The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.




It would be difficult to name one street principal above all others in the London of to-day, there are so many chief in their own department, be it in the world of fashion or of trade; but it would be yet a greater problem to ninety-nine Londoners out of a hundred to name what was undoubtedly the principal street in old London, the London within the walls. When it is named they will no doubt have a vague idea that they have heard of it before, but they will not be able to say if it exists, and still less where it begins and ends.

This once principal street, Thames Street, does exist, and to walk down it in the day-time is dangerous. Huge cranes swing overhead, threatening to descend upon any luckless skull, yawning trap-doors gape for unwary feet; brawny men, intent on their own ends, jostle loiterers aside, and a step into the roadway would possibly bring destruction beneath the wheels of some mighty dray.

The Thames Street of to-day, as may have been gathered, is not inordinately wide; it is lined on one side by wharves, through which glimpses of the grey-green river may be seen. Alas, one of the prettiest of these


peeps was done away but a few years ago! This was at Paul's Wharf, on which was a house projecting over the water, in the old style, and with a strong-room, a real old-fashioned strong-room, dating from before the days of banks or " running cashes," down below. The strong timber uprights of the wharf framed as charming a bit of river scenery as London could show. Now it is gone, all gone, and Paul's Wharf has been added to the new brick structures standing at intervals by the side of the Thames.

The only time to explore Thames Street with safety to life and limb is on a Saturday afternoon, or on a Sunday, when, if the day be fine and sunny, the peaceful houses throw long shadows on the causeway, and it is easy to imagine one has been transported into the quaint, narrow, irregular street of some old Continental town.

Yet nothing is left of the real old Thames Street as it was in the days of its glory; it was all swept away in the disastrous Fire, and long before that the magnificent palaces and princes' houses that lined it had fallen into decay.

Let us reconstruct the street at the time when the poet , the little boy who was to bear the proud title of the "Father of English Poetry," was born therein.

Not far from the station of St. Paul's at Blackfriars Bridge is a small and narrow dock called appropriately enough Puddle Dock; here the water laps about the green lichened posts, and gently covers or lays bare


the slimy mud, as day by day the tide creeps up and recedes. This was at one time a place of vast bustle and importance; lading and unlading went on all day long, as the goods of London were sent abroad, such things as iron, wool, and hides from the earliest times and later manufactured materials, and imports were freely landed. Not far from Puddle Dock stood the mighty castle of Baynard, built about the time of the Norman Conquest, and held at the date of 's birth by the Earls of Clare. The castle had been dismantled in the reign of in revenge for its owner's taking part with the Barons, but the Earl had been later forgiven and had rebuilt his stronghold. After 's time it was to be burnt down and again rebuilt completely, on a slightly different site, and it was to witness the proclamation of ., the acceptance of the crown by his sons' murderer, and to be a residence of . But those days were not yet, for . was on the throne.

The house of 's father, who was a vintner, was at the beginning of Lower Thames Street, hard by the site of the present Cannon Street station, and not half a mile from the castle of Baynard. This and the neighbouring tower of Montfichet, the stern walls of Bridewell seen across the Fleet, with the monastic houses of Black and White Friars, must have been familiar objects to the small boy as he loitered in the street. Not so agreeable a sight, and one that must have struck any one sensitive with disgust, was a place near at hand where the butchers of the city used to


throw the reeking remains of the carcasses of killed beasts into the water; but an order was made in the reign of . that this disgraceful practice should be abolished, and the remains otherwise disposed of.

Two or three large houses followed Baynard's Castle, one of which was taken from the abbey of Fécamp by . and given to Sir Simon Burley. At Paul's Wharf there was a free right of taking water, a right disputed in 's day when an attempt was made to get rents from those who so used the wharf. Near this there was another great house called Beaumont's Inn, and not far off was the house of the abbots of Chertsey. Near Broken Wharf was a large mansion or castle belonging to the King's brother, Thomas, Earl of Norfolk, and then came the great Port of Queenhithe, where fish was continually landed in enormous quantities. East of Queenhithe was the Vintry Wharf, where the merchants of Bordeaux landed their wines, and it was not far from here that the vintner, known to posterity as the father of his son, lived. It is of little advantage to enumerate further the line of great houses by the river in Thames Street, or to note in detail the houses of the well-to-do merchants and citizens farther inland, above which rose the splendid Cathedral of old St. Paul's, and near it the Bishop's Palace. Enough has been said to show what the street was like in the time of 's boyhood : a fashionable street, full of coming and going, where men-at-arms and knights and esquires were continually to be seen, where gallants in blue and gold and silver paraded up and down amid busy merchants


