Peter Ackroyd

London The Biography



List of Illustrations


BLACK-AND-WHITE INSERT I

Early Londoner admiring London Stone (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) John Stow (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London)

Charter of William I (Corporation of London Records Office)

Marcellus Laroon, Street merchants

Aerial sketch of London, 1560 (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) View of London Bridge by Anthonis van den Wyngaerde (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) Panorama of London by Hollar (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) View of Old St. Paul’s by Hollar (Guildhall Library/Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Royal Exchange by Hollar (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Detail of map charting the Great Fire of London, 1666 (Royal Academy of Arts Library, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) 17th c. firemen (Royal Academy of Arts Library, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Hanging outside of Newgate Prison by Rowlandson (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Moll Cut-Purse (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Newgate Prison (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

National Temperance map of London (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Café Monico, Piccadilly Circus (Courtesy of the Museum of London)


COLOR INSERT I

London from Southwark, Dutch School, c.1630 (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Entrance to the River Fleet, Samuel Scott (Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London) Detail of the City from Braun and Hogenberg’s map of London, 1572 (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Johann B. Homann’s map and prospect of London, 1730 (British Library, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Great Fire of London, 1666 aquatint after Philippe de Loutherbourg (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 16th October 1834, J.M.W. Turner (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA/Bridgeman Art Library) Jack Sheppard, William Thornhill (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Tom, Jerry and Logic Visiting Condemned Prisoners of Newgate Prison, George and Isaac Cruikshank (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Curds and Whey Seller, Cheapside, c. 1730, British School (Courtesy of the Museum of London) The Meat Stall from The London Markets, engraved by M. Dubourg after James Pollard (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Smithfield Market, engraved by R.G. Reeve after James Pollard (British Museum, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Frozen Thames, c.1677, Abraham Hondius (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Punch or May Day, Benjamin Haydon (Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY) A Rake’s Progress IV: The Arrested, Going to Court, William Hogarth (Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library) The Four Times of Day: Morning, William Hogarth (Upton House, Oxfordshire, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Whitehall and the Privy Gardens from Richmond House, Canaletto (By courtesy of the Trustees of the Goodwood Collection) View of the Adelphi from the River Thames, William Marlow (Christie’s Images, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library)


COLOR INSERT II

The Laying of the Water Main in Tottenham Court Road, George Scharf (British Museum, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Scavenger’s Lamentation, engraved by A. Sharpshooter (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) The Enraged Musician, William Hogarth (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) The Railway Station, William Frith (Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, Surrey, UK/Bridgeman Art Gallery) The Crowd, Robert Buss (Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London) Piccadilly Circus, Charles Ginner (Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY) Hammersmith Bridge on Boat Race Day, Walter Greaves (Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY) Noctes Ambrosianae, Walter Sickert (Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham, UK/Bridgeman Art Library/© 2001 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York, NY/DACS, London) Hammersmith Palais de Danse, Malcolm Drummond (Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery) A Coffee Stall, Chas Hunt (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

The Coffee House, William Ratcliffe (Southampton City Art Gallery, Hampshire, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Allen’s Tobacconist Shop, Hart Street, Grosvenor Square, Robert Allen (Courtesy of the Museum of London) House, Rachel Whiteread (Anthony d’Offay Gallery)

Two Sleepers, Henry Moore (The Henry Moore Foundation/Walter Hussey Bequest, Pallant House, Chichester, UK/Bridgeman Art Library) Devastation, 1941: An East End Street, Graham Sutherland (Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY) Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, 1991, Alan Delaney (Courtesy of the Museum of London)


BLACK-AND-WHITE INSERT II

Regent Street in 1886, London Stereoscopic Company (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Covent Garden Porters, John Thomson (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Old houses in Bermondsey

Clerkenwell Green

River scavengers

Women sifting through dust mounds

The Great Wheel, Earl’s Court Exhibition, 1890, Charles Wilson (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Children Following a Water Cart, William Whiffin (Tower Hamlets Local History Library) Boy selling matches

Children Playing Cricket in Alpha Road, Millwall, 1938, Fox Photos (Hulton/Archive) A Thoroughbred November and London Particular, engraved by George Hunt after M. Egerton (Guildhall Library/Corporation of London) Car in smog, Henry Grant (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

A Paraleytic Woman, Géricault (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris) Protein Man (Davidson/Evening Standard/Hulton/Archive)

Bomb damage in Paternoster Row, 1940 (Cecil Beaton photograph, courtesy of Sotheby’s London) Near Spitalfields Market (© Don McCullin/Contact Press)


PART OPENERS

Plan of remains of Roman ship (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Matthew Paris map of London, 1252 (By permission of the British Library [ROY.14.C.VII f2]) Dore, Ludgate Hill

Tudor depiction of the market at Eastcheap (By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library) Mid-16th c. map of Moorfields (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Marcellus Laroon, The Merry Milkmaid

The Rookery of St. Giles (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Punch and Judy puppet show (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Great Plague of 1665 (Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge) Christopher Wren and John Evelyn plan of London after the Great Fire, 1666 (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Rowlandson depiction of hanging (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Rowlandson, Revellers at Vauxhall (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Gillray caricature of Sheridan as Punch (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) Cockney flower seller in Covent Garden (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Dore, vagrants huddled on Westminster Bridge

The Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) The burning of Newgate Prison, 1780, Gordon Riots (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) Title page of Astrologaster of the Figure Caster by John Melton Scharf, the building of Carlton House Terrace, c. 1830

Girgnion engraving of the Fleet River (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London) Mayhew, The Sewer Hunter (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Dore, Seven Dials Slum

Géricault, Pity the Sorrow of a Poor Old Man (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris) The Mud-lark (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Scharf, The Original Oyster Shop

Whistler, Billingsgate (Courtesy of the Museum of London)

Hogarth, A Harlot’s Progress

London Underground poster, 1929

St. Paul’s Cathedral (Imperial War Museum, London)

Poster for the Lansbury Council Estate in Poplar (Courtesy of the Museum of London) Tribute to Christopher Wren (Guildhall Library, Corporation of London)


Chronology

<p>Chronology</p>

BC

54 Caesar’s first expedition to Britain AD

41 The Roman invasion of Britain

43 The naming of Londinium

60 The burning of London by Boudicca

61-122 The rebuilding of London

120 The Hadrianic fire of London c.

c. 190 The building of the great wall 407 The Roman withdrawal from London

457 Britons flee London to evade the Saxons 490 Saxon domination over London

587 Augustine’s mission to London

604 Foundation of a bishopric, and St. Paul’s, in London 672 Reference to “the port of London.” The growth of Lundenwic 851 London stormed by Vikings

886 Alfred retakes and rebuilds London

892 Londoners repel Danish invasion fleet 959 A great fire in London: St. Paul’s burned 994 Siege of London by Danish forces 1013 The second siege of London, by conquering Sweyn 1016 Third siege of London by Cnut, repulsed 1035 Harold I elected king by Londoners 1050 The rebuilding of Westminster Abbey 1065 Dedication of Westminster Abbey

1066 The taking of London by William the Conqueror 1078 The building of the White Tower

1123 Rahere establishes St. Bartholomew’s 1176 The building of a stone bridge

1191 The establishment of a London commune 1193-1212 The first mayor of London, Henry Fitz-Ailwin 1220 Rebuilding of Westminster Abbey

1290 Expulsion of the Jews; Eleanor Crosses set up at Chepe and Charing Cross 1326 The London revolution: deposition of Edward II 1348 The Black Death kills one-third of London’s population 1371 Charterhouse founded

1373 Chaucer living above Aldgate

1381 Wat Tyler’s revolt

1397 Richard Whittington first elected mayor 1406 Plague in London

1414 The Lollard revolt

1442 The Strand is paved

1450 Jack Cade’s revolt

1476 The establishment of Caxton’s printing press 1484 The sweating sickness in London

1485 Henry VII enters London in triumph after the Battle of Bosworth 1509 Henry VIII ascends the throne

1535 Execution of Thomas More on Tower Hill 1535-9 The spoilation of London’s monasteries and churches 1544 Wyngaerde’s great panorama of London 1576 The building of the Theatre in Shoreditch 1598 Publication of Stow’s Survey of London

1608-13 The construction of the New River 1619-22 The building of Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House 1642-3 The construction of earthen walls, and forts, against the king’s army 1649 Execution of Charles I

1652 The emergence of the coffee house 1663 The building of a theatre in Drury Lane 1665 The Great Plague

1666 The Great Fire

1694 The foundation of the Bank of England 1733 The covering of the Fleet River

1750 The building of Westminster Bridge 1756 The construction of the New Road

1769 The building of Blackfriars Bridge 1769-70 Wilkite agitation in London

1774 The London Building Act

1780 The Gordon Riots

1799 The establishment of the West India Dock Company 1800 The foundation of the Royal College of Surgeons 1801 London’s population reaches one million 1809 Gas-lighting instituted in Pall Mall 1816 Radicals meet at Spa Fields: riots in Spitalfields 1824 National Gallery founded

1825 Nash rebuilds Buckingham Palace

1829 London Metropolitan Police Force founded 1834 Houses of Parliament destroyed by fire 1836 University of London established

1851 The Great Exhibition opened in Hyde Park 1858 The “great stink” leads to Bazalgette’s sanitary engineering 1863 The opening of the world’s first underground railway 1878 The advent of electric lighting

1882 The emergence of the electric tram-car 1887 “Bloody Sunday” demonstrations in Trafalgar Square 1888 The appearance of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel 1889 The establishment of the London County Council 1892 The beginning of the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames 1897 The emergence of the motor-omnibus 1901 Population of London reaches 6.6 million 1905 Epidemic of typhus. Aldwych and Kingsway opened to traffic 1906 Suffragettes demonstrate in Parliament Square 1909 The opening of Selfridge’s department store 1911 The siege of Sidney Street

1913 The inauguration of the Chelsea Flower Show 1915 The first bombs fall on London 1926 The General Strike

1932 The building of Broadcasting House in Portland Place for the BBC

1935 The inauguration of the Green Belt 1936 The battle of Cable Street

1940 The beginning of the London Blitz

1951 The Festival of Britain on the South Bank 1952 The great smog

1955 The opening of Heathrow Airport

1965 The abolition of the London County Council; creation of the Greater London Council 1967 The closure of the East India Dock; the building of Centre Point 1981 The Brixton riots; the establishment of the London Docklands Development Corporation 1985 Broadwater Farm riots

1986 Completion of M25 ringway; abolition of GLC; the “big bang” in the Stock Exchange 1987 The building of Canary Wharf

2000 Mayoral elections


Acknowledgements

<p>Acknowledgements</p>

The author and publisher are grateful to the following for permission to reproduce illustrative material which appears in the text pages: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 587; British Library, 43; Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., 81; Guildhall, 383, 455, 471, 529, 751; Imperial War Museum, 721; Magdalene College, Cambridge, 191; Museum of London, 5, 89, 121, 135, 219, 237, 297, 403, 551, 613, 661, 735.


The author and publisher are grateful to the following for permission to reproduce copyright materia Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Secker amp; Warburg and the Wylie Agency (UK) Ltd.); Sally Holloway, Courage High (HMSO); Mike and Trevor Phillips, Windrush: the Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (HarperCollins); Virginia Woolf, The Diaries, ed. Anne Oliver Bell (the Executors of the Estate of Virginia Woolf, The Hogarth Press and Harcourt Brace).


The jacket and endpapers show details from the following paintings and photographs:


Front cover: London from Southwark, c.1630, British School; The Great Wheel, Earl’s Court Exhibition, 1890, by Charles Wilson; Curds and Whey Seller, Cheapside, c.1730, British School; Coombe and Co’s Brewer’s, St. Giles, c.1875, by Alfred and John Bool © Museum of London; Canary Wharf from the Isle of Dogs; Thames Barrier © Matthew Weinreb; inside flap: The Crawlers, c.1876, by John Thomson © Museum of London; Lloyds of London © Matthew Weinreb; back cover: May Morning, c.1760, by John Collet; Allen’s Tobacconist Shop, c.1841, by Robert Allen; A Shop in Macclesfield Street, Soho, 1883, by Henry Dixon; Suffragette Demonstration in Trafalgar Square, c.1908, © Museum of London; Simpson’s of Piccadilly; John Lewis, Oxford Street © Matthew Weinreb; inside flap: Westminster Bridge from the River Looking South, c.1750, British School; Railway Maintenance Gang, St. Pancras, c.1900, by Rev. John Galt © Museum of London; spine: Regent Street, c.1886, anon. © Museum of London; endpapers: Seven Phases in the Evolution of Old London Bridge © Museum of London.


Cartography on pages xxvi-xxix by Pamela Talese.


While the publishers have made every effort to trace the owners of copyright, they will be happy to rectify any errors or omissions in further editions.


The City as Body

<p>The City as Body</p>

The image of London as a human body is striking and singular; we may trace it from the pictorial emblems of the City of God, the mystical body in which Jesus Christ represents its head and the citizens its other members. London has also been envisaged in the form of a young man with his arms outstretched in a gesture of liberation; the figure is taken from a Roman bronze but it embodies the energy and exultation of a city continually expanding in great waves of progress and of confidence. Here might be found the “heart of London beating warm.”

The byways of the city resemble thin veins and its parks are like lungs. In the mist and rain of an urban autumn, the shining stones and cobbles of the older thoroughfares look as if they are bleeding. When William Harvey, practising as a surgeon in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, walked through the streets he noticed that the hoses of the fire engines spouted water like blood from a cut artery. Metaphorical images of the Cockney body have circulated for many hundreds of years: “gob” was first recorded in 1550, “paws” in 1590, “mug” in 1708 and “kisser” in the mid-eighteenth century.

Harvey’s seventeenth-century hospital was beside the shambles of Smithfield, and that conjunction may suggest another image of the city. It is fleshy and voracious, grown fat upon its appetite for people and for food, for goods and for drink; it consumes and it excretes, maintained within a continual state of greed and desire.

For Daniel Defoe, London was a great body which “circulates all, exports all, and at last pays for all.” That is why it has commonly been portrayed in monstrous form, a swollen and dropsical giant which kills more than it breeds. Its head is too large, out of proportion to the other members; its face and hands have also grown monstrous, irregular and “out of all Shape.” It is a “spleen” or a great “wen.” A body racked with fever, and choked by ashes, it proceeds from plague to fire.

Whether we consider London as a young man refreshed and risen from sleep, therefore, or whether we lament its condition as a deformed giant, we must regard it as a human shape with its own laws of life and growth.

Here, then, is its biography.


Some will object that such a biography can form no part of a true history. I admit the fault and plead in my defence that I have subdued the style of my enquiry to the nature of the subject. London is a labyrinth, half of stone and half of flesh. It cannot be conceived in its entirety but can be experienced only as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares, in which even the most experienced citizen may lose the way; it is curious, too, that this labyrinth is in a continual state of change and expansion.

The biography of London also defies chronology. Contemporary theorists have suggested that linear time is itself a figment of the human imagination, but London has already anticipated their conclusions. There are many different forms of time in the city, and it would be foolish of me to change its character for the sake of creating a conventional narrative. That is why this book moves quixotically through time, itself forming a labyrinth. If the history of London poverty is beside a history of London madness, then the connections may provide more significant information than any orthodox historiographical survey.

Chapters of history resemble John Bunyan’s little wicket-gates, while all around lie sloughs of despond and valleys of humiliation. So I will sometimes stray from the narrow path in search of those heights and depths of urban experience that know no history and are rarely susceptible to rational analysis. I understand a little, and I trust that it will prove enough. I am not a Virgil prepared to guide aspiring Dantes around a defined and circular kingdom. I am only one stumbling Londoner who wishes to lead others in the directions which I have pursued over a lifetime.

The readers of this book must wander and wonder. They may become lost upon the way; they may experience moments of uncertainty, and on occasions strange fantasies or theories may bewilder them. On certain streets various eccentric or vulnerable people will pause beside them, pleading for attention. There will be anomalies and contradictions-London is so large and so wild that it contains no less than everything-just as there will be irresolutions and ambiguities. But there will also be moments of revelation, when the city will be seen to harbour the secrets of the human world. Then it is wise to bow down before the immensity. So we set off in anticipation, with the milestone pointing ahead of us “To London.”


Peter Ackroyd

London

March 2000


From Prehistory to 1066

CHAPTER 1. The Sea!

CHAPTER 2. The Stones

CHAPTER 3. Holy! Holy! Holy!

<p>From Prehistory to 1066</p>

The relics of past ages have been found beneath many areas of London; they are the foundations upon which it rests.

<p>CHAPTER 1. The Sea!</p>

If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled “Why Can’t We Have the Sea in London?,” but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, fifty million years before, was covered by great waters.

The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London. The Portland stone of the Customs House and St. Pancras Old Church has a diagonal bedding which reflects the currents of the ocean; there are ancient oyster shells within the texture of Mansion House and the British Museum. Seaweed can still be seen in the greyish marble of Waterloo Station, and the force of hurricanes may be detected in the “chatter-marked” stone of pedestrian subways. In the fabric of Waterloo Bridge, the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea can also be observed. The tides and storms are still all around us, therefore, and as Shelley wrote of London “that great sea … still howls on for more.”

London has always been a vast ocean in which survival is not certain. The dome of St. Paul’s has been seen trembling upon a “vague troubled sea” of fog, while dark streams of people flow over London Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, and emerge as torrents in the narrow thoroughfares of London. The social workers of the mid-nineteenth century spoke of rescuing “drowning” people in Whitechapel or Shoreditch and Arthur Morrison, a novelist of the same period, invokes a “howling sea of human wreckage” crying out to be saved. Henry Peacham, the seventeenth-century author of The Art of Living in London, considered the city as “a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks,” while in 1810 Louis Simond was content to “listen to the roar of its waves, breaking around us in measured time.”

If you look from a distance, you observe a sea of roofs, and have no more knowledge of the dark streams of people than of the denizens of some unknown ocean. But the city is always a heaving and restless place, with its own torrents and billows, its foam and spray. The sound of its streets is like the murmur from a sea shell and in the great fogs of the past the citizens believed themselves to be lying on the floor of the ocean. Even amid all the lights it may simply be what George Orwell described as “the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes.” This is a constant vision of the London world, particularly in the novels of the twentieth century, where feelings of hopelessness and despondency turn the city into a place of silence and mysterious depths.

Yet, like the sea and the gallows, London refuses nobody. Those who venture upon its currents look for prosperity or fame, even if they often founder in its depths. Jonathan Swift depicted the jobbers of the Exchange as traders waiting for shipwrecks in order to strip the dead, while the commercial houses of the City often used a ship or boat as a weather-vane and as a sign of good fortune. Three of the most common emblems in urban cemeteries are the shell, the ship and the anchor.

The starlings of Trafalgar Square are also the starlings who nest in the cliff faces of northern Scotland. The pigeons of London are descended from the wild rock-doves who lived among the steep cliffs of the northern and western shores of this island. For them the buildings of the city are cliffs still, and the streets are the endless sea stretching beyond them. But the real confluence lies in this-that London, for so long the arbiter of trade and of the sea, should have upon its fabric the silent signature of the tides and waves.


And when the waters parted, the London earth was revealed. In 1877, in a characteristically grand example of Victorian engineering, a vast well was taken down 1,146 feet at the southern end of Tottenham Court Road. It travelled hundreds of millions of years, touching the primeval landscapes of this city site, and from its evidence we can list the layers beneath our feet from the Devonian to the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Above these strata lie 650 feet of chalk, outcrops of which can be seen upon the Downs or the Chilterns as the rim of the London Basin, that shallow saucer-like declivity in which the city rests. On top of the chalk itself lies the thick London clay which is in turn covered by deposits of gravel and brick-earth. Here, then, is the making of the city in more than one sense; the clay and the chalk and the brick-earth have for almost two thousand years been employed to construct the houses and public buildings of London. It is almost as if the city raised itself from its primeval origin, creating a human settlement from the senseless material of past time.

This clay is burned and compressed into “London Stock,” the particular yellow-brown or red brick that has furnished the material of London housing. It truly represents the genius loci, and Christopher Wren suggested that “the earth around London, rightly managed, will yield as good brick as were the Roman bricks … and will endure, in our air, beyond any stone our island affords.” William Blake called the bricks of London “well-wrought affections” by which he meant that the turning of clay and chalk into the fabric of the streets was a civilising process which knit the city with its primeval past. The houses of the seventeenth century are made out of dust that drifted over the London region in a glacial era 25,000 years before.

The London clay can yield more tangible evidence, also: the skeletons of sharks (in the East End it was popularly believed that shark’s teeth might cure cramp), the skull of a wolf in Cheapside, and crocodiles in the clay of Islington. In 1682 Dryden recognised this now forgotten and invisible landscape of London:

Yet monsters from thy large increase we find


Engender’d on the Slyme thou leav’st behind.

Eight years later, in 1690, the remains of a mammoth were found beside what has since become King’s Cross.

London clay can by the alchemy of weather become mud, and in 1851 Charles Dickens noted that there was so “much mud in the streets … that it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” In the 1930s Louis-Ferdinand Céline took the motor buses of Piccadilly Circus to be a “herd of mastodons” returning to the territory they had left behind. In Mother London Michael Moorcock’s late twentieth-century hero sees “monsters, by mud and giant ferns” while crossing the footbridge alongside the Hungerford railway bridge.

The mammoth of 1690 was only the first primeval relic to be discovered in the London region. Hippopotami and elephants lay beneath Trafalgar Square, lions at Charing Cross, and buffaloes beside St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A brown bear was discovered in north Woolwich, mackerel in the old brickfields of Holloway and sharks in Brentford. The wild animals of London include reindeer, giant beavers, hyenas and rhinoceri which once grazed by the swamps and lagoons of the Thames. And that landscape has not entirely faded. Within recent memory the mist from the ancient marshes of Westminster destroyed the frescoes of St. Stephen’s. It is still possible, beside the National Gallery, to detect the rise of ground between the middle and upper terraces of the Thames in the Pleistocene era.

This was not, even then, an unpeopled region. Within the bones of the King’s Cross mammoth were also found pieces of a flint hand-axe which can be dated to the Palaeolithic period. We can say with some certainty that for half a million years there has been in London a pattern of habitation and hunting if not of settlement. The first great fire of London was started, a quarter of a million years ago, in the forests south of the Thames. That river had by then taken its appointed course but not its later appearance; it was very broad, fed by many streams, occluded by forests, bordered by swamps and marshes.

The prehistory of London invites endless speculation and there is a certain pleasure to be derived from the prospect of human settlement in areas where, many thousands of years later, streets would be laid out and houses erected. There is no doubt that the region has been continually occupied for at least fifteen thousand years. A great gathering of flint tools, excavated in Southwark, is assumed to mark the remains of a Mesolithic manufactory; a hunting camp of the same period has been discovered upon Hampstead Heath; a pottery bowl from the Neolithic period was unearthed in Clapham. On these ancient sites have been found pits and post-holes, together with human remains and evidence of feasting. These early people drank a potion similar to mead or beer. Like their London descendants, they left vast quantities of rubbish everywhere. Like them, too, they met for the purposes of worship. For many thousands of years these ancient peoples treated the great river as a divine being to be placated and surrendered to its depths the bodies of their illustrious dead.


In the late Neolithic period there appeared, from the generally marshy soil on the northern bank of the Thames, twin hills covered by gravel and brick-earth, surrounded by sedge and willow. They were forty to fifty feet in height, and were divided by a valley through which flowed a stream. We know them as Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, with the now buried Walbrook running between. Thus emerged London.

