Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton





How few among the millions that daily swarm in the streets of the great metropolis have any real knowledge of this wonderful city of ours! The crowds hurry on, bent on business or pleasure, in ignorance or obliviousness of the associations connected with those thoroughfares, among the ruins of which, if not Macaulay's New Zealander, some other race in the remote future will meditate in such awestruck wonder, as does the pilgrim of to-day over the fragments of the capital of the Caesars, and endeavour to fix the sites of those world-famous events of which London [1]  has been the scene.

And these very Englishmen, who are so contemptuously indifferent to our modern Babylon, will take the deepest interest in the rue or strasse or church of some petty continental town that can boast one famous man and half a dozen remarkable events. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that every stone of inner London has its story, its leaf of history, its page of romance, its human document. Think how exhaustless must be the annals of a city which for eight hundred years has been the heart of this mighty empire of England! And during that period there has been scarcely an Englishman whose name is graven upon the scrolls of fame, and few foreign celebrities, who have not at some time endowed it by their presence. But the stories of its streets are written in sympathetic ink, in characters invisible to the unknowing eye, but pregnant with meaning to those who have the secret of making them start to light.

To elucidate this vast cryptogram within the limits of a modest volume would be impossible, therefore I must confine myself to the more ancient and historic neighbourhoods.

As my object is to endeavour to present a living picture of London and its people as it appeared to contemporaries at different periods of the city's history, I shall put aside all dry-as-dust disquisitions in favour of the more romantic aspects, so that these stories may be acceptable to all who are interested in our grand metropolis.

What better spot could I start from than the summit of that hill upon which rises Sir Christopher Wren's stately edifice? Century after century the life-blood of England's mighty heart has flowed and reflowed through this central artery. The glories of war, the triumphs of peace, the pageants of death, the pomps of civic state have been celebrated here. It is identified with religion, state-craft, scholarship, with art and science and glorious deeds, and with the great dead who repose within its walls. St. Paul's dominates the metropolis. Approaching it from the heights of Hampstead or Highgate, looking down upon it from Kent or Surrey hills, entering it by the Thames, still through the murky atmosphere looms the dome of the great cathedral, glittering and sceptred. It is to London what the Acropolis was to Athens, the Capitol to Rome. St. Paul's is a ghostly place upon a dark winter's night, when the great human hive has swarmed away from shop and warehouse and the city is deserted. Wheels rattle along frequently enough, but there are few pedestrians; the electric lamps cast a cold glare of light, but they are powerless to dispel the awful shadow of the great temple, black with centuries of London smoke, brooding in eternal silence over the past.

And what a past!

When Caesar landed in Britain there was a town, probably no more than a collection of huts, on the north bank of the Thames, of which the spot now dedicated to St. Paul was the centre, all to the north


of it being a dense forest. Here, says tradition, the Romans built a temple to Diana or to Jupiter; scalps of kine and oxen-which were sacrificed to the Olympian godhead--dug up in the fourteenth century, pointing rather to the latter deity.

Ethelbert, in 610, soon after his conversion, erected upon this ground a wooden church, which was burned down in 961 and rebuilt the same year. In the second church was destroyed by fire.

"Maricius, the bishop," says Stow, " began therefore the foundation of a new church of St. Paul, a work which men of that time judged would never be finished, it was so wonderful to them for length and breadth; also the same was built upon arches or vaults of stone, for defence of fire, which was a manner of work before that time unknown to the people of this nation, and the stone was fetched from Caen in Normandy." So densely populated was this part of London even then that Maricius' successor, Richard Beamor, had to buy up large streets and lanes of houses to make room for the great building and the churchyard, which was surrounded by a wall. And still Finsbury and Moorfields were desolate swamps, and the wolves howled and attacked travellers on the slopes of Highgate. Not until the latter part of the reign of Henry III. was the colossal edifice completed. Its length was 596 feet, its breadth 130, its height from the ground to the top of the spire 520.[2] 

