The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.




The nearer we get to the present time, the less interesting is the reconstruction of London. Yet the London of was in many respects as different from our own as that of the Stuarts or Tudors. We have only to look at the old prints, of which there are many, depicting the Strand or Charing Cross to realise that London was then below the level


of some sleepy old provincial town of our own day, though Boswell did speak enthusiastically of its animated scenes. The streets were paved with rounded cobbles, and the noise of the iron-tired wheels of the high coaches and heavy carts rattling over it must have been deafening. There were posts along the side of the footways, and the footways themselves so narrow that ladies with the huge hoops of the period could not possibly pass any one they met, and even when they had the whole pavement to themselves had to use a graceful sideway movement to prevent their hoops wiping all the mud and filth from every post. Along the houses, nearly all of which had balconies overhanging the street, were an assortment of signs of every hue and design, swinging and creaking in the wind. There were hackney coaches to be had, but the river was still the universal highway, and on it plied numbers of covered boats called tilt boats, that ran from stairs to stairs and conveyed people as omnibuses do now. Fashion had deserted the Strand, as it had before deserted Thames Street, and had moved westward; all the part about Mayfair was filled with the new houses of the wealthy, though Hyde Park Corner was the end of London in this direction. Belgravia was still " The Five Fields," with the Westbourne stream flowing through them. But far more strange than any details of buildings is the fact that the men of that century, so comparatively near to our own time, went to see the Tyburn executions as a show, and viewed with indifference the spiked heads on Temple Bar. To this London, Johnson


came as a man of twenty-eight, and took lodgings in Exeter Street, Strand. He was at this time married, but had left his wife behind him. He was unprepossessing, big, loose-jointed, clumsy, marked with scrofula, blind of one eye, and with a terrible affliction which made him involuntarily twitch his limbs and roll his head; but he was common-sense incarnate, with the common-sense that is akin to genius, and his broad brain recognised no limits to the possibilities of acquirement. He had very little money, and dined for eightpence, " a cut of meat for sixpence, and bread for a penny, and gave the waiter a penny," and thus made his first acquaintance with the London taverns which were to play so large a part in his life.

The east end of Exeter Street has vanished before the onward march of great Kingsway and Aldwych, and would be sadly puzzled if he found himself in the neighbourhood now. He was only a few months in Exeter Street when he returned to Lichfield, and on coming back to London subsequently he brought his wife with him. Their lodgings were for a time in Woodstock Street, near Hanover Square, and afterwards in Castle Street, near Cavendish Square. There was of course then no . Bond Street was in existence, and Great Swallow Street ran right through between and . When they lived near Hanover Square they were almost in the country, the houses to the north of the Oxford Road being confined to a few streets about Cavendish Square, and reaching northward to Marylebone Gardens, a place


of entertainment, while northward and on either side there was nothing but fields. now worked for Cave on the Gentleman's Magazine, and spent his time at its offices in Clerkenwell Gate. Clerkenwell Green had been, but a short time before his acquaintance with it, a fashionable place, surrounded by large houses with gardens, one of them belonging to the Duke of Newcastle, but it had fallen from its greatness, and many of the houses were let in tenements.

To follow his various movements in detail would be unprofitable, so a list of his lodgings and residences is appended, as Boswell preserved it to the world; and we go on to that life in Fleet Street with which he is peculiarly associated :-

Exeter Street, Strand, ; , ; Woodstock Street, Hanover Square, ; 6 Castle Street, Cavendish Square, ; Boswell Court; Strand; Strand again; Bow Street; Holborn; Fetter Lane; Golden Anchor, Holborn Bars, ; Gough Square, ; Staple Inn, ; Gray's Inn, 1 Inner Temple Lane, ; 7 Johnson Court, Fleet Street, ; 8 Bolt Court, Fleet Street, . It will thus be seen that he altogether outnumbered in his London residences. was the spirit of eighteenth-century London incarnate. No man so " clubable" as he, no one who understood so perfectly the art of interesting and amusing the men who gathered round the tavern tables. Clubs were at first intimately associated with taverns, and their object was purely social. A man of


that date would look with surprise on the clubs of the present day, where solitude is considered to be one of the inalienable privileges of members, and for one man to address another without good cause little less than an affront. In Johnson's day to sit down at the same table with a man in a tavern was an introduction; clubs were established for the purpose of intercourse, not aloofness, and in the extraordinary outburst of literary and conversational ability at his date there must have been many things that passed in clubs which would have been well worth preserving in permanent form.


