Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton


CHAPTER XI: St. Giles's--The Churchyard, Etc.

CHAPTER XI: St. Giles's--The Churchyard, Etc.


IT is a curious fact that the two London districts which are invariably contrasted as the antithesis of one another have a common origin, each having been the site of a leper hospital; the one was dedicated to St. James the Less, a bishop of Jerusalem, the other to St. Giles, the patron saint of beggars and lepers, The latter was founded by Matilda, Queen of Henry I., and covered the ground between High Street and two thoroughfares, and , now incorporated in Shaftesbury Avenue. Both were dissolved and their revenues confiscated by that rapacious robber, Henry VIII. The land of St. Giles's was granted to one of his myrmidons, John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, who built a mansion on it. In the middle ages a village clustered round the church and spital, and a stone cross in the centre made a halting-place on the country road that connected London with Tyburn. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth that it began to lose its rural aspect; that is, ceased to be divided from London by broad fields.

At the opening of the seventeenth century buildings rapidly increased.

Of the original church, which as a portion of a small conventual establishment was very insignificant, there is nothing to record; a second was erected in 1623, but the present edifice dates back only to 1730, though the " Resurrection" gate, which originally stood on the north-west side, and was removed to its present position in 1864, belongs to the previous century.

'Nothing could be more hideously prosaic than the surroundings of St. Giles's Church, and yet what a world of romance is interred beneath those grimy tombstones and that soot-saturated soil ! Here lies Richard Pendrell, who saved the life of Charles II. after the battle of Worcester, and whose extraordinary adventures form one of the most romantic episodes of that romantic period. Here, after his execution in 1715, were laid the remains of the heroic John Radcliffe, Earl of Derwentwater, so famous in Jacobite ballads; the body was afterwards removed to Northumberland, and in 1874 was again translated, this time to Lord Petre's seat, Thorndon in Essex. Michael Mohun, the great actor of the Restoration days-he died in Brownlow Street close by-who fought in the king's army against the bitter enemies of his profession, lies here; so does the gallant Lord Herbert of Cherbury ; and George Chapman, the dramatist and friend of Ben Jonson. Not far off reposes Shirley, the last of the "Elizabethan" dramatists; Andrew Marvell, the satirist; and that Countess of


Shrewsbury who, disguised as a page, held the horse of her paramour, the Duke of Buckingham, when he fought with and killed her husband in the grounds of Clifden. Could a new Robert the Devil summon
them to rise from their tombs, how horrified these dainty shades would be at their surroundings ! There is no fear of their " walking" in that churchyard.



But St. Giles's is remarkable for quite another order of humanity to that of the hero, the poet and lady of fashion. Jemmy Catnach, for instance, from whose press in Monmouth Court, Dudley Street, proceeded those wonderful last speeches and dying confessions of notorious criminals; those curious old ballads, "Jemmy Dawson," "Jane Shore," "Barbara Allen," Christmas carols printed by the yard, and those wonderful broadsides, describing all kinds of marvels and horrors, that used to be exposed for sale pinned upon blankets, which in our grandfathers' time were the principal literature of the working classes-collectors pay high prices for them now. Catnach employed a whole army of cadgers to hawk these delectable compositions about the town, and the frequent hoaxes perpetrated by the unscrupulous vendors upon the public gave rise to a new word, " catchpenny ". What these peripatetic Mercurys were like may be judged from the fact that even the not over-particular tradespeople of St. Giles's in anything but particular days, refused to take the mass of copper coins which were brought into Monmouth Court every night, as it was said fevers and all kinds of loathsome diseases had been caught from handling them, so they had to be boiled in vinegar and potash for disinfection before being accepted.

Before the penny-paper days these broadsides were the only vehicles of news within the means of the poorer classes, and their sale was enormous. The death of George III., the Cato Street conspiracy,


the trial of Queen Caroline, kept the press going night and day. But there was nothing comparable to a good murder; by the Thurtell and Weare case Catnach, it is said, realised £500 from the sale of 250,000 copies, and that the block from which the "likeness of the murderer" was taken, served for the likeness of all the other popular murderers for the next forty years. Yet the above number was quite put in the shade by the Greenacre murder, of which 1,650,000 broadsides were issued; while the Red Barn tragedy broke even this record by some thousands. The gala days of old St. Giles's were the hanging days, and they were frequent enough for a Popish calendar. As I have said, it was the high road to Tyburn, and at an ancient tavern called the Bowl, or Crown, that stood within a door or two of the eastern end of the churchyard, where the Angel now stands, the procession always stopped and the doomed man was given his last drink. Just outside the leper hospital, in the middle ages, was a gallows, and it was an ancient custom for a bowl of ale to be sent out from there to every criminal who was executed. When the spital was demolished and all executions removed to Tyburn, a public-house was built on the spot and named the Bowl, the hosts of which kept up the old tradition.