In the new cathedral, as yet unfinished, assembled the barons and prelates to discuss the stipulations of the great charter, afterwards signed by tyrant John at Runnymede. In the dark days of Edward II. a bloody and sacrilegious deed was enacted on the threshold of St. Paul's. The Bishop of Exeter and lord high treasurer of England held London for the king; but Queen Isabella's party was paramount in the city, and after sacking his palace they dragged the prelate from his horse at the north door of the cathedral, to which he had fled for sanctuary, and beheaded him close by. Hither was brought Wycliffe, the first of the Protestants, to answer for his heretical doctrines, but so strong were his supporters, numbering among them John of Gaunt, the king's son, that they threatened to drag proud Bishop Courtenay, who had cited him, out of the cathedral by the hair of his head. And here "time-honoured Lancaster" was laid in a splendid tomb.

In the nave of St. Paul's was exhibited for three days the shrunken, murdered body of Richard II. Many a turbulent scene was enacted within the walls of the sacred edifice during the Wars of the Roses; hither was brought the naked corpse of Warwick, the kingmaker, from the field of St. Albans, and exposed for days to strike terror to his adherents; and a month afterwards the remains of the unhappy Henry VI. to lie in state. Both Richard III. and his conqueror, Henry of Lancaster, gave thanks for their accession at the high altar, before which, there-


after, Prince Arthur was wedded to Catherine of Arragon. Here Henry VIII. celebrated the thanksgiving for the peace between England, France and Spain; the king habited in purple velvet, powdered, with pearls, rubies, sapphires and diamonds, and Wolsey wearing a collar studded with carbuncles as big as walnuts. Charles V. was proclaimed emperor in front of St. Paul's. The defeat of Francis I. at the battle of Pavia was celebrated by a bonfire before the western entrance and a Te Deum within. Confusion worse confounded reigned here during the early Reformation days: now crucifixes were pulled down, then Protestants were tried there before being sent to the stake at Smithfield. Hither at the reception of Cardinal Pole came Philip of Spain with his splendid retinue-English, German and Spanishas his father, Charles V., had before him.

On St. Paul's day a fine buck was brought up the steps of the high altar; the dean and chapter, apparelled in copes and vestments embroidered with bucks and garlands of roses on their heads, then forming in procession, the head of the buck was borne upon a pole before the cross, and so marching to the west door where the keeper who brought it blowed the death of the buck, and the horners of the city answered him in like manner. So Stow sets forth, and further informs us that the presentation of a buck and doe to St. Paul's was the tenure by which a certain nobleman held certain lands.

But these are antique cameos, and it is not until we


arrive at the glorious reign of Elizabeth that the dramatists and pamphleteers give us the means of peopling St. Paul's with men of flesh and blood. Can we not picture that truly regal sovereign seated in a coach, the first ever seen in England, drawn by four white horses, and attended by her gorgeous court, coming here to celebrate the victory over the Spanish Armada, with the tattered banners of Spain waving on the towers? Fine as was our recent pageant, it must pale before that; for how can we compare our hideous, gloomy, modern dress with the splendour and artistic beauty which marked the costumes of that period?

St. Paul's, however, in the days of Elizabeth was no edifying spectacle, and rather resembled that temple from which the usurers were driven than a temple of Christ. The Reformation by abolishing forms and ceremonies destroyed all reverence for sacred things, for the pagan spirit of the Renaissance had taken the place of the old religion.

In the reign of Edward VI. Protector Somerset had ordered all images to be torn down, the walls whitewashed to obliterate the paintings, and the priceless plate to be carried away for his personal enrichment. And although Mary reinvested the cathedral with something of its old beauty, under her sister it went from bad to worse. The chantry was converted into a lumber room; the chapels were used as a school, as a glazier shop, and for other unworthy purposes ; while a trunkmaker plied his craft in the cloisters; a baker set an oven in one of the buttresses; and in the vaults


were a carpenter's shop and wine stores. Upon Sundays and all festival days, as late as , the children of the two neighbouring parishes came into the church after dinner and played and shouted and screamed until dark, so that the voice of the preacher could not be heard in the choir. Let me attempt to picture the middle aisle of St. Paul's and its frequenters as they appeared to the looker on in the reigns of Gloriana" and her successor.

