Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton


CHAPTER XV: The Strand (continued)

THE STRAND (continued)

CHAPTER XV: The Strand (continued)

THE STRAND (continued)



TURNING out of the noise and bustle of the Strand into the quiet precincts of the Adelphi, we breathe an eighteenth-century air; much as it was when David Garrick and his brother Peter carried on their wine business in Durham Yard, as when the mortal remains of the great actor, whose death Johnson said finely, if hyperbolically, "eclipsed the gaiety of nations," were carried with all pomp and ceremony from his house in Adelphi Terrace to their last resting place in the abbey. The stones of the terrace still seem to echo to the footsteps of Johnson and Garrick and Beauclerk, and Goldsmith and Burke and Reynolds, and the very house in which they foregathered, nay, the very rooms, in which "Little Davey " received his guests, are still there.

It is the fashion now-a-days to sneer at the eighteenth century and the men thereof, and to depreciate its influence; but, in London at least, its footsteps have sunk deeper into the soil than those of any other era.


The seventeenth-century men, with all their superior genius, have left no such clearly cut impress upon their haunts and associations; we know them only by their pictures and effigies, at least out of their works. But Johnson and his group still live and breathe about Fleet Street, the Strand, Leicester Square, Covent Garden; the powdered wigs, velvet coats, silk stockings and red-heeled shoes are still more vivid to us even than the high stocks, strapped trousers and curled hair of our grandfathers' days.

Buckingham Street is as dreary and Villiers Street as commonplace thoroughfares as any about the Strand, though the plates on a couple of houses, bearing the names of Peter the Great and Samuel Pepys, give interest to the former. Yet the locality abounds in reminiscences of the great dead. Here stood York House, sometime the abode of the archbishops; afterwards of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk; then of Sir Nicholas Bacon, and later of his illustrious son, Francis, who had a great love for the place. It was at York House that he dwelt during his chancellorship, and it was there he was deprived with degradation of the Great Seal, the privileges of which he had so unhappily abused. It is one of the darkest pages in the history of genius.

York House was rebuilt by that brilliant and superb favourite of two sovereigns--George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the records of whose magnificence read like stories of Haroun al Raschid. His coach was drawn by six horses, an extravagance in which no


sovereign had as then indulged, and he first brought the sedan chair into fashion, though it had been known in London before his time. He would in his house shake diamonds off his clothes for his guests to pick up. His cloaks were trimmed with great diamond buttons, and he wore diamond hat-bands, cockades and earrings, yoked with knots of pearl. He had twenty-seven suits of clothes, the richest that embroidery, lace, silk, velvet, silver, gold and gems could make; one of these was a white, uncut velvet, set all over, both suit and cloak, with diamonds valued at fourscore thousand pounds, besides a great feather, stuck all over with diamonds, as were also his sword, girdle, hat and spurs.

Bassompierre, the French ambassador, in his Memoirs, relates how the king took him in his barge to York House, where the duke gave "the most magnificent entertainment I ever saw in my life. The king supped at one table with the queen and me, which was served in complete ballet[1]  at each course with sundry representations-changes of scenery, tables and music; the duke waited on the king at table, the Earl of Carlisle on the queen, and the Earl of Holland on me. After supper the king and we were led into another room, where the assembly was, and one entered it by a kind of turnstile as in convents without any confusion, where there was a magnificent ballet, in which the duke danced; and afterwards we set to and danced country dances (contre-danse) till four in the morning; thence


we were shown into vaulted apartments, where there were five different collations." In a letter of the period, published in Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature, also describing this fete, it is stated "that all things came down in clouds," and that the cost of the entertainment was £5000.

Gerbier, the duke's painter, once gave an entertainment to the king and queen that cost £1000. The costumes on these occasions were equally extravagant: the gentlemen dressed in crimson or white velvet covered with precious stones, the ladies in white with herons' plumes, jewelled head-dresses and ropes of pearls.

Imagine, then, something of the splendour that must have passed beneath Inigo Jones's old watergate, that now looks so grim and desolate beneath the shadow of the embankment trees, as though brooding, melancholy, and alone, in its grey, colourless surroundings, upon the wonders it has witnessed. Contrast the gorgeous state of York House with the present aspect of the streets that have taken its place. What a text for a preacher upon the well-worn "Sic transit". Transitory indeed was the splendour of which the knife of the assassin made so tragical an end.