The name is assumed to be of Celtic origin, awkward for those who believe that there was no human settlement here before the Romans built their city. Its actual meaning, however, is disputed. It might be derived from Llyndon, the town or stronghold (don) by the lake or stream (Llyn); but this owes more to medieval Welsh than ancient Celtic. Its provenance might be Laindon, “long hill,” or the Gaelic lunnd, “marsh.” One of the more intriguing speculations, given the reputation for violence which Londoners were later to acquire, is that the name is derived from the Celtic adjective londos meaning “fierce.”

There is a more speculative etymology which gives the honour of naming to King Lud, who is supposed to have reigned in the century of the Roman invasion. He laid out the city’s streets and rebuilt its walls. Upon his death he was buried beside the gate which bore his name, and the city became known as Kaerlud or Kaerlundein, “Lud’s City.” Those of sceptical cast of mind may be inclined to dismiss such narratives but the legends of a thousand years may contain profound and particular truths.

The origin of the name, however, remains mysterious. (It is curious, perhaps, that the name of the mineral most associated with the city-coal-also has no certain derivation.) With its syllabic power, so much suggesting force or thunder, it has continually echoed through history-Caer Ludd, Lundunes, Lindonion, Lundene, Lundone, Ludenberk, Longidinium, and a score of other variants. There have even been suggestions that the name is more ancient than the Celts themselves, and that it springs from some Neolithic past.

We must not necessarily assume that there were settlements or defended enclosures upon Ludgate Hill or Cornhill, or that there were wooden trackways where there are now great avenues, but the attractions of the site might have been as obvious in the third and fourth millennia BC as they were to the later Celts and Romans. The hills were well defended, forming a natural plateau, with the river to the south, fens to the north, marshes to the east, and another river, later known as the Fleet, to the west. It was fertile ground, well watered by springs bubbling up through the gravel. The Thames was easily navigable at this point, with the Fleet and the Walbrook providing natural harbours. The ancients trackways of England were also close at hand. So from earliest time London was the most appropriate site for trade, for markets, and for barter. The City has for much of its history been the centre of world commerce; it is perhaps instructive to note that it may have begun with the transactions of Stone Age people in their own markets.

All this is speculation, not altogether uninformed, but evidence of a more substantial kind has been discovered in later levels of London earth. In those long stretches of time designated as the “Late Bronze Age” and the “Early Iron Age”-a period spanning almost a thousand years-shards and fragments of bowls, and pots, and tools, were left all over London. There are signs of prehistoric activity in the areas now known as St. Mary Axe and Gresham Street, Austin Friars and Finsbury Circus, Bishopsgate and Seething Lane, with altogether some 250 “finds” clustered in the area of the twin hills together with Tower Hill and Southwark. From the Thames itself many hundreds of metal objects have been retrieved, while along its banks is to be found frequent evidence of metal-working. This is the period from which the great early legends of London spring. It is also, in its latter phase, the age of the Celts.

In the first century BC, Julius Caesar’s description of the region around London suggests the presence of an elaborate, rich and well-organised tribal civilisation. Its population was “exceedingly large” and “the ground thickly studded with homesteads.” The nature and role of the twin hills throughout this period cannot with certainty be given; perhaps these were sacred places, or perhaps their well-defined position allowed them to be used as hill-forts in order to protect the trade carried along the river. There is every reason to suppose that this area of the Thames was a centre of commerce and of industry, with a market in iron products as well as elaborate workings in bronze, with merchants from Gaul, Rome and Spain bringing Samian ware, wine and spices in exchange for corn, metals and slaves.

In the history of this period completed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, the principal city in the island of Britain is undoubtedly London. But according to modern scholars his work is established upon lost texts, apocryphal embellishments and uninformed conjecture. Where Geoffrey speaks of kings, for example, they prefer the nomenclature of tribes; he dates events by means of biblical parallel, while they provide indicators such as “Late Iron Age”; he elucidates patterns of conflict and social change in terms of individual human passion, where more recent accounts of prehistory rely upon more abstract principles of trade and technology. The approaches may be contradictory but they are not necessarily incompatible. It is believed by historians of early Britain, for example, that a people known as the Trinovantes settled on territory to the north of the London region. Curiously enough, Geoffrey states that the first name of the city was Trinovantum. He also mentions the presence of temples within London itself; even if they had existed, these palisades and wooden enclosures would since have been lost beneath the stone of the Roman city as well as the brick and cement of succeeding generations.

But nothing is wholly lost. In the first four decades of the twentieth century there was a particular effort by prehistorians to discover something of London’s supposedly hidden past. In books such as The Lost Language of London, Legendary London, Prehistoric London and The Earlier Inhabitants of London, tokens and traces of a Celtic or Druidic London were thoroughly examined and were found significant. These studies were effectively killed off by the Second World War, after which urban planning and regeneration became more important than urban speculation. But the original works survive, and still repay close study. The fact that existing street names may betray a Celtic origin-Colin Deep Lane, Pancras Lane, Maiden Lane, Ingal Road among them-is, for example, as instructive as any of the material “finds” recorded on the site of the ancient city. Long-forgotten trackways have guided the course of modern thoroughfares; the crossroads at the Angel, Islington, for example, marks the point where two prehistoric British roads intersected. We know of Old Street leading to Old Ford, of Maiden Lane crossing through Pentonville and Battle Bridge to Highgate, of the route from Upper Street to Highbury, all following the same ancient tracks and buried paths.


Yet there is no more suspect or difficult subject, in the context of this period, than Druidism. That it was well established in Celtic settlements is not in doubt; Julius Caesar, who was in a position to speak with some authority on the subject, stated that the Druid religion was founded (inventa) in Britain and that its Celtic adherents came to this island in order to be educated in its mysteries. It represented a highly advanced, if somewhat insular, religious culture. Of course we might speculate that the oak woodland to the north of the twin hills provided a suitable site for sacrifice and worship; one antiquary, Sir Laurence Gomme, has envisaged a temple or sacred space upon Ludgate Hill itself. But there are many false trails. It was once generally agreed that Parliament Hill near Highgate was a place for religious assembly, but in fact the remnants which have been discovered there do not date from prehistory. The Chislehurst caves in south London, once reputed to be of Druid origin connected in some fashion with the observation of the heavens, are almost certainly of medieval construction.

It has been suggested that the London area was controlled from three sacred mounds; they are named as Penton Hill, Tothill and the White Mound, otherwise known as Tower Hill. Any such theory can readily be dismissed as nonsense, but there are curious parallels and coincidences which render it more interesting than the usual fantasies of latter-day psychogeographers.

It is known that in prehistoric worship a holy place was marked by a spring, a grove and a well or ritual shaft.

There is a reference to a “shrubby maze” in the pleasure gardens of White Conduit House, situated on the high ground of Pentonville, and a maze’s avatar was a sacred hill or grove. Close at hand is the famous well of Sadlers Wells. In recent days the water of this well flowed under the orchestra pit of the theatre but, from medieval times, it was considered holy and was tended by the priests of Clerkenwell. The site of the high ground in Pentonville was also once a reservoir; it was until recently the headquarters of the London Water Board.

Another maze was to be found in the area once known as Tothill Fields in Westminster; it is depicted in Hollar’s view of the area in the mid-seventeenth century. Here also is a sacred spring, deriving from the “holy well” in Dean’s Yard, Westminster. A fair, similar to the pleasure gardens upon White Conduit Fields, was established here at an early date; the first extant reference is dated 1257.

The sites are, therefore, comparable. There are other suggestive coincidences. On old maps, “St. Hermit’s Hill” is a noticeable feature of the area beside Tothill Fields. To this day, there is a Hermes Street at the top of the Pentonville Road. It is perhaps also interesting that in a house on this site dwelled a physician who promoted a medicine known as the “Balsam of Life”; the house was later turned into an observatory.

On Tower Hill there was a spring of clear bubbling water, reputed to possess curative properties. A medieval well exists there, and traces of a Late Iron Age burial have been uncovered. There is no maze but the place has its own share of Celtic legends; according to the Welsh Triads the guardian head of Bran the Blessed is interred within the White Hill to safeguard the kingdom from its enemies. London’s legendary founder Brutus, also, was supposed to have been buried on Tower Hill, in sacred ground that was used as an observatory until the seventeenth century.

The etymology of Penton Hill and Tothill is reasonably certain. Pen is the Celtic signifier for head or hill, while ton is a variant of tor/tot/ twt/too, which means spring or rising ground. (Wycliffe applies the words tot or tote, for example, to Mount Zion.) Those of a more romantic disposition have suggested that tot is derived from the Egyptian god Thoth who is of course reincarnated in Hermes, the Greek personification of the wind or the music of the lyre.

Here, then, is the hypothesis: London mounds, which bear so many similar characteristics, are in fact the holy sites of Druid ritual. The maze is the sacred equivalent of the oak grove, while the wells and springs represent the worship of the god of the water. The London Water Board was, then, well situated. Pleasure gardens and fairs are more recent versions of those prehistoric festivals or meetings which were held upon the same ground. So antiquaries have named Tothill, Penton and Tower Hill as the holy places of London.

It is generally assumed, of course, that Pentonville is named after an eighteenth-century speculator, Henry Penton, who developed the area. Can one place assume different identities, existing in different times and in different visions of reality? Is it possible that both explanations of Pentonville are true simultaneously? Might Billingsgate be named after the Celtic king Belinus or Belin, as the great sixteenth-century antiquary John Stow would have it, or after a Mr. Beling, who once owned the land? Can Ludgate really bear the name of Lud, a Celtic god of the waters? Certainly there is room for contemplation here.

It is equally important to look for evidence of continuity. It is likely that there was antiquity of worship among the Britons long before the Druids emerged as the high priests of their culture, and in turn Celtic forms of ritual seem to have survived the Roman occupation and subsequent invasions by the Saxon tribes. In the records of St. Paul’s Cathedral the adjacent buildings are known as “Camera Dianae.” A fifteenth-century chronicler recalled a time when “London worships Diana,” the goddess of the hunt, which is at least one explanation for the strange annual ceremony that took place at St. Paul’s as late as the sixteenth century. There, in the Christian temple erected on the sacred site of Ludgate Hill, a stag’s head was impaled upon a spear and carried about the church; it was then received upon the steps of the church by priests wearing garlands of flowers upon their heads. So the pagan customs of London survived into recorded history, just as a latent paganism survived among the citizens themselves.

One other inheritance from prehistoric worship may also be considered. The sense of certain places as being powerful or venerable was taken over by the Christians in the recognition of “holy wells” and in such ceremonies of territorial piety as “beating the bounds.” Yet the same sensibility is to be found in the writings of the great London visionaries, from William Blake to Arthur Machen, writings in which the city itself is considered to be a sacred place with its own joyful and sorrowful mysteries.

In this Celtic period, which lurks like some chimera in the shadows of the known world, the great legends of London find their origin. The historical record knows only of warring tribes within a highly organised culture of some sophistication. They were not necessarily savage, in other words, and the Greek geographer Strabo describes one Briton, an ambassador, as well dressed, intelligent and agreeable. He spoke Greek with such fluency that “you would have thought he had been bred up in the lyceum.” This is the proper context for those narratives in which London is accorded the status of a principal city. Brutus, in legend the founder of the city, was buried within London’s walls. Locrinus kept his lover, Estrildis, in a secret chamber beneath the ground. Bladud, who practised sorcery, constructed a pair of wings with which to fly through the air of London; yet he fell against the roof of the Temple of Apollo situated in the very heart of the city, perhaps on Ludgate Hill itself. Another king, Dunvallo, who formulated the ancient laws of sanctuary, was buried beside a London temple. From this period, too, came the narratives of Lear and of Cymbeline. More powerful still is the legend of the giant Gremagot who by some strange alchemy was transformed into the twins Gog and Magog, who became tutelary spirits of London. It has often been suggested that each of this characteristically ferocious pair, whose statues have stood for many centuries within the Guildhall, guards one of the twin hills of London.

Such stories are recorded by John Milton in The History of Britain, published a little more than three hundred years ago. “After this, Brutus in a chosen place builds Troia nova, chang’d in time to Trinovantum, now London: and began to enact Laws; Heli beeing then high Priest in Judaea: and having govern’d the whole Ile 24 Years, dy’d, and was buried in his new Troy.” Brutus was the great-grandson of Aeneas who, some years after the fall of Troy, led the exodus of Trojans from Greece; in the course of his exilic wanderings he was granted a dream in which the goddess Diana spoke words of prophecy to him: an island far to the west, beyond the realm of Gaul, “fitts thy people”; you are to sail there, Brutus, and establish a city which will become another Troy. “And Kings be born of thee, whose dredded might shall aw the World, and Conquer Nations bold.” London is to maintain a world empire but, like ancient Troy, it may suffer some perilous burning. It is interesting that paintings of London’s Great Fire in 1666 make specific allusion to the fall of Troy. This is indeed the central myth of London’s origin which can be found in the sixth-century verses of “Tallisen,” where the British are celebrated as the living remnant of Troy, as well as in the later poetry of Edmund Spenser and of Alexander Pope. Pope, born in Plough Court beside Lombard Street, was of course invoking a visionary urban civilisation; yet it is one highly appropriate for a city first vouchsafed to Brutus in a dream.

The narrative of Brutus has been dismissed as mere fable and fanciful legend but, as Milton wrote in the judicious introduction to his own history, “oft-times relations heertofore accounted fabulous have bin after found to contain in them many foot-steps, and reliques of something true.” Some scholars believe that we can date the wanderings of the apparently legendary Brutus to the period around 1100 BC. In contemporary historiographical terms this marks the period of the Late Bronze Age when new bands or tribes of settlers occupied the area around London; they constructed large defensive enclosures and maintained an heroic life of mead-halls, ring-giving and furious fighting which found expression in later legends. Segmented glass beads, like those of Troy, have been discovered in England. In the waters of the Thames was found a black two-handled cup; its provenance lies in Asia Minor, with an approximate date of 900 BC. So there is some indication of trade between western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, and there is every reason to suppose that Phrygian or later Phoenician merchants reached the shores of Albion and sailed into the market of London.

Material evidence of an association with Troy itself, and with the region of Asia Minor in which that ancient doomed city resided, can be found elsewhere. Diogenes Laertius identified the Celts with the Chaldees of Assyria; indeed the famous British motif comprising the lion and the unicorn may be of Chaldean origin. Caesar noted, with some surprise, that the Druids made use of Greek letters. In the Welsh Triads there is a description of an invading tribe who have travelled to the shores of Albion, or England, from the region of Constantinople. It is suggestive, perhaps, that the Franks and Gauls also claimed Trojan ancestry. Although it is not altogether out of the question that a tribe from the region of fallen Troy migrated to western Europe, it is more likely, perhaps, that the Celtic people themselves had their origins in the eastern Mediterranean. The legend of London, as a new Troy, is therefore still able to claim some adherents.

At the beginning of any civilisation there are fables and legends; only at the end are they proved to be accurate.

One token of Brutus and his Trojan fleet may still remain. If you walk east down Cannon Street, on the other side from the railway station, you will find an iron grille set within the Bank of China. It protects a niche upon which has been placed a stone roughly two feet in height, bearing a faint groove mark upon its top. This is London Stone. For many centuries it was popularly believed to be the stone of Brutus, brought by him as a deity. “So long as the stone of Brutus is safe,” ran one city proverb, “so long shall London flourish.” Certainly the stone is of great antiquity; the first reference to it was discovered by John Stow in a “fair written Gospel book” once belonging to Ethelstone, an early tenth-century king of the West Saxons, where certain lands and rents are “described to lie near unto London stone.” According to the Victorian County History it originally marked the very centre of the old city, but in 1742 was taken from the middle of Cannon Street and placed within the fabric of St. Swithin’s Church opposite. There it remained until the Second World War; although a German bomb entirely destroyed the church in 1941, London Stone remained intact. It is constructed of oolite which, as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to have survived since prehistoric times. Yet it has been granted a charmed life.

There is a verse by the fifteenth-century poet, Fabyan, which celebrates the religious significance of a stone so pure that “though some have it thrette … Yet hurte had none.” Its actual significance, however, remains unclear. Some antiquaries have considered it to be a token of civic assembly, connected with the repayment of debts, while others believe it to be a Roman milliarium or milestone. Christopher Wren argued, however, that it possessed too large a foundation for the latter purpose. A judicial role is more likely. In a now forgotten play of 1589, Pasquill and Marfarius, a character remarks: “Set up this bill at London Stone. Let it be doone sollemly with drom and trumpet” and then again “If it please them these dark winter nights to stikke uppe their papers uppon London Stone.” That it became a highly venerated object is not in doubt. William Blake was convinced that it marked the site of Druid executions, whose sacrificial victims “groan’d aloud on London Stone,” but its uses were perhaps less melancholy.

When the popular rebel Jack Cade stormed London in 1450, he and his followers made their way to the Stone; he touched it with his sword and then exclaimed: “Now is Mortimer”-this was the name he had assumed-“lord of this city!” The first mayor of London, in the late twelfth century, was Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone. It seems likely, therefore, that this ancient object came somehow to represent the power and authority of the city.

It sits now, blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare; over and around it have flowed wooden carts, carriages, sedan chairs, hansom cabs, cabriolets, hackney cabs, omnibuses, bicycles, trams and cars. It was once London’s guardian spirit, and perhaps it is still.

It is at least a material remnant from all the ancient legends of London and of its foundation. For the Celtic people these narratives comprised the glory of a city once known as “Cockaigne.” In this place of wealth and delight the traveller might find riches and blessed happiness. This is the myth that established the context for later legends, such as those of Dick Whittington, as well as those unattributable proverbs which describe London’s streets as “paved with gold.” Yet London gold has proved more perishable than London Stone.

<p>CHAPTER 2. The Stones</p>

A section of the original London Wall, with medieval additions, can still be seen by Trinity Place just north of the Tower of London; part of the Tower itself was incorporated within the fabric of the wall, demonstrating in material form William Dunbar’s claim that “Stony be thy wallys that about thee standis.” It was almost ten feet wide at its base, and more than twenty feet in height; besides these relics of the wall by Trinity Place can be seen the stone outline of an inner tower which contained a wooden staircase leading to a parapet which looked east across the marshes.

From here the spectral wall, the wall as once it was, can be traversed in the imagination. It proceeds north to Cooper’s Row, where a section can still be seen in the courtyard of an empty building; it rises from a car park in the basement. It goes through the concrete and marble of the building, then on through the brick and iron of the Fenchurch Street Station viaduct until an extant section rises again in America Square. It is concealed within the basement of a modern building which itself has parapets, turrets and square towers; a strip of glazed red tiling bears more than a passing resemblance to the courses of flat red tiles placed in the ancient Roman structure. For a moment it is known as Crosswall and passes through the headquarters of a company named Equitas. It moves through Vine Street (in the car park at No. 35 is a security camera on the ancient line of the now invisible wall), towards Jewry Street, which itself follows the line of the wall almost exactly until it meets Aldgate; all the buildings here can be said to comprise a new wall, separating west from east. We find Centurion House and Boots, the chemist.

The steps of the subway at Aldgate lead down to a level which was once that of late medieval London but we follow the wall down Duke’s Place and into Bevis Marks; near the intersection of these two thoroughfares there is now part of that “ring of steel” which is designed once more to protect the city. On a sixteenth-century map Bevis Marks was aligned to the course of the wall, and it is so still; the pattern of the streets here has been unchanged for many hundreds of years. Even the lanes, such as Heneage Lane, remain. At the corner of Bevis Marks and St. Mary Axe rises a building of white marble with massive vertical windows; a great golden eagle can be seen above its entrance, as if it were part of some imperial standard. Security cameras once more trace the line of the wall, as it leads down Camomile Street towards Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street.

It drops beneath the churchyard of St. Botolph’s, behind a building faced with white stone and curtain-walling of dark glass, but then fragments of it arise beside the church of All Hallows-on-the-Wall, which has been built, in the ancient fashion, to protect and bless these defences. The modern thoroughfare here becomes known, at last, as London Wall. A tower like a postern of brown stone rises above 85 London Wall, very close to the spot where a fourth-century bastion was only recently found, but the line of the wall from Blomfield Street to Moorgate largely comprises late nineteenth-century office accommodation. Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam, was once built against the north side of the wall; but that, too, has disappeared. Yet it is impossible not to feel the presence or force of the wall as you walk down this straightened thoroughfare which can be dated to the later period of the Roman occupation. A new London Wall then opens up after Moorgate, built over the ruins of the Second World War. The bombs themselves effectively uncovered long-buried remnants of the ancient wall, and stretches both of Roman and medieval origin can still be seen covered with grass and moss. But these old stones are flanked by the glittering marble and polished stone of the new buildings that dominate the city.

Around the site of the great Roman fort, at the north-west angle of the wall, there now arise these new fortresses and towers: Roman House, Britannic Tower, City Tower, Alban Gate (which by the slightest substitution might be renamed Albion Gate) and the concrete and granite towers of the Barbican which have once more brought a sublime bareness and brutality to that area where the Roman legions were sequestered. Even the walkways of this great expanse are approximately the same height as the parapets of the old city wall.

The wall then turns south, and long sections of it can still be seen on the western side sloping down towards Aldersgate. For most of its course from Aldersgate to Newgate and then to Ludgate, it remains invisible, but there are suggestive tokens of its progress. The great beast of classical antiquity, the Minotaur, has been sculpted just to its north in Postman’s Park. The mottled and darkened blocks of the Sessions House beside the Old Bailey still mark the outer perimeter of the wall’s defences, and in Amen Court a later wall looking on the back of the Old Bailey is like some revenant of brick and mortar. From the rear of St. Martin’s Ludgate we cross Ludgate Hill, enter Pilgrim Street and walk beside Pageantmaster Court, where now the lines of the City Thames Link parallel those once made by the swiftly moving River Fleet, until we reach the edge of the water where the wall once abruptly stopped.

The wall enclosed an area of some 330 acres. To walk its perimeter would have taken approximately one hour, and the modern pedestrian will be able to cover the route in the same time. The streets beside it are still navigable and, in fact, the larger part of the wall itself was not demolished until 1760. Until that time the city had the appearance of a fortress, and in the sagas of Iceland it was known as Lundunaborg, “London Fort.” It was continually being rebuilt, as if the integrity and identity of the city itself depended upon the survival of this ancient stone fabric; churches were erected beside it, and hermits guarded its gates. Those with more secular preoccupations built houses, or wooden huts, against it so that everywhere you could see (and perhaps smell) the peculiar combination of rotten wood and mildewed stone. A contemporary equivalent may be seen in the old brick arches of nineteenth-century railways being used as shops and garages.

Even after its demolition the wall still lived; its stone sides were incorporated into churches or other public buildings. One section in Cooper’s Row was used to line the vaults of a bonded warehouse while, above ground, its course was used as a foundation for houses. The late eighteenth-century Crescent by America Square, designed by George Dance the Younger in the 1770s, for example, is established upon the ancient line of the wall. So later houses dance upon the ruins of the old city. Fragments and remnants of the wall were continually being rediscovered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the succeeding phases of its existence were first seen steadily and as a whole. On the eastern side of the wall were found in 1989, for example, eight skeletons of late Roman date turned in different directions; there were also unearthed the skeletons of several dogs. This is the area known as Houndsditch.


It is often believed that the Roman wall first defined Roman London, but the invaders were in command of London for 150 years before walls were built and, during that long stretch of time, the city itself evolved in particular- sometimes bloody, sometimes fiery-stages.