It is a public thoroughfare: porters carrying their burdens, women with baskets of fruit and fish poised upon their heads, even mules and donkeys laden with goods, pass through it from east to west and west to east; costers are crying their wares and selling them to the loungers who chaffer and bargain as in a marketplace; on the pillars of the aisles are stuck printed bills, advertising for servants or puffing the goods of some enterprising tradesman-there is nothing new under the sun, not even puffing-or setting forth how the professors of the new art of tobacco smoking will instruct pupils in the most fashionable way of " drinking tobacco," as the phrase goes. Here struts the young gallant, resplendent in velvet and gold, beside the sober citizen in woollen stockings and shining shoes; the sour-faced Puritan, gloomy as his dress; the soldier fresh from the wars, scarred and travel-stained, clanking his ponderous sword and garnishing his talk with oaths in English, Italian and Spanish, ready to be hired by any one who will pay for his blade-did not Falstaff "buy" Bardolph "in Paul's "?-hungry


gamesters, who having lost their last coin have come to dine with Duke Humphrey, [3]  which is the proverb for going dinnerless; serving-men aping the airs and insolence of their masters; and pickpockets plying their avocation-few people troubling even to doff their hats.

That gaily-dressed, devil-may-care young gentleman, from whom Shakespeare might have drawn Mercutio or Gratiano, is arranging with that cunningfaced scrivener, who carries pen and inkhorn in his belt, for a post obit. on his gouty father, who lives penuriously down in the country; while a fiery Tybalt, in deedy converse with that truculent-looking ruffian from Alsatia, is plotting an attack upon a successful rival, who may be killed outright or only drubbed within an inch of his life. Behind one of the pillars a courtesan and her gallant are toying; merchants are discussing the price of goods and making bargains; through the babel of ribald and profane tongues breaks at times the chant of the choir from one of the chapels. Suddenly the clamour takes a fiercer tone: a Cassio and a Montano, having partaken too freely of the wine cup, have fallen into a quarrel. It is a word and a blow: there is a clash of swords and the two are at cut


and thrust. Friends try to part them, but there is a general stampede of the idlers, for the civic guard is coming, and they fear to be implicated in a sacrilege which is punished by exposure in the pillory and the cropping of ears. Indeed all these things that I have described are penalised by laws that are daily broken. [4] 

May we not detect among the crowd the gentle face of Shakespeare, rugged Ben Jonson, handsome Beaumont, and his fidus Achates, Fletcher; or those swashbucklers of genius, Robert Greene, George Peele, Kit Marlowe, Tom Nash, debauched, unprincipled, thriftless, poverty-stricken, but with the divine afflatus burning beneath their threadbare and tarnished finery, the most pregnant group of Lucianic wits that ever flourished at one period ?

Soon after eleven o'clock the loungers in Paul's, save those who "dine with Duke Humphrey," repair to the ordinaries, of which there are several in the vicinity to suit all pockets, ranging from three pence to twelve pence; all are humble in accommodation, with rushes or sand upon the floors, the plainest of substantial furniture, wooden benches and trenchers: but then the fare is of the best-joints, poultry,



All is animation, for the spirit of youth is over all, youth with its virtues and vices, all in excess; youth in its ebullience, its roseate visions of futurity; there is no cynicism, no pessimism, it knows not the eternal sneer; yet it values not life at a pin's fee; it will fight to the death for a straw. There is a Benvolio who has just given his cloak and sword to his page, but is quite ready to try the passado upon any man in the room who "hath a hair more or less in his beard " than he has; there is Osric, in his lacelike shirt, exquisitely wrought by the needle in patterns of fruits and flowers, and even historical scenes; his yellow satin doublet richly laced, and shoes with yellow roses on them ; [5]  or perhaps Spanish leather boots, ruffled with costly lace, and wrinkled low to show off his silk stockings; loose-plaited breeches of enormous size, over which the shirt is bulged, in panes or partitions of different colours, and fastened to the vest by tags and loops, and girdle embroidered with gold and pearl and precious stones; a gilt-edged ruff bristles round his neck; his French murrey or beaver hat, the brim plaited with gold twist and spangles, and encircled by a gold cable band, from beneath which hangs down upon his shoulder a long love-lock,


