn to his lips blows a blast that is heard from Cheapside to Charing. Stopping before a house, the horn is again wound. A light twinkles in one of the windows, it is thrown open and a voicedemands, "Who is there?" "The Lord of Misrule, come to demand his rents," haughtily answers the leader. Then the door is opened and there is a chink of coins. And the procession passes on to another house. But here the summons is unheeded, though repeated thrice. "Fire upon the traitor!" cries the leader. A brawny blacksmith advances with a huge sledge-hammer, swings and brings it down upon the door with a crash that shivers the panels to splinters. An entrance is effected, and "My Lord" and his bacchanalian crew pour in and demand of the trembling inmates food and drink and double dues for not responding to his summons. His jurisdiction does not extend beyond Ram Alley (now Hare Place). Few


have the courage to resist these extortions, and all who do have their doors and windows smashed, until the riot becomes so alarming that messengers are sent to the Lord Mayor calling for assistance. Soon the tramp of horses and a flare of light announce the coming of the magistrate and his officers, all well armed. Louder and louder are the blasts of the horn, warning those within the Temple of danger, and summoning them to the rescue. Far fiercer and more bloody than the struggle with the flat caps is that which ensues: blood flows like water, the 'prentices come to the help of the city, the whole neighbourhood is up in arms, it is a veritable town and gown row. Pressed by overwhelming numbers, the Lord of Misrule is, after a desperate resistance, captured, and his followers, put to flight, take shelter within the gates of their Inn of Court.

My next picture of Fleet Street dates a century later. The great fire has wrought havoc with the houses on the south side, and brick buildings are taking the place of the wooden; but on the north they are still as quaint as ever, with their glittering signboards projected over the pathway and looking very like the flags in Henry the Seventh's chapel at Westminster. A little to the west of Chancery Lane is the picturesque carved-fronted dwelling where the master of the gentle art, Izaak Walton, carried on his millinery business, and from which, many a time and oft, he has started, humming one of his quaint, sweet ballads, upon those piscatorial expeditions to the banks of the Lea, FLEET STREET: ITS ANCIENT LIFE, ETC.


immortalised in The Compleat Angler. Close against St. Dunstan's Church is the shop of Edmund Curll,
the bookseller, who has been gibbeted for all time by the pens of Pope and Swift. Booksellers have always


affected the vicinity of this famous church. " Under the diall"[3]  was first published Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet, and Hudibras, Walton's book, and the first English tragedy, Gordobuc, and somewhere near, at the sign of the White Hart, was issued the Midsummer Night's Dream. At the south-west corner of Chancery Lane is a beautifully carved, five-storeyed house-which will remain intact until the close of the century-that in the reign of Henry V. was the residence of that notable, historical and dramatic personage, Sir John Oldcastle.[4] 

Looking across the road our eyes fall just between the two Temple gates, upon the shop of Bernard Lintot, from which Pope's Homer was issued, and to the west of it is a quaint building covered with the badges of Cardinal Wolsey[5] , erected for the great prelate by Sir Amyas Paulet, for an offence he had committed against Thomas Wolsey in the days when Wolsey was a parish priest. And there during six years Sir Amyas was kept close prisoner. It was an ingenious idea to make a man build his own prison, and the proud cardinal, from his house in Chancery Lane, must have daily passed it in all the pomp and magnificence of his gorgeous state. In times to come it will be known as Nando's Coffee-house, and afterwards as Mrs. Salmon's Waxwork Show. Jacob Tonson,


Dryden's publisher, carries on his business close to the Inner Temple.[6] 

Within the shadow of Temple Bar hangs a device representing St. Dunstan tweaking Satan's nose with the traditional tongs-the sign of the immortalised Devil Tavern.[7]  In the Apollo room, over the entrance of which, surmounted by a bust of the Sun God, on a black board, in letters of gold, are inscribed the wellknown lines of Jonson, beginning:- Welcome all who lead or follow To the oracle of Apollo, were celebrated those symposia, presided over by lusty Ben, of which Beaumont wrote, that after our revellers had quitted the room they- Left an air behind them which alone Was able to make the two next companies Right witty; though but downright fools, mere wise. Imagination may shadow forth the great president's herculean form, his rugged visage illumined by intellectual fire; the noble, pensive face, now and again lit up by the merry humour of the moment, of the divine


Shakespeare; that model of a fine, gallant gentleman, handsome Beaumont, and beside him his fidus Achates with whom his name is so inextricably associated, John Fletcher; Raleigh, bronzed on the Spanish main, to give a flavour of the sea and the camp to this rich, medley dish of wit; Dick Burbage, Will Kempe, and other famous players might be found among that goodly company. What flagons of Canary and clary and sack and sherris must those bons vivants have quaffed! Here, as well at the Mermaid, were fought those wit combats between Rare Ben and Gentle Will of which we have heard so much and know so little.