In 55 BC a military force under the command of Caesar invaded Britain, and within a short time compelled the tribes around London to accept Roman hegemony. Almost a hundred years later the Romans returned with a more settled policy of invasion and conquest. The troops may have crossed the river at Westminster, or Southwark, or Wallingford; temporary encampments may have been established in Mayfair, or at the Elephant and Castle. It is important for this account only that the administrators and commanders finally chose London as their principal place of settlement because of the strategic advantages of the terrain, and the commercial benefits of this riverine location. Whether the Romans occupied an abandoned settlement, its tribal occupants having fled on wooden trackways into the swamps and forests, is not known. It seems likely, in any event, that the invaders understood the significance of the site from the beginning of their occupation. Here was an estuary, served by a double tide. So it became the central point for seaborne trade in the south of Britain, and the focus for a network of roads which have survived for almost two thousand years.

The outlines of that first city have been revealed by excavation, with two principal streets of gravel running parallel to the river on the eastern hill. One of these streets skirted the bank of the Thames, and can still be traced in the alignment of Cannon Street and Eastcheap; the second road, some hundred yards to the north, comprises the eastern stretch of Lombard Street as it approaches Fenchurch Street. Here are the true origins of the modern city.

And then there was the bridge. The wooden Roman bridge was located approximately one hundred yards east of the first stone London Bridge, spanning the area west of St. Olav’s Church in Southwark and the foot of Rederes (Pudding) Lane upon the northern bank; the exact date of its foundation cannot now be known but it would have seemed a majestic and even miraculous construction, not least to the native peoples who had settled under the Romans. Half the legends of London arose upon its foundations; miracles were performed, and visions seen, upon the new wooden thoroughfare. Since its sole purpose was to tame the river, it may then have harnessed the power of a god. Yet that god may have been enraged at the stripping of its riverine authority; thus all the intimations of vengeance and destruction invoked by the famous rhyme “London Bridge is broken down.”

It is not clear whether Londinium was first used as a Roman military camp. Certainly it soon became a centre of supplies. In its first stages we must imagine a cluster of small dwellings with clay walls, thatched roofs and earthen floors; narrow alleys ran between them, with a series of streets connecting the two main thoroughfares, filled with the smells and noises of a busy community. There were workshops, taverns, shops and smithies crowded together while, beside the river, warehouses and workshops were grouped around a square timber harbour. Evidence for such a harbour has been found in Billingsgate. Along the thoroughfares, which every traveller to London used, there were taverns and tradesmen. Just beyond the city were round huts, in the old British style, which were used as places for storage, while on the perimeter of the city were wooden enclosures for cattle.

Only a few years after its foundation, which can be approximately dated between AD 43 and 50, the Roman historian, Tacitus, could already write of London as filled with negotiatores and as a place well known for its commercial prosperity. So in less than a decade it had progressed from a supply base into a flourishing town.

Negotiatores are not necessarily merchants but men of negotium; business and negotiation. They can be described as traders and brokers. Thus the line of continuity-it might almost be called the line of harmony-can still be traced. The shining buildings which now stand upon the Roman wall contain brokers and dealers who are the descendants, direct or indirect, of those who came to London in the first century. The City has always been established upon the imperatives of money and of trade. That is why the headquarters of the procurator, the high Roman official who controlled the finances of the province, were erected here.

London is based upon power, therefore. It is a place of execution and oppression, where the poor have always outnumbered the rich. Many terrible judgements of fire and death have visited it. Barely a decade after its foundation a great fire of London utterly destroyed its buildings. In AD 60 Boudicca and her tribal army laid waste the city with flame and sword, wreaking vengeance upon those who were trying to sell the women and children of the Iceni as slaves. It is the first token of the city’s appetite for human lives. The evidence of Boudicca’s destruction is to be found in a red level of oxidised iron among a layer of burnt clay, wood and ash. Red is London’s colour, a sign of fire and devastation.

There was at least one other tribal attack upon the Roman city, at the end of the third century, but by that time the city and its defences were strong. Immediately after the Boudiccan assault the work of rebuilding was begun. If you were to stand now at the great crossroads in the City, where Gracechurch Street divides Lombard Street from Fenchurch Street, you would be facing the main entrance of the Romans’ public forum, with shops and stalls and workshops on either side. The new forum was constructed of ragstone from Kent, carried by boat up the Medway, and, with its plastered surfaces and its roofs of red tiles, was a small fragment of Rome placed upon an alien soil.

Yet the influence of Roman civilisation was enduring in more than one respect. The chief cashier’s office in the eighteenth-century Bank of England was based upon the design of a Roman temple, very like the basilica situated to the left of the early forum. Throughout the centuries London has been celebrated or denounced as a new Rome-corrupt or mighty, according to taste-and it can safely be said that part of its identity was created by its first builders.


London began to grow and flourish. A greater forum, and a greater basilica, were built upon the same site in the late first century; the basilica itself was larger than St. Paul’s, Wren’s seventeenth-century cathedral on Ludgate Hill. A great fort was built to the north-west, where the Barbican now stands. There were public baths, and temples, and shops, and stalls; there was an amphitheatre where the Guildhall now rests, and just south of St. Paul’s a racing arena: by the strange alchemy of the city a name, Knightrider Street, has survived for almost two thousand years.

We can find evidence of further survival in the line, if not the name, of other streets. At the corner of Ironmonger Lane and Prudent Passage, traces of a Roman road passing from east to west have been uncovered together with the alignment of structures against it; at least seven successive buildings, all apparently engaged in the same kind of industrial activity, were erected upon that same alignment. There was an interval of destruction caused by fire, and then a gap of some five hundred years, until new buildings were erected upon the base of the old Roman road in the early ninth century. By the twelfth century, when the name of Ironmonger Lane enters recorded history, the buildings still followed the northern edge of the street laid out more than a thousand years before. The same buildings were in use until the seventeenth century, providing evidence of perhaps unequalled continuity in the life of the city.

We can cite many of the ancient streets in this vicinity-Milk Street, Wood Street, Aldermanbury among them-as the visible remnants of a Roman street horizon. It is suggestive, also, that the great markets of London at Cheapside and East Cheap lay until recent years on the thoroughfares established by the Romans on their first arrival. In the space of fifty years, by the end of the first century, London had acquired its destiny. It became the administrative and political capital of the country as well as its trading centre. The focus of communication and commercial activity, it was governed by imperial laws concerning trade, marriage and defence, laws that survived the passing of the Romans themselves. It was in all essentials a city-state with its own independent government, albeit in direct relationship to Rome; that independence, and autonomy, will be found to mark much of its subsequent history.

During the strongest period of its growth, at the end of the first century, the city would have possessed some thirty thousand inhabitants. There were soldiers, and merchants, and businessmen, artisans and artists, Celts and Romans, all mingled together. There were grand houses for the wealthier merchants and administrators, but the standard house of most Londoners was a form of cubicle or bed-sitting-room, its walls painted or decorated with mosaic. Sometimes, we can even hear the people speak.

There are surviving letters dealing with matters of finance and of trade, as might be expected, but there are also less formal communications. “Primus has made ten tiles. Enough! … Austalis has been taking off on his own every day for the last fortnight … for shame! … London, next door to the temple of Isis … Clementinus fashioned this tile.” These are the earliest known words of a Londoner, scratched upon pieces of tile or pottery and fortuitously preserved among all the ruins that have been heaped over the city’s earth. More pious memorials have also been found, with inscriptions for the dead and invocations to the gods. The stamps for the labels of an optician have been uncovered, proffering remedies for running eyes, for inflammation and for dim sight.

Our own sight of the past may be cleared a little if we are able to reconstruct the scattered evidence of the remains. A great hand of bronze, thirteen inches long, was found beneath Thames Street; a head of the Emperor Hadrian, again more than life-size, in the waters of the Thames itself. So we may imagine a city adorned with great statues. Fragments of a triumphal arch have been recovered, together with stone frescoes of goddesses and gods. This is a city of temples and monumental architecture. There were public baths also, and one lay in North Audley Street quite a long way outside the City. When workmen of the late nineteenth century discovered it in an underground arched chamber, it was still half-filled with water. Votive statues and daggers, sacred urns and silver ingots, swords and coins and altars, all express the spirit of a city in which trade and violence were not divorced from a genuine religious spirit. But there is significance, also, in the smallest detail. More than a hundred styli have been found at the bottom of the Walbrook River, where countless busy clerks simply threw used pens out of the window. It is an image of bustling life which would not be inappropriate in any period of London’s history.

Yet the security and prosperity of London are not at this early date so certain. Like an organic being London grew and developed outwards, always seeking to incorporate new territory, but it also suffered periods of weariness and enervation when the spirit of the place hid its head. We may find tokens of just such a change by those same eastern banks of the Walbrook where the clerks of the empire tossed their pens into the water. Here was discovered, in 1954, the remains of a temple devoted to Mithras and subsequently to other pagan deities. It was not uncommon for Roman Londoners to embrace a variety of faiths; there is good evidence, for example, that the beliefs of the original Celtic tribes were incorporated into a peculiar Romano-Celtic form of worship. But the Mithraic mystery cult, with its rites of initiation and the secrets of its arcane ritual, seems at least in theory to presage a more disturbed and anxious city.

The most resourceful period of Roman London lay in the years spanning the first and second centuries, but these were followed by an uneven period combining development and decline. That decline was in part associated with the two great titular spirits of London, fire and plague, but there was also a steady alteration of imperial rule as the empire itself weakened and decayed. In approximately AD 200, some fifty years before the temple of Mithras was erected, the great wall was constructed around London. It speaks of an age of anxiety, but the very fact of its erection suggests that the city still had formidable resources of its own. Large areas within the wall were unoccupied, or used for pasture, but there were fine temples and houses in the more fashionable district close to the river. The first London mint was established in the third century, testifying once again to the city’s true nature. In that century, too, a riverine wall was constructed to complete the city’s defences.


What, then, was the nature and activity of the citizens themselves in the last decades of Roman London? They would be largely of Romano-British descent, and there were occasions when they were ruled by a British “king.” But London has from its inception always been a mixed city, and the streets would have been filled with the inhabitants of many nations including the native Celtic tribes who, over three hundred years, had naturally grown accustomed to the new order. This Roman city spanned a period as long as that from the late Tudors to the present day, but we have in general only the silent evidence of scattered cups and dice, bath scrapers and bells, writing tablets and millstones, brooches and sandals. How can we make these objects live again?

There were of course, in the passages of this long history, periods of turbulence and warfare. Many have gone unrecorded, but one or two powerful incidents survive. The darkness breaks and a scene presents itself, frozen for a moment, throwing into further confusion and mystery the historical process of which it is a part. A Roman leader named Allectus sailed to Britain in order to put down a local rebellion; having defeated the rebels he set up his headquarters in London. A Celtic chieftain, Asclepiodotus, in turn marched against the imperial victor; outside the city there was a great battle in which the British were successful. The remaining Roman troops, fearing massacre, fled within the walls and closed the gates. Siege engines were brought, and a breach was made in the defences; the Celts poured in and the leader of the last legion begged for mercy. It was agreed that the Romans could withdraw and take to their ships but one tribe or group of tribesmen reneged on the agreement: they fell upon the Roman soldiers, decapitated them in ritual Celtic style and, according to the narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth, threw their heads into “a brook in the city … in Saxon, Galobroc.” Many skulls were, in the 1860s, found in the bed of the long-buried Walbrook River. The rest is silence.

But we cannot from the evidence of this single anecdote assume that the history of London is one of warring tribes against a common Roman enemy. All the evidence suggests otherwise and instead intimates a degree of mingling, maintained by mutual trade, that encouraged an almost unbroken continuity of commerce and administration. There would by now be something of a London type, perhaps with that particular “muddy” complexion which became characteristic in later years. No doubt the citizens spoke a Latin patois which included native elements, and their religious beliefs would have been equally mixed and idiosyncratic. The Mithraic temple is only one example of a mystery religion-predominantly the reserve of merchants and professional administrators-but the Christian faith was not unknown. In AD 313 a certain Restitus attended the Council of Arles in his capacity as Bishop of London.

The city’s economic activity was equally mixed and practical; the commercial and military quarters were still in active operation, but the archaeological evidence suggests that many public buildings were allowed to fall into disuse and earth was laid over once inhabited sites for the purposes of farming. It may seem odd to have farms and vineyards within the walls of the city but, even as late as the time of Henry II, half of London was open ground with fields, orchards and gardens adorning it. There is also evidence, in the third and fourth centuries, of quite large stone buildings which were conceivably farm-houses. We might then have the paradox of rural landowners within the city itself. Certainly the city was still formidable enough to withstand the attentions of marauding tribes; in AD 368 the Attacotti laid waste to much of Kent without daring to make an onslaught upon London itself.

But in 410 Rome withdrew its protecting hand; like the hand found beneath Thames Street, it was of bronze rather than of gold. There are reports of raids against the city by Angles and Saxons, but there is no record of any great collapse or transition. There is, however, some evidence of decay. There was once a bath-house in Lower Thames Street which, in the early fifth century, was abandoned. The glass was shattered, and the wind destroyed the roof; then at a later date, after the collapse of the roof, the walls of the eastern range of buildings were systematically demolished. Found among the debris was a Saxon brooch, dropped by a woman while clambering over these alien ruins.


The arrival of the Saxons has been dated to the beginning of the fifth century when, according to the historian Gildas, the land of Britain was licked by a “red and savage tongue.” Within certain cities “in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies.” But in fact the Angles and the Saxons were already living in the London region, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence that by the late fourth century troops of Germanic origin were guarding London as legionnaires under the imperial banner.

It was once assumed, however, that the arrival of the Saxons resulted in the destruction and desertion of the city itself. In fact there was no fiery carnage in the London area from which Rome retreated. On several sites has been found a layer of “dark earth” which was believed to indicate dereliction and decay, but contemporary experts have suggested that levels of dark soil may point to occupation rather than destruction. There is other evidence of the continuous habitation of London during that period once known as the “dark ages.” In one of those extraordinary instances of historical survival, it has been shown that the provisions of London law in the Roman period- particularly in terms of testamentary provisions and property rights-were still being applied throughout the medieval period. There was, in other words, a continuous administrative tradition which no Saxon occupation had interrupted.

The old chronicles assert that London remained the principal city and stronghold of the Britons. In the histories of Nennius and Gildas, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Bede, it is regularly cited as an independent town which is also the home of the British kings; it is the place where sovereigns were made and acclaimed, and it is the site where the citizens were called together in public assembly. It is also the chief place of defence when, on various occasions, the Britons fled within the safety of the walls. It is the seat of the British and Roman nobility, as well as representing one of the great sees of the Christian realm. The ancient British kings-Vortigern, Vortimer and Uther among them-are depicted as reigning and living in London.

Yet in these early chronicles the distance between factual interpretation and fanciful reconstruction is short. In these accounts, for example, Merlin makes many prophecies concerning the future of the city. Another great figure who exists somewhere within the interstices of myth and history is also to be found in London: King Arthur. According to Matthew of Westminster, Arthur was crowned by the archbishop of London. Layamon adds that he entered London after his investiture. The mark of this urban civilisation was its sophistication; Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, celebrates the affluence and courtesy of Arthur’s subjects as well as the “richness” of decorative art everywhere apparent. In Malory’s great prose epic, derived from several original sources, known as Le Morte d’Arthur, there are many references to London as the principal city of the realm. At a time of foreboding after the death of Uther Pendragon, “Merlyn wente to the Archebisshop of Caunterbury and counceilled hym for to sende for all the lordes of the reame and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to London come” and gather “in the grettest chirch of London-whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyon.” In later books the Feir Maiden of Astolat is laid beside the Thames, Sir Launcelot rides from Westminster to Lambeth across the same river, and Guenevere “cam to London” and “toke the Towre of London.”

The less controversial documents of historians and chroniclers add detail to this picture of legendary munificence. Ecclesiastical records reveal that a synod was held, either in London or Verulamium, in 429; since the assembly was called to denounce the heresies of a British monk, Pelagius, it is clear that there was still a thriving religious culture in the regions bordering upon London.

Some twelve years later, according to a contemporaneous chronicle, the provinces of Britain accepted Saxon domination. Although that source is silent on the fate of London, it seems to have retained its independence as a city-state. By the middle of the sixth century, however, the city can be assumed to have accepted Saxon rule. Large parts of the walled area were employed as pasture, and the great public buildings were no doubt used as marketplaces, or stockades for cattle, or as open spaces for the wooden houses and shops of a population living among the monumental ruins of what was already a distant age. There is a wonderful Saxon poem on the material remnants of just such a British city; they are enta geweorc, the “works of giants,” the shattered memorials to a great race which passed away hund cnect-a hundred generations ago. In the description of broken towers and empty halls, of fallen roofs and deserted bath-houses, there is a combination of sorrow and wonder. There are intimations here, also, of another truth. The stone fabric of this ancient city has been dissolved by wyrde or “destiny,” and age; it has not been violently attacked or pillaged by marauders. The Saxons were not necessarily destroyers, therefore, and this poem displays a genuine reverence for antiquity and for a beohrtan burg, “bright city,” where heroes once dwelled.

We can infer, in turn, the lineaments of Saxon London. A cathedral church was built here, and the palace of the king was maintained on a site now claimed by Wood Street and Aldermanbury. Seventh-century records mention a “king’s hall” in London, and two centuries later it was still known as “that illustrious place and royal city”; the location of the royal palace beside the old Roman fort in the north-west of the city suggests that its fortifications had also been maintained. But there is even more striking evidence of continuity. One of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent years has been that of a Roman amphitheatre upon the site of the present Guildhall; this is exactly the location where the Saxons were known to hold their folkmoots, in an area always specified as being to the north-east of the cathedral. It seems certain, therefore, that the Saxon citizens used the ancient Roman amphitheatre for their own deliberations; it throws a suggestive and curious light upon their relationship to a remote past, that they should sit and argue upon stone rows erected more than two centuries before. It is no less suggestive, of course, that the modern Guildhall is erected upon the same site. There is evidence, at the least, for administrative permanence. It seems very likely, in turn, that the great walled city was known as the centre of authority and of power.

This would help to explain the location of the thriving Saxon town, Lundenwic-wic meaning “marketplace”-in the area now known as Covent Garden. A typical Saxon community, in other words, had grown up just beyond the walls of the powerful city.

We may imagine several hundred people, living and working in an area from Covent Garden to the Thames. Their kilns and pottery have lately been found, together with dress pins and glass beakers, combs, stone tools and weights for their looms. A butchery site has been excavated in Exeter Street, off the Strand, and farm buildings in Trafalgar Square. All the evidence suggests that a flourishing commercial area was, therefore, surrounded by small settlements of farmers and labourers. The names and sites of Saxon villages are still to be heard within the districts of a much greater London, Kensington, Paddington, Islington, Fulham, Lambeth and Stepney among them. The very shape and irregular street line of Park Lane are determined by the old acre strips of the Saxon farmers. Long Acre, too, reflects that pastoral tradition. It was an extended community, therefore, and it may have been of Lundenwic-rather than of London-that Bede spoke when he described it as situated “on the banks of the Thames … a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea.”

Documents dated 673-85 are concerned with the trade regulations to be observed by the men of Kent when they barter in Lundenwic. Gold coins stamped “LONDUNIU” were being used in the same period, so that there was no necessary disparity between administrative London and commercial Lundenwic. Similarly a continual process of assimilation and absorption was maintained between erstwhile Britons and Saxon settlers, achieved by intermarriage and peaceful commerce. The evidence for this lies in the most reliable of sources, language itself, since many old British words are to be found in “Saxon” English. Among them are “basket,” “button,” “coat,” “gown,” “wicket” and “wire,” so it can be surmised that skill in textile and wicker-work can best be attributed to the Britons. Another English word testifies to the mixed nature of London: the name Walbrook is derived from Weala broc, “brook of the Welsh,” which suggests that there was still a defined quarter for the “old Britons” in their ancient city.

Bede had said that “Londuniu” was the capital of the East Saxons, but over the period of middle Saxon rule the city seems to have accepted the authority of any king who was dominant within the region-among them kings of Kent, Wessex and Mercia. It might almost be regarded as the commercial reward for any successful leader, together with the fact that the walled city was also the traditional seat of authority. Given this changing pattern of sovereignty, however, it is not perhaps surprising that the main source of continuity lay within the Christian Church. In 601, four years after the arrival of Augustine, Pope Gregory proclaimed London to be the principal bishopric in all Britain; three years later Ethelbert of Kent erected the cathedral church of St. Paul’s. There follows a bare chronicle of ecclesiastical administration. In the year when St. Paul’s was erected Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated Mellitus as bishop of London; the citizens then formally became Christian but, thirteen years later, Mellitus was expelled after a change of royal rule. The innate paganism of London, for a while, reasserted itself before being eventually restored to the Roman communion.


And then came the Danes. They had plundered Lindisfarne and Jarrow before turning their attention to the south. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 842 there was “great slaughter in London,” a battle in which the Vikings were beaten back. Nine years later they returned and, having pillaged Canterbury, sailed up the Thames and with a fleet of 350 ships fell upon London. The city wall along the river may well have been already in ruinous condition but, even if the Saxons had been able to mend it, the defences were not enough to withstand the army of invaders. London was entered and pillaged. Many of the citizens may already have fled; those who remained were put to the sword, if Viking custom was followed, and their huts or shops consigned to the flame. Some historians have considered that the events of 851 marked a decisive moment in London’s history, but this is perhaps to misunderstand the nature of a city which is perpetually rising from flame and ruin. Indeed it has been defined throughout its history by such resurrections.

The invaders returned sixteen years later. Their great army moved through Mercia and East Anglia intent upon capturing Wessex; in 872 they built a camp near London, no doubt to protect their warships along the river, and it seems likely that their purpose was to control London and the Thames basin in order to exact tribute from neighbouring kingdoms. Certainly they occupied the city itself, which was used as a military garrison and storage base. Here they remained for fourteen years. This was not a bare ruined city, therefore, as some have suggested, but once more a busy centre of administration and supply. The Norse commander, Halfdere, minted his own silver coinage which, interestingly enough, is based upon Roman originals. The tradition of literal money-making in London had been preserved since that distant period, testifying once again to the organic continuity of its financial life. Coins were minted in London for Alfred, in his role as client king of Wessex. The native inhabitants may not have been as fortunate as Alfred; from the evidence of coin hoards buried in the first year of Norse occupation, the richer citizens ran for their lives along with every other Englishman who was able to flee.

Then, in 883, Alfred engaged in some form of siege, mustering an English army outside the walls of the city. London was the great prize, and three years later Alfred obtained it. It was, in fact, in the city itself that his sovereignty over the whole region was formally advertised, when “all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him.” London was still the emblem of power, in other words, even after its occupation by the Norsemen. The Danes sued for peace and were allocated territory to the east of the River Lea. London became a frontier town, therefore, and Alfred initiated a scheme of resettlement and fortification. The walls were restored, the quays rebuilt, and all the activities of Lundenwic brought within the defences of the revived city; it is at this point that Lundenwic passes into history as Aldwych, or “old market-town.”

London had once more become new, since Alfred instituted a scheme of works which might qualify as an early attempt at city planning. He built a road, just within the walls, from Aldgate to Ludgate; the outline of it still exists in the streets of the modern City. The alignments of new streets were plotted close to the wharves of Queenhithe and Billingsgate. He re-established London and rendered it habitable.

Certainly the city was powerful and formidable enough to withstand Viking assaults in succeeding years; the burgwara, or citizens, even marched out against them in 893 and 895. On that later occasion Londoners sallied forth to destroy or plunder the enemy ships. The fact that the Vikings were unable to retaliate against London suggests the effectiveness of its defences.

