Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton


CHAPTER XX: St. James's Street


CHAPTER XX: St. James's Street




IN the days when this great centre of fashionable, political and club life was not, and its lines were indicated only by a by-way leading to the leper hospital, there was a quiet roadside inn on the western side, near the gates of the spital, covered with roses and woodbine, called the Thatched House, a common sign in those days. At this time it was mostly used by the rustics who tilled the land round about, or by persons who came to and from that ghastly house of refuge. But when the court was brought to its doors, the humble tavern rose in importance, and, in the reign of Queen Anne, it became a favourite resort of the wits and beaux and politicians. Yet few changes had been made in it since the Tudor days, when humble labourers were almost its sole guests; the floor was sanded, the furniture rough and uncouth, and so limited were its resources that Dean Swift, after dining there with people of fashion, noted in his Journal to Stella that the company had to send out for their wine. But gentlemen were content with the humblest accommodation in those days, and lords dined


in rooms which a clerk would scorn in this sybaritish era.[1]  In the middle of the century it became the headquarters of a number of literary and artistic societies. Here, after its removal from the Turk's Head, where we visited it in our wanderings about Soho, met the Literary Club. Here was established the no less celebrated Dilettanti Society. Horace Walpole said that the nominal qualification for being a dilettanti was having been in Italy, " and the real one being drunk ". But this was mere cynicism, as some of the most distinguished of the nobility and men of taste and learning belonged to it between 1734 and 1835. The old Thatched House was not pulled down until 1843.

Quite as famous was the Cocoa Tree Chocolatheouse, now No. 64; it was the great Tory resort, as the St. James's Coffee-house, the last house but one at the west corner of the street, was the rendezvous of the Whigs in the reign of Queen Anne and long afterwards. The latter survived until 1806, but Brooks's, started in the middle of the last century, had long superseded it as a rallying place of the party.

Of those early clubs, associated with the wits of Queen Anne's time, only White's remains. And indeed White's, which was originally a Chocolate-house, was founded in the reign of Charles II. During the


last 200 years it has numbered among its members some of the most famous names in English political and social history. How many immortals have gazed through that famous bow window, not only the immortals of history, but those very much more real immortals, the immortals of fiction. Can lovers of Thackeray pass it without the figures of Major Pendennis and those whom the great novelist has associated with him rising upon their imagination?

White's has always been the most exclusive of clubs; neither rank, nor fame, nor genius was ever an infallible "open sesame !" to its doors; indeed, "pilling" has sometimes been resorted to upon no other grounds than mere whim. Even in our own time the Prince of Wales was not potent enough to obtain permission to smoke in the drawing-room; the question was put to the committee and vetoed, a refusal which led to the founding of the Marlborough.

Apropos of the number of years even the most eligible candidate has to wait for election to White's, a good story is told. When the heir to a certain Tory dukedom was born the butler first registered the infant's birth then left a nomination paper at the club, so that by the time the young gentleman came of age he might have a chance of admission to the charmed circle. One actor, and only one, ever obtained the privilege of membership, and that was Colley Cibber. Disraeli regarded it as the highest of social distinctions. Both Louis Napoleon and Count D'Orsay were blackballed. In pre-reform days there were always pocket-


boroughs to be bought, or had for the asking, at White's. The head waiter was once presented with one. But then the head waiter at White's was a personage of importance who made a big income. M. le garcon, just referred to, married the proprietor's daughter, and was made a knight as well as an M.P. Although never so notorious for gambling as Brooks's, play ran very high at White's in the old days. The first Lord Mountford, after supping and playing there one night, sent for his lawyer, made his will, invited some friends to dine with him next day, played the host to perfection, and then went into another room and shot himself.

White's, however, was most famous for extraordinary wagers. Mr. Algernon Bourke, in his History of the Club, gives the betting-book from 1743 to 1848, a most curious record of the Englishman's mania for making anything and everything the excuse for a bet. Politics, private affairs, matrimonial prospects figure largely in the list of subjects. Noble lords and gentlemen staked their guineas upon every movement of Buonaparte, the duration of ministries, and whether so and so would be married within a certain time.

But even more curious are the bets of the moment, to be found in the gossip of the last century; two drops of rain trickling down the window-panes excite the idlers to wager as to which will first reach the bottom; a woman is coming up the street with a basket of crockery-ware very lightly poised upon her head; " It will drop before she is opposite this window!" cries


one; "I'll lay you five guineas it doesn't," cries another. " Done!" half a dozen others join in. Just as the hawker reaches the club, down goes the basket with a crash. There is great rejoicing with the winners who, however, give her a handsome solatium. Horace Walpole relates how a man dropped down lifeless at the door of the club, and when the body was brought inside the members fell to betting as to whether he was dead or not. Upon the doctor preparing to use the lancet the " ayes " interposed and said it would be unfair to them to attempt to revive him. As late as 1856 Lord F. Cavendish bet Mr. H. Brownrigg that he would not kill a bluebottle fly before he went to bed.