It is of the Devil one night in the reign of Queen Anne I was about to write, and have wandered back to the days of " Good Queen Bess ". In a room-not the Apollo-are gathered the notorious Mohock Club[8] . At the head of the table, on a gilded throne, sits "the emperor," whose flushed and bloated face is rendered hideous by scars and a crescent engraved upon the centre of his forehead. His companions, who show


signs of the many bottles they have emptied, might have done credit to Captain Kyd, or any pirate chief, though they are dressed as gentlemen. Swords and knives and other weapons are laid upon the table in front of them. The emperor, who rejoices in the name of Taw Waw Eben Tan Kaladar, is reading a manifesto, of which the following words form the last paragraph: "And whereas we have nothing more at our Imperial heart than the reformation of the cities of London and Westminster, which to our unspeakable satisfaction we have in some measure effected, we do hereby earnestly exhort and pray all husbands and fathers, housekeepers and masters of families, not only to repair themselves to their respective habitations at early and seasonable hours, but also to keep their wives and daughters, sons, sisters and apprentices from appearing in the streets at those times and seasons which may expose them to military discipline, as it is practised by our good subjects the Mohocks," etc. " Given from our court at the Devil's Tavern, March 15th, ." "And now let us forth, each to his respective work!" cries the emperor.

A few minutes later and the sleeping citizens of Fleet Street are aroused by the war-whoop of the savage. " The Mohocks are abroad," whispers a wife to her husband, and securely barred as they are within their house they shudder at the sound. Belated wayfarers fly before that yell; the Mohocks give chase and captures are soon effected; a woman is seized and thrust into a barrel, and, despite her screams, is


rolled down the street as far as the Fleet Bridge; another woman is set upon her head and her heels are tied to a post; a poor fellow has his nose flattened to his face, while another division, who call themselves " the Dancing Masters," prick a couple of victims with their swords to make them cut grotesque capers for the amusement of their torturers. No one dares to oppose them; the watchman sits trembling in his box, fearing that he will be trundled down the street and rolled into the river, and the authorities seem to be equally timid. Later on the Devil was frequented by Goldsmith and Johnson and their following. It was pulled down and Child's Place built upon it in .

Nearly opposite the Devil is Shire Lane, in which, at the sign of the Cat and Fiddle, a pastry-cook shop kept by one Christopher Kat, was held the famous Whig Kit Kat Club, frequented by the Duke of Marlborough, the Earl of Dorset, Lord Halifax "the trimmer," Sir Robert Walpole, Congreve the dramatist, Jacob Tonson the publisher, Sir Godfrey Kneller, who painted the portraits of all the members, fortytwo in number, which for many years adorned the walls of Tonson's house at Barn Elms. Addison and Steele were Kit Kats, and many a night was inebriated Dicky carried into a sedan chair and conveyed home to his " darling Prue," to be shrewishly lectured when his senses returned to him. The Kit Kats were hard drinkers, and it was said of them that they learned " to sleep away the days and drink away the nights ".

The pleasantest incident connected with the club was when the beautiful little daughter of the Duke of Kingston, then only eight years of age, thereafter to be known as Lady Mary Wortly Montagu, was brought in one night and made the toast of the evening, nominated a member, and her name graved with a diamond ring upon one of the glasses. She always protested it was the most delightful moment of her life.

No thoroughfare of London can boast of so many famous taverns as Fleet Street; it was the very centre of that tavern life which was to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries what club life is to the nineteenth. Most have vanished. Many of us remember the Cock, with its Jacobean fireplace, against which Pepys must often have stood; for it was a favourite resort of his, and is several times mentioned in the Diary; its sanded floor and wooden boxes, where many a lord chancellor, judge, and attorney-general have eaten their steaks and quaffed their pints of port ; its old-fashioned waiters, one of whom still lives in Tennyson's "Will Waterproof's Lyrical Monologue ":-

Oh plump head waiter at the Cock,

To which I must resort.

He looks not like the common breed

That with the napkin dally;

I think he came, like Ganymede,

From some delightful valley.

Thou battenest by the greasy gleam In haunts of hungry sinners, Old boxes larded with the steam Of thirty thousand dinners.

Just opposite stood the scarcely less famous Dick's, now also only a memory of the past. Steele and his contemporaries enjoyed its cosy comforts; so did Thackeray. It was there Mr. Bungay, the publisher, gave the little dinner preliminary to the inception of the Pall Mall Gazette, and it was haunted by the shadows of Pendennis and Warrington. Dick's retained to the last much of its original aspect. The frontispiece to a last century farce, entitled "The Coffee-house," pictures the interior of Dick's looking out upon the Temple, and might almost be taken for a representation of it at the time of its destruction.