The restoration of London’s life and power might not have been all of Alfred’s doing, although his native genius as a planner of cities suggests that he played a prominent role. He had given lordship of London to his son-in-law, Ethelred, and had granted lands within the walls to religious and secular magnates. There then grew up that curious division or subdivision of land which is manifest today in the various wards and parishes of the City. An area of London ground might have been defined by streams, or by the course of Roman remains, but once apportioned to an English lord or bishop it became his especial soke or territory. Churches, of wood or of limestone and sandstone, were erected to bless and protect each well-defined area of London’s earth; these sacred edifices in turn became the focal point for small communities of tradesmen, artificers and others.

The early tenth century was a period of peace, although the citizen army of London assisted Alfred in his efforts to free those British regions still held under the Danelaw. The historical records describe only the succession of Mercian kings to the overlordship of London. In 961 there was a great fire, succeeded by an outbreak of plague fever; the cathedral church of St. Paul’s was destroyed in the conflagration, and once more we witness the periodic fate and fatality of the city. There was another great fire twenty-one years later, and in the same year three Viking ships attacked the coast of Dorset. The succeeding years were marked by a series of Viking attacks upon the prosperous city; no doubt the London Mint, with its reserves of silver, was a particular attraction. But the defences, restored by Alfred, were strong enough to withstand a number of incursions; in 994 the Danes sent a force of ninety-five ships into the Thames in order to blockade and assault the city, but they were driven back by London’s army. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these citizens visited upon the Danes “more slaughter and harm than they ever supposed that townsmen could inflict.” It is important to recognise, in the course of these battles and sieges, that London itself had acquired its own army and therefore a measure of independent power; it possessed the characteristics of a kingdom or a sovereign state which, for many centuries, it never wholly lost.

So the soldiers of London continually resisted the Danes, and there are records of them seizing the alien ships and rowing them back to the city. They marched to Oxford to assist their countrymen and, although the Viking raids occasionally swept within the vicinity of their walls, the city stood firm. Indeed London still maintained its position as a flourishing port, and in 1001 an Icelandic poet recorded his impressions of the quayside where merchants from Rouen, Flanders, Normandy, Liège and other regions paid a fixed toll upon their goods; they brought in wool, and cloth, and planks, and fish, and melted fat; a small ship paid a toll of one halfpenny, and in turn the mariners bought pigs and sheep for their journey homewards.

In 1013 the Danish leader, Sweyn, commanded a full invasion force of Scandinavian warriors and marched upon London “because therein was King Aethelred.” The “citizens would not yield,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “but resisted with full battle.” It was not enough, however, and after a long siege they surrendered their city to the Danes. The reigning monarch fled but in the following year he returned with a most unlikely ally, Olaf of Norway. Olaf’s Norsemen manoeuvred their ships close to London Bridge, tied them to its wooden piles with ropes and cables, then, assisted by the tide, strained at the wooden supports until they were dislodged and the bridge itself fell into the Thames: a notorious episode in the history of that great thoroughfare. In recent years iron axes and swords have been found at this point in the river. An Icelandic saga suggests that “the citizens, seeing their river occupied by the enemy’s navy so as to cut off all intercourse that way with the interior provinces, were seized with fear.” Since they were being relieved of a temporary and alien king this is perhaps open to debate, but the loss of the bridge was indeed a serious impediment to commerce and communications. Yet the saga ends happily, or at least with an encomium-“And thou hast overthrown their bridges, oh! thou storm of the sons of Odin! skilful and foremost in the battle. For thee it was happily reserved to possess the land of London’s winding city.” Olaf himself was eventually beatified, and in London were erected six churches to venerate his memory, one by the southeastern corner of the bridge which he had once destroyed. St. Olave in Hart Street, where Samuel Pepys worshipped, still stands.

During the next three years the English and the Norse were engaged in a series of sieges and battles and assaults; in this protracted warfare London remained the single most important site of power and authority. After the death of Aethelred in 1016, “all the councillors who were in London and the citizens chose Edmund as king,” again according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which suggests that there was some kind of folkmoot where the king was chosen and saluted. When Cnut eventually won the crown in 1016 he extracted tribute from the whole nation, but London was obliged to render one-eighth of the entire amount.

Meanwhile, a Danish population, trading peacefully, settled outside the walls in the area once occupied by the Saxons. The church of St. Clement Danes, at the mouth of the Strand, marks the site of their occupation; it is even possible that a tribal community of Danes had lived and worked here for several generations, but it was in the time of Cnut that the wooden church was turned to stone. It is also believed to be the burial place of Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut, and there is a runic monument which proclaims the fact that three Danish leaders also “lie in Luntunum.” So once more we have evidence of a flourishing market-centre dependent upon the walled city. William of Malmesbury suggests that “the citizens of London,” after long familiarity with the Danes, “had almost entirely adopted their customs”; this suggests a renewed history of assimilation.

One custom was thoroughly absorbed. There was once a stone cross close by the church of St. Clement Danes, which marked a place of power and ritual. Here an open court assembled, and it was “at the Stone Cross” that manorial dues were paid; for one piece of land in the vicinity, payment was given in horseshoes and iron nails. It is sometimes believed that this is an obscure remembrance of a pagan rite, but it has also become a modern one. In the early twenty-first century there is still a ritual of presenting six horseshoes and sixty-one hobnails in the Court of Exchequer, within the Law Courts close to the site of the old cross itself, as part of rent due to the Crown.


So the Danes, and the Londoners, flourished during a period in which the historical narratives record only the actions of “the citizens of London” or “the army of London” as an independent and effectively self-governing community. When the pale-skinned and devout Edward (afterwards “the Confessor”) was anointed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “all men chose him for king in London.” A legal statute in fact defined London “qui caput est regni et legum, semper curia domini regis” as the source of law and royal rule.

<p>CHAPTER 3. Holy! Holy! Holy!</p>

Edward the Confessor left a memorial more enduring than his family’s fortunes; he retired to a palace, and established a monastery, in Westminster.

There had been a church there since the second century, but London antiquarians have suggested that there was once a pagan shrine to Apollo on the same site. Certainly a Roman sarcophagus, and a section of floor mosaic, have been found in the immediate vicinity. It was an area of great importance, in any case, since Westminster-or more particularly Thorney Island upon which Parliament and the abbey now rest-marked the spot where the road from Dover was united with Watling Street which proceeded northward. At low tide it was possible to cross the river here, and to ride along the great Roman ways. Yet topography is not simply a matter of road alignments. Tothill Fields beside Westminster was part of a ritualised area of power and worship; a document of 785 describes it as “that terrible place which is known as Westminster,” “terrible,” in this context, meaning sacred or holy terror.

It is not inappropriate, therefore, that the founding of Westminster Abbey is enwrapped in dreams and visions. The night before the hallowing of the first Saxon church here, in the seventh century, St. Peter himself appeared to a fisherman and was ferried across the river from Lambeth; the venerable figure crossed the threshold of the new church and all at once it was illuminated by a light brighter than a thousand candles. So began the history of the church of St. Peter. Edward the Confessor was in turn granted a dream, or vision, which persuaded him to build a great abbey. It became the repository of sand from Mount Sinai and earth from Calvary, a beam from the holy manger of Jesus and pieces of his cross, blood from Christ’s side and milk from the Virgin Mary, a finger from St. Paul and hair from St. Peter. Almost a thousand years later, in this place, William Blake was granted a vision of monks chanting and proceeding down the central aisle. A century before the poet’s sighting, Edward the Confessor also reappeared: a chorister came upon the broken coffin of the venerable king and drew from it a skull. So the sainted king had turned into a death’s head. It is perhaps an appropriate story for an abbey which has become London’s city of the dead, where the generations of kings and leaders and poets lie in silent communion as a token of that great mystery where past and present are mingled together. It is the mystery, and history, of London.


West Smithfield, after the foundation of St. Bartholomew-the-Great in the early twelfth century, witnessed as many miracles as any similar plot in Rome or Jerusalem. Edward the Confessor, in a prophetic dream, was informed that Smithfield had already been chosen by God as a place for his worship; Edward journeyed there the next morning and foretold that the ground should be a witness to God. In the same period three men from Greece came on pilgrimage to London, for already it had the renown of a sacred city; they approached Smithfield and, falling prostrate upon the ground, prophesied that there would be constructed a temple which “shall reach from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof.”

“The Book of the Foundation” of that great church of St. Bartholomew, from which these words are taken, was written in the twelfth century; it has much material for contemplation, but it also contains evidence relating to the piety of London and of Londoners. The founder of the church, Rahere, was on a journey in Italy when in a dream he was taken up by a beast with four feet and two wings to a “high place” where St. Bartholomew appeared to him and addressed him: “I, by the will and command of all the High Trinity, and with the common favour and counsel of the court of heaven, have chosen a spot in the suburb of London at Smithfield.” Rahere was to erect there a tabernacle of the Lamb. So he journeyed to the city where, in conversation with “some barons of London,” it was explained that “the place divinely shown to him was contained within the king’s market, on which it was lawful neither for the princes themselves nor for the wardens of their own authority to encroach to any extent whatever.” So Rahere sought an audience of Henry I in order to explain his divine mission to the city; the king graciously gave Rahere title to the spot which was at that time “a very small cemetery.”

Rahere then “made himself a fool” in order to recruit assistants in the great work of building. He “won to himself bands of children and servants, and by their help he easily began to collect together stones.” These stones came from many parts of London, and in that sense the narrative of construction is a true representation of the fact that St. Bartholomew’s was a collective work and vision of the city; it became, in literal form, its microcosm.

So the church rose, and many priests gathered to live “under regular rule” with the founder as prior. Beginning with its first foundation, when “a light sent from heaven gleamed over the church and remained over it for the space of an hour,” there were so many miraculous events within its walls that the chronicler declares that he will mention only those which he himself has witnessed. Wolmer, a cripple who supported himself “on two little stools he dragged behind him,” was carried to St. Bartholomew’s in a basket and, falling before the altar, was healed. A “certain woman of the parish of St. John” had her “enfeebled” limbs cured, and Wymonde that was dumb began to speak. Many of these miracles occurred on the day of the Feast of St. Bartholomew, so there was a continual awareness of sacred time in the city as well as sacred place. Miraculous cures were also performed in the “hospital of the church,” now St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. So St. Bartholomew’s is a temple of the holy spirit which has endured for almost nine hundred years.

When some citizens of London were on a long voyage to “the remote ends of the world,” they were threatened with shipwreck; but they comforted each other with the words: “what do we with little faith fear who have the good Bartholomew, the accomplisher of so many great marvels, set nigh to us in London? … He will not hide the bowels of his mercy from his fellow citizens.” In the oratory of the church was “an altar hallowed to the honour of the most blessed and perpetual Virgin Mary”; here the Virgin appeared to one lay brother and declared: “I will receive their prayers and vows and will grant them mercy and blessing for ever.”

That oratory survives still, but it is by no means an object of pilgrimage. St. Bartholomew’s Church is now largely ignored, set back from the circular road which connects the meat market to the hospital and which forms the perimeter of the old Bartholomew Fair. Yet Bartholomew himself might still be considered as one of the sacred guardians of the city and, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are ten streets or roads which bear his name.

London was once a holy city, therefore, and of Smithfield we read: “Awful, therefore, is this place to him that understands, here is nothing else but the house of God and the gate of heaven to him that believes.” This invocation is echoed by other visionaries and mystics of London; here, in the very grimy and malodorous streets of the city, the “gate of heaven” can be opened.


There are in London many holy wells of healing, although most were long ago filled in or demolished. The ancient well of St. Clement lies beneath the Law Courts; Chad’s Well is buried beneath St. Chad’s Street. The well of Barnet was covered first by a workhouse and then by a hospital, so its air of healing was not thoroughly dispelled; in the same spirit the curiously named but efficacious Perilous Pond lay beside St. Luke’s Hospital in Old Street. A healing well that was guarded by monks, near Cripplegate, is still recalled by the name of Monkwell Street, while Black Mary’s Well has been transformed into the area still known as Bagnigge Wells beside Farringdon Road. The only ancient well still to be seen is the Clerk’s Well, now protected by a glass window a few yards north of Clerkenwell Green: here for many centuries were staged miracle plays as well as more secular bouts of wrestling and jousting. The holy well of Shoreditch-commemorated by Holy Well Row and Holy Well Lane-marks the site of one of the first English theatres, erected in 1576 by James Burbage, more than twenty years before the Globe. Sadler’s Well was also a pleasure garden and, later, a theatre. So the holy spirit of the wells, in a fashion appropriate to London, turned into theatre.

Hermits were often chosen to be the guardians of the wells, but their principal stewardship was of the gates and crossroads of the city. They collected the tolls, and dwelt in the very bastions of London Wall. In a sense, then, they were the protectors of London itself, professing by their vocation that this was a city of God as well as a city of men. This was the theory, at least, but it is clear that many were hermits by device rather than by profession; the author of Piers the Plowman, William Langland, condemned them as “Grete lobyes and longe that loth were to swynke” or impostors who were simply unwilling to work. In 1412, for example, William Blakeney was convicted at the Guildhall for going about “barefooted and with long hair, under the guise of sanctity.” Nevertheless the picture of London surrounded, as it were, with hermits who lived in their small stone oratories keeping vigils and reciting orisons is an arresting one.

The figure of the hermit has another significance also; the stories of the city, throughout the centuries, have been filled with lonely and isolated people who feel their solitude more intensely within the busy life of the streets. They are what George Gissing called the anchorites of daily life, who return unhappy to their solitary rooms. The early city hermits may therefore be regarded as an apt symbol for the way of life of many Londoners. An extension of that hermitic spirit can be traced in the four churches of St. Botolph, which guarded four of the city’s gates; Botolph was a seventh-century Saxon hermit, who was especially associated with travellers. So the wanderer and the interior exile are seen as part of the same short pilgrimage among the streets of London.

But those streets can also be filled with prayer. There was in Marylebone, before the redevelopment of Lisson Grove, a Paradise Street approached by Grotto Passage; in the immediate vicinity were Vigil Place and Chapel Street. Perhaps here we have evidence of an ancient hermitage, or sacred spot, linking the city to eternity. In the immediate vicinity of St. Paul’s are to be found Pater Noster Row, Ave Maria Lane, Amen Court and Creed Lane: here we may usefully imagine a procession through various streets in which particular prayers or responses were chanted. So the old churches of London maintain their ancient presence and seem periodically to relive their histories.

That is why the area around St. Pancras Old Church, for example, still remains desolate and dreary. It has always been an isolated and somewhat mysterious place-“Walk not there too late,” counselled one Elizabethan topographer. It is the traditional terminus for murderers, suicides and those who were killed while fighting duels at Chalk Farm, but no true resting place: the corpses are continually being dug up and reburied. The last great removal occurred in 1863 when the railway lines of St. Pancras Station were laid through the site. The tombstones were placed against a great tree, the roots of which curl among them; from a distance it would seem that the headstones are indeed the fruit of that tree, ripe and ready to be gathered. Among these ancient memorials will be some to the Catholic dead; it was for them a holy place. St. Pancras is believed to be the first Christian church in England, established by Augustine himself, and is reported to contain the last bell which was able to toll during the Mass. Pancras has therefore been construed as Pangrace; a more likely derivation, associated with the saintly boy named Pancras, is Pan Crucis or Pan Cross-the monogram or symbol of Christ himself. So we have a Vatican historian, Maximilian Misson, asserting that “St. Pancras under Highgate, near London … is the Head and Mother of all Christian Churches.” Who could imagine the source of such power in the wasteland north of King’s Cross Station?

It has its bells, like the other London churches. The bells of St. Stephen, Rochester Row, were named “Blessing,” “Glory,” “Wisdom,” “Thanksgiving,” “Honour,” “Power,” “Might” and “Be Unto Our God For Ever and Ever Amen Alleluiah.”

We do not necessarily need the evidence of the famous nursery rhyme to realise that the bells were a familiar and friendly presence in the life of Londoners:

You owe me five farthings,

Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me,

Say the bells at Old Bailey.

In 1994 the Meteorological Office reported that, before the sound of motorcars entered the already crowded streets, the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside “would have been audible all over London.” In a true sense, then, every Londoner was a Cockney. Yet the East End may lay an especial claim to that honorific, perhaps, since the oldest business in that area is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which was established in the fifteenth century. Citizens used to bet which parish could make its bells heard at the greatest distance and it was said that bell-ringing was a salutary way of keeping warm in winter. It was sometimes surmised that at the Last Judgement the angels would peal the bells of London, rather than sound their trumpets, in order to convince the citizens that the day of doom had truly arrived. The bells were part of the sound and texture of its life. When the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984 recalls the famous song with its mention of St. Clement’s and St. Martin’s, Bow and Shoreditch, he seems to “hear the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten.” Some of the bells of that lost London can still be heard.



The relics of past ages have been found beneath many areas of London; they are the foundations upon which it rests.


CHAPTER 1. The Sea!

<p>CHAPTER 1. The Sea!</p>

If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled “Why Can’t We Have the Sea in London?,” but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, fifty million years before, was covered by great waters.

The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London. The Portland stone of the Customs House and St. Pancras Old Church has a diagonal bedding which reflects the currents of the ocean; there are ancient oyster shells within the texture of Mansion House and the British Museum. Seaweed can still be seen in the greyish marble of Waterloo Station, and the force of hurricanes may be detected in the “chatter-marked” stone of pedestrian subways. In the fabric of Waterloo Bridge, the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea can also be observed. The tides and storms are still all around us, therefore, and as Shelley wrote of London “that great sea … still howls on for more.”

London has always been a vast ocean in which survival is not certain. The dome of St. Paul’s has been seen trembling upon a “vague troubled sea” of fog, while dark streams of people flow over London Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, and emerge as torrents in the narrow thoroughfares of London. The social workers of the mid-nineteenth century spoke of rescuing “drowning” people in Whitechapel or Shoreditch and Arthur Morrison, a novelist of the same period, invokes a “howling sea of human wreckage” crying out to be saved. Henry Peacham, the seventeenth-century author of The Art of Living in London, considered the city as “a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks,” while in 1810 Louis Simond was content to “listen to the roar of its waves, breaking around us in measured time.”

If you look from a distance, you observe a sea of roofs, and have no more knowledge of the dark streams of people than of the denizens of some unknown ocean. But the city is always a heaving and restless place, with its own torrents and billows, its foam and spray. The sound of its streets is like the murmur from a sea shell and in the great fogs of the past the citizens believed themselves to be lying on the floor of the ocean. Even amid all the lights it may simply be what George Orwell described as “the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes.” This is a constant vision of the London world, particularly in the novels of the twentieth century, where feelings of hopelessness and despondency turn the city into a place of silence and mysterious depths.

Yet, like the sea and the gallows, London refuses nobody. Those who venture upon its currents look for prosperity or fame, even if they often founder in its depths. Jonathan Swift depicted the jobbers of the Exchange as traders waiting for shipwrecks in order to strip the dead, while the commercial houses of the City often used a ship or boat as a weather-vane and as a sign of good fortune. Three of the most common emblems in urban cemeteries are the shell, the ship and the anchor.

The starlings of Trafalgar Square are also the starlings who nest in the cliff faces of northern Scotland. The pigeons of London are descended from the wild rock-doves who lived among the steep cliffs of the northern and western shores of this island. For them the buildings of the city are cliffs still, and the streets are the endless sea stretching beyond them. But the real confluence lies in this-that London, for so long the arbiter of trade and of the sea, should have upon its fabric the silent signature of the tides and waves.


And when the waters parted, the London earth was revealed. In 1877, in a characteristically grand example of Victorian engineering, a vast well was taken down 1,146 feet at the southern end of Tottenham Court Road. It travelled hundreds of millions of years, touching the primeval landscapes of this city site, and from its evidence we can list the layers beneath our feet from the Devonian to the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Above these strata lie 650 feet of chalk, outcrops of which can be seen upon the Downs or the Chilterns as the rim of the London Basin, that shallow saucer-like declivity in which the city rests. On top of the chalk itself lies the thick London clay which is in turn covered by deposits of gravel and brick-earth. Here, then, is the making of the city in more than one sense; the clay and the chalk and the brick-earth have for almost two thousand years been employed to construct the houses and public buildings of London. It is almost as if the city raised itself from its primeval origin, creating a human settlement from the senseless material of past time.

This clay is burned and compressed into “London Stock,” the particular yellow-brown or red brick that has furnished the material of London housing. It truly represents the genius loci, and Christopher Wren suggested that “the earth around London, rightly managed, will yield as good brick as were the Roman bricks … and will endure, in our air, beyond any stone our island affords.” William Blake called the bricks of London “well-wrought affections” by which he meant that the turning of clay and chalk into the fabric of the streets was a civilising process which knit the city with its primeval past. The houses of the seventeenth century are made out of dust that drifted over the London region in a glacial era 25,000 years before.

The London clay can yield more tangible evidence, also: the skeletons of sharks (in the East End it was popularly believed that shark’s teeth might cure cramp), the skull of a wolf in Cheapside, and crocodiles in the clay of Islington. In 1682 Dryden recognised this now forgotten and invisible landscape of London:

Yet monsters from thy large increase we find


Engender’d on the Slyme thou leav’st behind.

Eight years later, in 1690, the remains of a mammoth were found beside what has since become King’s Cross.

London clay can by the alchemy of weather become mud, and in 1851 Charles Dickens noted that there was so “much mud in the streets … that it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” In the 1930s Louis-Ferdinand Céline took the motor buses of Piccadilly Circus to be a “herd of mastodons” returning to the territory they had left behind. In Mother London Michael Moorcock’s late twentieth-century hero sees “monsters, by mud and giant ferns” while crossing the footbridge alongside the Hungerford railway bridge.

The mammoth of 1690 was only the first primeval relic to be discovered in the London region. Hippopotami and elephants lay beneath Trafalgar Square, lions at Charing Cross, and buffaloes beside St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A brown bear was discovered in north Woolwich, mackerel in the old brickfields of Holloway and sharks in Brentford. The wild animals of London include reindeer, giant beavers, hyenas and rhinoceri which once grazed by the swamps and lagoons of the Thames. And that landscape has not entirely faded. Within recent memory the mist from the ancient marshes of Westminster destroyed the frescoes of St. Stephen’s. It is still possible, beside the National Gallery, to detect the rise of ground between the middle and upper terraces of the Thames in the Pleistocene era.

This was not, even then, an unpeopled region. Within the bones of the King’s Cross mammoth were also found pieces of a flint hand-axe which can be dated to the Palaeolithic period. We can say with some certainty that for half a million years there has been in London a pattern of habitation and hunting if not of settlement. The first great fire of London was started, a quarter of a million years ago, in the forests south of the Thames. That river had by then taken its appointed course but not its later appearance; it was very broad, fed by many streams, occluded by forests, bordered by swamps and marshes.

The prehistory of London invites endless speculation and there is a certain pleasure to be derived from the prospect of human settlement in areas where, many thousands of years later, streets would be laid out and houses erected. There is no doubt that the region has been continually occupied for at least fifteen thousand years. A great gathering of flint tools, excavated in Southwark, is assumed to mark the remains of a Mesolithic manufactory; a hunting camp of the same period has been discovered upon Hampstead Heath; a pottery bowl from the Neolithic period was unearthed in Clapham. On these ancient sites have been found pits and post-holes, together with human remains and evidence of feasting. These early people drank a potion similar to mead or beer. Like their London descendants, they left vast quantities of rubbish everywhere. Like them, too, they met for the purposes of worship. For many thousands of years these ancient peoples treated the great river as a divine being to be placated and surrendered to its depths the bodies of their illustrious dead.


In the late Neolithic period there appeared, from the generally marshy soil on the northern bank of the Thames, twin hills covered by gravel and brick-earth, surrounded by sedge and willow. They were forty to fifty feet in height, and were divided by a valley through which flowed a stream. We know them as Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, with the now buried Walbrook running between. Thus emerged London.

