Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton
1899

CHAPTER VIII: Fleet Street (continued)

CHAPTER VIII: Fleet Street (continued)

 

ON the eastern side of the narrow street leading from Fleet Street into Salisbury Square is an oldfashioned public-house known by the sign of the Barley Mow, which was probably one of the notorious " Mug Houses " of Charles II.'s time, so called because all the drinking cups used in them were ornamented with the counterfeit presentment of the archhypocrite Shaftesbury, Dryden's Achitophel, the idol of the Whigs; here assembled the supporters of that party to drink destruction to Charles and his brother James, and, when George of Hanover came to the throne, to James's son and grandson. These taverns were frequently the scene of riots ; the bibulous Whigs would sit at the open windows and shout their toasts to all the passers-by, and sometimes a party of irate Tories would attack the houses and set fire to them. This happened to a Mug House in Salisbury Square, probably the one under notice.

The interior of the Barley Mow is quite ancient, and in one of its quaintest rooms are held the meetings of that curious discussion society known as " The

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Cogers ". And although it at one time migrated to
Fetter Lane, the Barley Mow was its original quarters.

Here every shade of political faith, from the most staunch conservatism to the extremest radicalism, finds expression among the young barristers, lawyers' clerks, journalists, tradesmen who have adopted the venerable name. Many well-known orators have made their first essays in their art at Cogers' Hall, which has echoed with the voices of Johnson, Goldsmith, Wilkes, Dan O'Connell, and in our own days with those of Stewart Parnell, T. P. O'Connor, Sir Edward Clarke, Bradlaugh, and many another notoriety.

Down towards the river, in the time of James I.,. stood the Salisbury Court Theatre, a private house like the Blackfriars, and, after the Restoration, Dorset Gardens, so famous for its gorgeous " get ups," to use a present-day phrase. Previous to that time the noble mansion of the Earls of Dorset and its beautiful gardens sloping down to the river, occupied the ground. And hereabouts dwelt the renowned actor, Betterton ; Shadwell, the dramatist; Woodfall, the publisher of Junius's Letters. Here, in the north-west corner of the square, was Samuel Richardson's printing office, in which Goldsmith was at one time a reader-in a dingy back room of this building were written Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe.[1] 

What a striking contrast Richardson presented to his great rival in the art of fiction, Harry Fielding. A fat, sleek, primly dressed, well-to-do man was the creator of Sir Charles Grandison; vain, sentimental, kind-hearted, his pockets always full of sweetmeats for children; very fond of women's society, but a

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conventional moralist of the most pronounced type; an indefatigable worker, always pen in hand, and living more among the creations of his brain than with people of flesh and blood. His office was the rendezvous of most of the literati of the time. He removed from Salisbury Court, as it was then called, in , to Parson's Green, where he died six years afterwards. He is buried in St. Bride's.

And now it is but a step into Alsatia. Here in the middle ages stood a Carmelite convent, which was destroyed by Tudor Henry; but the area continued to preserve those privileges of sanctuary, which though much abused by scoundrelism, were a necessity in the days of tyrant kings and nobles, and saved many an innocent life, as well as many a guilty; but in the time of James I. Whitefriars became a mere horde of ruffians. Those who would realise what this den of infamy was like should read Scott's Fortunes of Nigel and Shadwell's play, The Squire of Alsatia, to which the great novelist was indebted for much of his materials. The privileges of sanctuary were withdrawn at the close of the seventeenth century. But in the little known lanes and alleys lying behind Fleet Street and about Whitefriars Street may still be found houses of the Stuart days, relics of the ancient Alsatia. Only a short time ago in a cellar in Britton's Court, in the last-named thoroughfare, a crypt was unearthed which antiquaries believe to be a portion of the old Carmelite house, founded in the thirteenth century. One of the romances of Alsatia was the murder of Turner, the

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fencing-master. In a bout with sword and dagger with young Lord Sanquhar, a Scotch gentleman of ancient lineage, Turner had the misfortune to thrust out one of his eyes. Sanquhar, burning for revenge, as soon as he recovered, resolved upon Turner's death. The fencing-master, in pursuance of his calling, was continually changing his quarters; his foe dogged him from place to place, but by some accident always failed in his design, until he employed two bravoes. One May evening in , as Turner was sitting at the door of a tavern in Whitefriars, one of these fellows came up to him, and drawing a pistol from beneath his cloak, shot him dead. Sanquhar was hanged for the crime in front of Westminster Hall, and his tools shared his fate upon a gibbet raised at the Whitefriars gate.

