Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton


CHAPTER III:The Blackfriars Theatre, Etc.

CHAPTER III:The Blackfriars Theatre, Etc.


IN the middle ages the great Dominican monastery, which has given the name Blackfriars to the whole locality, stretched from Ludgate almost to the Thames, while on the opposite side of the Fleet, then a broad river, stood the , a residence of Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet kings, rebuilt by . for the reception of . It was given by . to the city for a hospital and endowed with the revenues taken from the Savoy; in Elizabeth's time it became a prison. All that remained of the palace perished in the great fire, and upon the site was erected the notorious gaol which figures in one of the plates of Hogarth's Harlot's Progress.

The monastery was destroyed by the Tudor tyrant, and a church within its precincts, dedicated to St. Anne, was converted into a storehouse for properties used in court entertainments; and here " the Children of Paul's," who had been actors since the days of the


Miracle Plays, rehearsed. [1]  In the next reign it became a tennis-court, and in James Burbage converted it into a theatre, the renowned Blackfriars, greatly to the horror of the Puritans, who swarmed in this neighbourhood, and who presented endless petitions to both Elizabeth, James and Charles to suppress this "sinful" place, as the crowds who flocked to it so blocked the thoroughfares that people could not get to their shops. It is worth noting that these snuffling hypocrites were dealers chiefly in feathers, pins and looking-glasses, and such like vanities, and that the players were amongst their best customers.

No picture of the theatre, in which many of Shakespeare's masterpieces were first produced, is known to exist; but from contemporary plays, more especially those of Ben Jonson, it is possible to give a vivid presentment of the interior of the building during a performance. The Blackfriars was a private theatrethat is to say, it was chiefly supported by noble patrons, who subscribed for boxes, and consequently it was conducted with greater decorum than was the Globe


or the Fortune, or such like. Again, it was entirely roofed in, while the public theatres were partly open to the sky; and there were seats in the pit, a luxury not vouchsafed to " the groundlings " in the others.

To eyes accustomed to the glare of gas and electric light, the interior, lit up simply by candles, will appear plunged in semi-darkness. A silken curtain, which runs upon an iron rod and opens in the middle, at present conceals the stage. On three sides are tiers of galleries, to which the prices of admission are sixpence and a shilling, and to the small boxes or rooms beneath, two shillings and two and sixpence; these latter are rented by the aristocracy. The pit, in the public theatres, is filled with a noisy, nutcracking, apple-eating, ale-drinking, card-playing, romping, flirting, riotous crowd, whose clamour frequently drowns the voices of the actors; but no such licence is permitted here, nor would those sober citizens who sit attentive on their benches desire it.

In a balcony on one side of the stage are the musicians, who play before the play and between the acts, like the orchestra of a modern theatre; and very excellent music it is, for the musicians pay for the privilege of performing at the Blackfriars, as it recommends them to the nobility.

Hark! there is the triple flourish of trumpets, which announces that the play will now begin, and the curtains are drawn back on each side. As a tragedy is to be represented the stage is hung with black, and like the halls of the nobles, the boards are strewn


with rushes; there is another curtain at the back, which is still closed; the walls at the sides are hung with arras.

Although the actors have not yet appeared, the stage is already half-filled with ladies and gallants, seated upon three-legged stools, some of the gentlemen lying upon the rushes at their ladies' feet and fanning themselves, a la Hamlet and Ophelia. Here we have the jeunesse doree of the court, the Mercutios, the Tybalts, the Romeos, the Benedicks, who in the play will see themselves reflected as in a mirror, just as in the dramas of our day we attempt to show " the very age and body of the time, its form and pressure". We have met the gallants strolling in the aisles of old St. Paul's, and dining at Dick Tarleton's Ordinary, noted their close-cropped hair, their huge ruffs, monstrous trunk-hose, their feet half-hidden by the splendid roses in their shoes. But here are the ladies in their pearled stomachers, their expansive farthingales, stiff with gold and silver embroidery, and their yellowdyed hair and glittering winged ruffs. At the back of each gallant stands a page, a veritable Moth, whose duty it is to keep his master's pipe, moulded in silver or clay into many curious shapes, supplied with tobacco from " fine lily pots " that upon being opened smell like conserve of roses, while between a pair of silver tongs he holds a glowing coal of juniper wood to ignite the Virginian weed, so that the atmosphere resembles that of a modern music hall.