The name is assumed to be of Celtic origin, awkward for those who believe that there was no human settlement here before the Romans built their city. Its actual meaning, however, is disputed. It might be derived from Llyndon, the town or stronghold (don) by the lake or stream (Llyn); but this owes more to medieval Welsh than ancient Celtic. Its provenance might be Laindon, “long hill,” or the Gaelic lunnd, “marsh.” One of the more intriguing speculations, given the reputation for violence which Londoners were later to acquire, is that the name is derived from the Celtic adjective londos meaning “fierce.”

There is a more speculative etymology which gives the honour of naming to King Lud, who is supposed to have reigned in the century of the Roman invasion. He laid out the city’s streets and rebuilt its walls. Upon his death he was buried beside the gate which bore his name, and the city became known as Kaerlud or Kaerlundein, “Lud’s City.” Those of sceptical cast of mind may be inclined to dismiss such narratives but the legends of a thousand years may contain profound and particular truths.

The origin of the name, however, remains mysterious. (It is curious, perhaps, that the name of the mineral most associated with the city-coal-also has no certain derivation.) With its syllabic power, so much suggesting force or thunder, it has continually echoed through history-Caer Ludd, Lundunes, Lindonion, Lundene, Lundone, Ludenberk, Longidinium, and a score of other variants. There have even been suggestions that the name is more ancient than the Celts themselves, and that it springs from some Neolithic past.

We must not necessarily assume that there were settlements or defended enclosures upon Ludgate Hill or Cornhill, or that there were wooden trackways where there are now great avenues, but the attractions of the site might have been as obvious in the third and fourth millennia BC as they were to the later Celts and Romans. The hills were well defended, forming a natural plateau, with the river to the south, fens to the north, marshes to the east, and another river, later known as the Fleet, to the west. It was fertile ground, well watered by springs bubbling up through the gravel. The Thames was easily navigable at this point, with the Fleet and the Walbrook providing natural harbours. The ancients trackways of England were also close at hand. So from earliest time London was the most appropriate site for trade, for markets, and for barter. The City has for much of its history been the centre of world commerce; it is perhaps instructive to note that it may have begun with the transactions of Stone Age people in their own markets.

All this is speculation, not altogether uninformed, but evidence of a more substantial kind has been discovered in later levels of London earth. In those long stretches of time designated as the “Late Bronze Age” and the “Early Iron Age”-a period spanning almost a thousand years-shards and fragments of bowls, and pots, and tools, were left all over London. There are signs of prehistoric activity in the areas now known as St. Mary Axe and Gresham Street, Austin Friars and Finsbury Circus, Bishopsgate and Seething Lane, with altogether some 250 “finds” clustered in the area of the twin hills together with Tower Hill and Southwark. From the Thames itself many hundreds of metal objects have been retrieved, while along its banks is to be found frequent evidence of metal-working. This is the period from which the great early legends of London spring. It is also, in its latter phase, the age of the Celts.

In the first century BC, Julius Caesar’s description of the region around London suggests the presence of an elaborate, rich and well-organised tribal civilisation. Its population was “exceedingly large” and “the ground thickly studded with homesteads.” The nature and role of the twin hills throughout this period cannot with certainty be given; perhaps these were sacred places, or perhaps their well-defined position allowed them to be used as hill-forts in order to protect the trade carried along the river. There is every reason to suppose that this area of the Thames was a centre of commerce and of industry, with a market in iron products as well as elaborate workings in bronze, with merchants from Gaul, Rome and Spain bringing Samian ware, wine and spices in exchange for corn, metals and slaves.

In the history of this period completed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, the principal city in the island of Britain is undoubtedly London. But according to modern scholars his work is established upon lost texts, apocryphal embellishments and uninformed conjecture. Where Geoffrey speaks of kings, for example, they prefer the nomenclature of tribes; he dates events by means of biblical parallel, while they provide indicators such as “Late Iron Age”; he elucidates patterns of conflict and social change in terms of individual human passion, where more recent accounts of prehistory rely upon more abstract principles of trade and technology. The approaches may be contradictory but they are not necessarily incompatible. It is believed by historians of early Britain, for example, that a people known as the Trinovantes settled on territory to the north of the London region. Curiously enough, Geoffrey states that the first name of the city was Trinovantum. He also mentions the presence of temples within London itself; even if they had existed, these palisades and wooden enclosures would since have been lost beneath the stone of the Roman city as well as the brick and cement of succeeding generations.

But nothing is wholly lost. In the first four decades of the twentieth century there was a particular effort by prehistorians to discover something of London’s supposedly hidden past. In books such as The Lost Language of London, Legendary London, Prehistoric London and The Earlier Inhabitants of London, tokens and traces of a Celtic or Druidic London were thoroughly examined and were found significant. These studies were effectively killed off by the Second World War, after which urban planning and regeneration became more important than urban speculation. But the original works survive, and still repay close study. The fact that existing street names may betray a Celtic origin-Colin Deep Lane, Pancras Lane, Maiden Lane, Ingal Road among them-is, for example, as instructive as any of the material “finds” recorded on the site of the ancient city. Long-forgotten trackways have guided the course of modern thoroughfares; the crossroads at the Angel, Islington, for example, marks the point where two prehistoric British roads intersected. We know of Old Street leading to Old Ford, of Maiden Lane crossing through Pentonville and Battle Bridge to Highgate, of the route from Upper Street to Highbury, all following the same ancient tracks and buried paths.


Yet there is no more suspect or difficult subject, in the context of this period, than Druidism. That it was well established in Celtic settlements is not in doubt; Julius Caesar, who was in a position to speak with some authority on the subject, stated that the Druid religion was founded (inventa) in Britain and that its Celtic adherents came to this island in order to be educated in its mysteries. It represented a highly advanced, if somewhat insular, religious culture. Of course we might speculate that the oak woodland to the north of the twin hills provided a suitable site for sacrifice and worship; one antiquary, Sir Laurence Gomme, has envisaged a temple or sacred space upon Ludgate Hill itself. But there are many false trails. It was once generally agreed that Parliament Hill near Highgate was a place for religious assembly, but in fact the remnants which have been discovered there do not date from prehistory. The Chislehurst caves in south London, once reputed to be of Druid origin connected in some fashion with the observation of the heavens, are almost certainly of medieval construction.

It has been suggested that the London area was controlled from three sacred mounds; they are named as Penton Hill, Tothill and the White Mound, otherwise known as Tower Hill. Any such theory can readily be dismissed as nonsense, but there are curious parallels and coincidences which render it more interesting than the usual fantasies of latter-day psychogeographers.

It is known that in prehistoric worship a holy place was marked by a spring, a grove and a well or ritual shaft.

There is a reference to a “shrubby maze” in the pleasure gardens of White Conduit House, situated on the high ground of Pentonville, and a maze’s avatar was a sacred hill or grove. Close at hand is the famous well of Sadlers Wells. In recent days the water of this well flowed under the orchestra pit of the theatre but, from medieval times, it was considered holy and was tended by the priests of Clerkenwell. The site of the high ground in Pentonville was also once a reservoir; it was until recently the headquarters of the London Water Board.

Another maze was to be found in the area once known as Tothill Fields in Westminster; it is depicted in Hollar’s view of the area in the mid-seventeenth century. Here also is a sacred spring, deriving from the “holy well” in Dean’s Yard, Westminster. A fair, similar to the pleasure gardens upon White Conduit Fields, was established here at an early date; the first extant reference is dated 1257.

The sites are, therefore, comparable. There are other suggestive coincidences. On old maps, “St. Hermit’s Hill” is a noticeable feature of the area beside Tothill Fields. To this day, there is a Hermes Street at the top of the Pentonville Road. It is perhaps also interesting that in a house on this site dwelled a physician who promoted a medicine known as the “Balsam of Life”; the house was later turned into an observatory.

On Tower Hill there was a spring of clear bubbling water, reputed to possess curative properties. A medieval well exists there, and traces of a Late Iron Age burial have been uncovered. There is no maze but the place has its own share of Celtic legends; according to the Welsh Triads the guardian head of Bran the Blessed is interred within the White Hill to safeguard the kingdom from its enemies. London’s legendary founder Brutus, also, was supposed to have been buried on Tower Hill, in sacred ground that was used as an observatory until the seventeenth century.

The etymology of Penton Hill and Tothill is reasonably certain. Pen is the Celtic signifier for head or hill, while ton is a variant of tor/tot/ twt/too, which means spring or rising ground. (Wycliffe applies the words tot or tote, for example, to Mount Zion.) Those of a more romantic disposition have suggested that tot is derived from the Egyptian god Thoth who is of course reincarnated in Hermes, the Greek personification of the wind or the music of the lyre.

Here, then, is the hypothesis: London mounds, which bear so many similar characteristics, are in fact the holy sites of Druid ritual. The maze is the sacred equivalent of the oak grove, while the wells and springs represent the worship of the god of the water. The London Water Board was, then, well situated. Pleasure gardens and fairs are more recent versions of those prehistoric festivals or meetings which were held upon the same ground. So antiquaries have named Tothill, Penton and Tower Hill as the holy places of London.

It is generally assumed, of course, that Pentonville is named after an eighteenth-century speculator, Henry Penton, who developed the area. Can one place assume different identities, existing in different times and in different visions of reality? Is it possible that both explanations of Pentonville are true simultaneously? Might Billingsgate be named after the Celtic king Belinus or Belin, as the great sixteenth-century antiquary John Stow would have it, or after a Mr. Beling, who once owned the land? Can Ludgate really bear the name of Lud, a Celtic god of the waters? Certainly there is room for contemplation here.

It is equally important to look for evidence of continuity. It is likely that there was antiquity of worship among the Britons long before the Druids emerged as the high priests of their culture, and in turn Celtic forms of ritual seem to have survived the Roman occupation and subsequent invasions by the Saxon tribes. In the records of St. Paul’s Cathedral the adjacent buildings are known as “Camera Dianae.” A fifteenth-century chronicler recalled a time when “London worships Diana,” the goddess of the hunt, which is at least one explanation for the strange annual ceremony that took place at St. Paul’s as late as the sixteenth century. There, in the Christian temple erected on the sacred site of Ludgate Hill, a stag’s head was impaled upon a spear and carried about the church; it was then received upon the steps of the church by priests wearing garlands of flowers upon their heads. So the pagan customs of London survived into recorded history, just as a latent paganism survived among the citizens themselves.

One other inheritance from prehistoric worship may also be considered. The sense of certain places as being powerful or venerable was taken over by the Christians in the recognition of “holy wells” and in such ceremonies of territorial piety as “beating the bounds.” Yet the same sensibility is to be found in the writings of the great London visionaries, from William Blake to Arthur Machen, writings in which the city itself is considered to be a sacred place with its own joyful and sorrowful mysteries.

In this Celtic period, which lurks like some chimera in the shadows of the known world, the great legends of London find their origin. The historical record knows only of warring tribes within a highly organised culture of some sophistication. They were not necessarily savage, in other words, and the Greek geographer Strabo describes one Briton, an ambassador, as well dressed, intelligent and agreeable. He spoke Greek with such fluency that “you would have thought he had been bred up in the lyceum.” This is the proper context for those narratives in which London is accorded the status of a principal city. Brutus, in legend the founder of the city, was buried within London’s walls. Locrinus kept his lover, Estrildis, in a secret chamber beneath the ground. Bladud, who practised sorcery, constructed a pair of wings with which to fly through the air of London; yet he fell against the roof of the Temple of Apollo situated in the very heart of the city, perhaps on Ludgate Hill itself. Another king, Dunvallo, who formulated the ancient laws of sanctuary, was buried beside a London temple. From this period, too, came the narratives of Lear and of Cymbeline. More powerful still is the legend of the giant Gremagot who by some strange alchemy was transformed into the twins Gog and Magog, who became tutelary spirits of London. It has often been suggested that each of this characteristically ferocious pair, whose statues have stood for many centuries within the Guildhall, guards one of the twin hills of London.

Such stories are recorded by John Milton in The History of Britain, published a little more than three hundred years ago. “After this, Brutus in a chosen place builds Troia nova, chang’d in time to Trinovantum, now London: and began to enact Laws; Heli beeing then high Priest in Judaea: and having govern’d the whole Ile 24 Years, dy’d, and was buried in his new Troy.” Brutus was the great-grandson of Aeneas who, some years after the fall of Troy, led the exodus of Trojans from Greece; in the course of his exilic wanderings he was granted a dream in which the goddess Diana spoke words of prophecy to him: an island far to the west, beyond the realm of Gaul, “fitts thy people”; you are to sail there, Brutus, and establish a city which will become another Troy. “And Kings be born of thee, whose dredded might shall aw the World, and Conquer Nations bold.” London is to maintain a world empire but, like ancient Troy, it may suffer some perilous burning. It is interesting that paintings of London’s Great Fire in 1666 make specific allusion to the fall of Troy. This is indeed the central myth of London’s origin which can be found in the sixth-century verses of “Tallisen,” where the British are celebrated as the living remnant of Troy, as well as in the later poetry of Edmund Spenser and of Alexander Pope. Pope, born in Plough Court beside Lombard Street, was of course invoking a visionary urban civilisation; yet it is one highly appropriate for a city first vouchsafed to Brutus in a dream.

The narrative of Brutus has been dismissed as mere fable and fanciful legend but, as Milton wrote in the judicious introduction to his own history, “oft-times relations heertofore accounted fabulous have bin after found to contain in them many foot-steps, and reliques of something true.” Some scholars believe that we can date the wanderings of the apparently legendary Brutus to the period around 1100 BC. In contemporary historiographical terms this marks the period of the Late Bronze Age when new bands or tribes of settlers occupied the area around London; they constructed large defensive enclosures and maintained an heroic life of mead-halls, ring-giving and furious fighting which found expression in later legends. Segmented glass beads, like those of Troy, have been discovered in England. In the waters of the Thames was found a black two-handled cup; its provenance lies in Asia Minor, with an approximate date of 900 BC. So there is some indication of trade between western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, and there is every reason to suppose that Phrygian or later Phoenician merchants reached the shores of Albion and sailed into the market of London.

Material evidence of an association with Troy itself, and with the region of Asia Minor in which that ancient doomed city resided, can be found elsewhere. Diogenes Laertius identified the Celts with the Chaldees of Assyria; indeed the famous British motif comprising the lion and the unicorn may be of Chaldean origin. Caesar noted, with some surprise, that the Druids made use of Greek letters. In the Welsh Triads there is a description of an invading tribe who have travelled to the shores of Albion, or England, from the region of Constantinople. It is suggestive, perhaps, that the Franks and Gauls also claimed Trojan ancestry. Although it is not altogether out of the question that a tribe from the region of fallen Troy migrated to western Europe, it is more likely, perhaps, that the Celtic people themselves had their origins in the eastern Mediterranean. The legend of London, as a new Troy, is therefore still able to claim some adherents.

At the beginning of any civilisation there are fables and legends; only at the end are they proved to be accurate.

One token of Brutus and his Trojan fleet may still remain. If you walk east down Cannon Street, on the other side from the railway station, you will find an iron grille set within the Bank of China. It protects a niche upon which has been placed a stone roughly two feet in height, bearing a faint groove mark upon its top. This is London Stone. For many centuries it was popularly believed to be the stone of Brutus, brought by him as a deity. “So long as the stone of Brutus is safe,” ran one city proverb, “so long shall London flourish.” Certainly the stone is of great antiquity; the first reference to it was discovered by John Stow in a “fair written Gospel book” once belonging to Ethelstone, an early tenth-century king of the West Saxons, where certain lands and rents are “described to lie near unto London stone.” According to the Victorian County History it originally marked the very centre of the old city, but in 1742 was taken from the middle of Cannon Street and placed within the fabric of St. Swithin’s Church opposite. There it remained until the Second World War; although a German bomb entirely destroyed the church in 1941, London Stone remained intact. It is constructed of oolite which, as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to have survived since prehistoric times. Yet it has been granted a charmed life.

There is a verse by the fifteenth-century poet, Fabyan, which celebrates the religious significance of a stone so pure that “though some have it thrette … Yet hurte had none.” Its actual significance, however, remains unclear. Some antiquaries have considered it to be a token of civic assembly, connected with the repayment of debts, while others believe it to be a Roman milliarium or milestone. Christopher Wren argued, however, that it possessed too large a foundation for the latter purpose. A judicial role is more likely. In a now forgotten play of 1589, Pasquill and Marfarius, a character remarks: “Set up this bill at London Stone. Let it be doone sollemly with drom and trumpet” and then again “If it please them these dark winter nights to stikke uppe their papers uppon London Stone.” That it became a highly venerated object is not in doubt. William Blake was convinced that it marked the site of Druid executions, whose sacrificial victims “groan’d aloud on London Stone,” but its uses were perhaps less melancholy.

When the popular rebel Jack Cade stormed London in 1450, he and his followers made their way to the Stone; he touched it with his sword and then exclaimed: “Now is Mortimer”-this was the name he had assumed-“lord of this city!” The first mayor of London, in the late twelfth century, was Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone. It seems likely, therefore, that this ancient object came somehow to represent the power and authority of the city.

It sits now, blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare; over and around it have flowed wooden carts, carriages, sedan chairs, hansom cabs, cabriolets, hackney cabs, omnibuses, bicycles, trams and cars. It was once London’s guardian spirit, and perhaps it is still.

It is at least a material remnant from all the ancient legends of London and of its foundation. For the Celtic people these narratives comprised the glory of a city once known as “Cockaigne.” In this place of wealth and delight the traveller might find riches and blessed happiness. This is the myth that established the context for later legends, such as those of Dick Whittington, as well as those unattributable proverbs which describe London’s streets as “paved with gold.” Yet London gold has proved more perishable than London Stone.


CHAPTER 2. The Stones

<p>CHAPTER 2. The Stones</p>

A section of the original London Wall, with medieval additions, can still be seen by Trinity Place just north of the Tower of London; part of the Tower itself was incorporated within the fabric of the wall, demonstrating in material form William Dunbar’s claim that “Stony be thy wallys that about thee standis.” It was almost ten feet wide at its base, and more than twenty feet in height; besides these relics of the wall by Trinity Place can be seen the stone outline of an inner tower which contained a wooden staircase leading to a parapet which looked east across the marshes.

From here the spectral wall, the wall as once it was, can be traversed in the imagination. It proceeds north to Cooper’s Row, where a section can still be seen in the courtyard of an empty building; it rises from a car park in the basement. It goes through the concrete and marble of the building, then on through the brick and iron of the Fenchurch Street Station viaduct until an extant section rises again in America Square. It is concealed within the basement of a modern building which itself has parapets, turrets and square towers; a strip of glazed red tiling bears more than a passing resemblance to the courses of flat red tiles placed in the ancient Roman structure. For a moment it is known as Crosswall and passes through the headquarters of a company named Equitas. It moves through Vine Street (in the car park at No. 35 is a security camera on the ancient line of the now invisible wall), towards Jewry Street, which itself follows the line of the wall almost exactly until it meets Aldgate; all the buildings here can be said to comprise a new wall, separating west from east. We find Centurion House and Boots, the chemist.

The steps of the subway at Aldgate lead down to a level which was once that of late medieval London but we follow the wall down Duke’s Place and into Bevis Marks; near the intersection of these two thoroughfares there is now part of that “ring of steel” which is designed once more to protect the city. On a sixteenth-century map Bevis Marks was aligned to the course of the wall, and it is so still; the pattern of the streets here has been unchanged for many hundreds of years. Even the lanes, such as Heneage Lane, remain. At the corner of Bevis Marks and St. Mary Axe rises a building of white marble with massive vertical windows; a great golden eagle can be seen above its entrance, as if it were part of some imperial standard. Security cameras once more trace the line of the wall, as it leads down Camomile Street towards Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street.

It drops beneath the churchyard of St. Botolph’s, behind a building faced with white stone and curtain-walling of dark glass, but then fragments of it arise beside the church of All Hallows-on-the-Wall, which has been built, in the ancient fashion, to protect and bless these defences. The modern thoroughfare here becomes known, at last, as London Wall. A tower like a postern of brown stone rises above 85 London Wall, very close to the spot where a fourth-century bastion was only recently found, but the line of the wall from Blomfield Street to Moorgate largely comprises late nineteenth-century office accommodation. Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam, was once built against the north side of the wall; but that, too, has disappeared. Yet it is impossible not to feel the presence or force of the wall as you walk down this straightened thoroughfare which can be dated to the later period of the Roman occupation. A new London Wall then opens up after Moorgate, built over the ruins of the Second World War. The bombs themselves effectively uncovered long-buried remnants of the ancient wall, and stretches both of Roman and medieval origin can still be seen covered with grass and moss. But these old stones are flanked by the glittering marble and polished stone of the new buildings that dominate the city.

Around the site of the great Roman fort, at the north-west angle of the wall, there now arise these new fortresses and towers: Roman House, Britannic Tower, City Tower, Alban Gate (which by the slightest substitution might be renamed Albion Gate) and the concrete and granite towers of the Barbican which have once more brought a sublime bareness and brutality to that area where the Roman legions were sequestered. Even the walkways of this great expanse are approximately the same height as the parapets of the old city wall.

The wall then turns south, and long sections of it can still be seen on the western side sloping down towards Aldersgate. For most of its course from Aldersgate to Newgate and then to Ludgate, it remains invisible, but there are suggestive tokens of its progress. The great beast of classical antiquity, the Minotaur, has been sculpted just to its north in Postman’s Park. The mottled and darkened blocks of the Sessions House beside the Old Bailey still mark the outer perimeter of the wall’s defences, and in Amen Court a later wall looking on the back of the Old Bailey is like some revenant of brick and mortar. From the rear of St. Martin’s Ludgate we cross Ludgate Hill, enter Pilgrim Street and walk beside Pageantmaster Court, where now the lines of the City Thames Link parallel those once made by the swiftly moving River Fleet, until we reach the edge of the water where the wall once abruptly stopped.

The wall enclosed an area of some 330 acres. To walk its perimeter would have taken approximately one hour, and the modern pedestrian will be able to cover the route in the same time. The streets beside it are still navigable and, in fact, the larger part of the wall itself was not demolished until 1760. Until that time the city had the appearance of a fortress, and in the sagas of Iceland it was known as Lundunaborg, “London Fort.” It was continually being rebuilt, as if the integrity and identity of the city itself depended upon the survival of this ancient stone fabric; churches were erected beside it, and hermits guarded its gates. Those with more secular preoccupations built houses, or wooden huts, against it so that everywhere you could see (and perhaps smell) the peculiar combination of rotten wood and mildewed stone. A contemporary equivalent may be seen in the old brick arches of nineteenth-century railways being used as shops and garages.

Even after its demolition the wall still lived; its stone sides were incorporated into churches or other public buildings. One section in Cooper’s Row was used to line the vaults of a bonded warehouse while, above ground, its course was used as a foundation for houses. The late eighteenth-century Crescent by America Square, designed by George Dance the Younger in the 1770s, for example, is established upon the ancient line of the wall. So later houses dance upon the ruins of the old city. Fragments and remnants of the wall were continually being rediscovered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the succeeding phases of its existence were first seen steadily and as a whole. On the eastern side of the wall were found in 1989, for example, eight skeletons of late Roman date turned in different directions; there were also unearthed the skeletons of several dogs. This is the area known as Houndsditch.


It is often believed that the Roman wall first defined Roman London, but the invaders were in command of London for 150 years before walls were built and, during that long stretch of time, the city itself evolved in particular- sometimes bloody, sometimes fiery-stages.

