Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton


CHAPTER IV: Smithfield and Clerkwell and their seven hundred years of associations -The Charterhouse

CHAPTER IV: Smithfield and Clerkwell and their seven hundred years of associations -The Charterhouse


AND now let us turn into Giltspur Street, along which pranced and spurred and clattered the knights of old on their way to the tournaments in Smithfield, past the noble hospital, founded by that king's pious jester, Rahere, which has been doing Samaritan work unceasingly for nearly eight hundred years, and let us pause at the ancient gateway leading to the glorious old Norman church of St. Bartholomew the Great, in which Rahere is entombed.

Had they the power of speech, what stories those black stones could tell of the long, long centuries that have passed since the hands of the mason set them; of the splendid pageants, the misery, the human agony, the horrors, the comedies, the tragedies that have been enacted before them. Smithfield was the scene of most of the grand tournaments in the days of the Plantagenets. Here assembled the splendid court of Edward III. to witness that joust at which the kings of France and Scotland were present; and that seven days' tournament, given in honour of



Edward's beloved mistress, Alice Perrers, "the Lady of the Sun"; and here were celebrated those yet more gorgeous pageants of chivalry in the reign of Edward's grandson, Richard, to which journeyed knights and nobles from France and Flanders, and many other foreign countries.

I give a picture from old Stow, who copied it from Froissart: "When Sunday came-the Sunday after Michaelmas, 1379-about three o'clock, there paraded from the Tower of London sixty barbed coursers, ornamented for the tournament, and on each was mounted a squire of honour. Then came sixty ladies of rank mounted on palfreys, most elegantly and richly dressed, following each other, every one leading a knight with a silver chain, completely armed for tilting; and in this procession they moved on through the streets of London, attended by numbers of minstrels and trumpets, to Smithfield. The knights, being in the king's party, had their harness and apparel garnished with white harts (the king's device) and crowns of gold about the harts' necks." Can we not imagine these preux chevaliers in their damascened armour and gorgeously emblazoned surcoats; the ladies in their rich velvets stamped and embroidered with armorial bearings, mottoes and devices, their hair confined in nets of gold surmounted by jewelled coronets, or by golden horns from which hang veils of Spanish or Flanders lace? Now the demoiselles are seated in the raised gallery, and the king, queen and attendants have taken their places in


a splendid pavilion: without the lists is a swaying crowd that fills the whole great area of Smithfield;. the champions, lances in rest, range themselves in two serried lines. "Largesse, largesse! Glory to the brave! " shout the heralds; the trumpets and clarions send forth shrill blasts of defiance; then there is a thunderous tramp of hoofs, a glitter, a flash, and an awful crash of arms-and horses and riders and plumed casques are rolling in the dust, while the victors, amidst the acclamations of the spectators and the frantic waving of ladies' handkerchiefs, kneel before the throne of " the Queen of Love and Beauty" to receive the guerdon of their prowess.

Not long afterwards a sterner scene was enacted here, when twenty thousand rebels, under Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball, confronted the sybaritish king and would have slain him but for the loyalty and prompt valour of Mayor Walworth, who killed Wat Tyler on the spot.

In front of the old gateway during the reigns of Henry VIII., Mary and Elizabeth, Londoners were almost as frequently treated to an auto-da-fe as were the subjects of Philip of Spain. Now it was some Papist or Papists who were burned for refusing to acknowledge the king's supremacy; then a Reformer for rejecting the doctrines of Rome; anon a Protestant who denied the real presence; and by-and-by an Anabaptist for blaspheming against the accepted codes of both Catholics and Protestants. And the faggots, smeared with pitch and oil, are piled up in the great


open space, and the mob, whose instincts are always cruel, and who are equally eager for scenes of death, whether they be of the guillotine, the block, the gallows or the faggot, gather about the funeral pyre and wait as impatiently for the gruesome show as did their forefathers for the jousts and tournaments. And now is heard the distant solemn chant of the Miserere, or the swell of some Lutheran or Calvinistic hymn, and the ghastly procession of victims and executioners is seen slowly approaching.