When the curtain at the back is undrawn it reveals


an upper and a lower platform; the former, raised upon pillars ten feet high, is used when the scene[2]  requires a double action; it serves for Juliet's balcony and the ramparts from which Prince Arthur casts himself. The actors are richly dressed in the costumes of the day; many of the nobility send them their castoff suits. But they were not dependent upon these, for Henslowe has entered in his Diary such items as the following: " £21 for two piled velvet cloaks at 20s. and 5d. a yard; £6 13s. for a lady's gown; £19 for one cloak". To appreciate the sumptuousness of this apparel we must bear in mind the relative value of money in that day and this.

And now the play begins, and proceeds amidst loud comments from the audience, complimentary and otherwise. If they do not like it, there are cries of "mew! " blirt!" "ha, ha!" "light, chaffy stuff!" Would I could describe how Burbage and Will Kempe and Lowin and Shakespeare looked and acted, but of that we have no record; and here the wings of my Pegasus fail him and we drop down upon nineteenth-century ground again.

Whether the postern, from which looked down the


images of King Lud and his two sons and gave its name to the hill, was originally called Ludgate, or Fludgate, as being the barrier against the inundations of the Fleet River, I leave to antiquaries to decide; but it reminds us that it was here that the gallant warriorpoet, Sir Thomas Wyatt, made his last stand against the troops of Mary, just in front of the ancient inn, La Belle Sauvage, which was on the western side of the gate, and was driven back, with some thousands of rebel followers, to Temple Bar, where he surrendered himself to Sir Maurice Berkeley, and so sealed his own fate and that of poor Lady Jane Grey. From the time of Richard II. until Ludgate was a poor debtor's prison, and, as at the Fleet, the wretched captives solicited alms at barred windows from all who passed, this being their only means of obtaining sustenance. [3] 

"There happened to be a prisoner there," writes Strype, "one Stephen Foster, who was a cryer at the grate. As he was doing his dolorous office, a rich widow of London hearing his complaint inquired of him what would release him. To which he answered Twenty pound; which she in charity expended; and clearing him out of prison entertained him in her service; who afterwards falling into the way of merchandise, and increasing as well in wealth as courage, wooed his mistress, Dame Agnes, and married her." Then, in , he became Sir Stephen


Foster, Lord Mayor of London; but he forgot not the poor prisoners of whom he had once been one, and did much for their relief and comfort, rebuilding a part of the prison and erecting a chapel therein. Rowley's play, A Woman Never Vexed, is founded upon the story.

A famous hostelry in Elizabeth's time, and long before and long afterwards, was La Belle Sauvage ;

here Banks the showman exhibited his wonderful performing horse, " Morocco," so frequently referred to by Elizabethan writers (Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost, Raleigh in the History of the World, and others). Morocco by his marvellous tricks with cards and dice quite anticipated the trained animals of today. According to Jonson, both he and his master were burned on the Continent as sorcerers. In the


courtyard of the inn plays were acted on movable stages before any theatre was built in London; and the galleries which surrounded these inn-yards, and from which the spectators witnessed the performances, served as a model for the playhouses.

There are several explanations of this curious sign. Stow tells us that one Isabella Savage gave it to the Cutlers' Company, whose coat of arms, the Elephant and Castle, is still to be seen upon a stone in the yard. " Mr. Spectator" says that in his time the sign was a savage standing beside a big bell. Or it might have been the union of two separate signs, apprentices, when setting up for themselves, often using their former masters' signs in combination with their own.