In 55 BC a military force under the command of Caesar invaded Britain, and within a short time compelled the tribes around London to accept Roman hegemony. Almost a hundred years later the Romans returned with a more settled policy of invasion and conquest. The troops may have crossed the river at Westminster, or Southwark, or Wallingford; temporary encampments may have been established in Mayfair, or at the Elephant and Castle. It is important for this account only that the administrators and commanders finally chose London as their principal place of settlement because of the strategic advantages of the terrain, and the commercial benefits of this riverine location. Whether the Romans occupied an abandoned settlement, its tribal occupants having fled on wooden trackways into the swamps and forests, is not known. It seems likely, in any event, that the invaders understood the significance of the site from the beginning of their occupation. Here was an estuary, served by a double tide. So it became the central point for seaborne trade in the south of Britain, and the focus for a network of roads which have survived for almost two thousand years.

The outlines of that first city have been revealed by excavation, with two principal streets of gravel running parallel to the river on the eastern hill. One of these streets skirted the bank of the Thames, and can still be traced in the alignment of Cannon Street and Eastcheap; the second road, some hundred yards to the north, comprises the eastern stretch of Lombard Street as it approaches Fenchurch Street. Here are the true origins of the modern city.

And then there was the bridge. The wooden Roman bridge was located approximately one hundred yards east of the first stone London Bridge, spanning the area west of St. Olav’s Church in Southwark and the foot of Rederes (Pudding) Lane upon the northern bank; the exact date of its foundation cannot now be known but it would have seemed a majestic and even miraculous construction, not least to the native peoples who had settled under the Romans. Half the legends of London arose upon its foundations; miracles were performed, and visions seen, upon the new wooden thoroughfare. Since its sole purpose was to tame the river, it may then have harnessed the power of a god. Yet that god may have been enraged at the stripping of its riverine authority; thus all the intimations of vengeance and destruction invoked by the famous rhyme “London Bridge is broken down.”

It is not clear whether Londinium was first used as a Roman military camp. Certainly it soon became a centre of supplies. In its first stages we must imagine a cluster of small dwellings with clay walls, thatched roofs and earthen floors; narrow alleys ran between them, with a series of streets connecting the two main thoroughfares, filled with the smells and noises of a busy community. There were workshops, taverns, shops and smithies crowded together while, beside the river, warehouses and workshops were grouped around a square timber harbour. Evidence for such a harbour has been found in Billingsgate. Along the thoroughfares, which every traveller to London used, there were taverns and tradesmen. Just beyond the city were round huts, in the old British style, which were used as places for storage, while on the perimeter of the city were wooden enclosures for cattle.

Only a few years after its foundation, which can be approximately dated between AD 43 and 50, the Roman historian, Tacitus, could already write of London as filled with negotiatores and as a place well known for its commercial prosperity. So in less than a decade it had progressed from a supply base into a flourishing town.

Negotiatores are not necessarily merchants but men of negotium; business and negotiation. They can be described as traders and brokers. Thus the line of continuity-it might almost be called the line of harmony-can still be traced. The shining buildings which now stand upon the Roman wall contain brokers and dealers who are the descendants, direct or indirect, of those who came to London in the first century. The City has always been established upon the imperatives of money and of trade. That is why the headquarters of the procurator, the high Roman official who controlled the finances of the province, were erected here.

London is based upon power, therefore. It is a place of execution and oppression, where the poor have always outnumbered the rich. Many terrible judgements of fire and death have visited it. Barely a decade after its foundation a great fire of London utterly destroyed its buildings. In AD 60 Boudicca and her tribal army laid waste the city with flame and sword, wreaking vengeance upon those who were trying to sell the women and children of the Iceni as slaves. It is the first token of the city’s appetite for human lives. The evidence of Boudicca’s destruction is to be found in a red level of oxidised iron among a layer of burnt clay, wood and ash. Red is London’s colour, a sign of fire and devastation.

There was at least one other tribal attack upon the Roman city, at the end of the third century, but by that time the city and its defences were strong. Immediately after the Boudiccan assault the work of rebuilding was begun. If you were to stand now at the great crossroads in the City, where Gracechurch Street divides Lombard Street from Fenchurch Street, you would be facing the main entrance of the Romans’ public forum, with shops and stalls and workshops on either side. The new forum was constructed of ragstone from Kent, carried by boat up the Medway, and, with its plastered surfaces and its roofs of red tiles, was a small fragment of Rome placed upon an alien soil.

Yet the influence of Roman civilisation was enduring in more than one respect. The chief cashier’s office in the eighteenth-century Bank of England was based upon the design of a Roman temple, very like the basilica situated to the left of the early forum. Throughout the centuries London has been celebrated or denounced as a new Rome-corrupt or mighty, according to taste-and it can safely be said that part of its identity was created by its first builders.


London began to grow and flourish. A greater forum, and a greater basilica, were built upon the same site in the late first century; the basilica itself was larger than St. Paul’s, Wren’s seventeenth-century cathedral on Ludgate Hill. A great fort was built to the north-west, where the Barbican now stands. There were public baths, and temples, and shops, and stalls; there was an amphitheatre where the Guildhall now rests, and just south of St. Paul’s a racing arena: by the strange alchemy of the city a name, Knightrider Street, has survived for almost two thousand years.

We can find evidence of further survival in the line, if not the name, of other streets. At the corner of Ironmonger Lane and Prudent Passage, traces of a Roman road passing from east to west have been uncovered together with the alignment of structures against it; at least seven successive buildings, all apparently engaged in the same kind of industrial activity, were erected upon that same alignment. There was an interval of destruction caused by fire, and then a gap of some five hundred years, until new buildings were erected upon the base of the old Roman road in the early ninth century. By the twelfth century, when the name of Ironmonger Lane enters recorded history, the buildings still followed the northern edge of the street laid out more than a thousand years before. The same buildings were in use until the seventeenth century, providing evidence of perhaps unequalled continuity in the life of the city.

We can cite many of the ancient streets in this vicinity-Milk Street, Wood Street, Aldermanbury among them-as the visible remnants of a Roman street horizon. It is suggestive, also, that the great markets of London at Cheapside and East Cheap lay until recent years on the thoroughfares established by the Romans on their first arrival. In the space of fifty years, by the end of the first century, London had acquired its destiny. It became the administrative and political capital of the country as well as its trading centre. The focus of communication and commercial activity, it was governed by imperial laws concerning trade, marriage and defence, laws that survived the passing of the Romans themselves. It was in all essentials a city-state with its own independent government, albeit in direct relationship to Rome; that independence, and autonomy, will be found to mark much of its subsequent history.

During the strongest period of its growth, at the end of the first century, the city would have possessed some thirty thousand inhabitants. There were soldiers, and merchants, and businessmen, artisans and artists, Celts and Romans, all mingled together. There were grand houses for the wealthier merchants and administrators, but the standard house of most Londoners was a form of cubicle or bed-sitting-room, its walls painted or decorated with mosaic. Sometimes, we can even hear the people speak.

There are surviving letters dealing with matters of finance and of trade, as might be expected, but there are also less formal communications. “Primus has made ten tiles. Enough! … Austalis has been taking off on his own every day for the last fortnight … for shame! … London, next door to the temple of Isis … Clementinus fashioned this tile.” These are the earliest known words of a Londoner, scratched upon pieces of tile or pottery and fortuitously preserved among all the ruins that have been heaped over the city’s earth. More pious memorials have also been found, with inscriptions for the dead and invocations to the gods. The stamps for the labels of an optician have been uncovered, proffering remedies for running eyes, for inflammation and for dim sight.

Our own sight of the past may be cleared a little if we are able to reconstruct the scattered evidence of the remains. A great hand of bronze, thirteen inches long, was found beneath Thames Street; a head of the Emperor Hadrian, again more than life-size, in the waters of the Thames itself. So we may imagine a city adorned with great statues. Fragments of a triumphal arch have been recovered, together with stone frescoes of goddesses and gods. This is a city of temples and monumental architecture. There were public baths also, and one lay in North Audley Street quite a long way outside the City. When workmen of the late nineteenth century discovered it in an underground arched chamber, it was still half-filled with water. Votive statues and daggers, sacred urns and silver ingots, swords and coins and altars, all express the spirit of a city in which trade and violence were not divorced from a genuine religious spirit. But there is significance, also, in the smallest detail. More than a hundred styli have been found at the bottom of the Walbrook River, where countless busy clerks simply threw used pens out of the window. It is an image of bustling life which would not be inappropriate in any period of London’s history.

Yet the security and prosperity of London are not at this early date so certain. Like an organic being London grew and developed outwards, always seeking to incorporate new territory, but it also suffered periods of weariness and enervation when the spirit of the place hid its head. We may find tokens of just such a change by those same eastern banks of the Walbrook where the clerks of the empire tossed their pens into the water. Here was discovered, in 1954, the remains of a temple devoted to Mithras and subsequently to other pagan deities. It was not uncommon for Roman Londoners to embrace a variety of faiths; there is good evidence, for example, that the beliefs of the original Celtic tribes were incorporated into a peculiar Romano-Celtic form of worship. But the Mithraic mystery cult, with its rites of initiation and the secrets of its arcane ritual, seems at least in theory to presage a more disturbed and anxious city.

The most resourceful period of Roman London lay in the years spanning the first and second centuries, but these were followed by an uneven period combining development and decline. That decline was in part associated with the two great titular spirits of London, fire and plague, but there was also a steady alteration of imperial rule as the empire itself weakened and decayed. In approximately AD 200, some fifty years before the temple of Mithras was erected, the great wall was constructed around London. It speaks of an age of anxiety, but the very fact of its erection suggests that the city still had formidable resources of its own. Large areas within the wall were unoccupied, or used for pasture, but there were fine temples and houses in the more fashionable district close to the river. The first London mint was established in the third century, testifying once again to the city’s true nature. In that century, too, a riverine wall was constructed to complete the city’s defences.


What, then, was the nature and activity of the citizens themselves in the last decades of Roman London? They would be largely of Romano-British descent, and there were occasions when they were ruled by a British “king.” But London has from its inception always been a mixed city, and the streets would have been filled with the inhabitants of many nations including the native Celtic tribes who, over three hundred years, had naturally grown accustomed to the new order. This Roman city spanned a period as long as that from the late Tudors to the present day, but we have in general only the silent evidence of scattered cups and dice, bath scrapers and bells, writing tablets and millstones, brooches and sandals. How can we make these objects live again?

There were of course, in the passages of this long history, periods of turbulence and warfare. Many have gone unrecorded, but one or two powerful incidents survive. The darkness breaks and a scene presents itself, frozen for a moment, throwing into further confusion and mystery the historical process of which it is a part. A Roman leader named Allectus sailed to Britain in order to put down a local rebellion; having defeated the rebels he set up his headquarters in London. A Celtic chieftain, Asclepiodotus, in turn marched against the imperial victor; outside the city there was a great battle in which the British were successful. The remaining Roman troops, fearing massacre, fled within the walls and closed the gates. Siege engines were brought, and a breach was made in the defences; the Celts poured in and the leader of the last legion begged for mercy. It was agreed that the Romans could withdraw and take to their ships but one tribe or group of tribesmen reneged on the agreement: they fell upon the Roman soldiers, decapitated them in ritual Celtic style and, according to the narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth, threw their heads into “a brook in the city … in Saxon, Galobroc.” Many skulls were, in the 1860s, found in the bed of the long-buried Walbrook River. The rest is silence.

But we cannot from the evidence of this single anecdote assume that the history of London is one of warring tribes against a common Roman enemy. All the evidence suggests otherwise and instead intimates a degree of mingling, maintained by mutual trade, that encouraged an almost unbroken continuity of commerce and administration. There would by now be something of a London type, perhaps with that particular “muddy” complexion which became characteristic in later years. No doubt the citizens spoke a Latin patois which included native elements, and their religious beliefs would have been equally mixed and idiosyncratic. The Mithraic temple is only one example of a mystery religion-predominantly the reserve of merchants and professional administrators-but the Christian faith was not unknown. In AD 313 a certain Restitus attended the Council of Arles in his capacity as Bishop of London.

The city’s economic activity was equally mixed and practical; the commercial and military quarters were still in active operation, but the archaeological evidence suggests that many public buildings were allowed to fall into disuse and earth was laid over once inhabited sites for the purposes of farming. It may seem odd to have farms and vineyards within the walls of the city but, even as late as the time of Henry II, half of London was open ground with fields, orchards and gardens adorning it. There is also evidence, in the third and fourth centuries, of quite large stone buildings which were conceivably farm-houses. We might then have the paradox of rural landowners within the city itself. Certainly the city was still formidable enough to withstand the attentions of marauding tribes; in AD 368 the Attacotti laid waste to much of Kent without daring to make an onslaught upon London itself.

But in 410 Rome withdrew its protecting hand; like the hand found beneath Thames Street, it was of bronze rather than of gold. There are reports of raids against the city by Angles and Saxons, but there is no record of any great collapse or transition. There is, however, some evidence of decay. There was once a bath-house in Lower Thames Street which, in the early fifth century, was abandoned. The glass was shattered, and the wind destroyed the roof; then at a later date, after the collapse of the roof, the walls of the eastern range of buildings were systematically demolished. Found among the debris was a Saxon brooch, dropped by a woman while clambering over these alien ruins.


The arrival of the Saxons has been dated to the beginning of the fifth century when, according to the historian Gildas, the land of Britain was licked by a “red and savage tongue.” Within certain cities “in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies.” But in fact the Angles and the Saxons were already living in the London region, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence that by the late fourth century troops of Germanic origin were guarding London as legionnaires under the imperial banner.

It was once assumed, however, that the arrival of the Saxons resulted in the destruction and desertion of the city itself. In fact there was no fiery carnage in the London area from which Rome retreated. On several sites has been found a layer of “dark earth” which was believed to indicate dereliction and decay, but contemporary experts have suggested that levels of dark soil may point to occupation rather than destruction. There is other evidence of the continuous habitation of London during that period once known as the “dark ages.” In one of those extraordinary instances of historical survival, it has been shown that the provisions of London law in the Roman period- particularly in terms of testamentary provisions and property rights-were still being applied throughout the medieval period. There was, in other words, a continuous administrative tradition which no Saxon occupation had interrupted.

The old chronicles assert that London remained the principal city and stronghold of the Britons. In the histories of Nennius and Gildas, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Bede, it is regularly cited as an independent town which is also the home of the British kings; it is the place where sovereigns were made and acclaimed, and it is the site where the citizens were called together in public assembly. It is also the chief place of defence when, on various occasions, the Britons fled within the safety of the walls. It is the seat of the British and Roman nobility, as well as representing one of the great sees of the Christian realm. The ancient British kings-Vortigern, Vortimer and Uther among them-are depicted as reigning and living in London.

Yet in these early chronicles the distance between factual interpretation and fanciful reconstruction is short. In these accounts, for example, Merlin makes many prophecies concerning the future of the city. Another great figure who exists somewhere within the interstices of myth and history is also to be found in London: King Arthur. According to Matthew of Westminster, Arthur was crowned by the archbishop of London. Layamon adds that he entered London after his investiture. The mark of this urban civilisation was its sophistication; Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, celebrates the affluence and courtesy of Arthur’s subjects as well as the “richness” of decorative art everywhere apparent. In Malory’s great prose epic, derived from several original sources, known as Le Morte d’Arthur, there are many references to London as the principal city of the realm. At a time of foreboding after the death of Uther Pendragon, “Merlyn wente to the Archebisshop of Caunterbury and counceilled hym for to sende for all the lordes of the reame and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to London come” and gather “in the grettest chirch of London-whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyon.” In later books the Feir Maiden of Astolat is laid beside the Thames, Sir Launcelot rides from Westminster to Lambeth across the same river, and Guenevere “cam to London” and “toke the Towre of London.”

The less controversial documents of historians and chroniclers add detail to this picture of legendary munificence. Ecclesiastical records reveal that a synod was held, either in London or Verulamium, in 429; since the assembly was called to denounce the heresies of a British monk, Pelagius, it is clear that there was still a thriving religious culture in the regions bordering upon London.

Some twelve years later, according to a contemporaneous chronicle, the provinces of Britain accepted Saxon domination. Although that source is silent on the fate of London, it seems to have retained its independence as a city-state. By the middle of the sixth century, however, the city can be assumed to have accepted Saxon rule. Large parts of the walled area were employed as pasture, and the great public buildings were no doubt used as marketplaces, or stockades for cattle, or as open spaces for the wooden houses and shops of a population living among the monumental ruins of what was already a distant age. There is a wonderful Saxon poem on the material remnants of just such a British city; they are enta geweorc, the “works of giants,” the shattered memorials to a great race which passed away hund cnect-a hundred generations ago. In the description of broken towers and empty halls, of fallen roofs and deserted bath-houses, there is a combination of sorrow and wonder. There are intimations here, also, of another truth. The stone fabric of this ancient city has been dissolved by wyrde or “destiny,” and age; it has not been violently attacked or pillaged by marauders. The Saxons were not necessarily destroyers, therefore, and this poem displays a genuine reverence for antiquity and for a beohrtan burg, “bright city,” where heroes once dwelled.

We can infer, in turn, the lineaments of Saxon London. A cathedral church was built here, and the palace of the king was maintained on a site now claimed by Wood Street and Aldermanbury. Seventh-century records mention a “king’s hall” in London, and two centuries later it was still known as “that illustrious place and royal city”; the location of the royal palace beside the old Roman fort in the north-west of the city suggests that its fortifications had also been maintained. But there is even more striking evidence of continuity. One of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent years has been that of a Roman amphitheatre upon the site of the present Guildhall; this is exactly the location where the Saxons were known to hold their folkmoots, in an area always specified as being to the north-east of the cathedral. It seems certain, therefore, that the Saxon citizens used the ancient Roman amphitheatre for their own deliberations; it throws a suggestive and curious light upon their relationship to a remote past, that they should sit and argue upon stone rows erected more than two centuries before. It is no less suggestive, of course, that the modern Guildhall is erected upon the same site. There is evidence, at the least, for administrative permanence. It seems very likely, in turn, that the great walled city was known as the centre of authority and of power.

This would help to explain the location of the thriving Saxon town, Lundenwic-wic meaning “marketplace”-in the area now known as Covent Garden. A typical Saxon community, in other words, had grown up just beyond the walls of the powerful city.

We may imagine several hundred people, living and working in an area from Covent Garden to the Thames. Their kilns and pottery have lately been found, together with dress pins and glass beakers, combs, stone tools and weights for their looms. A butchery site has been excavated in Exeter Street, off the Strand, and farm buildings in Trafalgar Square. All the evidence suggests that a flourishing commercial area was, therefore, surrounded by small settlements of farmers and labourers. The names and sites of Saxon villages are still to be heard within the districts of a much greater London, Kensington, Paddington, Islington, Fulham, Lambeth and Stepney among them. The very shape and irregular street line of Park Lane are determined by the old acre strips of the Saxon farmers. Long Acre, too, reflects that pastoral tradition. It was an extended community, therefore, and it may have been of Lundenwic-rather than of London-that Bede spoke when he described it as situated “on the banks of the Thames … a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea.”

Documents dated 673-85 are concerned with the trade regulations to be observed by the men of Kent when they barter in Lundenwic. Gold coins stamped “LONDUNIU” were being used in the same period, so that there was no necessary disparity between administrative London and commercial Lundenwic. Similarly a continual process of assimilation and absorption was maintained between erstwhile Britons and Saxon settlers, achieved by intermarriage and peaceful commerce. The evidence for this lies in the most reliable of sources, language itself, since many old British words are to be found in “Saxon” English. Among them are “basket,” “button,” “coat,” “gown,” “wicket” and “wire,” so it can be surmised that skill in textile and wicker-work can best be attributed to the Britons. Another English word testifies to the mixed nature of London: the name Walbrook is derived from Weala broc, “brook of the Welsh,” which suggests that there was still a defined quarter for the “old Britons” in their ancient city.

Bede had said that “Londuniu” was the capital of the East Saxons, but over the period of middle Saxon rule the city seems to have accepted the authority of any king who was dominant within the region-among them kings of Kent, Wessex and Mercia. It might almost be regarded as the commercial reward for any successful leader, together with the fact that the walled city was also the traditional seat of authority. Given this changing pattern of sovereignty, however, it is not perhaps surprising that the main source of continuity lay within the Christian Church. In 601, four years after the arrival of Augustine, Pope Gregory proclaimed London to be the principal bishopric in all Britain; three years later Ethelbert of Kent erected the cathedral church of St. Paul’s. There follows a bare chronicle of ecclesiastical administration. In the year when St. Paul’s was erected Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated Mellitus as bishop of London; the citizens then formally became Christian but, thirteen years later, Mellitus was expelled after a change of royal rule. The innate paganism of London, for a while, reasserted itself before being eventually restored to the Roman communion.


And then came the Danes. They had plundered Lindisfarne and Jarrow before turning their attention to the south. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 842 there was “great slaughter in London,” a battle in which the Vikings were beaten back. Nine years later they returned and, having pillaged Canterbury, sailed up the Thames and with a fleet of 350 ships fell upon London. The city wall along the river may well have been already in ruinous condition but, even if the Saxons had been able to mend it, the defences were not enough to withstand the army of invaders. London was entered and pillaged. Many of the citizens may already have fled; those who remained were put to the sword, if Viking custom was followed, and their huts or shops consigned to the flame. Some historians have considered that the events of 851 marked a decisive moment in London’s history, but this is perhaps to misunderstand the nature of a city which is perpetually rising from flame and ruin. Indeed it has been defined throughout its history by such resurrections.

The invaders returned sixteen years later. Their great army moved through Mercia and East Anglia intent upon capturing Wessex; in 872 they built a camp near London, no doubt to protect their warships along the river, and it seems likely that their purpose was to control London and the Thames basin in order to exact tribute from neighbouring kingdoms. Certainly they occupied the city itself, which was used as a military garrison and storage base. Here they remained for fourteen years. This was not a bare ruined city, therefore, as some have suggested, but once more a busy centre of administration and supply. The Norse commander, Halfdere, minted his own silver coinage which, interestingly enough, is based upon Roman originals. The tradition of literal money-making in London had been preserved since that distant period, testifying once again to the organic continuity of its financial life. Coins were minted in London for Alfred, in his role as client king of Wessex. The native inhabitants may not have been as fortunate as Alfred; from the evidence of coin hoards buried in the first year of Norse occupation, the richer citizens ran for their lives along with every other Englishman who was able to flee.

Then, in 883, Alfred engaged in some form of siege, mustering an English army outside the walls of the city. London was the great prize, and three years later Alfred obtained it. It was, in fact, in the city itself that his sovereignty over the whole region was formally advertised, when “all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him.” London was still the emblem of power, in other words, even after its occupation by the Norsemen. The Danes sued for peace and were allocated territory to the east of the River Lea. London became a frontier town, therefore, and Alfred initiated a scheme of resettlement and fortification. The walls were restored, the quays rebuilt, and all the activities of Lundenwic brought within the defences of the revived city; it is at this point that Lundenwic passes into history as Aldwych, or “old market-town.”

London had once more become new, since Alfred instituted a scheme of works which might qualify as an early attempt at city planning. He built a road, just within the walls, from Aldgate to Ludgate; the outline of it still exists in the streets of the modern City. The alignments of new streets were plotted close to the wharves of Queenhithe and Billingsgate. He re-established London and rendered it habitable.

Certainly the city was powerful and formidable enough to withstand Viking assaults in succeeding years; the burgwara, or citizens, even marched out against them in 893 and 895. On that later occasion Londoners sallied forth to destroy or plunder the enemy ships. The fact that the Vikings were unable to retaliate against London suggests the effectiveness of its defences.