Famous, or rather infamous, among St. James's Street Clubs was "Crockford's". William Crockford was originally a fishmonger, a speculator in trade and a Turf sharp; a lucky hit on the Derby laid the foundation of his fortunes. In 1816 he took the ground floor of a house in King Street, St. James's, and, while still pursuing his old calling, opened it as a gambling saloon. Crockford was a second Midas ; whatever he touched turned to gold; two more houses were soon added to enlarge the establishment. And in 1827 he erected a palatial building, for that period, and named it Crockford's Clubhouse (now the Devonshire). Magnificent rooms, a la Louis Quatorze, gilded pillars, painted ceilings, ormolu, marqueterie, were a marvellous advance upon the dingy "hells" of Leicester Square.

There were 800 members; each one paid fifty


guineas entrance fee, and a subscription of ten guineas. "Morning play" began at 4 P.M. and lasted until 7 P.M., during which the stakes were from half a guinea to fifty, the bank standing at £2500. But this was mere bagatelle. The real gambling commenced at eleven with a bank at £ 10,000, while the stakes were practically unlimited. Men who one day had been surrounded by all the luxuries that fortune could provide were often reduced to beggary by one night's play. The proprietor, never interfering with the business of the tables, sat at his desk in a far corner of the room watching his croupiers rake up the stakes, like some bloated spider gloating over the flies entangled in his net, unmoved by the sight of the wrecked bodies and souls he fattened upon. It was a face white, flabby and fishlike, heavy and expressionless, except for the small, cunning eyes; when he laughed he showed a large, loose mouth filled with aggressive white teeth; his bald head was covered by a brown wig; his hands were quite destitute of knuckles and so pallid that they resembled raw veal.

Yet Lord Leamington, in The Days of the Dandies, tells us that Crockford's was the beau ideal of a club. " The notion that any man of large fortune was at once elected a member to pluck and pigeon him was absurd. It was very difficult for any one, however well known or highly considered, to be elected a member of Crockford's.... During the parliamentary season supper was provided from twelve o'clock to five in the morning-and such a supper! Francatelli


was the chef. I rather think he received £800 a year. But there was every dish and drink that could gratify the most fastidious taste; and night after night were met there all those who were noted for any superiority, intellectual or personal. Politics, literature, art, fashion, rank ; the wit, the courtier, the poet, the historian, the politician were found at the table. It was frequently a tilt of freshest wit and clever repartee." This other picture, however, by no means invalidates the previous one, the club was kept distinct from "the hell," which was situated at the end of a long suite of magnificent apartments.

There was a Nemesis in the end of " the father of hell and hazard," as he was nicknamed. His horse, Ratan, which was regarded a certainty for the Derby, had been hocussed, as it was supposed through the instrumentality of a brother hell-keeper, Goody Levi, who had sworn his destruction. This loss and disappointment brought on a paralytic seizure, of which Crockford died on the night after the Epsom event. Large sums of money, however, depended upon his living over the Oaks day; his death was known only to his associates, who hit upon a daring and ghastly idea to save their stakes: they sat the corpse in its ordinary attire with the usual white hat upon its head, at one of the windows and made it wave one of its dead hands at the people returning from the race, thereby establishing an alibi. A few hours afterwards it was all over London that William Crockford had dropped down dead. The story is told by Serjeant Ballantyne.

Among the notabilities who have dwelt in St. James's Street were Edmund Waller, the poet; Alexander Pope; Gibbon, who died in No. 76; Sir Christopher Wren, whose funeral cortege started from one of these houses for St. Paul's; and Charles James Fox. Thackeray wrote Barry Lyndon at No. 88.

Nor must I omit from the list a person who would have considered himself quite equal to any just named, and certainly superior to a mere author. I allude to Hoby, bootmaker to George III., the royal princes, and dukes and marquises galore, to all of whom he was both pompous and impertinent. To Sir John Shelley's complaint that his topboots had split in several places when he was walking to the stables, " I made the boots for riding, not walking," sneered Hoby. While this superfine disciple of St. Crispin was with the Duke of Kent trying on a pair of boots on his Royal Highness, the news arrived of the great battle of Vittoria. " If Lord Wellington," remarked Hoby coolly, " had had any other bootmaker than myself, he would never have had his great and constant successes; for my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all his difficulties!" Hoby had had "a call," he was a Methodist preacher, he employed 300 workmen, and died worth £120,000. His shop was at the Piccadilly corner, next to the Old Guard's Club.