The next notable figure in the annals of York House is that of the great Commonwealth general, Lord Fairfax, the marriage of whose daughter with the son of the late duke restored the old mansion to the second George Villiers, lavish, extravagant and brilliant as his father, but very much his inferior in dignity, who is so




conspicuous a personality in the chronicles of Charles II.'s reign; here he "played chemist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon"; painted, rhymed, drank, wrote satires, and squandered his wealth until he was beggared, and died in obscurity and almost actual want. Some time before his death need compelled him to dispose of the historic house and grounds, which were then demolished and laid out in streets.

Scarcely less interesting are the associations connected with the new departure. Among the inhabitants of Buckingham Street were gossip Pepys, and the Czar Peter the Great, who indulged in many an orgie, and consumed many gallons of brandy and cayenne, his favourite tipple, in that shabby house overlooking the Thames. Here also lived the poet Earl of Dorset, one of the most brilliant wits of the Restoration; Harley, Earl of Oxford ; Clarkson Stansfield and Etty, the painters; while Villiers Street was for a time the abode of Evelyn and of Steele.

The Strand, however, even in its palmy days, was not all grand mansions. In the time of Charles I. fish and other stalls were set in front of the noble houses, and increased to such an extent that, in 1630, an edict had to be issued for their clearance.

As everybody knows, Charing Cross marks the last resting-place of the body of Edward I.'s beloved queen, Eleanor, previous to her interment in the abbey. The cross erected by the great king cost nearly £600, an enormous sum for those days; it was of Caen stone with Purbeck marble steps, and contained


eight gilt metal figures. The derivation of the name Charing from chere reine, however, is less acceptable than that of cerre-ing, two Anglo-Saxon words which mean "bend" and "meadow," so that it was the meadow at the bend of the river. The brutal bigotry of the Puritans destroyed this beautiful relic of antiquity. But it was well avenged, for Hugh Peters, the zealot Harrison and others of less note were executed in front of its site.

Behind the Cross stood the mansion of the Hungerford family. Its destruction by fire is noted by Pepys (April, 1669). It was not rebuilt, but Sir Edward Hungerford obtained permission from the king to establish a market upon the ground. This same Sir Edward was a notorious spendthrift; he is said to have once spent £500 upon a wig for a court ball! No wonder he died a poor knight of Windsor; but it is wonderful that he attained the age of 115.

It was at Old Hungerford Stairs, "in a crazy, tumbledown old house, abutting on the river, and literally overrun with rats," that the boy Dickens had his doleful experiences in the blacking warehouse. Whence he wandered about those coal-sheds and mouldering old taverns-notably the Fox Under the Hill, which covered the foreshore previous to the formation of the Thames Embankment and for some time afterwards. "Until Old Hungerford Market was pulled down," he wrote, "until Old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed, and the very nature of the ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where


my servitude began. I never saw it." Hungerford Market was cleared away in 1862 for the Railway Station.

Twelve years later the last of the noble mansions which had adorned the Strand, Northumberland House, built in 1605, on the site of the hospital of Ste. Marie Rouncevalles, was demolished to form the new avenue to the Thames Embankment. Exteriorally it had no architectural beauty to recommend it; but, with its noble terrace overlooking the river, its magnificent galleries and suites of apartments-it contained 150 private rooms-with their columns, statuary and pictures by the great masters, its painted ballroom, vestibules and wonderful spiral staircase, it was worthy of the Howards, the Somersets, the Percys who had in turns inhabited it; and it was an act of vandalism to destroy so interesting an edifice when the avenue could have been formed just as conveniently a little further to the west.

Only during the later decades of its existence did Northumberland House command so pleasant a prospect as Trafalgar Square, which was not formed until 1830; and even the pepper-castors of the National Gallery were preferable to the mass of dull, mean buildings that covered the site from the time of Richard II. Here, in the hawking days, the king's falcons were kept in moulting time, this being the royal mews;[2]  and from the reign of Henry VIII. to that of


George III. here were the king's chief stables. Hence the origin of the term " mews " as applied to stables.