either worn shaggy or wreathed with silken twist; maybe his hair falls upon his forehead in spaniel-like curls, or is thrust up to a toupet, and a knot or rose of ribbons is set jauntily against his left ear; then his beard may be fashioned like a spade or a bodkin, or like an alley, or a quick set hedge, or the letter T. Nor must we overlook the gorgeous cloak of plush which has cost three pounds ten shillings the yard. He is discussing the last new fashion. Fastidious Brisk is discoursing pedantically upon "drinking," tobacco, the " whiffe, the ring, the euripus, the Cuban ebolition," and such like jargon of the day. Here is another with arms crossed, and posing in the melancholy attitude, much affected by young gentlemen, as Shakespeare tells us, now and again complacently viewing his face in the small mirror he carries in his hat. Near at hand is Bobadil in big boots of untanned leather, scarlet doublet, much frayed and stained, buff jerkin, Spanish beaver with ragged feather, a huge ironhilted sword clanking at his heels, fiercely twirling his moustache as he brags of his deeds of" derring-do," and looking out for a gull to pay for his repast. In the background is a party intent upon Gleek or Primero, two highly scientific games at cards, while another group of gallants is eagerly discussing the last new play at the Blackfriars or the Fortune, or the last new poem or satire. After dinner most of the company return to the cathedral, where they will lounge until it is time for the theatres.

The ancient churchyard of St. Paul's was of much


greater circumference than the present. On the north side was the famous Cross, which was almost as important as the cathedral itself. There in medieval days the citizens assembled to elect magistrates, to discuss public affairs, and sometimes to try criminals. When these functions ceased to be performed there the Cross was used for all royal and civic proclamations; a pulpit was erected, also covered galleries for the mayor and aldermen, used occasionally by the king and court, who came to hear the preachings delivered by some of the greatest divines of the age. Here penitents were exposed to the gaze of the mob. Hither, barefooted, wrapped in a white sheet, a taper in her hand, came Jane Shore, the unhappy favourite of Edward IV., whom Richard of Gloucester, as all readers of Shakespeare will remember, accused of plotting with Lord Hastings to destroy him by the powers of witchcraft. " In her penance," writes Holinshed, "she went in countenance so womanly, that albeit she were out of all array, save her kirtle only, yet she went so fair and lovely that . . . many folks that hated her living (and glad were to see sin corrected) yet pitied they more her penance than rejoiced therein, when they considered that the Protector procured it more of a corrupt intent than any virtuous affection." The story of Jane Shore perishing of starvation is apocryphal, as Sir Thomas More, in his Life of Richard III., describes her in her old age, and they tell you at Eton that she died within the precincts of the college.

There were stormy doings at the Cross during the struggles of the Reformation, and preachers alternately denounced, upheld, and again denounced the Pope and the Romish Church, and burned each other's sermons and missals and images, and sometimes tried to assassinate one another. The Cross was finally demolished by the Puritans, and upon the ground on which were enacted centuries of English history only crowds of women now gaze in at shop windows upon mantles and bonnets!

London House Yard marks the site of the bishop's residence, where Edward II I. and Philippa were lodged during a great tournament in Smithfield, and Edward V. remained previous to the mockery of his coronation. The Chapter House now occupies a portion of the site. On the north-east side of the churchyard stood a belfry, or campanile, which contained the great bell that summoned the citizens when their presence was required at the Cross. On the southwest of the thoroughfare was a parish church dedicated to St. Gregory, and above it a prison, in which heretics were confined up to the end of the sixteenth century.

Until the cathedral was enlarged, in the time of Henry III.-Edward I., the church of St. Faith was a distinct building, standing on the eastern side of the edifice; it was taken down between and , after which a portion of the vaults was given up to the parishioners and called St. Faith in the Crypts. After the fire the parish was joined to that


of St. Augustine; but the parishioners of St. Faith still hold certain privileges in the cathedral.