Passing through the postern, which alone divided the lawless from the lawyers, we will stroll into the Temple, than which there is no more haunted ground in all this great metropolis. And yet how many Londoners have I spoken with to whom the beautiful church is as unknown as its prototype that covers the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. Standing before its blackened walls in the dimness of an autumn night, when the subdued roar of Fleet Street falls upon the ear like the echoes of a distant torrent and all around is solitary stillness, one might picture the ghosts of those white-robed, red-crossed soldier-priests, who founded this noble pile in the twelfth century, and the bones of many of whom moulder beneath their

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recumbent effigies within a few feet of us, gliding through the solemn aisles. After the order was abolished Edward II. bestowed the demesne upon the Earl of Lancaster, who converted it into a hostelry or inn for law students: these still preserved some of the monkish customs and insignia of their predecessors, notably the coif, which was worn unto the last by the now extinct sergeants-at-law.

Let us now enter the Middle Temple Hall. That glorious carved screen, formed, it is said, out of some wreckage of the Armada, has witnessed rare feastings and pageantry. Memorable among which is the celebration of Twelfth Night, , when Shakespeare's comedy of that name is presented before the queen and her splendid court; among the illustrious visitors are--the all-accomplished Raleigh, in his youth a Temple student; fiery Essex, who ere long will lay his haughty head upon the block; subtle, unscrupulous Leicester, upon whom the ancient virgin now and again casts amorous glances; grave Burleigh, who, with the weight of a kingdom upon his brow, is here sore against his will, for he despises all poets and players; Robert Cecil, his son, a Templar, looking demure enough under the paternal eye, but a notorious roisterer, who scours the streets at night on mischief bent. Heartily laughs the queen, who is too great a woman to be prudish, at the quips and cranks of the clown, at the conceits of Malvolio, at the humour of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. And after the play is over, a gentleman, plainly but richly habited, with a

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face of wondrous sweetness and intellectual calm,kneels to receive the gratulations which his sovereign bestows upon her trusty and well-beloved servant, Master William Shakespeare. Having kissed the royal hand the poet draws back and is then surrounded by the courtiers, with many of whom he is on terms of intimate companionship, all eager to do him honour. When the feast is served, sixteen trumpeters, and two gentlemen bearing four torches of white wax, usher in the great dish, the boar's head, with a golden lemon in its huge mouth, which the servitors place upon the damask tablecloth, lighted up by wax tapers in twenty silver candlesticks, and glittering with gold and silver plate.

There were rare doings in the Old Hall at Christmas-tide when Chancellor Bacon presided; feasting, masking and mumming. During the reign of Charles I. some gorgeous "Masques" were performed, one of which is said to have cost £21,000! Charles II., William, Anne and the first and second Georges all held high jinks here. The Temple suffered much in the great fire of , and most that was left of it perished in another conflagration twelve years later, which spared little or nothing except the church, as the dates over the doorways of the oldest buildings- -9--inform us.

Stroll down into the gardens and you are again in the middle ages; seven hundred years ago the Red Cross knights there enjoyed the pleasant breezes wafted over the silver Thames from the Surrey meadows and

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hills, that knew scarcely a human habitation; and later on that grave " Clerk of Oxenford," Geoffrey Chaucer, a member of the Inner Temple, meditated in its sweet solitudes over his Canterbury Tales. It was here that, tradition tells us, the followers of York and Lancaster first plucked those fatal badges of their factions, "the red rose and the white" that sent "a thousand souls to death and endless night". It was the favourite promenade of the gallants of Elizabeth's and James's time, during the summer season; when heated by the canary and sack of the Devil they strolled out into its greenery to take the air, and amuse themselves by watching the busy scene upon the river, Raleigh, Selden, Beaumont, Marston, Ford, and, later, Dorset, Cooke, Clarendon, Congreve, Wycherley, Burke, all of whom were Temple students. While " the round " of the church was as frequented a promenade as the middle aisle of St. Paul's.