A little further to the east it looked upon the tower of old St. Martin's Church, which dated back to the Norman kings, the lower part being hidden among a maze of courts and alleys that, from the days of Ben Jonson until well into the present century, was known as "The Holy Land," "Bermudas Straits," "The Caribbee Islands," and "Porridge Island," noted for its cook-shops. Here again we encounter the shadow of the boy Dickens, his little figure clad in a short jacket and corduroy trousers, looking in longingly at the window of that " special pudding shop," hesitating between quality and quantity, for two penn'orth there was not more than one penn'orth at ordinary shopsbut then it was made with currants. When, in 1721, the present handsome church took the place of the ancient, it was still obscured by these squalid dens of vice and poverty, which were not removed until after the square was formed.

And Northumberland House had looked upon some strange scenes as well as strange places. To go no further back than 1678, when the murder of Sir Edmund Berrie Godfrey threatened London with riot, if 1 Sir Edmund Berrie Godfrey was the magistrate before whom Titus Oates, first a beneficed clergyman, then a Roman Catholic, lastly a Protestant zealot, laid his information of the existence of a popish plot, which aimed at the subjugation of the kingdom and the massacre of all the Protestants. Godfrey, a few nights afterwards, was enticed from his home by a false message, and four days from then his body was discovered with the neck broken and a sword passed through it


not revolution. He was buried in St. Martin's Church, and the wildest excitement marked the funeral. Thousands followed the bier of the murdered magistrate, and a crowd equally dense flowed towards it from the opposite direction. At the Cross the bier was set down, and Titus Oates, standing beside it, delivered a fierce oration, in which he called upon every citizen to avenge "the Protestant martyr". Then went up a tremendous shout, " We will! Burn all the papists !" And but for the troops there would have been a terrible massacre of the Romanists.

Seven years later Northumberland House beheld an equally turbulent and ferocious crowd surging about the pillory, which had risen opposite it for many generations, pelting, with every missile they could lay hands upon, a creature who looked more like a satyr than a human being, as he stood there with his head thrust through a throttling hole, a helpless victim to the pitiless wrath of those who but a brief time before had looked upon him as a saviour, and cheered him to the echo. He was removed from the pillory to Tyburn, thence scourged through the streets to Newgate, and then sentenced to be imprisoned for life. Even Macaulay says that, terrible as were the sufferings of Titus Oates, they were not equal to his crimes.

It was at Charing Cross that the first Punch and on Primrose Hill. The mystery of the murder has never been solved; whether indeed it was committed by some fanatical papist, or, what is more likely, by Oates himself to confirm a story which was afterwards proved to be a fabrication, will never be known. The name is usually spelled " Edmondbury," but the form here given is the correct one.


Judy show was set up by an Italian, in 1666, and at once became the rage. Three years afterwards Pepys notes that everything short and thick was nicknamed "Punch ". Of course this puppet play differed greatly from the itinerant show that we are familiar with.

Of all that old time only the statue of King Charles -one of the very few statues for which a Londoner does not blush-remains. A curious history is attached to it. Though cast as early as 1633, it was not put up until after the Civil War broke out. Then the Puritans seized upon it, as they did upon the sign of the Golden Cross hostelry opposite, and ordered both to be destroyed as accursed things. The brazier to whom the statue was handed over was a secret Royalist, and concealed it until the Restoration, but, in consequence of a dispute, it was not set upon its pedestal until 1674.

Where Drummond's Bank now stands was Locket's Ordinary, a noted resort of the wits and fine gentlemen of the last century. " I go to dinner at Locket's," says Lord Foppington, in Vanbrugh's, The Relapse, " where you are so nicely and delicately served that, stap my vitals ! they shall compose you a dish no bigger than a saucer, shall come to fifty shillings."

A palace, standing in large gardens, was assigned to the Scottish kings at Charing Cross by Saxon Edgar, and continued to be their dwelling when they came to London to do homage for their kingdom and certain lands, which were held under the suzerainty of England, until the union of the two crowns by James


I. But ere this the palace, known as " Scotland," had fallen into ruin, and the site was used for Government offices. John Milton lived here for a time, when he served Cromwell; it was also the residence of Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanburgh, architect and dramatist; from which we gather that it was used as the Board of Works of the period. "Scotland" became the headquarters of the new police in 1829, and continued to be so until the removal of the principal offices to the abandoned Opera House on the Embankment.


[1] Served by persons in fancy dresses with music and dancing.

[2] From the Anglo-Saxon word mew, to moult.