Soon there is a glare, and billows of black blinding smoke, borne on the wind, drive back the gaping ghouls; and chants and prayers swell louder and louder, until they are drowned in the awful swirl and roar of the flames. The differences of faith seem to make no difference in the heroic bearing of these votive offerings to the demons of bigotry, and the same unblenching courage distinguishes both Papist and Protestant; a cry of pain is seldom wrung from them in their terrible agony, or a sign of apostasy. Why, the stones of the old gateway are blackened by the smoke from the funeral pyres of the martyrs!

Not wholly splendid and tragic, however, are the scenes which the old gateway has looked upon. During seven hundred years it witnessed the great London saturnalia, St. Bartholomew Fair. Stow tells us that Henry II. granted the privilege of a yearly fair to the priory, and that clothiers and drapers came thither from all parts of England with their goods. It was open during three days in the month


of September. It ceased to be a cloth fair in Elizabeth's reign, as it had long been given up chiefly to horses, cattle and sheep, and booths and shows. The three days were afterwards extended to fourteen.

Ben Jonson in his comedy, Bartholomew Fair, has unctuously pictured the humours of this Cockney carnival in the days of the first Stuart. Several references to the Fair occur in Pepys' Diary. Under date 30th August, , he writes: " I to Bartholomew Fair, there to walk up and down; and there among other things find my Lady Castlemaine at a puppet play". Frederick, Prince of Wales, the father of George III., frequently honoured it by his presence. And some of the principal actors of the patent theatres, such as Dogget, of coat and badge memory, and Pinkethman, eulogised by Steele, found it profitable to forget that they were "His Majesty's Servants" and open booths there. Most famous of all theatrical booths was that of Richardson, under whom Edmund Kean appeared. Here any of Shakespeare's tragedies could be played within half an hour; and contended with fire-eaters, rope-dancers, wild beasts, mermaids, fat boys, girls with two heads, cows with five legs, bearded and pig-faced ladies, strong men and women, and every other species of monstrosity that may now be seen at Barnum & Bailey's show. Vice and ruffianism, however, at last disgusted a more decorous age, and when, in September, , the Lord Mayor, as had been the custom with all his predecessors, proceeded


to Smithfield to open the fair by proclamation, lo, with the exception of a few gingerbread stalls, the ground was deserted! Bartholomew Fair was not suppressed: it died of pure inanition.

Among other strange sights that the old gateway has gazed upon have been wife selling and wife burning. The Times of 30th March, , tells us how one John Lees sold his wife for 6d. to Samuel Hall, and she was delivered up with a halter round her neck, and the clerk of the market received 4d. for toll. Two cases of this kind happened even in . Evelyn records that in he saw a woman, who had murdered her husband, burning in Smithfield, that being the usual punishment-not hanging-for murderesses. Smithfield was also a chosen spot in the middle ages for single combats and ordeal by battle. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had become such a rendezvous for bullies and bravoes that it was known as "Ruffians'-hall ".

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Dickens, in Oliver Twist, grimly limned some of the sights the old gate frowned upon.

"It was market morning, the ground was covered nearly ankle-deep with filth and mire, and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle and mingling with the fog.... The whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, . . . the roar of voices that issued from every public-house, the crowding, pushing, driving, bleating, whooping, hideous and


discordant yelling that came from every corner of the market confused the senses."

And knights and ladies, Plantagenets and Tudors, all the pomp of chivalry, martyrs and persecutors, and-oh ! terrible descent into bathos all the riots and humours of seven hundred years of Bartholomew Fairs have passed away like the baseless fabric of a vision, and the old archway has survived them all! Think of the tiny England of the Norman kings, without nationality or even a language; think of the mighty England of to-day with its world-wide tongue, no word of which was in existence when those stones were fashioned ! And city vandals proposed to sweep them away to make room for an ugly, modern thoroughfare !