Passing into the Old Bailey-a name so ancient that even Stow had to confess his ignorance of its origin, though he supposes it to have been derived from some antique court that was held there-we come upon that great gloomy house of terror, the silent remembrancer of centuries of sin and suffering, and the vengeance of the law. Newgate, the old Elizabethan chronicler informs us, was erected in the reign of Henry I. or Stephen, and, like all the other city gateways, served as a gaol. The story of Newgate prison has filled good-sized volumes, and cannot even be glanced at here: it has been well told by Major Griffiths in his Chronicles of Newgate. Of the awful condition of the old gaol, even as late as , he relates the following anecdote: " At the May Sessions of


that year a hundred prisoners were arraigned, and the whole of these had been incarcerated for some time in two rooms, fourteen feet by seven, and only seven feet in height; when brought into a court, which was only thirty feet square, they spread a pestilence around: four of the judges died plague-stricken, forty others were seized with the distemper, and only two or three escaped with their lives". Major Griffiths confirms Harrison Ainsworth's wonderful stories of Jack Sheppard's escapes, and adds others, of which one Daniel Malden was the hero, in , scarcely less wonderful.

The strangest feature, however, in the criminal history of the eighteenth century is that these atrocious miscreants, as soon as they were condemned to death, became heroes, and men and women of the first fashion rushed to visit them in the condemned cell. Walpole, in one of his letters to Horace Mann (18th October, ), writes: " Robbing is the only thing that goes on with any vivacity, though my friend M'Lean [a notorious highwayman] is hanged. The first Sunday after his condemnation three thousand people went to see him; he fainted away twice in the heat of his cell. You can't conceive the ridiculous rage there is of going to Newgate; and the prints that are published of the malefactors, and the memoirs of their lives and deaths." More than half a century previously Claude Duval had been equally honoured: when he was captured, dames of the highest rank visited him, and interceded for his pardon ; after his execution the corpse lay in state with all the pomp of wax-lights and black


hangings, and was gazed upon by scores of disconsolate and weeping fair ones. Writing to Mann, 23rd March, , Walpole says: " It is shocking to think what a shambles this country is grown! Seventeen were executed this morning, after having murdered a turnkey on Friday night, and almost forced open Newgate. One is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going to battle."[4] 

The old prison perished in that terrible conflagration raised by the Gordon rioters in , of which no finer picture can be found than that given by Charles Dickens in Barnaby Rudge. Something yet remains, however, of ancient Newgate, in some heavy, lowarched cellars, without any means of ventilation, which might have been the veritable cells in which the hundred prisoners were confined, or Jack Sheppard himself. And the condemned cell has more than a hundred years of ghastly traditions. During the first half of the nineteenth century the rage for seeing criminals hanged was as great as that for visiting them in the eighteenth, and the owners of the houses opposite the place of execution made fabulous sums by letting their windows to sight-seers. Vide the Ingoldsby ballad of Lord Tom Noddy.

Glancing up Newgate Street our eyes fall upon another landmark of old London which has been doomed by the iconoclast, Christ Hospital. It is a pity to break up such a noble mass of traditions as those associated with the old school.

What a host of memories has gathered about that small spot of ground on which, in the early decades of the thirteenth century, the Franciscans within a few years after the order was first established () built a monastery! In the Greyfriars was one of the most splendid churches in London. Stow gives an enormous list of illustrious personages, including queens and the daughters of kings and great nobles, who were interred there, and of nine monuments of marble and alabaster in the choir alone, and seven score gravestones of marble, all of which were thereafter sold by a zealous reformer, one Alderman Sir Martin Bowes, for £50! Among the notable dead was Isabella, "the she-wolf of France," queen of Edward II., and there was a tradition among the bluecoat boys that her ghost walked the ancient cloister that had once formed part of the church.

It is generally supposed that the school was founded by Edward VI., whose apocryphal reputation for such like acts of beneficence has been so ruthlessly dissipated by recent historical investigations; but Christ Hospital was founded by Henry VIII. in the thirty-eighth year of his reign-it is unjust to ignore one of the very few good acts of the Tudor despot-and the grant was only confirmed by his son.