Let me endeavour to piece together a picture of one of those gala days, and for the purpose I will select a notable one, in November, 1724. Although it is a dreary, foggy morning, the house tops, the windows


and the wooden balconies erected in front of the houses of the High Street are crowded with spectators, many of them beaux and fine ladies of St. James's, while the sideways and road beneath are a seething mass of filth, squalor and blackguardism, a riotous, swearing, hideous mob of men and women, that extends from the church and beyond to the gates of Newgate. Now, along this line of route, the sound of shouts, distant at first, then growing nearer and nearer, swell above the clamour of the crowd, and the cry is raised: " he's coming! he's coming !" the pushing, swaying and scrambling of that human sea of darkness grow fiercer, so do the shrieks and oaths and fighting, as each unit endeavours to secure a coign of vantage. Then, with a clatter of horses' hoofs, a clank of sabres, and tramp of heavy feet, through the grey gloom is seen advancing a detachment of cavalry, cleaving their way through the human ant-hill that divides with howls and imprecations.

In an open cart, with a coffin in front of it, sits a man, still young, with dare-devil defiance upon his pale and vice-ploughed face; beside him is a bibulouslooking clergyman, reading prayers from a great prayer-book; mounted troopers ride beside and behind the cart, while the rear is brought up by a posse of constables and javelin men. The crowd, men and women, salute the doomed man with cheers and cries of encouragement. The procession stops at the Bowl, for which there is a horrible rush, the weaker being knocked down and trampled upon; soldiers and con-


stables fall to drinking, and forth comes Boniface with the fatal bowl, which he smilingly hands to the criminal, who raises it and drinks to the health of the ladies that crowd a small balcony, raised over the entrance of the tavern, whose velvet masks and costly cloaks proclaim them to be people of quality; they respond by waving their handkerchiefs, one kisses her hand to him, one or two sob hysterically. Then our Jailbird turns to the mob and calls out: " Here's your health, my noble pals, and when your turn comes may you all die as game as I shall!" A mighty roar answers the wish; everybody who can get a drink is hobnobbing with his neighbour, and even the parson is as jolly and mirthful as though it were a party of pleasure; nothing indicates the terrible meaning of it all, except that ghastly box of black boards. At last the commanding officer gives the word to fall in; again the cavalcade moves forward, followed by the wild, screaming mob, increased from every street and alley that it passes, rolling on like an ever-gathering torrent of Stygian blackness, until it beats and surges, a dammed-up flood, against the gallows-tree, upon which swings the lifeless body of Jack Sheppard.

Between the High Street, St. Giles's, now High Street, Holborn, and Bloomsbury, upon the ground covered by New Oxford Street, within the last halfcentury was a labyrinth of courts, alleys and streets, inhabited by the most vicious classes of the metropolis, and known by the appropriate name of " The


Rookery ". Once upon a time, however, it had been a fashionable quarter of the town, and in those hideous lanes were to be seen the carved doorways and the oakpanelled apartments of tall mansions that had been the home of riches and fashion in the Stuarts' days.

But even one hundred years ago the Rookery was the cadger's paradise, where the maimed became whole again, the blind were restored to sight, the paralysed regained vigour and the starved feasted on the fat of the land. Almost every house was a cadger's crib, wherein thief and beggar spent their illgot earnings in nightly orgies; the most infamous of these, the Hare and Hounds, had once upon a time been one of the noble mansions afore-mentioned, and was kept by a man named Joe Banks, who from his popularity among his customers won the sobriquet of "Stunning Joe Banks ". Over the door was inscribed the legend, " Here you can get drunk for a penny; dead drunk for twopence and have straw for nothing ". Perhaps the reader who has just assisted at a procession to Tyburn will not be too fastidious to pay a visit with me to the Hare and Hounds.

Your handkerchief to your nose, for the odours from these open sewers and unscavengered lanes are villainous. Yes, it is that house with the dim oil-lamp over the door, which announces it to be a public one. It is a ramshackle place grimed with the dirt of generations; yet red-heeled, diamond-buckled shoes have tripped over that threshold, and silks and satins rustled in that now gulf-like hall. The scraping of a fiddle,


snatches of song, coarse laughter, and all kinds of riotous noises salute our ears as we enter a large apartment, in which are the remains of a finely carved fireplace, and of a painted ceiling almost obliterated by smoke. In a raised arm-chair, covered with red cloth, at the head of a long table, sits a good-looking, strapping wench in a gaudy-coloured gown and mob cap; she is " the queen of beauty" for the week, after which she will have to give place to some other Blowsabella. As motley a crew as ever Burns sang the story of in "The Jolly Beggars" are gathered on each side the board, and mingled with the tatterdemalions are burly cracksmen, prize fighters, Minions of the moon, in scarlet and gold lace; at the end of the table is Stunning Joe himself, with a paunch like Falstaff's and a nose fiery as Bardolph's. The company have just despatched a dinner, as Joe said, "fit for the king ".