For the Thames was the great highway. When majesty passed from Whitheall to the Tower it was in its gilded barge, and when the Lord Mayor journeyed from London to Westminster it was in no rumbling carriage over rutty roads, but in a barge, little inferior in splendour to royalty's; and until comparatively recent times the great Civic Show embarked at Blackfriars, and made the remainder of its course by water. The shores swarmed with watermen plying for hire, and both citizens and nobles preferred to glide smoothly over the sweet, sunlit river to being jolted through dark, tortuous and evil-smelling streets.

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So while the Strand was almost deserted the river was all life and bustle, crowded with boats of all kinds, gay with laughing youth and brilliant state; musical as the canals of Venice, with the fanfare of trumpets announcing the approach of some great personage, the songs of the boatmen, and the voices of the cavaliers chanting to the accompaniment of guitars or viols some light or sentimental French or Italian ditties to their mistresses. When Mr. Spectator took that grand old knight, Sir Roger de Coverley, to see Westminster Abbey, it was in a boat that he hailed at Temple Stairs.

Not long ago there was on the eastern side of the garden the decayed trunk of a tree, railed in; it was all that remained of three, a seat beneath which was the favourite resting-place of Johnson and Goldsmith. On summer evenings the doctor would leave his garret chambers, that were just within Middle Temple Gate, clad in rusty-brown suit, his breeches unbuttoned at the knees, black worsted stockings wrinkling down the legs, scrubby wig, too small for his big head, white cravat soiled with the droppings of countless cups of tea, and there join Goldy, who had all day been engaged upon his Natural History in his chambers in Brick Court. And while the doctor is thundering forth his pompous aphorisms, his companion is trying to think where he can borrow a guinea, or how evade the writ his tailor has issued for that plum-coloured velvet suit which looks so incongruous upon his awkward figure.

A few years previously, when he was studying the law, another scapegrace, Henry Fielding, might have been absorbed by the same problem on that same spot, or in his dingy rooms close by; where, after returning from the Rose, he would fall to upon his law books, or upon an article for The Champion to supply his daily needs, while his wife was living down at Salisbury waiting until he should be called to the Bar.

And so another generation passes away; the doctor, now a man well to do, has gone to live in Bolt Court, Harry Fielding is lying in his quiet grave on the hillside at Lisbon, and on a cold day in February, , a modest funeral is passing from Brick Court to the Temple churchyard, followed by Sir Joshua Reynold, Edmund Burke and other famous men, and a gathering of poor waifs and strays from the streets are weeping for their benefactor, who, while he had a shilling in his pocket, was never deaf to their cry of distress ; and up in the trees close by, the wise rooks, whose doings it was his amusement to watch, are cawing what sounds like a monody upon the death of the gentle poet.

From the earliest times the Templars were riotous roisterers, very jealous of their privileges. When Lord Mayor Lyon, in , came to dine with John Prideaux with his sword of state up, the weapon was snatched from the bearer and a free fight ensued; when a hundred years later another Lord Mayor repeated the experiment his lordship had to hide himself

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in a bencher's closet from the wrath of some fire-eating students. Battles between the Alsatians and Templars were of frequent occurrence, but the rogues usually got the worst of it. William Murray, afterwards the great Lord Mansfield, was frequently drinking at the Cock while his clients were cooling their heels in his chambers. He once kept shrew Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, waiting so long that when he arrived, very seedy after a night's orgie, she swore at him as lustily as did her duke's troopers in Flanders. Many a time did Porson, greatest of Greek scholars, stagger home from the Cyder Cellars, his favourite resort, to his Temple chambers and wake up his neighbour beneath by falling helpless upon the floor. Such was his craving for alcohol that he would drink spirits of wine and even embrocation in the lack of anything better; Rogers, the poet banker, relates that after a dinner-party he would steal back to the dining-room to drain the bottles and glasses; he would sometimes go for days without food, living solely upon drink, and made nothing of six pots of porter for his breakfast. Poor Cowper spent some of the darkest hours of his melancholy life in the Inner Temple.

