Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton

1899

CHAPTER V:The Fleet-Its Associations and Surroundings

CHAPTER V:The Fleet-Its Associations and Surroundings

 

Who that rugged street would traverse o'er

That stretches, O Fleet-ditch! from thy black shore

To the Tower's moated walls ? Here streams ascend,

That in mixed fumes, the wrinkled nose offends.

Where chandlers' caldrons boil; where fishy prey

Hide the wet stall, long absent from the sea;

And where the cleaver chops the heifer's spoil,

And where huge hogsheads sweat with trainy oil,

Thy breathing nostrils hold ! But how shall I

Pass where in piles Cornavian (Cheshire) cheeses lie?

SUCH is Gay's description in Trivia () of the thoroughfare we now know as Farringdon Road and Farringdon Street, through which ran-and still runs beneath it-the Fleet River, then little more than a ditch of Stygian blackness, upon the slimy banks of which, wherever the rows of pigsties that clustered on the western side left openings, were thrown refuse and offal of all kinds, and the grunters roamed about and fattened on the putrid garbage. The ditch was spanned by three bridges, one at the foot of Holborn Hill, another at the end of Fleet Street, and a third opposite Bridewell. Little more than 200 years ago ships anchored at the bottom of , and

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thence passed into the Thames, into which the Fleet flowed.

All about this foul stream during the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries gathered a maze of narrow streets, courts and alleys, in which lived some of the most desperate characters of the metropolis. The most notorious of these haunts was Chick Lane, better known as West Street, that ran near the end of Field Lane. The Red Lion Tavern, which stood there within the last fifty years, and was a very ancient house, was supposed to have been one of the abodes of the infamous thief-taker, Jonathan Wild. It had sliding panels, secret hiding-places and trap doors opening over the river, convenient for the disposal of murdered victims; many other of the houses had similar conveniences. Most of this foul neighbourhood was swept away by the Smithfield improvements, between forty and fifty years ago, and by the Metropolitan Railway.

On the eastern side of the ditch, just about the spot where the Memorial Hall now offends the eye, stood for seven centuries the notorious Fleet Prison. "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" should have been carved over the portals of that iniquitous den, the horrors of which culminated under the rule of Bainbridge in the first half of the eighteenth century. The tortures of the Inquisition were inflicted upon poor debtors who resisted the infamous extortions of this wretch; they were shut up with lunatics, lodged with people sick of fevers and small-pox, chained to

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the ground, burned with red-hot irons, and were battered to death with sticks. In the common yard might have been met peers who had shone at St. James's; preachers who had stirred thousands of hearts by their eloquence; brave generals who had lost their limbs in the service of their country; authors whose works have been a delight to posterity; merchants great upon 'Change; murderers, pimps, cheats, gamblers, highwaymen, prostitutes, fine ladies, pious wives and mothers, pure young girls, all mingled together like the refuse of things once beautiful and dainty and good to look upon, which was swept down the Stygian stream that ran beside this pandemonium. Wat Tyler burned down the prison, so did the Gordon rioters; but it rose again to be depicted in its last days by the pen of Dickens. The locomotive now puffs over a portion of its site; but little dreams the new generation of the silent records of strange romances and crimes, of love and devotion, of hideous vice and awful human misery it is passing over. Wonderful are the untold stories of the streets of London ! But there are other records of the prison-comical, sentimental, tragical-those of the Fleet marriages. A person who stationed himself opposite those black, frowning walls any morning in the early decades of the last century would have witnessed a sight amusing enough on the surface, but sadly suggestive upon reflection.

All sorts and conditions of men and women are making for the prison, and every Jack has his Jill:

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some come in hackney coaches, some in gay chariots, others are picking their way on foot among the garbage cast out from Fleet Market that stands in the middle of the roadway, all are hurrying to this gruesome Temple of Hymen. That old harridan, patched and painted and in white satin sacque, looks more fitted for the grave than the bridal chamber; she shakes with palsy as she leans upon the arm of her young, handsome but threadbare cavalier, upon whom she hideously languishes; that is my Lady Ogleby, who amorous at seventy has bestowed her parchment hand upon Jack Wannop, a ruined gamester, and fearing the interference of her children has consented to a clandestine marriage at the Fleet. Poor old woman! That fierce, military-looking man is a "Derby captain," one of Marlborough's officers, and the fat, buxom widow, who hangs upon his arm a little nervously, is the hostess of a tavern where the brave captain has been living at free quarters and of which he is now to become the master; the fear of interfering relatives has driven her also to the Fleet. Well, they will jog on with not more than the usual allowance of matrimonial skirmishes and scratches, perhaps. I don't know what to say about the next pair; that bumptious-looking young fellow and that yellow, snub-nosed girl; Tom Idle has induced his master's daughter to jump out of her bedroom window to hang herself in the halter of Hymen; the story of that handsomely attired, dissipated-looking young fellow with that very plain and frightened-looking girl clinging to his arm is some-