The restoration of London’s life and power might not have been all of Alfred’s doing, although his native genius as a planner of cities suggests that he played a prominent role. He had given lordship of London to his son-in-law, Ethelred, and had granted lands within the walls to religious and secular magnates. There then grew up that curious division or subdivision of land which is manifest today in the various wards and parishes of the City. An area of London ground might have been defined by streams, or by the course of Roman remains, but once apportioned to an English lord or bishop it became his especial soke or territory. Churches, of wood or of limestone and sandstone, were erected to bless and protect each well-defined area of London’s earth; these sacred edifices in turn became the focal point for small communities of tradesmen, artificers and others.

The early tenth century was a period of peace, although the citizen army of London assisted Alfred in his efforts to free those British regions still held under the Danelaw. The historical records describe only the succession of Mercian kings to the overlordship of London. In 961 there was a great fire, succeeded by an outbreak of plague fever; the cathedral church of St. Paul’s was destroyed in the conflagration, and once more we witness the periodic fate and fatality of the city. There was another great fire twenty-one years later, and in the same year three Viking ships attacked the coast of Dorset. The succeeding years were marked by a series of Viking attacks upon the prosperous city; no doubt the London Mint, with its reserves of silver, was a particular attraction. But the defences, restored by Alfred, were strong enough to withstand a number of incursions; in 994 the Danes sent a force of ninety-five ships into the Thames in order to blockade and assault the city, but they were driven back by London’s army. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these citizens visited upon the Danes “more slaughter and harm than they ever supposed that townsmen could inflict.” It is important to recognise, in the course of these battles and sieges, that London itself had acquired its own army and therefore a measure of independent power; it possessed the characteristics of a kingdom or a sovereign state which, for many centuries, it never wholly lost.

So the soldiers of London continually resisted the Danes, and there are records of them seizing the alien ships and rowing them back to the city. They marched to Oxford to assist their countrymen and, although the Viking raids occasionally swept within the vicinity of their walls, the city stood firm. Indeed London still maintained its position as a flourishing port, and in 1001 an Icelandic poet recorded his impressions of the quayside where merchants from Rouen, Flanders, Normandy, Liège and other regions paid a fixed toll upon their goods; they brought in wool, and cloth, and planks, and fish, and melted fat; a small ship paid a toll of one halfpenny, and in turn the mariners bought pigs and sheep for their journey homewards.

In 1013 the Danish leader, Sweyn, commanded a full invasion force of Scandinavian warriors and marched upon London “because therein was King Aethelred.” The “citizens would not yield,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “but resisted with full battle.” It was not enough, however, and after a long siege they surrendered their city to the Danes. The reigning monarch fled but in the following year he returned with a most unlikely ally, Olaf of Norway. Olaf’s Norsemen manoeuvred their ships close to London Bridge, tied them to its wooden piles with ropes and cables, then, assisted by the tide, strained at the wooden supports until they were dislodged and the bridge itself fell into the Thames: a notorious episode in the history of that great thoroughfare. In recent years iron axes and swords have been found at this point in the river. An Icelandic saga suggests that “the citizens, seeing their river occupied by the enemy’s navy so as to cut off all intercourse that way with the interior provinces, were seized with fear.” Since they were being relieved of a temporary and alien king this is perhaps open to debate, but the loss of the bridge was indeed a serious impediment to commerce and communications. Yet the saga ends happily, or at least with an encomium-“And thou hast overthrown their bridges, oh! thou storm of the sons of Odin! skilful and foremost in the battle. For thee it was happily reserved to possess the land of London’s winding city.” Olaf himself was eventually beatified, and in London were erected six churches to venerate his memory, one by the southeastern corner of the bridge which he had once destroyed. St. Olave in Hart Street, where Samuel Pepys worshipped, still stands.

During the next three years the English and the Norse were engaged in a series of sieges and battles and assaults; in this protracted warfare London remained the single most important site of power and authority. After the death of Aethelred in 1016, “all the councillors who were in London and the citizens chose Edmund as king,” again according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which suggests that there was some kind of folkmoot where the king was chosen and saluted. When Cnut eventually won the crown in 1016 he extracted tribute from the whole nation, but London was obliged to render one-eighth of the entire amount.

Meanwhile, a Danish population, trading peacefully, settled outside the walls in the area once occupied by the Saxons. The church of St. Clement Danes, at the mouth of the Strand, marks the site of their occupation; it is even possible that a tribal community of Danes had lived and worked here for several generations, but it was in the time of Cnut that the wooden church was turned to stone. It is also believed to be the burial place of Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut, and there is a runic monument which proclaims the fact that three Danish leaders also “lie in Luntunum.” So once more we have evidence of a flourishing market-centre dependent upon the walled city. William of Malmesbury suggests that “the citizens of London,” after long familiarity with the Danes, “had almost entirely adopted their customs”; this suggests a renewed history of assimilation.

One custom was thoroughly absorbed. There was once a stone cross close by the church of St. Clement Danes, which marked a place of power and ritual. Here an open court assembled, and it was “at the Stone Cross” that manorial dues were paid; for one piece of land in the vicinity, payment was given in horseshoes and iron nails. It is sometimes believed that this is an obscure remembrance of a pagan rite, but it has also become a modern one. In the early twenty-first century there is still a ritual of presenting six horseshoes and sixty-one hobnails in the Court of Exchequer, within the Law Courts close to the site of the old cross itself, as part of rent due to the Crown.


So the Danes, and the Londoners, flourished during a period in which the historical narratives record only the actions of “the citizens of London” or “the army of London” as an independent and effectively self-governing community. When the pale-skinned and devout Edward (afterwards “the Confessor”) was anointed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “all men chose him for king in London.” A legal statute in fact defined London “qui caput est regni et legum, semper curia domini regis” as the source of law and royal rule.


CHAPTER 3. Holy! Holy! Holy!

<p>CHAPTER 3. Holy! Holy! Holy!</p>

Edward the Confessor left a memorial more enduring than his family’s fortunes; he retired to a palace, and established a monastery, in Westminster.

There had been a church there since the second century, but London antiquarians have suggested that there was once a pagan shrine to Apollo on the same site. Certainly a Roman sarcophagus, and a section of floor mosaic, have been found in the immediate vicinity. It was an area of great importance, in any case, since Westminster-or more particularly Thorney Island upon which Parliament and the abbey now rest-marked the spot where the road from Dover was united with Watling Street which proceeded northward. At low tide it was possible to cross the river here, and to ride along the great Roman ways. Yet topography is not simply a matter of road alignments. Tothill Fields beside Westminster was part of a ritualised area of power and worship; a document of 785 describes it as “that terrible place which is known as Westminster,” “terrible,” in this context, meaning sacred or holy terror.

It is not inappropriate, therefore, that the founding of Westminster Abbey is enwrapped in dreams and visions. The night before the hallowing of the first Saxon church here, in the seventh century, St. Peter himself appeared to a fisherman and was ferried across the river from Lambeth; the venerable figure crossed the threshold of the new church and all at once it was illuminated by a light brighter than a thousand candles. So began the history of the church of St. Peter. Edward the Confessor was in turn granted a dream, or vision, which persuaded him to build a great abbey. It became the repository of sand from Mount Sinai and earth from Calvary, a beam from the holy manger of Jesus and pieces of his cross, blood from Christ’s side and milk from the Virgin Mary, a finger from St. Paul and hair from St. Peter. Almost a thousand years later, in this place, William Blake was granted a vision of monks chanting and proceeding down the central aisle. A century before the poet’s sighting, Edward the Confessor also reappeared: a chorister came upon the broken coffin of the venerable king and drew from it a skull. So the sainted king had turned into a death’s head. It is perhaps an appropriate story for an abbey which has become London’s city of the dead, where the generations of kings and leaders and poets lie in silent communion as a token of that great mystery where past and present are mingled together. It is the mystery, and history, of London.


West Smithfield, after the foundation of St. Bartholomew-the-Great in the early twelfth century, witnessed as many miracles as any similar plot in Rome or Jerusalem. Edward the Confessor, in a prophetic dream, was informed that Smithfield had already been chosen by God as a place for his worship; Edward journeyed there the next morning and foretold that the ground should be a witness to God. In the same period three men from Greece came on pilgrimage to London, for already it had the renown of a sacred city; they approached Smithfield and, falling prostrate upon the ground, prophesied that there would be constructed a temple which “shall reach from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof.”

“The Book of the Foundation” of that great church of St. Bartholomew, from which these words are taken, was written in the twelfth century; it has much material for contemplation, but it also contains evidence relating to the piety of London and of Londoners. The founder of the church, Rahere, was on a journey in Italy when in a dream he was taken up by a beast with four feet and two wings to a “high place” where St. Bartholomew appeared to him and addressed him: “I, by the will and command of all the High Trinity, and with the common favour and counsel of the court of heaven, have chosen a spot in the suburb of London at Smithfield.” Rahere was to erect there a tabernacle of the Lamb. So he journeyed to the city where, in conversation with “some barons of London,” it was explained that “the place divinely shown to him was contained within the king’s market, on which it was lawful neither for the princes themselves nor for the wardens of their own authority to encroach to any extent whatever.” So Rahere sought an audience of Henry I in order to explain his divine mission to the city; the king graciously gave Rahere title to the spot which was at that time “a very small cemetery.”

Rahere then “made himself a fool” in order to recruit assistants in the great work of building. He “won to himself bands of children and servants, and by their help he easily began to collect together stones.” These stones came from many parts of London, and in that sense the narrative of construction is a true representation of the fact that St. Bartholomew’s was a collective work and vision of the city; it became, in literal form, its microcosm.

So the church rose, and many priests gathered to live “under regular rule” with the founder as prior. Beginning with its first foundation, when “a light sent from heaven gleamed over the church and remained over it for the space of an hour,” there were so many miraculous events within its walls that the chronicler declares that he will mention only those which he himself has witnessed. Wolmer, a cripple who supported himself “on two little stools he dragged behind him,” was carried to St. Bartholomew’s in a basket and, falling before the altar, was healed. A “certain woman of the parish of St. John” had her “enfeebled” limbs cured, and Wymonde that was dumb began to speak. Many of these miracles occurred on the day of the Feast of St. Bartholomew, so there was a continual awareness of sacred time in the city as well as sacred place. Miraculous cures were also performed in the “hospital of the church,” now St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. So St. Bartholomew’s is a temple of the holy spirit which has endured for almost nine hundred years.

When some citizens of London were on a long voyage to “the remote ends of the world,” they were threatened with shipwreck; but they comforted each other with the words: “what do we with little faith fear who have the good Bartholomew, the accomplisher of so many great marvels, set nigh to us in London? … He will not hide the bowels of his mercy from his fellow citizens.” In the oratory of the church was “an altar hallowed to the honour of the most blessed and perpetual Virgin Mary”; here the Virgin appeared to one lay brother and declared: “I will receive their prayers and vows and will grant them mercy and blessing for ever.”

That oratory survives still, but it is by no means an object of pilgrimage. St. Bartholomew’s Church is now largely ignored, set back from the circular road which connects the meat market to the hospital and which forms the perimeter of the old Bartholomew Fair. Yet Bartholomew himself might still be considered as one of the sacred guardians of the city and, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are ten streets or roads which bear his name.

London was once a holy city, therefore, and of Smithfield we read: “Awful, therefore, is this place to him that understands, here is nothing else but the house of God and the gate of heaven to him that believes.” This invocation is echoed by other visionaries and mystics of London; here, in the very grimy and malodorous streets of the city, the “gate of heaven” can be opened.


There are in London many holy wells of healing, although most were long ago filled in or demolished. The ancient well of St. Clement lies beneath the Law Courts; Chad’s Well is buried beneath St. Chad’s Street. The well of Barnet was covered first by a workhouse and then by a hospital, so its air of healing was not thoroughly dispelled; in the same spirit the curiously named but efficacious Perilous Pond lay beside St. Luke’s Hospital in Old Street. A healing well that was guarded by monks, near Cripplegate, is still recalled by the name of Monkwell Street, while Black Mary’s Well has been transformed into the area still known as Bagnigge Wells beside Farringdon Road. The only ancient well still to be seen is the Clerk’s Well, now protected by a glass window a few yards north of Clerkenwell Green: here for many centuries were staged miracle plays as well as more secular bouts of wrestling and jousting. The holy well of Shoreditch-commemorated by Holy Well Row and Holy Well Lane-marks the site of one of the first English theatres, erected in 1576 by James Burbage, more than twenty years before the Globe. Sadler’s Well was also a pleasure garden and, later, a theatre. So the holy spirit of the wells, in a fashion appropriate to London, turned into theatre.

Hermits were often chosen to be the guardians of the wells, but their principal stewardship was of the gates and crossroads of the city. They collected the tolls, and dwelt in the very bastions of London Wall. In a sense, then, they were the protectors of London itself, professing by their vocation that this was a city of God as well as a city of men. This was the theory, at least, but it is clear that many were hermits by device rather than by profession; the author of Piers the Plowman, William Langland, condemned them as “Grete lobyes and longe that loth were to swynke” or impostors who were simply unwilling to work. In 1412, for example, William Blakeney was convicted at the Guildhall for going about “barefooted and with long hair, under the guise of sanctity.” Nevertheless the picture of London surrounded, as it were, with hermits who lived in their small stone oratories keeping vigils and reciting orisons is an arresting one.

The figure of the hermit has another significance also; the stories of the city, throughout the centuries, have been filled with lonely and isolated people who feel their solitude more intensely within the busy life of the streets. They are what George Gissing called the anchorites of daily life, who return unhappy to their solitary rooms. The early city hermits may therefore be regarded as an apt symbol for the way of life of many Londoners. An extension of that hermitic spirit can be traced in the four churches of St. Botolph, which guarded four of the city’s gates; Botolph was a seventh-century Saxon hermit, who was especially associated with travellers. So the wanderer and the interior exile are seen as part of the same short pilgrimage among the streets of London.

But those streets can also be filled with prayer. There was in Marylebone, before the redevelopment of Lisson Grove, a Paradise Street approached by Grotto Passage; in the immediate vicinity were Vigil Place and Chapel Street. Perhaps here we have evidence of an ancient hermitage, or sacred spot, linking the city to eternity. In the immediate vicinity of St. Paul’s are to be found Pater Noster Row, Ave Maria Lane, Amen Court and Creed Lane: here we may usefully imagine a procession through various streets in which particular prayers or responses were chanted. So the old churches of London maintain their ancient presence and seem periodically to relive their histories.

That is why the area around St. Pancras Old Church, for example, still remains desolate and dreary. It has always been an isolated and somewhat mysterious place-“Walk not there too late,” counselled one Elizabethan topographer. It is the traditional terminus for murderers, suicides and those who were killed while fighting duels at Chalk Farm, but no true resting place: the corpses are continually being dug up and reburied. The last great removal occurred in 1863 when the railway lines of St. Pancras Station were laid through the site. The tombstones were placed against a great tree, the roots of which curl among them; from a distance it would seem that the headstones are indeed the fruit of that tree, ripe and ready to be gathered. Among these ancient memorials will be some to the Catholic dead; it was for them a holy place. St. Pancras is believed to be the first Christian church in England, established by Augustine himself, and is reported to contain the last bell which was able to toll during the Mass. Pancras has therefore been construed as Pangrace; a more likely derivation, associated with the saintly boy named Pancras, is Pan Crucis or Pan Cross-the monogram or symbol of Christ himself. So we have a Vatican historian, Maximilian Misson, asserting that “St. Pancras under Highgate, near London … is the Head and Mother of all Christian Churches.” Who could imagine the source of such power in the wasteland north of King’s Cross Station?

It has its bells, like the other London churches. The bells of St. Stephen, Rochester Row, were named “Blessing,” “Glory,” “Wisdom,” “Thanksgiving,” “Honour,” “Power,” “Might” and “Be Unto Our God For Ever and Ever Amen Alleluiah.”

We do not necessarily need the evidence of the famous nursery rhyme to realise that the bells were a familiar and friendly presence in the life of Londoners:

You owe me five farthings,

Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me,

Say the bells at Old Bailey.

In 1994 the Meteorological Office reported that, before the sound of motorcars entered the already crowded streets, the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside “would have been audible all over London.” In a true sense, then, every Londoner was a Cockney. Yet the East End may lay an especial claim to that honorific, perhaps, since the oldest business in that area is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which was established in the fifteenth century. Citizens used to bet which parish could make its bells heard at the greatest distance and it was said that bell-ringing was a salutary way of keeping warm in winter. It was sometimes surmised that at the Last Judgement the angels would peal the bells of London, rather than sound their trumpets, in order to convince the citizens that the day of doom had truly arrived. The bells were part of the sound and texture of its life. When the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984 recalls the famous song with its mention of St. Clement’s and St. Martin’s, Bow and Shoreditch, he seems to “hear the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten.” Some of the bells of that lost London can still be heard.


The Early Middle Ages

CHAPTER 4. You Be All Law Worthy

<p>The Early Middle Ages</p>

A map of London, drawn by chronicler and illuminator Matthew Paris in 1252; it shows the Tower, St. Paul’s and Westminster.

<p>CHAPTER 4. You Be All Law Worthy</p>

In the last month of 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, marched down St. Giles High Street before turning south to Westminster. He had already savaged Southwark and now intended to lay siege to London Wall by Ludgate, which was then the principal entrance to the city. It was commonly said at the time that London “neither fears enemies nor dreads being taken by storm” because of its defences but, in fact, after some form of secret treaty or negotiations, certain Saxon nobles opened the gate. William’s troops made their way to St. Paul’s and Cheapside but then “in platea urbis”-an open space or wide street-they were attacked by a group, or perhaps even an army, of citizens who refused to countenance the entry of the foreign leader. A late eleventh-century chronicler, William of Jumieges, records that the Norman forces at once “engaged them in battle, causing no little mourning to the City because of the very many deaths of her own sons and citizens.” Eventually the Londoners capitulated. But their action demonstrates that they considered themselves to dwell in an independent city which could withstand foreign invasion. On this occasion they were mistaken, but for the next three hundred years Londoners would assert their sovereignty as members of a city-state.

The Battle of London, however, was over. Eleven bodies have recently been recovered just south-west of Ludgate, with some suggestion that they had been dismembered, while a hoard of several thousand coins of that period was found by the Walbrook.

The new monarch’s primary task was to subjugate the city. Work began on three military stockades at various points on the perimeter wall-Montfichet Tower, Baynard’s Castle and against the south-east section of the Wall, a structure that has since become known as the “Tower of London.” But the Tower never belonged to London and was considered by the citizens to be an affront or threat to their liberty. In The Making of London, Sir Laurence Gomme contemplates their displeasure when “they heard the taunts of the people who said that these walls had been built as an insult to them, and that if any one of them should dare to contend for the liberty of the city he would be shut up in them and consigned to imprisonment.”

After a great fire in 1077 which, like its predecessors, seems to have devastated much of the city, a stone tower was built in place of the original fortification; it took more than twenty years to complete, and pressed labour from the neighbouring shires was used in its construction. It was called the White Tower, and rose some ninety feet in the air to emphasise its power over the city. Elaborate rituals were drawn up in order to formalise the presence of London’s leaders in the Tower for judicial or administrative purposes, but it remained outside their jurisdiction. Built of alien material, cream-coloured Caen stone from Normandy, it was a visible token of foreign rule.

William was also graciously pleased to grant a “Charter” to London, on a tiny parchment less than six inches in length. It is written in Anglo-Saxon and French. Addressed to “the chiefs of the city” it granted to London “rights” that the city already possessed and had had since the days of Roman domination. “I do you to know that I will that you be all law worthy that were in King Edward’s day,” runs the translation. “And I will that every child be his father’s heir after his father’s day. And I will not endure that any man offer any wrong to you. God keep you.”

It may seem innocuous but, as Gomme suggests in The Governance of London, it represents “an entirely new constitutional factor in the history of London.” Londoners were to be allowed to live under the rule of law that the city itself had established. The king was asserting his sovereignty over the ancient governance of London.

William had, however, recognised the one central fact-that this city was the key both to his own fortunes and to those of the country he had conquered. That is why he had inaugurated the transition of London from the status of an independent city-state to that nation’s capital. In 1086 the Domesday Survey left London uninspected, no doubt on the ground that the complex financial and commercial activity within the city could not usefully be considered as part of the king’s revenue. At the same time the Norman king and his successors initiated an inspired plan of public works in order to emphasise the central place of London in the new politics. The cathedral of St. Paul was rebuilt and William’s successor, his son William Rufus, began the construction of Westminster Hall; a number of monastic houses and nunneries, together with priories and hospitals, were also erected in this period so that London and its environs were the site of prolonged and continual construction. The building and rebuilding, have been maintained ever since. The area around the Roman amphitheatre, for example, was cleared in the early twelfth century. In the same area the first guildhall was completed by 1127, and a second built in the early fifteenth century.


The earliest form of public administration was the folkmoot, which met three times a year, in the Roman amphitheatre and then latterly by St. Paul’s Cross. There was also a more formal court, known as the hustings. These institutions were of the greatest antiquity, dating to Saxon and Danish times when the city was autonomous and self-governing. The territorial divisions of London, still in existence, were also of very early date. By the eleventh century the principal unit of territory had become the ward, which was led and represented by an alderman. The ward was more than a collection of citizens administering their own streets and shops; it was also a unit of defence and attack, with a midsummer inspection when, according to an official document dating from the reign of Henry VIII, “ev’y alderman by hymself musteryd hys owne warde yn the fields, vewyng theym in harnes and sawe that ev’y man had a sworde and a dagger and suche as were not meate to be archars were turnyd to pykes.” As late as the fourteenth century a clerk could term London a respublica, and in this account of a carefully marshalled citizen army it is possible to trace the force and antiquity of the republican ideal.

But if the ward boundaries were the most significant within the city, they were not necessarily the most distinctive. Beneath the ward were the precincts with their own assemblies, and below them the individual parishes with their self-governing vestries. The city embodied a series of intricately related authorities, and that network of affiliations and interests has materially affected its life. Throughout the nineteenth century, for example, there were continual complaints about the rigidity and stubbornness of the city authorities. This resistance to change was the legacy of a thousand years, affecting and obscuring the capital as powerfully as its coal-smoke and its fog. It is also the setting in which succeeding events are best understood.


William the Conqueror’s successor, William Rufus, was characterised by his attempt to impose ever more extortionate taxes and dues and tolls on the citizens. In his struggles with the Norman barons ensconced in England, it was also Rufus’s custom to send prisoners to be executed in London; it was a token of its role as capital, perhaps, but also of the king’s authority.

After the death of Rufus in 1100, his brother, Henry I, hastened to the city in order to be acclaimed as the new sovereign. The records of his reign include a list of aldermen, from 1127, which displays so comprehensive a mixture of English and French names that a thoroughly ordered and working association between citizens who were now properly “Londoners” can be assumed. In fact the study of the names of Londoners becomes of extreme interest and significance in this period, as Old English names are gradually supplanted by those of French origin. Surnames were by no means universal, but were attached to a person because of locality or occupation-Godwinus Baker was thus distinguished from Godwin Ladubur (moneyer) and Godwyn Turk (fishmonger) or Godwinne Worstede (mercer) and Godwynne Sall (hatter). Other citizens were identified by patronymics or, more commonly, by nicknames. Edwin Atter’s name meant Edwin of the sharp tongue while Robert Badding’s implied an effeminate man; Hugh Fleg was “wide awake,” Johannes Flocc had woolly hair, John Godale sold good ale while Thomas Gotsaul was honest.