Inner Temple Lane is reminiscent of dear delightful Charles Lamb, as indeed is the whole of the Temple; and who has ever sketched it and its people so vividly as he? It was at No. 4 he gave those glorious but frugal suppers, so graphically described by Talfourd, at which some of the brightest wits and cleverest men of the day assembled, Proctor, Coleridge, Wordsworth,

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Hazlitt, Haydon, Crabb Robinson, Talfourd himself; what talks there were anent those old dramatists whom Lamb had rescued from a couple of centuries of oblivion, about the poets of the day, the plays and players; what puns, what jokes, what Rabelasian laughter!

The annals of the Temple are singularly free of crime, but in Tanfield Court a murder was committed in , that made a great sensation at the time. A young laundress named Sarah Maledon strangled an old lady named Duncombe, and her old servant cut a young girl's throat, and plundered the chambers of money and plate. She was hanged opposite Mitre Court, Fleet Street.

Over the ancient home of the Templars Dickens and Thackeray have cast the halo of their genius; Rose Pinch and John Westlock haunt Fountain Court, and in Garden Court, now no more, were Pip's chambers, where Magwitch, in one of the novelist's finest scenes, revealed his identity on that dreary winter's night to his horrified protege, described in Great Expectations. Warrington in ragged dressing-gown, and dandy Pen, and little Fanny Bolton, and charming Laura, and the plethoric major meet us in "Lamb" Court and in the gardens, and are they not presences as real to us as any of its historical personages?

Rapidly the Temple of Lamb, of Dickens, of Thackeray, of our boyhood, is giving place to modern pretentiousness ; the old courts were dingy, dull and

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unpicturesque; yet how interesting it was to peer through those mouldy doorways, and up the dim staircases, and speculate about the thousands of footsteps which shall never again be heard upon earth, that have worn those oaken steps into hollows, upon the vanished hands that have polished the rails of those sturdy balusters to ebon smoothness, the great men and little men, the heavy hearts and the light hearts that have mounted them, and of the dreams of ambition fulfilled in success, or dying out in failure, that those worm-eaten chambers wot of.

As the night closes in the passers-by grow fewer and fewer; the clerks have departed; the Templars have gone to dinner; some of the windows are still lighted up, and here and there you may catch sight of busy fingers beneath a shaded lamp; but the dim and ghostly courts and the ancient church, which is now quite nebulous, are pretty well " left to darkness and to me".

Passing beneath the gateway into the vortex of life on the other side what a transformation it is! We have been dreaming of the Fleet Street of Shakespeare, of the Mohocks, of Johnson and Lamb, but no quaintly carved and gabled houses now meet our eye, no wigged and buckle-shoed pedestrians leisurely sauntering to their favourite tavern, unruffled by pushing crowd or noisy vehicle; the street we have been dreaming of was as placid and unhurried as that of a remote country town of to-day. What would the slow and sententious Doctor think of this

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swarm of humanity that we are now mingled among ? each unit of which seems as if life and death depended upon its speed; of these rushing, panting newspaper boys, with their shrill cries of " Special!" " Winner! " incomprehensible words to the eighteenth century man; this clatter of cabs and omnibuses, an endless procession; of the flood of light diffused by those huge globes of electric light that have taken the place of the dim oil lamps of his day and make the glaring gas, an illuminant of which he would be equally ignorant, look sick and pale in the shops? What would he say to the chatter, the noise, the scrambling drinking at the bars of those quiet and sedate taverns in which dead silence reigned when he rolled out his pompous sentences ? Were he to attempt it now! Alack ! Let him turn into the courts and alleys that live in his memory almost as peaceful as country lanes; they are humming with the thunderous din of the printing machine; and looking down through openings and gratings at his feet he will see interminable sheets of paper whirling over huge cylinders and hear a deafening, hissing and rushing of steam. Poor, bewildered Doctor, he would inevitably opine that he had strayed into a lower world than earth and hurry back to his tomb.[2] 