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what similar-Miss Chrysos, the rich heiress, has eloped from her boarding-school with Dick Hopeful. Poor girl! There are a lad and a lass whose united ages scarcely number thirty-four years; it is a terrible case of calf love. But oh, when they are man and woman how they will hate one another!

Outside the prison lounge some half-dozen tatterdemalions, with bristly chins, drink-bleared eyes, their rags, which serve both for day and night, reeking of the pot-house. They are on the watch for these victims of Cupid and Mammon, and, hat in hand, surround them. " D'ye want the parson, my noble young gentleman ?" " This way, beautiful lady !"this to my Lady Ogleby, who sniggers and simpers and hides her raddled face with her fan. " The doctor's at the Pen and Hand." " This way to the true and ancient register." At the entrance to the prison the candidates for matrimony are met by rival parsons in cauliflower wigs, rusty and ragged cassocks, who each obsequiously presses for the honour of performing the ceremony. But while the unfortunates are in danger of being torn to pieces by contending divines and drunken touts, a powerful, forbiddinglooking woman elbows her way through the throng, and with an air of authority, that seems to overawe the rivals, beckons the couples to follow her; Jack Wannop and the Derby captain succeed in doing so, but parsons and touts close round the rest, like hungry dogs over a heap of bones.

The female guide conducts her captives to the

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frowsy room of a public-house, within the precincts of the prison, where a huge, fat man, attired in clerical garb, with a pewter-pot before him, is awaiting votaries; when you look at his nose of Tyrian purple, his leering, squinting, watery eyes, blotched cheeks and thick lips, and hear of his blasphemy and debauchery, you may not wonder that these distinctions have won for him the nickname of the " Bishop of Hell ". For a fee, ranging from five shillings to a guinea, according to the quality of his patrons, this priest of Hymen will in a few minutes make a couple miserable for life. But even now the days of his vile calling are numbered; an Act of Parliament will soon be passed, rendering such performances of the marriage ceremony criminal. It will only drive erratic lovers to Gretna Green, however, where the blacksmith will tie the fatal knot as readily as did the Bishop of-the Fleet.

When, in , a great part of the Fleet ditch was arched over, the Old Stocks Market, which had occupied the site of the Mansion-house, was transferred to a spot nearly opposite the prison, and opened for the sale of fish, meat and vegetables. But, in , it was found to be such an obstruction to the increasing traffic that it had to be demolished, and Farringdon Market, which has now also disappeared, was erected in its place. The site and building of the latter cost a quarter of a million of money, and a handsome affair it was considered to be, strange as such a dictum may sound to those who remember it only in its days of decay and desertion.

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Until the construction of the railway line which joins Ludgate to Holborn Station there was, behind and beside the Fleet Prison, another network of unsavoury courts and alleys, extending to the Old Bailey and Smithfield. Of these was Green-arbour Court, in which poor Oliver Goldsmith passed a year or two of his bitter struggle for bread and did some of his earlier work. Washington Irving, in Tales of a Traveller, , describes how, through alleys, courts and blind passages, traversing Fleet Market and thence turning along a narrow street to the bottom of a long steep flight of stone steps (they were known as " Break-neck Steps"), he made his way up to Green-arbour Court. " Here were the tall, faded houses, with heads out of window at every storey; the dirty, neglected children; the bawling, slipshod women; in one corner the clothes hanging to dry. . . . Without question the same squalid, squalling colony, which it then was, it had been in Goldsmith's time. He would compromise with the children for occasional cessation of noise by frequent cakes or sweetmeats, or by a tune upon his flute, for which all the court assembled. .. . He would risk his neck nightly at those steep stone stairs; every day, for his clothes had become too ragged to submit to daylight scrutiny, he would keep within his dirty, naked, unfurnished room, with its single wooden chair and window bench. Such was Goldsmith's home." Yet perhaps even this was better than Axe Lane, where he had to herd with the beggars.