first residence near Fleet Street was in Gough Square, where he began his great dictionary; later he was in Johnson's Court, and then in Bolt Court, where he gathered together the forlorn folk who had somehow crept within the protection of his great heart. His Government pension of £300 a year was well employed in housing so large a family of such incongruous items. Established near his beloved Fleet Street, Johnson had found his corner; though he travelled to Paris, Wales, and Scotland, and on many a lesser excursion, he knew that London was native to his spirit, even as Lichfield was his native place in the body. In spite of his strenuous work and enormous output he was constitutionally lazy, and when not forced by necessity, loved to pass his time in idling. This is the account given of his day by one who knew him :-

About twelve o'clock I commonly visited him, and frequently found him in bed or declaiming over his tea, which he drank very plentifully. He generally had a levee of morning visitors, chiefly men or letters; Hawkesworth, Goldsmith, Murphy, Langton, Steevens, Beauclerk, etc., and sometimes learned ladies, particularly I remember a French lady of wit and fashion doing him the honour of a visit. ... I never could discover how he found time for his compositions. He declaimed all the morning, then went to dinner at a tavern, where he commonly stayed late, and then drank his tea at some friend's house, over which he loitered a great while, but seldom took supper.

His favourite tavern was the Mitre in Fleet Street, which stood on the site of part of Hoare's Bank. Here he met Boswell and Goldsmith and other intimates, who affectionately spoke of him as the "big man." The Turk's Head Coffee-house in the Strand was another favourite resort, and after the formation of the Literary Club in the Turk's Head, Gerrard Street, Soho, he went there. This club was an epitome of the society then to be found in London; the list of its original members includes besides himself and Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who helped him to found it, Edmund Burke, Nugent, Topham Beauclerk, , Chamier, and Langton, and the names of the members within a few years included those of Gibbon, Adam Smith, Garrick, Sheridan, Lord Palmerston, James Fox, the Duke of Leeds, and the Bishops of , Killaloe, Clonfert, Peterborough, and Salisbury.

Johnson's excessive tea-drinking-he is said at one time to have consumed twenty-five cups at a sitting and his sociability were prominent characteristics as well as his kindliness of heart. He delighted in going to


places of amusement in good company, but he was equally zealous in his attendance at church. His pew in St. Clement Danes is marked by a brass plate.

Boswell tells us that he and once took boat at the Temple stairs and were rowed to Old Swan stairs, and then walked to Billingsgate, thence again by boat to , where he read aloud from the Doctor's London the words :-

On Thames's banks in silent thought we stood, Where


smiles upon the silver flood; Pleased with the seat which gave Eliza birth, We kneel and kiss the consecrated earth.

What with such an ardent admirer as Boswell always at hand to soothe his self-love, with the society of such intellects as those mentioned, with kind friends like the Thrales, and the sense of his own great and worthily recognised ability, we can imagine that in spite of all his engrained melancholy managed to enjoy his life. His utterances in regard to London were always those of warm eulogium :-

Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together that the wonderful immensity of London consists.

He confessed that London was "too big"; what would he have said to the huge city now?

Again, he observed that a man stored his mind better


in London than anywhere else; no place cured a man's vanity or arrogance so well as London, for as no man was either great or good per se, but as compared with others not so good and great, he was sure to find in the metropolis many his equals and some his superiors.

" You find no man at all intellectual who is willing to leave London. No, sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." "There, and there alone, a man's house is truly his castle."

died at the age of seventy-five, and, like two of his great predecessors mentioned already, was buried in .