In and out the great newspaper offices reporters and telegraph boys are hurrying all through the night; to the Central Press Offices messages are being flashed from every part of the globe, from nations unknown when our Doctor was in the flesh; in editors' rooms the busy pens move to the accompaniment of the eternal click click of the tape

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machine, which is adding its quota of "copy," to be passed on to armies of compositors working silently and swiftly on the floors above beneath a glare of gas or electric light. All night long the clatter and click go on ; pale-faced, weary and perspiring " subs" are feverishly scanning proofs or scrawling paragraphs, or waiting anxiously for the last reporter's "flimsy " from the Commons and the latest scrap of foreign news. Outside the bustle has not yet subsided; late omnibuses, crammed in and out, are rattling along, and pedestrians are rushing to catch their last train, which is puffing and panting in Ludgate Station.

With the smallest hours comes a lull, though the slaves of the lamp have not relaxed their toils, and the thunderous hum of printing machines is louder than ever. Presently the street is all alive again; the compositors have finished their task and are hurrying out of the glare and heat into the cold morning air. A little while longer and the newsagents' carts come clattering over the stones, and after being filled with bales of newspapers dash off noisily for the railway stations. And now from citywards great lumbering waggons, piled up with vegetables and baskets,

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drawn by slumberous horses, unguided by sleeping drivers, slowly make their way to Covent Gardenthe one bit of repose in all this feverish turmoil. And so the day life mingles with the night life, and the eternal round of struggle and eager hurry goes on unceasingly.

 
 
Footnotes:

[1] Since the context was written, Mr. Catling, the editor of Lloyd's Newspaper, has informed me that their old office, 12 Salisbury Square, with an entrance through a court leading from Fleet Street, was Richardson's printing office. The original lease is in possession of the Lloyd's. I understand, also, that the dingy room in which Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe were written still exists.

[2] And yet, in running through the gossiping chronicles of past times, how frequently one finds that some of our own pet bugbears were quite as rampant generations ago as they are now. A curious. instance of this is to be found in The Spectator, No. 251. In which there is a long letter upon street noises, and " Ralph Crotchet" complains as bitterly as might any correspondent of a daily paper, of the shrill cry of the milkmaid, the bellowing of the chimney-sweeper, the smallcoal man, the costermonger and the brick-dust vendor. " I must not omit one particular absurdity which runs through this whole vociferous generation, and which renders their cries, very often not only incommodious, but altogether useless to the public. I mean that idle accomplishment which they all aim at, of crying so as not to be understood." What a conservative race English hawkers must be ! But in addition to these noises, the lieges of Queen Anne had to endure " for an hour together the twanking of a brass kettle or a frying-pan," the watchman's thump at midnight, and the sow-gelder's horn. But here is the most startling passage of all. " Our news should indeed be published in a very quick time, because it is a commodity that will not keep cold. It should not, however, be called with the same precipitation as Fire. Yet this is generally the case. A bloody battle alarms the town from one end to the other in an instant." So even the newspaper boy, O Solomon ! is not new ! It only wants the addition of a German band and a piano-organ to complete the resemblance between 1712 and 1899. Yet another picture, from The Spectator, No. 87, the applicability of which, to our fin de siecle, will strike every reader. " I cannot but complain to you that there are, in six or seven places of this city, coffeehouses kept by persons of that sisterhood. These idols sit all day long, the adoration of the youth, within such and such districts; I know in particular goods are not entered at the Custom house, nor law reports perused in the Temple, by reason of one beauty who detains the young merchants too long near 'Change, and another fair one who keeps the students too long at her house when they should be at study." Then he goes on to describe how each adorer waits his turn for a glance " from these little thrones which all the company but these lovers call the Bars," how one grew white as ashes because his inamorata turned the sugar in his rival's tea-dish, and another was going to drown himself because his idol would wash the dish in which she had but just drank tea, before she would let him use it. What a mortifying reflection it is for this up-to-date age to discover that not even the pretty barmaid and her Johnny are originals! There is no gainsaying that Solomon was the wisest of men.