But what a curious picture the anecdote conjures up: the lean, hungry, tattered poet, standing in the squalid court, the centre of a ring of frowsy women and open-mouthed children, unkempt heads thrust out of the broken windows, tootling upon his flute. Must it not have recalled that self-drawn picture of himself acting the same part, but in far different scenes, as given in The Travellvvr : -

How often have I led thy sportive choir

With tuneless pipe beside the murmuring Loire,

Where shading elms along the margin grew,

And, freshen'd from the wave, the zephyr flew!

And haply, though my harsh touch, faltering still,

But mock'd all time and marr'd the dancer's skill,

Yet would the village praise my wondrous power,

And dance forgetful of the noontide hour.

Under Queen Elizabeth the condition of authors was most lamentable: that exquisite lyrist, Robert Greene, dying in abject destitution; that awful cry of bitter despair from Tom Nash in Pierce Pennilesse; the revelations of Henslowe's Diary; Edmund Spenser expiring almost of want-are terrible tales. It is a curious fact that although, with the exception of Charles I., the Stuarts displayed no particular generosity towards literary men, from the accession of James the condition of the author rapidly improved. Contrast the circumstances of the later contemporaries of Shakespeare with those of the earlier: if the Heywoods and Massingers were needy they were not always flourishing; we hear no more of such horrors as Greene's death and Nash's anathemas. James

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was certainly a better patron and a truer encourager of literature than his predecessor.

Up to the deathof Queen Anne authors of ability,who were moderately prudent in their lives, did not starve; but with the coming of the Hanoverians, literary men fell into a state of poverty and degradation such as had not been known for more than a hundred years. Yet what could be expected when the king raged like a mad bull at the sight of a book, and was as unlettered as one of his own German peasants. And his son was no better. When he went to see Richard III. he thought nothing of Garrick, all that struck him was the Lord Mayor! Literature was out of fashion, noblemen no longer patronised authors, and there was no reading public. What a sordid record is the literary life of the eighteenth century; you cannot take up a biography, a play, a novel of the period without coming upon some trait of it. Pope and Foote and Smollett and Fielding and Goldsmith satirised or grew cynical or pitiful over it. In " A Modern Glossary" (Covent Garden Journal) Fielding defines "AUTHOR-a laughing-stock. It means likewise a poor fellow, and, in general, an object of contempt."

"Where are the great protectors and patrons of the liberal arts? " inquires Governor Cope in Foote's farce, The Author. " Patron !-the word has lost its use; a guinea subscription at the request of a lady, whose chambermaid is acquainted with the author, may be now and then picked up. Protector! Why, I dare believe there's more money laid out upon Islington

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turnpike in a month than upon all the learned men in Great Britain in seven years." In another scene the Printer's Devil brings the author his weekly pay for the newspaper, five and sixpence, and treats him with contemptuous insolence. " Here's a man on the stairs wants you," he says as he is going away; "by the sheepishness of his looks, and the shabbiness of his dress, he's either a pickpocket or an author."

There is little exaggeration in this satire. Chatterton was paid half a guinea for sixteen songs, the same price for a poem of 270 lines, and two shillings for a couple of contributions to a magazine; for four months' hard work he received four pounds fifteen shillings and ninepence. In grim earnestness what can surpass those lines of Goldsmith's-" The Description of an Author's Bedchamber"-probably a self-drawn picture?

In a lonely room from bailiffs snug

The muse found Scroggins stretched beneath a rug;

A window patch'd with paper, but a ray

That dimly show'd the state in which he lay;

The sanded floor that grits beneath the tread;

The humid wall with paltry pictures spread. ...

The morn was cold; he views with keen desire

The rusty grate, unconscious of a fire;

With beer and milk arrears the frieze was scored,

And five crack'd tea-cups dress'd the culinary board;

A night-cap deck'd his brows instead of bay,

A cap by night-a stocking all the day.

We have seen Johnson homeless and foodless, and pages might be filled with similar stories. Truly there were few Chattertons or Johnsons in Grub

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Street; there were more Eusdens, Elkanah Settles, Nahum Tates, Gildons, Flecknoes, the dunces of The Dunciad. Some of the unfortunates, like Savage, of whom I shall have more to say presently, owed much of their misery to dissipation. Yet how much of that might have been induced by the precariousness of their lives, by that reckless despair in which there is nothing between temporary oblivion and madness. Let us judge leniently their errors and their vices.