Let us pass through the gateway, down the neglected churchyard, formerly the nave of the church, and take one glance at all that remains of the grand priory of St. Bartholomew-the choir, the most superb specimen of Norman architecture in the metropolis. For once restoration has not spelt destruction, and all the solemn beauty of the old edifice has been preserved. Beneath the dim religious light reposes the effigy of King Henry's jester, who, repenting of the vanity of his life, made a pilgrimage to Rome, and having been favoured by a vision of St. Bartholomew, on his return in founded the church and hospital.

The north door of the church opens into one of the most curious relics of ancient London yet left, Cloth Fair. High walls nod to each other, and roofs almost



meet; tall, gaunt houses with their overhanging storeys and gable-ended roofs leave but a streak of day visible above our heads; the dust and dirt of centuries lie upon everything, upon the dark, dingy shops, upon the eaves and every projection. Here are gaps where buildings have been wholly or partially pulled down, showing the walls and windows of the church behind. Here are ghostly-looking houses with every window smashed in, waiting for the pickaxe and the spade. Here is a cul-de-sac so narrow that from the windows of one side you might easily press your hands upon the black wall opposite, and so dark that, summer and winter, a perpetual twilight reigns there. As you advance farther, narrow thoroughfares of ruinous houses and blind courts branch right and left.

At the corner of one of these, leading into Long Lane, stands "Ye Dick Whittington," which claims to be the oldest licensed tavern in London, and, after looking at the picture of it we here present, the claim may be allowed. It is probably as old as the days. of the famous Sir Richard himself.

And now, O reader! can thy imagination again transport thee so far as to obliterate from thy mind's eye the dreary and soul-depressing gloom of the Clerkenwell of to-day, and picture in place of it fair gardens and terraced vineyards and a bright blue sky, and, on the slope passing westwards from the Green to Ray Street, a noble monastic pile from which the chants of the monks mingle with the ecstatic song of


the lark? Just at the bottom of what will hereafter be Ray Street is Skinner's Well, almost as famous
for its healing powers as Lourdes or St. Winifred's will be in time to come. But a more enduring fame


will cling to it as the spot where the parish clerks of London, on a raised stage or pageant, for centuries performed the Miracle and Mystery plays. And so it came to be called Clerk's Well.

Except when presented in churches, as were frequently the case, these plays were performed in the open. The stage was made up of three platforms, one above the other. On the uppermost sat God the Father, surrounded by His angels; on the second the saints; the third was for the mortals. On one side of the lowest platform was a yawning gulf representing hell, from which fire and smoke issued, and the yells of demons who occasionally showed themselves to the spectators. Such were the arrangements of the earlier Miracle plays. Subsequently some attempt was made at a rude kind of scenery, even to the building of a castle and a ship. The subjects of the plays were always scriptural: "The Creation of the World," " Job's Sufferings," " Dives and Lazarus "-all acted in very realistic fashion, and with much admixture of gross indecency and buffoonery in the character of "The vice," or Devil, who was the comic personage, and the progenitor of the clowns of a later date. As the centuries went on, these performances fell into the hands of the laity, and became so abominable and blasphemous that, sometime before the Reformation, the clergy suppressed them. The Miracles and Mysteries, however, greatly influenced our earliest dramatists, as readers of Dodsley's Old Plays will discover.

Richard II. and his queen attended these performances, and in the reign of his successor, Stow tells us, "a great play was played at Skinner's Well, which lasted eight days, where there were to see the same the most part of the nobles and gentles of England. And forthwith began a royal jousting in Smithfield between the Earl of Somerset and the Seneschal of Hainault, Sir John Cornwall, Sir Richard Arundell and the son of Sir John Chesny against certain Frenchmen."