The Rainbow, which still remains, was the second house in which coffee was drunk in England-the Old Jamaica, St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill, now a flaunting tavern, was the first, . [9]  The Rainbow


was opened by a barber named Farr, in , as a coffee-house-it was a tavern at a much earlier date. The Arabian berry was on its first introduction praised and denounced with equal extravagance: as many virtues were ascribed to the decoction as are nowadays attributed to a quack pill; it was a remedy for spleen and hypochondria; it rendered the skin white, the steam was excellent for sore eyes; it helped the digestion, quickened the spirits, cured dropsy, scurvy, gout, king's-evil, etc. Whilst its enemies villified it as devil's drink, "syrup of soot and essence of old shoes," under the influence of which the English would dwindle into a race of sterile apes and pigmies.

Let us pay a visit to the Rainbow in the first year of its inception as a coffee-house. The front, facing the street, is occupied by a bookseller. Entering the narrow passage that skirts the shop we find ourselves in a large room furnished with seats and small tables; the walls are hung round with cases, containing popular pills, elixirs, perfumes, etc. The pungent odour given forth by the burning berries and the steaming beverage is overpowering. Seated about is a curiously mixed company of foreigners, London citizens, Temple beaux, some of whom have been persuaded by Barber Farr, while he was scraping their chins or dressing their locks in an adjoining room, to take their initial taste of the new drink. It is one of the rules that it shall be drunk scalding hot; note the


face of that cit. who is enduring agony from tongue, lips and throat as he gulps the liquid down; another feels his gorge rise at the flavour of the aromatic beverage, which is softened neither by milk nor sugar, and setting down the cup rushes into the Devil to wash his mouth out with a cup of sack; a Templar sips it with the air of a connoisseur and pretends to like it, because it will make him appear a man of travel in the eyes of one or two men whose bronzed faces tell of a sojourn in the East. A soldier, after swallowing a mouthful, spits it out, swearing horribly, at which Barber Farr cries "a fine, a fine!" and points to a placard of rules hung against the wall, by which the penalty of one shilling is exacted for blasphemous language. The penalty is often resisted, then swords are drawn and a melee ensues.

Of course the tavern keepers and vintners are up in arms, and endeavour to get the coffee-house keeper indicted as a public nuisance, on account of " the obnoxious smells and for the keeping of fires for the most part of the day and night, whereby his chimney and chamber hath been set on fire to the common danger of his neighbours". Old topers execrate "this filthy potion," and pious Puritans, who love the bottle, declare that it is an invention of the evil one.

Shakespeare's and Dr. Johnson's Mitre Tavern was absorbed in Hoare's Bank many years ago.[10]  Peele's


Coffee-house, so long celebrated for its files of newspaper, has entirely lost its original character, though above stairs much of the ancient house still remains.

The old Cheshire Cheese is still a model of what a Fleet Street tavern was in the days of Dr. Johnson, though it dates back to the previous century, and perhaps even to the sixteenth. And from the days of the ponderous lexicographer to those of George Augustus Sala, and the latest representatives of "the fourth estate," there has not been a literary bohemian unfamiliar with that old -world, dingy bar, and beamed and panelled dining-room, wherein the seats of the authors of Rasselas and Vicar of Wakefield are still preserved. The great Saturday institution of The Cheese is still that wonderful beef-steak pudding, so rich, so succulent, so savoury, so enticing to nose and palate, but, oh, so trying to town digestions!

"We are a close, conservative, inflexible body, we regular frequenters," wrote William Sawyer, some years ago. " No new-fangled notions, new usages, new customs or new customers for us. We have our history, our traditions and our observations, all sacred and inviolable. Look around! There is nothing new, gaudy, flippant, or effeminately luxurious here. A small room with heavily timbered windows, a low planked ceiling. A huge, projecting fireplace, with a great copper boiler always on the simmer. High, stiff-backed, inflexible 'settees,' hard and grainy in


texture, box off the guests, half a dozen each to a table. Sawdust covers the floor, giving forth its peculiar faint odour. The only ornament in which we indulge is a solitary picture over the mantelpiece, a full length of a now departed waiter, whom in the long past we caused to be painted, by subscription of the whole room, to commemorate his virtues and our esteem. We sit bolt upright round our tables, waiting, but not impatient. A time-honoured solemnity is about to be observed, and we, the old stagers, is it for us to precipitate it? There are men in the room who have dined here every day for a quarter of a century-aye, the whisper goes round that one man did it on his wedding day."