The roll of scholars and great men who received their training at this fine old school is a noble one; to mention but a few: Stillingfleet, Samuel Richardson,

Coleridge, Lamb, Leigh Hunt. And what charming reminiscences the two last have left us of the old house--the first in the Essays of Elia, the second in


his autobiography. Both write bitterly upon the hard life of those school days; the breakfast of half a three half-penny loaf "moistened with attenuated small beer," that " tasted of the pitched leathern jack it was poured from," says Elia; " our Monday's milk porridge blue and tasteless, and the pease soup of Saturday coarse and choking. . . . The Wednesday's mess of millet somewhat less repugnant (we had three banyan to four meat days in the week). In lieu of our halfpickled Sundays, or quite fresh boiled beef on Thursdays (strong as caro equina), with detestable marigolds floating in the pail to poison the broth of our scanty mutton scrags on Fridays, the rather more savoury, but grudging portions of the same flesh, rotten roasted or rare, on the Tuesdays." Yet it was an unwritten law among these half-starved boys that the fat of fresh boiled beef should never be eaten; it went by the name of gags, and a gag-eater was a creature held in horror. He tells a pathetic story of a boy who had been seen to gather up these forbidden things, and was regarded as no better than a ghoul by his disgusted schoolfellows until it was discovered that he took them to his parents who were in dire want. Sometimes the boys were given a day's leave and were turned out from breakfast till night into the burning streets of summer or the frost and snow of winter to shift for themselves. One of the greatest sufferers by these enforced holidays was Coleridge, who had no friends in London; in fine weather he swam in the New River, or haunted old bookstalls, and in wet


days tramped round and round Newgate Market until the gates were opened again.

The discipline of the upper school under the Rev. James Boyer was Spartan. " He had two wigs .... The one serene, smiling, fresh powdered, betokening a mild day. The other, an old, discoloured, unkempt, angry caxton, denoting frequent and bloody execution. Woe to the school when he made his morning appearance in his passy or passionate wig . . . Nothing was more common than to see him make a headlong entry into the schoolroom from his inner recess or library, and with turbulent eye singling out a lad, roar out, 'Ods my life, sirrah! I have a great mind to whip you !'-then, with a sudden and retracting impulse, fling back into his lair, and after a cooling lapse of some minutes drive headlong out again, piecing out his imperfect sense, as if it had been some devil's litany, with the expletory yell 'and I WILL too !' In his gentler moods, when rabidus furor was assuaged, he had resort to an ingenious method, peculiar, from what I have heard, to himself, of whipping the boys and reading the debates in the newspaper at the same time; a paragraph and a lash between."[5] 

Here is a picture, from the same charming pen, of an illustrious schoolmate: " Come back into my memory, like as thou wert in the dayspring of thy fancies, with hope like a fiery column before thee-the


dark pillar not yet turned-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Logician, Metaphysician, Bard! How have I seen the casual passer through the cloisters stand still, entranced with admiration (while he weighed the disproportion between the speech and the garb of the young Mirandula), to hear thee unfold, in thy deep and sweet intonations the mysteries of Jamblichus or Plotinus (for even in those years thou waxedest not pale at such philosophic draughts), or reciting Homer in his Greek, or Pindar-while the walls of the old Grey Friars re-echoed to the accents of the inspired charity boy! "

How remote those old bare-footed friars, those royalties and great nobles appear to be from us of to-day, and yet their ashes lie within a few feet of the crowded pavement of Newgate Street, while the very stones are still haunted for us by the spirits of men who yet live and breathe in their immortal thoughts!