and the lading and unlading of goods. People always coming and going, always some sight, some scene to look upon; an ideal place to live according to a boy's notions, but hardly the place where one would imagine the growth of a poet. Here the boy lingered on holidays and on his way to and from school; here he listened to the disputes about the water and the butchers' offal; here he learned to know by sight the princes and princesses of the Royal household. Not far northward was Tower Royal, where Queen Philippa kept her Wardrobe, and with which was to become very familiar in later days. Of all the splendid houses in this part the only one standing which would be familiar to , could he revisit the scene, would be the Tower. 's father was evidently well-to-do; it is even supposed that he held some Court appointment himself in earlier life. He was able, at all events, to give his son a good education. Yet the vast gap between those times and our own is instanced by the petty details of life, such as the fact that paper was not then in use, forks not thought of; at a dinner two persons shared one plate; even in a well-to-do household the furniture would be of a rough kind, trestle tables, wooden benches and trenchers.
must have been seventeen or thereabouts, according to the latest researches, when he entered the service of the King's son Lionel, Duke of Clarence, as a page. Thereafter he moved about with the household of his master, seeing Windsor, Woodstock, Hatfield, and many another place. In he went on an expedition to ,


and and took his part in the war. His life was full and eventful, a life of observation spent among men and things. He was soldier, courtier, and man of affairs as well as poet. We know his outward aspect sufficiently well: a short, stout man, with small head and hands, a forked beard, and a habit of looking "ever on the ground "; yet those downcast eyes took in all there was to see, and were shrewd with wondrous observation.

We pick up the thread of his life again, so far as we are concerned, in his residence over the gateway at Aldgate in . He was then in prosperous circumstances; he had married Philippa, supposed to have been Lady of the Chamber to the Queen; he enjoyed a pension from ; and he had been appointed Comptroller of the Customs. Besides all these marks of grace he had the right to a special pitcher of wine, to be received from the hands of the King's butler every day. He had the lease of the upper storey and cellar of Aldgate on condition he kept the building in repair. Here he remained for twelve years. Though his married life was apparently not happy, we can imagine him well contented, writing his poems, visited by his friend Gower, and going to and from the Custom House, which was rebuilt at the end of his time of service, and stood farther east than the present one. During this period of his life he wrote a great deal, including the poem of " Troilus and Cressida," and several of those tales afterwards incorporated into the famous Canterbury Tales. Of course these were copied out by hand, for the days of printing were not yet. also went abroad


frequently on diplomatic errands, so he had certainly no cause to complain of his lot. In , . having been then on the throne about five years, he was further appointed Comptroller of the Petty Customs. But his prosperity did not last. In he was dismissed from both offices, whether for incapacity or merely by reason of the caprice of the times is not known. It is supposed also that his wife died about this time. However, he still held two pensions, the second one being from the King. He left the gatehouse, and where he lived in London or elsewhere is not known; probably he travelled about England or went on his pilgrimage to Canterbury. Three years later he was appointed Clerk of the King's Works, in which capacity he had charge of the King's mews for falcons at Charing Cross, a place we have already visited. He held this office for two years only, giving us reason to suspect that, like most geniuses, he was not satisfactory as a man of business. He received another appointment as Forester from the Earl of March, and in gave him an annuity. Up to his place of residence cannot be traced. He was in London certainly several times to receive his pension, but whether he lived there or not there is no means of knowing.
In King ., the son of a former patron,, ascended the throne, and gave him an additional pension, so that he must have been well off. He then leased a house at the east end of , on the site now occupied by Henry VII.'s Chapel, but before he had been here a


year he died, in October , and was buried in the Abbey, near which his last days had been spent.

must have been familiar to him, for he had sat as " Knight for the Shire of Kent " in the House of Parliament, and must often have been at and about the Palace, then, with the Tower, the principal residence of the King. Around the Abbey and Palace clustered what there was of , and beyond a stream running over the course of Gardener's Lane there was open country with fields.

As for the Palace, it was a town in itself. In Richard II.'s reign there were three hundred and forty-six artificers living in the precincts; these, with their wives and families, were the King's servants to make what he required. Of the commissariat department, clerks, ushers, and so on, there were two hundred and ten, besides an army of servants. Then there were chaplains, scribes, stewards, accountants, maids of honour, pages, and " valets." This town of people was surrounded by a wall, and to this busy, crowded scene would have free admittance. For the last years of his life he had been busy completing and collecting his Canterbury Tales, and doubtless these were read aloud and much enjoyed at Court.

From the beginning to the end of his life had been closely connected with London, and we may fittingly end with his own words:- Also the citye of London that is to me so dere and sweete, in which I was forth growen; and more kindely love have I to that place than to any other in yerth.