During the reign of the first Stuart the grand old Gothic temple fell into sad decay. James made some movement to obtain funds for its restoration, but it came to nothing, until his son and successor and Archbishop Laud took up the matter in earnest, and that great architect, Inigo Jones, was commissioned to do the work; sheds and houses that obstructed the western entrance were cleared away, and it was proposed that all the shops in Cheapside and Lombard Street, except goldsmiths, should be done away with, so that a grander approach might be formed from the cast. But the great Puritan rising swept away all these plans, and the church was plundered of its plate -the unco guid always look to the siller-the monuments were destroyed, the graves desecrated, the choir was turned into a cavalry barracks, shops were put up in the aisles, where the soldiers played at ninepins; and a saw-pit was opened in the body of the building. Melancholy indeed was the aspect of the venerable pile when Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to undertake the work of restoration.

The scaffolding is erected, all is ready for a commencement. On the night of the 2nd of September, , the watchman who is on guard, while dozing away the dark hours, becomes conscious of a red glare in the eastern sky, denoting a fire some little distance off; but conflagrations are so common among the wooden houses of old London that he thinks nothing


of it and falls asleep again. But by-and-by he is roused by a strange hurtling in the air, wailing voices and great clattering of feet, as though the stragglers of a routed army are sweeping by. Again he starts up and sees that citywards the sky is like molten brass, shot with tongues of flame and lurid spirals of smoke. He runs down and questions some of the sobbing, affrighted people hurrying past; but when he learns that the fire is away in Eastcheap he comforts himself with the reflection that it must certainly be stopped before it reaches Paul's, and goes to breakfast with the philosophical calm of selfishness. Each moment the fugitives increase and their cries grow more terrible: "Woe, woe to this wicked city, for the judgment-day has come!" is shrieked by a hundred voices. The air is hot and becoming almost unbreathable, it is so thick with the pungent odour of burning; and the roar and swirl of the flames, the thunderous fall of buildings can be heard coming nearer and nearer. Filled with horror he once more ascends the tower.

Perhaps not since Nero gazed upon burning Rome has such a sight met human eyes; the sun is shining, but the awful glow, the billowy clouds of smoke obscure the day; beneath this canopy, that might be the roof of hell, blazes the city; it is a second Gomorrah; fire rains down upon it, fire surges up from it; streets, churches, houses are a red-hot mass; London Bridge is a cascade of flame, the river beneath a burning lake. Dense showers of glittering spangles borne on the east wind come nearer and nearer until they burn


the watchman's clothes; people in the houses round about are wildly dragging out their furniture; tremendous explosions-they are endeavouring to stop the conflagration by blowing up houses-add a new horror to the hurly-burly; but all in vain, walls of flame, like the sand clouds of the desert, come whirling onwards, driving shrieking wretches before them. Almost paralysed by terror the watchman descends and rushes into the stream of panic-stricken people fleeing down . When he turns to look he sees the flames like fiery pythons twisting round the scaffolding, and soon the old cathedral is a mountain of fire, while with redoubled vigour, like the blast of a sirocco, the winged flames still speed onwards.

Had Sir Christopher Wren been allowed to have his own way in the rebuilding of London by making St. Paul's[6]  the centre, and running from it broad, noble streets, east and west and north, what a grand city it would be! But when did Englishmen show any reverence for beauty of design if it were opposed to utility? Even the cathedral itself suffered from our insular crassness, and until within these few years, and then only after much owlish opposition, remained a mere husk, cold, lifeless, and unmeaning.