When the clerks deserted Skinner's Well, all kinds of barbarous sports took the place of The Miracles and Mysteries. A bear garden was formed, and the bulls and bears, on some occasions covered with fireworks, were baited by savage dogs; there were wrestling and cudgel and single-stick play, and "champions" challenged one another to bouts with backswords, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, and slashed one another to the huge delight of the spectators, as you will read in the Spectator, No. 436. The place was known for many generations as Hockley in the Hole. The site of this notorious resort was marked until within the last year by a very old tavern, The Coach and Horses, at the bottom of Ray Street, originally Rag Street.

Yet notwithstanding the ruffianly character of the neighbourhood, some of the highest nobility, the Newcastles, the Berkeleys, had their town residences in Clerkenwell until the end of the seventeenth century, and are still remembered in the names of streets.

And now as a contrast to this turmoil and pother let us look in upon Thomas Britton, " the musical smallcoal man," who carried on his trade in Jerusalem Passage, Aylesbury Street, in the earlier decades of the eighteenth century. Here is his shed, which was a stable the other day, and above it is what was then the hay-loft, but it now forms the proprietor's entire menage-kitchen, parlour and bedroom combined. It can only be approached by these outside steps. Don't shrink back; the red-heeled shoes and silken coats and brocaded sacques of noble lords and ladies, who are members of the musical club held here every Thursday night, mount them weekly.

Hark ! do you hear those strains of grand music ? Some master hand is sweeping the keys of a harpsichord, and those long, deep, full rich notes of a viol de gamba can only be drawn out by a fine bow. Let us ascend; it is a poor place, but take off your hat and bow reverently, for you are in the presence of a mighty genius. The big, heavy-looking man at the harpsichord is no less a personage than George Frederick Handel, who frequently attends and plays at these musical meetings; and he with the viol de gamba between his knees, in a blue smock frock, is Thomas Britton himself, a musician of the highest class, theoretical and practical. There are other players, noted executants of the day: Sir Roger L'Estrange, Dr. Pepusch, Mr. Bannister, Mr. Charles Jennens, Madame Cuzzoni, and the ladies and gentlemen who crowd the mean room are distinguished personages,


I assure you-dukes and duchesses, wits and philosophers.[1] 

Thomas Britton, notwithstanding his very humble occupation, is no common person. If you will look in at Mr. Bateman's, the bookseller of , any Saturday afternoon, you will probably see our musical enthusiast drop down a sack of coals at the door, enter the shop, salute the beaux assembled there in their velvets and laces, and fall into their conversation, aye, and be listened to respectfully, though among them we may recognise supercilious Horace Walpole and pompous Dr. Burney; for Thomas Britton is a collector of rare books and MSS., and owns twentyseven musical instruments. Yet he will never be anything more than a small-coal man. How different all this would be now! But would it be better ? No. There was a noble simplicity about this man that would have been destroyed by the gush and snobbery of an age which, while pretending to be in love with the spirit of democracy, imitates the most contemptible side of aristocratic exclusiveness.

To exhaust the memories of Clerkenwell and its surroundings would require a volume, and I must pass over many an old building, old street, old lane, old tavern that would furnish much pleasant gossip, and merely glance at two or three of the more remarkable places.

Of the great Priory of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, founded in , only the crypt of the church and the well-known Gateway remain. The former, seven hundred years old, beneath the Church of St. John, is one of the most interesting antiquities of London. The priory went with the other monastic establishments in Henry Tudor's reign; and in that of his son Protector Somerset carried away the stones to help build his great house in the Strand.

In the room above the Gateway Garrick made his first appearance in London () in an amateur performance of Fielding's Mock Doctor. And in that room the great actor, Johnson, Goldsmith and Cave afterwards formed a club. Until within these twenty years the room in furniture, fittings and appearance was much as it might have been when it was a rendezvous for those four illustrissimi, but the present possessors have swept and garnished it in the true spirit of vandalism, leaving only the walls. At the Gate was first issued The Gentleman's Magazine, and here young Samuel Johnson, hungry, shabby, and almost shoeless, toiled for a crust, translating from foreign languages, composing parliamentary debates and speeches; yet with all his industry


was sometimes obliged to walk the streets all night for want of a lodging. The Gateway after " Sylvanus Urban's " time, and perhaps in it, was a tavern called "The Jerusalem," wherein all the antiquities were reverently preserved until the advent of the iconoclasts.