It is curious that there is no mention of the Cheshire Cheese in Boswell's Johnson; but Percy Fitzgerald, in an article in The Gentleman's Magazine, says that when he first visited the house in the days of host Carlton, he met several very old gentlemen who had seen Dr. Johnson nightly there, " and they told me, what is not generally known, that the doctor, whilst living in the Temple, always went to the Mitre, or the Essex Head; but when he removed to Gough Square and Bolt Court he was a constant visitor at the Cheshire Cheese, because nothing but a hurricane would have induced him to cross Fleet Street ". Cyrus Jay, who began his visits to the tavern about twenty years after the doctor's death, likewise records, in his book of anecdotes, that he met tradesmen there who well remembered both Johnson and Goldsmith as



frequenters of the Cheshire Cheese. Goldsmith lived for a while in Wine Office Court.

The house in Gough Square, which the doctor some time inhabited, still survives, but in so dilapidated a condition that no long life can be predicted for it. It would be pleasant to dwell upon the doings in that more famous house in Bolt Court, where he passed his most prosperous days, received his most famous visitors, and breathed his last, the story has been so often told. Nor does it now exist, as it was burned down in .

Never was a street so closely associated with one man's name as Fleet Street is with that of Samuel Johnson; most of the anecdotes connected with him are too hackneyed to be repeated here. Not so well known, perhaps, is a story of the doctor's pugilistic prowess, how, being insulted by a burly drayman, he stripped off his coat and set to with the fellow in broad daylight, and drubbed him handsomely-such occurrences, even among the first gentlemen, were common enough in those days, and long, long afterwards. But Johnson had an uncle, who was a professional bruiser and stood in Lichfield market-place ready to take on all comers, from whom, perhaps, he inherited his pugnacity.


[1] The London atmosphere was little inferior in clearness to that of continental cities; yet coals had been introduced, and in the next reign came into general use. But then London had not many more than 100,000 inhabitants in the reign of James I.

[2] Every reader of Scott will perceive that I am partly indebted to the Fortunes of Nigel for this description.

[3] A row of shops ran along the whole facade of the church, and above was the famous clock, with its giant figures that struck the hours, like that now in Cheapside.

[4] Note.-I omitted to mention, on p. 110, two ancient houses east of St. Dunstan's, only recently pulled down, one of which, a bookseller's, was said to have been the residence of the Elizabethan poet, Michael Drayton, author of the famous Polyolbion.

[5] Now labelled " Henry the Eighth's Palace," but it never was so.

[6] At the sign of the Crown, close by, Lieutenant John Murray, R.N., in 1768, purchased, for £400, the good-will of Sandby's publishing business, and there founded the famous house that still bears his name. Butterworth's, which has just been demolished, was the site whereon another old publisher, Richard Tottell, carried on his business in the reign of Edward VI. Gosling's old bank, established as a goldsmith's in the reign of Charles I., and rebuilt in 1667, has also gone the way of all bricks and mortar.

[7] Now incorporated in Child's Bank (Tellson's of A Tale of Two Cities), where Charles II. banked, in which are still preserved the bust of Apollo and " The Welcome ".

[8] Desperadoes, many of them men of birth, who under various names, Tityre Tuns, Scourers, Hectors, Muns, Mohocks, were the terror of the town from the days of Charles II., and committed atrocities well worthy of the savages from whom they took their titles. See The Spectator, 324, 347, and Swift's Journal to Stella. But they were all the descendants of Ben Jonson's "Roaring Boys" and "roisterers". There was a horrible custom among these of piercing their veins and drinking healths in their own blood (Greene's Tu Quoque). This was also done by " The Hectors". "And," says the author of The Character of England (1659), "they sometimes drank of it to that excess that they have died of the intemperance."

[9] Coffee, however, is described in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621. " The Turks have a drink called coffee (for they use no wine), as black as soot, and as bitter. . . . They spend much time in those coffee-houses, which are somewhat like our alehouses or taverns, and there they sit chatting and drinking, to drive away the time and be merry together, because they find by experience that kind of drink, so used, helpeth digestion, and promoteth alacrity." Tea was probably introduced into England about 1657, when it sold, to quote one of Garway's shop bills, " for six and sometimes ten pounds the pound weight". Thomas Garway, of Exchange Alley, was the first who sold tea publicly in leaf and drink, retailing it at from 10s. to 50s. a pound. (See Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature.) Pepys writes (1667): "Home and did there find my wife making of tea, a drink which M. Pelling, the Potticary, tells me is good for the cold and defluxions ". It was in general use thirty years later.

[10] Hoare's is one of the most ancient banks in London; Lord Clarendon kept money there in Charles II.'s time.