Christ Hospital is not the only place in Newgate Street associated with memories of Lamb and Coleridge. On the south side, nearer to Cheapside, stood, until burned down in , a notable old tavern called the Salutation and Cat.[6]  It is now rebuilt as a modern public house and restaurant. During the eighteenth century it was a favourite rendezvous of literary men, especially of Richardson the novelist,


Cave of The Gentleman's Magazine, and William Bowyer the antiquary. Coleridge, in one of his morbid moods, took up his abode at the Salutation for a while. He and Lamb frequently met there to talk of poetry and fate and free will, and Samuel Taylor would recite his last poem. There is a pretty allusion to these evenings in one of Lamb's letters to Coleridge: "When I read in your little volume your nineteenth effusion, or what you call 'The Sigh,' I think I hear you again. I imagine to myself the little smoky room at the Salutation and Cat, where we have sat together through the winter's nights, beguiling the cares of life with poetry" (10th June, 1796). How deep was the impression left upon Lamb by those evenings is shown in the following passage from a dedication of his works to that same friend: " Some of the sonnets, which shall be carelessly turned over by the general reader, may happily awaken in you remembrances which I should be sorry should be ever totally extinct-the memory of 'summer days and delightful years,' even so far back as those old suppers at our old inn-when life was fresh and topics exhaustless--and you first kindled in me, if not the power, yet the love of poetry, and beauty, and kindliness".

It is but a step down King Edward Street, formerly Butcherhall Lane, into that quaint corner of old London, to which the Earls of Brittany, who lodged there in ancient times, gave the name Little Britain. In days gone by it was a " Booksellers' Row " filled


with old bookstalls, in which the hunter for rarities picked up for a mere song many a choice treasure that would now set the cognoscenti at Puttick & Simpson's bidding against each other by the hundred. Milton's Paradise Lost was published in Little Britain, and for some time the copies lay as so much waste paper on the bookseller's shelves. But one day that Maecenas of his time, the poetic Earl of Dorset, Dryden's great patron, came into the shop in search of some book. Taking up a copy of the epic by chance, he dipped into it here and there, and, being greatly struck by some passages, bought it. Then the bookseller begged him to speak of it to his friends. His lordship sent the poem to Dryden-and so it was launched upon the world. The first numbers of The Spectator were published here. One of the most charming papers in Washington Irving's Sketch Book is devoted to Little Britain and the jolly doings of " The Roaring Lads," who met at the Half Moon Tavern, and opened every club night by trolling forth the famous old drinking song from "Gammer Gurton's Needle":

Back and side go bare, go bare,

Both foot and hand go cold;

But belly god send thee good ale enough,

Whether it be new or old.


[1] "The Children of Paul's," who figure so largely in the dramatic history of Elizabeth's and James's reigns, were the choristers of the cathedral. Plays were frequently represented by them, not only in their schools and in the private theatres, but sometimes at court. The Blackfriars, before it was taken over by Burbage and his partners, seems to have been devoted entirely to their use. The players were very jealous of their popularity, and it is to them that Hamlet alludes in the lines: "There is, sir, an aery of children, little eye-asses, that cry out on the top of the question, and are most tyrannically clapped for't; these are now the fashion," etc., etc. See Hamlet, iii. 2.

[2] Whether or not scenery was used in these private theatres is a point by no means certain. Considering the wonderful scenic effects which were common in the court "masques" (see Ben Jonson's Masques), I think it more than probable; how otherwise can we understand the stage directions in the plays of the period which indicate not only scenes but sets? This is no place to enter into such a discussion, but let the reader take up his Shakespeare, or Jonson, or indeed any Elizabethan dramatist, and consider the matter for himself.

[3] Prisoners still begged at the grating of the Fleet in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

[4] Newspapers, journals and gossip of this time are full of references to the anarchical condition of the London streets and suburbs, and the daring robberies and deeds of violence daily and nightly perpetrated in them. There is an advertisement in The Public Ledger, in 1744, stating that on certain nights a horse patrol would be stationed on the new road between the Sadler's Wells and Grosvenor Square for the protection of visitors to the Wells. I shall have more to say upon this subject when I come to Bow Street.

[5] Coleridge, however, admitted that he owed great obligations to this Gamaliel, who flogged infidelity and false taste in poetry out of him.

[6] The Salutation means the Annunciation, and was figured by an Angel appearing to the Virgin. The addition of the Cat can only be explained by such a combination of signs as is explained in my note upon La Belle Sauvage.