A curious story of fatality attaches to the rest at the top of St. James's Street. Mr. Pierrepoint, a member of White's, had long been haunted by the danger of the crossing just there, and after appealing


to the vestry in vain, he, with their permission, had a refuge made at his own expense. One day he was showing it to a friend when in stepping on one side he was knocked down by a passing cab and killed.

Passing into that quiet nook, St. James's Place, we are surrounded by memories of famous people who have lived within its precincts. Henry St. John; Lord Bolingbroke, the famous statesman; Addison; John Wilkes; Secretary Craggs; Parnell, the poet; "the beautiful Molly Lepell," whom we met at St. James's Palace; Sir Francis Burdett, who died there in 1844. Quite a romance is the story of " Old Glory's " death. He and his wife had just completed their half-century of married life when her ladyship passed away; utterly prostrated by his bereavement Sir Francis from that hour refused all nourishment, and within ten days rejoined her in the land of spirits. So this new Baucis and Philemon were on the same day interred in the same vault.

In St. James's Place lived Samuel Rogers, poet and banker. He resided at No. 22 from 1808 until his death in 1855. The house is best known by the oldfashioned bow-windowed back, which looks out upon the Green Park. Here were given those famous literary breakfasts, which became world-famous. The dejeuner was at ten, the number of the invited never exceeded six, and often was limited to three; the repast did not finish before noon, and sometimes not until an hour later. During that half-century there was scarcely a literary, artistic, political or social celebrity who had


not sat at Rogers' table, and it was one of the greatest privileges of aspiring young men to obtain an entrance to that charmed circle. Not an amiable man was the author of Pleasures of Memory; witty, though many of the good things attributed to him were the offspring of others; nor was his appearance by any means attractive, indeed it was said that he was the ugliest man in England:- Eyes of lead-like hue and gummy, Carcass picked out from some mummy: Vampire, ghoul or ghost, which is it ? wrote Byron, who conceived an enmity against him. Rogers' poems are now almost forgotten. So slowly did he write that Sidney Smith said of him: "When Rogers produces a couplet he goes to bed, the knocker is tied, the straw is laid down, and the caudle is made, and the answer to inquiries is that Mr. Rogers is as well as can be expected". The conversation at these gatherings was always upon literary and artistic subjects, and when carried on by such people as Moore, Campbell, Coleridge, Shelley, Haydon, Wordsworth, the host himself, Caroline Norton-for ladies were not excluded-it must indeed have been an intellectual feast.

To individualise all the famous people who have been associated with St. James's Street from the days of Charles II. would be impossible. We can picture the belles and beaux of the Stuart days in gilded sedan chairs, borne by gorgeous footmen, or in emblazoned carriages drawn by six Flanders mares,


and attended by half a dozen gold-laced lacqueys, or swaggering and sauntering on foot to the palace, and when night fell escorted by a procession of torchbearers-a very necessary precaution, as the precincts of the court in those days were no more exempt from ruffianism than was the rest of the metropolis.

As an instance: one night Colonel Blood, he who stole the crown jewels from the Tower, with a party of scoundrels, to avenge some real or reputed wrong, attacked the carriage of the great Ormond, dragged out the duke, in spite of his resistance and that of his servants, bound him hand and foot, and would have carried their prisoner to Tyburn, and there hanged him, had not some of his retinue, who contrived to escape, raised a rescue party at Clarendon House.

Can we not picture Dean Swift, in rusty cassock, on his way to the Cocoa Tree; and prim Addison, and careless, swaggering Dicky Steele strolling towards the St. James's Coffee-house to plan the next Spectator? Bovine Sir Robert Walpole, after a night of drunken debauch, dirty and unkempt, is being carried in a sedan to a council at the palace; while from a window of White's the distinguished figure of his great rival, Bolingbroke, is watching him with the curled lip of contempt. That gaunt, eagle-eyed man with the Roman nose is the great Mr. Pitt, whose mighty genius has in so brief a time raised England from the lowest depth of degradation to be the all-conquering nation of Europe. Ponderous Dr. Johnson,


peach-blossomed Goldsmith, brilliant Edmund Burke, quick-eyed Garrick, placid-faced Reynolds are passing into the Thatched House-it is the Literary Club night. Not far behind are the burly, buff and blue figure of Fox, and debonair George of Wales, garnishing his talk with as many expletives as a cabman would now, arm in arm with dun-hunted Brinsley Sheridan; they are making their way to Brooks's, where they will gamble all through the night, and perhaps until the House meets the next day.[2]  Coming out of Duke Street, where he lives,