In the old Square, of which little remains, the Carlisles, the Essexes, the Norths had mansions in Charles II.'s time. Hick's Hall, from which all distances to and from London were formerly measured, stood just about the spot where the Sessions House was built. It may be worth noting that Wadebridge Street marks the site of the old Red Bull Theatre of Elizabeth's time, which, in the style of its performances, resembled the Surrey or "Vic." of forty years ago.

Close at hand is a famous monument of the olden time. The Carthusian Monastery, thereafter known as the Charterhouse, was founded by that brave knight, so familiar to all readers of Froissart, Sir Walter Manny, in . Adjoining it was a burialplace called Pardon Churchyard, in which, when the Black Death raged, in , fifty thousand corpses were buried. To this Golgotha Sir Walter added thirteen acres, and Stow calculates that up to his time a hundred thousand bodies had been interred within the area. The monastery was dissolved for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII. as head of the Church: nine monks were starved to death in Newgate, and a fourth was executed; Prior Houghton having been


previously put to death, and his head, with those of two others, and portions of his body, spiked over the gates. The house afterwards successively fell into the possession of the Duke of Northumberland, Lord North, and the Howards, and was finally purchased by Thomas Sutton, who, after being Master General of the Ordnance under Elizabeth, became a goldsmith or usurer, and a man of enormous wealth. It has been said that he was the original of Jonson's Volpone in The Fox. Be that as it may, he paid £13,000 for the old hospital, and endowed it to be a home for aged men and a school for poor children (), and when he died his funeral procession, which numbered six thousand people, was six hours in passing from to Christ Church chapel.

The original gateway and some ancient buildings just within it on the right, together with the chancel and south wall of the Jacobean Chapel, are all that remain of the old monastery of the Carthusians; but the main building is a fine specimen of Jacobean architecture. It is a delightful old-world spot, and was quiet and secluded before Wilderness Row became a portion of Clerkenwell Road, and brought a racket of traffic past the tall boundary wall; but still much of that air of calm and leisure, so precious from its scarceness in this age of restless hurry, reigns over the place. The master's house has noble apartments, adorned with some very fine historical portraits and furniture and hangings, among which you live


back in the late Stuart days, and dream of velvet coats and flowing periwigs.

Thackeray has shed an immortal halo around the old " Greyfriars," and it is almost impossible to enter or even think of Charterhouse without the image of grand old Colonel Newcome rising before you. Of all the flesh-and-blood people associated with the place none are so real to us as that creation of the great novelist's brain. And yet these mortals are a goodly crew, including such notable persons as Crashaw and Lovelace, the cavalier poets; Dr. Isaac Barrow, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, John Wesley, Sir William Blackstone, the Earl of Liverpool, Lord Ellenborough, Sir C. Eastlake, Thackeray, Leech. But what are these names to the smug, heavily mulcted, middle-class young gentlemen, the Carthusians of Godalming? You cannot transport that subtle influence called prestige that clings about the stones, the ground, the air of our famous buildings, and the Surrey " Charterhouse" is no more the Charterhouse than would be a spick and span new church, built on Salisbury Plain, Westminster Abbey, because the ecclesiastical establishment of the London minster had been translated thither. Charterhouse School has passed away, and a country academy been established on its endowments. The same will be the case with Christ School. The boys of Merchant Taylors' now occupy the Charterhouse.


[1] Ward, the author of The London Spy, wrote:- " Upon Thursday repair To my palace, and there Hobble up stair by stair; But I pray ye take care That you break not your shins by a stumble; And without e'er a souse Paid to me or my spouse, Sit as still as a mouse At the top of the house, And there you shall hear how we fumble "