In the midst of the orgie the door opens and enter four dandies. The company, accustomed to such visitors, evince no surprise ; Joe bids the strangers welcome, and the queen of beauty, who rejoices in the sobriquet of " Blooming Sal," beckons one of the four, a handsome, full-faced, fleshly gentleman, to take a seat beside her; the other three make for the best-looking "blowens ". Joe waddles out to bring in a big supply of drinks, including bottles of wine. Does the host know who his guests are ? Does " Blooming Sal" know that her arms are round the neck of George, Prince of Wales, or do her companions recognise in his friends


his Grace the Duke of Norfolk, Major Hanger and Mr. Brinsley Sheridan, lessee of Drury Lane ? Very probably. " I call on that 'ere gem'man in a shirt for a song !" hiccoughs a fellow, pointing to his Royal Highness. But the Prince, though a fine singer, probably thinks that it is playing a little too low to oblige such a company, so the Major undertakes to be the substitute of his friend, "who has a cold," and trolls forth " The Beggar's Wedding," which evokes rapturous applause. Presently a call is raised for a dance; table and seats are pushed aside; the Major leads off with "the queen of beauty". But heads and legs are too unsteady for such exercise, and in a few moments the floor is covered with sprawlers; the women scream and scratch, the men punch one another's heads, and in the midst of the hubbub the dandies slip out, and grope their way through the dark alleys with many a stumble into unsavoury gutters, and at last emerge into the High Street.

It was as much the fashion for " Corinthians,"[1] as the dandies were called, to visit the beggars' haunts of St. Giles's in the Regency days as it was a few years ago for swells, under the protection of a policeman, to explore the opium dens of Whitechapel. In one of the autobiographical books of Lord William Lennox there ST. GILES'S-THE CHURCHYARD, ETC.


is a reminiscence of an orgie at the Hampshire Hog in St. Giles's, very similar to the above.

That great Whig bon vivant, his Grace of Norfolk, must have been perfectly at home among the lazzaroni of the Rookery, since his habits so closely resembled their own, for certainly none among them had a greater contempt for soap and water than the Lord of Arundel, as he seldom voluntarily performed any ablutions. After leaving a tavern or a club, where perhaps he had been drinking for days and nights together, he would lie down in the streets and go to sleep on a heap of garbage. Discovered by the watch or some one who knew him, and carried to his mansion, his servants would take away his filthy clothes and put him into a much-needed bath. One day he complained to Lord North of rheumatism-doubtless incurred by those al fresco slumbers. " I have tried everything," he said. " Have you tried a clean shirt ?" was the query.

Hanger was one of the prince's private equerries, and a most amusing blackguard. One day after he had dined at Carlton House the prince said, halfjestingly, " I am going to impose upon your hospitality and dine with you; but you must not provide anything extravagant". The major promised that all should be plain. Being without money or credit, when the day came Hanger was at his wit's end how to procure anything at all. It was court etiquette that an officer should be sent in advance to any house at which royalty was to be a guest, to ascertain that


everything was in proper order for the reception of the august personage. When this functionary arrived at the major's quarters, which were on a third floor somewhere about Drury Lane, he found that gallant gentleman in his shirt sleeves, with a scullion for aidedecamp, basting a leg of mutton that was cooking in front of the fire; beneath the joint was a pan full of simmering potatoes, and on the table some foaming jugs of ale, just fetched from the neighbouring tavern. This was the banquet which was to be served on anything but a snowy cloth, and with very primitive crockery and cutlery. Need it be added that royalty did not dine with Major Hanger that day? At the death of his father the major became Baron Coleraine. His Life and Adventures, written by himself, is a frank confession of a disreputable career. About half a century ago the Rookery was destroyed for the construction of New Oxford Street, but fragments of it, notably Church Lane, remained until the clearances for Shaftesbury Avenue finally swept away the last vestiges.

Within a few more years the once notorious Seven Dials will be a quarter as much of the past as the Rookery is now. The first mention of it is to be found in Evelyn's Diary (5th Oct., 1694): " I went to see the building beginning near St. Giles's, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area, said to be built by Mr. Neale, introducer of the late Lotteries, in imitation of those at Venice ". These streets covered what was known as ST. GILES'S-THE CHURCHYARD, ETC.


the Cock-and-Pie-Fields, which were surrounded by a fetid ditch. The houses, considered to be quite triumphs of architecture, were inhabited by people of position and even of fashion. The column, with its dial of six faces, was removed in 1774, on account of a report that a treasure was buried beneath it. It may still be seen on Weybridge Green, where it was set up as a memorial to the Duchess of York.


[1] The term " Corinthian," as applied to the fast young man, is as old as the days of Shakespeare. " I am no proud Jack, like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle," says Prince Henry in Henry IV. It was a term borrowed from Greece and Rome, in which Corinth was a by-word for every species of immorality.