is broad-faced, beaming Tom Moore, in blue frock coat and buff waistcoat, humming, in a dulcet voice, one of his own " Melodies". Here comes William Pitt, the younger, with nose in air; every hat is doffed to "the heaven-born minister," who does not look in the least like a three-bottle man, but he is. There is George Canning, with his bright, humorous face concocting a poem for the Anti-Jacobin; Peel, looking cold and gene; rollicking " Pam," with his hat on one side, and his thoughts divided between " The Trent" and the coming Derby; little Johnny Russell, so small and fragile that he looks as if even his hat were crushing him; a pair of broad plaid trousers and a face like an old-fashioned door-knocker can belong to no other than Lord Brougham.

Here comes a gentleman of the dandy class; not that there is anything outre in his closely buttoned-up frock coat and faultlessly-cut trousers, except that his black silk neckerchief is fastened by a diamond eagle with spread wings, clutching in its claws a thunderbolt of rubies; his face is handsome, and remarkable from the circumstance that he wears a moustache and imperial, uncommon adjuncts in those days, and from its immobile and fatalistic expression. That is Prince Louis Napoleon, who lives in Arlington Street. He is not held in very high esteem; he has been blackballed at White's, as we have seen, and is regarded as little better than an adventurer ; an opinion which will be confirmed a few days hence, for to-morrow he will make his mad descent upon Boulogne.

A sphinx-like face, its cadaverous pallor heightened by clots of black ringlets shot with grey, heavy eyed, heavy lipped, with a little bunch of hair on the chin; the fragile figure, which stoops at the shoulders, wrapped in a fur-lined coat. He is leaning heavily on the arm of a gentleman, and passers-by respectfully salute Lord Beaconsfield, who has just brought back with him to England "peace with honour". What a contrast to the next ghost that comes stalking on with vigorous gait, sinewy of hand and body, eagle-eyed, aggressive of nose, bitterly stern of lip, masterful of look ; a very high, old-fashioned shirt collar, frayed at the edges, a spotted blue neckerchief, frock coat rather seedy, check trousers very baggy and worn. There is much doffing of hats, for that is William Ewart Gladstone; but whether that concentration of brow is occasioned by the Irish problem, by Homeric theories, by Englishing a couplet of Horace, or by the next tree that he has picked out for his axe at Hawarden it would be difficult to guess.

And so I might stretch out the line to the crack of doom. But the charm is wound up, the vision is dissolved. Yet these shadows were men and women once like ourselves, dear reader. " We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded by a sleep."

Of the St. James's Street of the seventeenth or eighteenth century little or nothing survives. But that old smoke-grimed brick gateway of the palace


that is now staring at you, has frowned upon all these people in the flesh, and will, in all probability, look down upon new generations of houses and people when all of this age have gone to join the procession of ghosts that has just passed before us.


[1] 1 Some of the Chocolate-houses, however, seem to have been fitted up in a modern manner. Lord Foppington says: " If it be nasty weather I take a turn in the chocolate-house, where, as you walk, madam, you have the prettiest prospect in the world; you have looking-glasses all round you".

[2] In the recently published Letters of George Selwyn we have some vivid pictures of Fox and his doings. Selwyn tells how heavily taxed Lord Holland's wealth was by the gambling debts of this scapegrace son. Charles James was as thoroughly unprincipled as Sheridan himself, and great abilities, social amenities, and a fascinating bonhomie have cast a false glamour over two men who, had they been less distinguished, would have been dubbed heartless rogues. Fox entangled Lord Carlisle into signing bonds in almost precisely the same manner as did the scion of a great house just lately, but was more fortunate in escaping the just penalty. In 1781 he started a common faro table. "This faro bank," writes Selwyn, "is held in a manner which, being so exposed to public view, bids defiance to all decency and police. The whole town, as it passes, views the dealer and punters by means of the candles, and the windows being level with the ground. The opposition, who have Charles for their ablest advocate, is quite ashamed of the proceeding, and hates to hear it mentioned." Here is a suggestive sketch of the Whig leader: "I saw Charles to-day in a new hat, frock, waistcoat, shirt, and stockings; he was as clean and smug as a gentleman; his old clothes, I suppose, have been burned, like the paupers', at Salt Hill". A fortnight after this date, however, our letter-writer paints quite another scene: "The passers-by in St. James's Street were much amused with seeing two carts at Charles's door filled by the Jews with his goods, clothes, books, pictures. Such dirty furniture I never saw."