Commenced in the June of , without any ceremonial, new St. Paul's was inaugurated on 2nd December, , to celebrate the Peace of Ryswick; but the king, much against his will, was not present,


as a Jacobite rising was feared. During Anne's reign there were no fewer than seven thanksgivings for victories, all of which were attended by the queen. It was in , at the Peace of Utrecht celebration, that the charity children first attended. The great architect received the usual reward meted out to English men of genius-that is to say, he was snubbed, harassed, and treated with contumely, and at eighty-six years of age, when the glorious House of Hanover came to the throne, he was dismissed from his post of Surveyor of Public Works simply because he had been a servant of the Stuarts, and an imbecile, named Benson, put in his place; and though Benson's conduct of affairs was so infamous that he had to be dismissed, the king consoled him with some profitable places. When Sir Christopher became too feeble to walk the grand old man was carried once every year into the cathedral to gaze upon his glorious work; and when at last he passed away at the age of ninety-one, in , he was the first to be laid to rest within its walls. Was not that some consolation for the petty malice of an ignorant German boor, whose sceptred hands were not worthy to tie his shoe strings ? And what an epitaph he has: "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice". " Kings for such a one might wish to die." It is suggestive that from the day on which George I. went to St. Paul's to celebrate his accession, , no king of the House of Hanover entered the national cathedral until , when George III. went to offer up a thanksgiving for his recovery from dementia.

The four greatest events connected with St. Paul's during the present century have been the burials of Nelson and Wellington, the thanksgiving for the recovery of the Prince of Wales, and the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria.

Thirteen hundred years of history had rolled over the hill, and five different races of men had been masters there when the great Gothic cathedral was completed-the woad-stained Celts, the splendid legionaries and togad patricians of the Caesars, the savage Saxons, the fierce Vikings, and the mail-clad Normans. There the white-robed priestesses of Diana, or the gorgeously arrayed flamens of Jupiter had offered up sacrifices to the deities of Olympus; there, perhaps, had been worshipped the bloody gods of Walhalla, and there St. Augustin raised the cross of Christ. All had played their parts in the inscrutable drama of life and made their exeunt into eternity.

Since that time another six centuries have passed away; centuries of storm and stress that have carried with them the pomp of papal Rome, the mighty Plantagenets, the masterful Tudors, the doomed Stuarts, and alien governors and strange religions and a new order of things have taken their places; yet still the glory of the historic hill is undimmed, still it is the centre of the greatest city of the modern world, the symbol of our splendid empire of eternal sunlight.


[1] The first mention of London (Londinium) is to be found in Tacitus. Various antiquarians have given various definitions of the name: one derives it from two Celtic words-Llyn-Din, the Lake City (the Thames was much broader and more lake-like at this point than it is now); another derives the word from Lun-Dun, the Grove City (meaning a clearance in the forest); a third from Llong-Dinas, a City of Ships, for even when Caesar landed London traded with the Continent; while another group are in favour of a Norse derivation. But all the probabilities are in favour of the Celtic origin.

[2] The dimensions of the present cathedral are 630 feet in length, 440 in breadth, width of nave 220, height 437.

[3] This has always been the common phrase, but Stow tells us that it is incorrect, that the tomb so called was that of John Beauchamp, constable of the Tower, and a younger son of the Earl of Warwick, who was buried in the body of the church on the south side, 1358, " where a proper chapel and fair monument remaineth of him. He is by ignorant people misnamed to be Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who lieth honourably buried at St. Albans."

[4] Even in the last century the jingling of spurs in the cathedral often drowned the voice of the preacher. As the disturbance could not be put a stop to, the dean and chapter resolved to inflict fines upon all who wore spurs within the precincts of the cathedral, and the beadles and choristers were commissioned to collect them. So the moment the sharp ring fell upon the ears of the boys they crowded round the offender, who would throw some silver among them, for which they would scramble even while the service was proceeding. There was a similar custom in the Chapel Royal, St. James's.

[5] "Garters and roses, four-score pounds a pair," says Satan in Jonson's The Devil's an Ass. Yellow was the fashionable colour. On his bridal night it was customary for the bridegroom, instead of unfastening his costly togs, to tear them off and throw them on the floor, and his friends to scramble for them. For curiosities of costume and tobacco smoking, I refer the reader to the comedies of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Rowley, Marston, Dekker, Middleton, Chapman, etc.

[6] The cost of the building was under £ 800,000. The carvings in the choir were executed by Grinling Gibbons for the sum of £ 1337 7s. 5d.