Even as they associated with each other in trade and commerce, however, the relationship of the citizens with the king became more problematic. For him, the city was predominantly a place to be “farmed” for revenue; the reason why Henry rarely interfered in the life of London was simply that he needed it to prosper in order to benefit from its wealth.

After Henry’s death in 1135, the dynastic struggles of the various claimants to the throne were directly affected by the loyalties and allegiances of Londoners; Henry’s nephew Stephen, Count of Blois, claiming the right of succession, promptly “came to London, and the London folk received him … and hallowed him king on midwinter day.” So says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and another ancient source adds that the “Alderman and wise folk gathered together the folkmoot, and there providing at their own will for the good of the realm unanimously resolved to choose a king.” The citizens of London had, in other words, formally elected a king for the entire country. It is not clear what Stephen promised or granted the city, in return, but from this time forward it takes the first place in national affairs with a degree of independence which suggests that London is almost self-governing.

The coronation of Stephen, however, was not in itself enough. The landing in 1139 of his rival, Henry’s daughter the Empress Matilda, and his own capture at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, meant that London was forced to choose again. A great conference was held at Winchester in order to consider the royal claims of Matilda, and a speech in her favour by Stephen’s own brother was concluded with the following significant remarks: “We have despatched messengers for the Londoners, who, from the importance of their city in England, are almost nobles, as it were, to meet us on this business; and have sent them a safe-conduct.” They arrived on the following day, saying that they had been sent a communione quam vocant Londoniarum-“from the community, or commune, of London.” This testimony from William of Malmesbury is the clearest possible evidence of the city’s significance. As the nation divided in baronial wars, London had ceased to be a capital and had once again become a city-state. The events of Matilda’s short subsequent reign reinforce this impression. She tried to curb the power of London and unwisely demanded money from its richest citizens. That is why, when Stephen’s own queen, Maud, approached London, its inhabitants rushed into the streets, according to Gesta Stephani, with weapons “like thronging swarms from beehives” in order to support her. Matilda fled from the irate citizenry, and never regained the throne.

A proviso must be entered here, if only to dispel the impression of thorough independence. When the national policy was disrupted by dynastic struggle, then London naturally took the lead. But in a peaceful well-ordered kingdom the citizens, equally naturally, accepted the authority of the sovereign. So it was that the reign of Henry II, Matilda’s son and Stephen’s successor, marked a slight diminution of the city’s authority. In his charter the king granted to Londoners “all their liberties and free customs which they had in the time of Henry my grandfather,” but the royal sheriffs conducted much of the administration under the king’s direct control.

The murder of Thomas à Becket in the winter of 1170 at Canterbury, for example, ought to have been a matter for Londoners. The archbishop was known to his contemporaries as “Thomas of London” and for many centuries he was the only Londoner to be canonised; his theatricality and flamboyance were also characteristic of the city. But there is no evidence of any popular support for his cause among Londoners. Perhaps he is one of those striking figures in the city’s history who move beyond their immediate context into eternity.


Yet it was Becket’s own twelfth-century biographer, William Fitz-Stephen, who celebrated the more earthly values of the city in that period. His account is written in the new style of urban encomia, since the formation of flourishing cities and the conduct of their citizens were then at the centre of European debate, but Fitz-Stephen’s depiction is nevertheless remarkable for its enthusiasm. It is also highly significant as the first general description of London.

He describes the sound or “clatter” of the mills, turned by streams in the meadows of Finsbury and Moorgate, as well as the shouts and cries of the market vendors who “have each their separate station, which they take every morning.” There were many wine shops close by the Thames, to accommodate the local artisans as well as traders who came to the docks; there was also a large “public eating-house,” where servants could purchase bread and meat for their masters or where the local vendors could sit and eat. Fitz-Stephen also depicts the “high and thick wall” which surrounded and protected all this activity, with its seven double gates and northern towers; there was also a great fortress to the east, “the mortar used in the building being tempered with the blood of beasts,” and two “strongly fortified” castles on the western side. Beyond the walls were gardens and vineyards, the mansions of the noble and the powerful interspersed among them. These great houses were generally in the western suburbs, where Holborn is now situated, while to the north were meadows and pastures which bordered upon “an immense forest” of which Hampstead and Highgate are the only remnants. Just beyond the city wall, on the north-western side, was a “smooth-field” now known as Smithfield where horses were sold every Friday. In paddocks close by, oxen and pigs were also slaughtered and sold. The same activity had taken place in precisely the same area for almost a thousand years.

Fitz-Stephen’s account is distinctive for the emphasis he lays upon the energy, combativeness and vivacity of the citizens. There were games of football every evening in the fields outside the city, when the young men were watched and cheered by their teachers, parents or fellow apprentices; upon each Sunday, at the same time, there were games of combat when they rode against one another “with lances and shields.” Even in its sports London had a reputation as a violent city. At Easter a tree was fixed into the middle of the Thames with a target hung upon it; a boat was rowed hard against it, carrying a young man with a lance. If he missed the target he fell into the river, to the amusement of the spectators. In the coldest days of winter, when the marshland of Moorfields froze, the more sportive citizens would sit upon great blocks of ice, which were pulled along by their friends; others fashioned skates from the shin bones of animals. But again there was an element of competition and violence in their pursuit; they skated towards each other until “either one or both of them fall, not without some bodily hurt” and “very frequently the leg or arm of the falling party” was broken. Even the lessons and debates of schoolboys were characterised in combative terms, with a steady stream of “scoffs and sarcasms.” It was a world of bear-baiting and cock-fighting, somehow consonant with Fitz-Stephen’s report that London could raise an army of 80,000 men, a world of violence and laughter mingled with what Fitz-Stephen terms “abundant wealth, extensive commerce, great grandeur and magnificence.” His is a portrait of a city celebrating its destiny.

It was a time, therefore, of prosperity and growth. The docks were expanding, as the waterfront was continually reclaimed and extended in order to accommodate the Flemings and the French and the Hanseatics as well as the merchants from Brabant and Rouen and Ponthieu; there was trade in fur, wool, wine, cloth, grain, timber, iron, salt, wax, dried fish and a hundred other commodities to feed, clothe and support an ever increasing population. Most of this population was itself busily engaged in commerce: the furriers of Walbrook, the goldsmiths of Guthrun’s Lane, the butchers of East Cheap, the shoe-makers of Cordwainer Street, the mercers in West Chepe, the fishmongers in Thames Street, the woodmongers of Billingsgate, the candlestick-makers of Lothbury, the ironmongers of Old Jewry, the cutlers of Pope’s Head Alley, the prayer-bead-makers of Paternoster Row, the vintners of Vintry, all of them involved in perpetual trade.

The city was indeed a much noisier place than it is now, filled with continual cries of porters and water-bearers as well as the general uproar of wagons and bells, of blacksmiths and pewterers beating out their wares, of porters and apprentices, of carpenters and coopers working alongside each other in the same small area of lanes and alleys. There was of course the smell as well as the noise, concocted from tanneries and breweries, slaughter-houses and vinegar-makers, cook-houses and dung-heaps as well as the ever flowing tide of refuse and water which ran down the middle of the narrower streets. All this created a miasma of deep odours which could not be dispersed by even the most violent wind. It was further enriched by the increased use of coal by brewers and bakers and metal-forgers.

Throughout this period, too, there was a continual process of building and rebuilding; not one part of the city was untouched by this expansion as new shops and “sleds” or covered markets, churches and monasteries, houses of stone and timber were constructed. When these layers of the city were excavated there lay revealed foundations of chalk and ragstone, chalk cesspits, arches of Reigate stone, building rubble, beechwood piles, oak timbers and threshold beams as well as the various impressions of walls, drains, floors, vaults, wells, rubbish-pits and stake holes. They were evidence of protracted and productive activity.

There was also constant activity in the “suburbs,” or fields just outside the walls. In the twelfth century the great priories of Clerkenwell and Smithfield, St. John and St. Bartholomew, were established, while in the succeeding century the religious houses of Austin Friars, St. Helen, St. Clare and Our Lady of Bethlehem were also founded. The church of St. Paul’s was rebuilt, and the monastic hospital of St. Mary Spital erected. The white friars and the black friars completed their great religious houses within twenty years of each other in the west of the city. This was the part of London in which there was the most heavy investment, with vacant land being sold on the promise of immediate development while buildings and tenancies were continually being subdivided into more profitable units. Yet the grandest work in all the rebuilding was that of London Bridge. It rose in stone and became the great highway of commerce and communication which has remained upon the same site for almost nine hundred years.

On either side of the southern entrance to that bridge, there now rear two griffins daubed in red and silver. They are the totems of the city, raised at all its entrances and thresholds, and are singularly appropriate. The griffin was the monster which protected gold mines and buried treasure; it has now flown out of classical mythology in order to guard the city of London. The presiding deity of this place has always been money. Thus did John Lydgate write of London in the fifteenth century: “lacking money I might not spede.” Alexander Pope repeated his sentiments in the eighteenth, invoking, “There, London’s voice: ‘Get Money, Money still!’”

“The only inconveniences of London,” Fitz-Stephen wrote, “are, the immoderate drinking of foolish persons, and the frequent fires.” In this he was prophetic as well as descriptive. Other observers at a slightly later date in the twelfth century, however, were more critical. One Yorkshire writer, Roger of Howden, reported that the sons of the wealthier citizens would assemble at night “in large gangs” in order to threaten or assault anyone who passed by. A monk from Winchester, Richard of Devizes, was more colourful in his condemnation: for him London was a place of evil and wrong-doing, filled with the worst elements of every race as well as native pimps and braggarts. He referred to the crowded eating houses and taverns, where dicing and gambling were customary. It is perhaps significant that he also mentioned theatrum, “the theatre,” which suggests that the London appetite for drama was already being satisfied in forms other than those of the mystery or miracle plays staged at Clerkenwell. (The “first” theatres of 1576, the Theatre and the Curtain, may well descend from lost originals.) The monk also provided an interesting survey of the city’s population, comprising in part “pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts.” They are joined by “quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes” in a panoply of urban life that would be celebrated, rather than condemned, in other centuries by writers as diverse as Johnson and Fielding, Congreve and Smollett. It is, in other words, the permanent condition of London.


William Fitz-Stephen noted that “The city is delightful indeed, when it has a good governor.” The word itself might be construed as “leader” or “master,” and has generally been taken to refer to the king. Yet in the years immediately succeeding his chronicle, the term is susceptible to other interpretations. There came a moment, in the last decade of the twelfth century, when it was shouted abroad that “Londoners shall have no king but their mayor!” This short-lived revolution was the direct consequence of a king’s absence on crusade in Palestine and Europe. Richard I had come to London for his coronation and was anointed on the first Sunday in September 1189 “that was marked unlucky in the calendar”; indeed it proved “very much so to the Jews in London, who were destroyed that day.” These cryptic words describe a mass slaughter-called by Richard of Devizes a “holocaust”-which has generally been scantily treated by historians. It has often been said that the principal culprits were those who owed money to the Jews, but it is hard to overestimate the savagery of the London mob; it represented a violent and ruthless society where the metaphor for the native population was that of bees swarming in angry clusters. The multitude are “busie Bees,” according to the sixteenth-century author of The Singularities of the City of London; their clamour, according to Thomas More in the same period, was “neyther loude nor distincke but as it were the sounde of a swarme of bees.” On this occasion the mob of bees stung the Jews and their families to death.

In the absence of the king on his religious wars, the leaders of London once more became the ascendant voice of England. The animus and will of Londoners were materially strengthened by the fact that Richard’s representative, William Longchamp, established himself in the Tower and began to erect new fortifications around it. It was a symbol of authority which was unwelcome. When Richard’s brother, John, aspired to the crown in 1191, the citizens of London assembled at a folkmoot in order to pronounce upon his claims; at this significant moment they agreed to accept him as king as long as he in turn recognised the inalienable right of London to form its own commune as a self-governing and self-elected city-state. To this John agreed. It was not a new title but for the first time it was accepted by the reigning monarch as a public organisation “to which all the nobles of the kingdom, and even the very bishops of that province, are compelled to swear.” These are the words of Richard of Devizes, who considered the new arrangement to be nothing other than a “tumor” or swelling-up of the people which could have no good consequences.

The connotations of the word “commune” are, from the French example, generally considered to be radical or revolutionary, but this particular revolution was instigated by the richest and most powerful of the London citizens. It was in fact, and in effect, a civic oligarchy comprising the most influential families-the Basings and the Rokesleys, the Fitz-Thedmars and the Fitz-Reiners-who styled themselves aristocrats or “optimates.” They were a governing elite who took advantage of the political situation in order to reassert the power and independence of the city which had been curtailed by the Norman kings. So we read in the great chronicle of the city, Liber Albus, that “the barons of the city of London shall choose for themselves each year a mayor from among themselves … provided always that when so elected he shall be presented unto his lordship the king, or in the king’s absence unto his justiciar.” Thus the mayor and his governing council of probi homines, the “honest men” of aldermanic rank, attained formal rank and dignity. The honour of becoming the first mayor of London goes to Henry Fitz-Ailwin of Londenstone, who remained in office for twenty-five years until his death in 1212.

It was not long after the authority of the mayor and commune was established that a sense of tradition entered the affairs of London: it is almost as if it had reacquired its history at the same time that its old powers were restored. Communal archives and records were deposited in the Guildhall, together with wills, charters and guild documents; from this period, too, issues a great spate of laws and mandates and ordinances. London had thereby acquired an administrative identity which animated such later bodies as the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London County Council of the nineteenth century as well as the Greater London Council of the twentieth. Here is the evidence of organic development which has not faded in time.

The administration of the city also began to demand the full-time employment of clerks, notaries and lawyers. An extraordinarily detailed code of civic legislation was established, and courts were instituted to deal with various misdemeanours. These courts also exercised general supervision over the condition of the city, such as the state of London Bridge and the creation of a water supply, with the various wards supervising matters of local sanitation, paving and lighting. The wards were also responsible for public safety as well as health, with twenty-six separate forces of police who were classified as “unpaid constables … beadles or bellmen, street keepers, or watchmen.” Extant records show that this was by no means a sinecure: we may estimate the population of London in the late twelfth century at approximately forty thousand, many of whom were not disposed to obey the precepts of authority and good order imposed by the optimates.

When in 1193 the citizens of London were asked to provide money for the ransom of the absent king, his brother’s brief rebellion having been effectively suppressed, there were many who resented the imposition. When Richard himself returned to London in the following year he was greeted with great ceremony, but then proceeded to milk the revenues of the city with methods ever more exacting; he is once supposed to have stated that “he would sell London if he could find a buyer,” which scarcely endeared him to the already hard-pressed citizens. It seems likely that those artisans and merchants beneath the level of the optimates carried the heaviest burden, and in 1196 a revolt of these Londoners was led by William Fitz-Osbert “of the long beard.” The beard was long but the rebellion was short. He seems to have had the support of a large number of citizens, and has been variously described as a demagogue and a defender of the poor. These are not in fact incompatible descriptions; but his insurrection was put down in a ruthless and violent manner which was entirely characteristic of the city. Fitz-Osbert sought sanctuary in St. Mary-le-Bow, on Cheapside, but the city authorities summarily removed him and hanged him with eight others at Smithfield in the sight of his erstwhile supporters. But the significance of the brief tumult was in the fact that a group of citizens had refused to obey the royal officials and merchant princes who controlled the city. It was the harbinger of necessary and inevitable change, as the population began to assert its own place in the general polity.

Yet the central area of tension, and possible conflict, still lay between city and king. The death of Richard I in 1199, and the elevation of John, did nothing to alleviate what seems to have been an instinctively anti-monarchical trend in London politics. It was the familiar story of the citizens being forced to pay increasing taxes or “tallage” to cover the king’s expenditure. The mayor and the most powerful citizens attempted to maintain a spirit of cooperation, if only because many of them were involved with the king’s household and would not necessarily benefit from his eclipse. But there was a growing disaffection within the commune. It would seem that King John, despite earlier promises, had abrogated certain rights and properties to himself, which prompted the thirteenth-century chronicler Matthew Paris to conclude that the citizens had almost turned into slaves. Yet the elective capacity of the folkmoot could still be asserted. In 1216 five wealthy Londoners gave 1,000 marks to the French prince, Louis, in order that he might travel to the city and be consecrated as king in place of John. The civic ritual of coronation proved unnecessary, however, when John died in the autumn of that year. London sent Louis home again, with more money, and welcomed the young Henry III, John’s nine-year-old son, as its rightful sovereign.


We may walk the streets of London during the long reign of Henry III (1216-72). There were great houses as well as hovels, fine stone churches against which were erected wooden stalls for passing trade. The contrast of fair and foul can be put in another context with the statistic that, out of forty thousand citizens, more than two thousand were forced to beg for alms. The richer merchants constructed halls and courtyards while the poorest shopkeepers might live and work in two rooms ten feet square; the more affluent citizens owned fine furniture and silver, while those of straiter means possessed only the simplest pottery and kitchen utensils together with the tools of their trade.

One examination of a murder, when a young man killed his wife with a knife, incidentally provides a household inventory of the “middling” sort. The unfortunate pair lived in a house of wooden construction with two rooms, one above the other, and a thatched roof. In the lower room which opened upon the street there were a folding table and two chairs, with the walls “hung about with kitchen utensils, tools and weapons.” Among them were a frying pan, an iron spit and eight brass pots. The upper room was reached by means of a ladder-here were a bed and mattress, with two pillows. A wooden chest held six blankets, eight linen sheets, nine tablecloths and a coverlet. Their clothes “which were laid in chests or hung upon the walls” consisted of three surcoats, one coat with a hood, two robes, another hood, a suit of leather armour and half a dozen aprons. There were a candlestick, two plates, some cushions, a green carpet, and curtains hung before the doors to keep out the draughts. There would also have been rushes on the floor, not included in any inventory. It was a small, but comfortable, residence.

Those in poorer situations lived in rooms built within tenements which could be found down the narrow alleys between wide thoroughfares. The upper floor of these small houses was known as the “solar,” which protruded into the street itself so that little of the sky could be seen between two overhanging solars. Many of the smaller houses had been built of wood with thatched roofs, still reflecting the appearance of Saxon or early Norman building; London retained in part the atmosphere of a much earlier city, with tribal or territorial connotations. Yet after the many fires that visited the city, particularly a great conflagration in 1212, ordinances compelled householders to build their walls of stone and their roofs of tiles. Broken tiles from this period have been found in cesspits, wells, cellars, rubbish dumps and the foundation stones of roads. So there was a general process of transition, not perfectly managed, in which new stone and old timber stood side by side.

The condition of the streets themselves can be ascertained from the extant documents of the period. In the pleas and memoranda of the Guildhall, for example, we read of the master of Ludgate putting dung into the Fleet to such an extent that the water was stopped in certain places; a common privy is “diffectif” and “the ordur therof rotith the stone wallys.” The taverners of St. Bride’s parish put their empty barrels, and slops, into the street “to nusauns of all folk ther passyng.” There were complaints about defective paving in Hosier Lane, while in Foster Lane the fourteen households had the habit of casting from their windows “ordure amp; vrine, the which annoyet alle the pepol of the warde.” The cooks of Bread Street were indicted for keeping “dung and garbage” under their stalls, while a great stream of “dong and water and other diverse filth” was known to pour down Trinity Lane and Cordwainer Street by Garlickhithe Street, and descend between the shops of John Hatherle and Richard Whitman before discharging itself into the Thames. A dung-hill in Watergate Street beside Bear Lane “is noyowse to all the commune people, kasting out in-to this lane ordour of Prevees and other orrible sightis.” There are reports of stinking fish and bad oysters, of common steps in disrepair and of thoroughfares being blocked up, of areas or “pryue places” where thieves and “money strumpettes” congregate.

But some of the best evidence for the condition of the streets comes in the many regulations which were, from the evidence of the courts, being continually flouted. Stallholders were supposed to set up their stands only in the middle of the street, between the two “kennels” or gutters on either side. In the narrower thoroughfares the kennel ran down the middle of the street, thus effectively forcing pedestrians to “take the wall.” The scavengers and rakers of each ward were ordered “to preserve, lower and raise the pavements, and to remove all nuisances of filth”; all such “filth” was taken by horse and cart down to the river where it was carried off in boats built for the purpose. Special arrangements were made for carting off the noisome stuff from the sites of butchery-the shambles, the Stocks Market and the market at East Cheap-but there were always complaints of foul odours. In More’s Utopia (1516) the killing of animals takes place outside the city walls; his pointed recommendation is evidence of the real disgust which many citizens felt about the proximity of this trade.

In the Liber Albus there are also instructions that pigs and dogs be not allowed to wander through the city; more curiously, perhaps, it was decreed that “barbers shall not place blood in their windows.” No citizen was allowed to carry a bow for firing stones, and no “courtesans” were permitted to dwell within the city walls. This last ordinance was persistently flouted. There were elaborate regulations about the building of houses and walls, with special provisions applied for neighbours’ disputes; once again the impression is of a close compacted town. In the same spirit of good order it was decreed that the owners of the larger houses should always possess a ladder and a barrel of water in case of fire; since it had been ordained that tile rather than thatch should be the standard material of the roofs, the aldermen of each ward had the power to come with a pole or hook in order to remove any offending straw.

It is indicative of the close watch kept upon all citizens that there were also regulations about private and social arrangements. Every aspect of life was covered by an elaborate network of law, ordinance and custom. No “stranger” was allowed to spend more than one day and a night in a citizen’s house, and no one might be harboured within a ward “unless he be of good repute.” No lepers were ever allowed within the city. No one was permitted to walk abroad “after forbidden hours”-that is, after the bells or curfew had been sounded-unless he or she wished to be arrested as a “night-walker.” It was also forbidden that “any person shall keep a tavern for wine or for ale after the curfew aforesaid … nor shall they have any persons therein, sleeping or sitting up; nor shall anyone receive persons into his house from out of a common tavern, by night or by day.”

The curfew itself was rung at nine o’clock in the summer months, earlier in the darkness of winter. When the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside rang curfew, followed by the bell of St. Martin’s, St. Laurence’s and St. Bride’s, the taverns were cleared, the apprentices left their work, the lights dimmed as rush or candle were put out, the gates of the city were locked and bolted. Some of these apprentices believed that the clerk of St. Mary-le-Bow kept them at work too long by ringing too late and, according to John Stow, a rhyme was issued against

Clerke of the Bow bell with the yellow lockes

For thy late ringing thy head shall have knocks.

To which the offending clerk responded:

Children of Cheape, hold you all still,

For you shall have the Bow bell rung at your will.

This exchange testifies to the close relationship between all the members of the city so that everyone, for example, knew the bell-ringer with yellow hair. But the most striking image is perhaps that of the dark and silent city, barricaded against the outer world.

That silence was sometimes punctuated by screams, shouts and cries. It was the citizens’ duty to “raise hue and cry” against any transgressor of the peace, for example, and any citizen “who comes not on such hue and cry raised” was heavily fined. London was a city where everyone was watching everyone else, for the sake of the spirit of the commune, and there are numerous reports of neighbours “crying shame” at the ill treatment of an apprentice or the abuse of a wife.

Yet it is to be expected that, in a mercantile culture, the greatest body of law should be concerned with commercial transactions. There are many hundreds of regulations in this period, controlling every aspect of trading life. It was ordered that the vendors of certain products like cheese and poultry “shall stand between the kennels in the market of Cornhulle so as to be a nuisance to no one” with other trades distributed in various sites in the city. No vendor could “buy any victuals for resale before prime rung at St. Paul’s.” From the twenty regulations applying to bakers alone, it might be noted that a baker of “tourte” or pan-baked bread was not permitted to sell white bread; every baker also was commanded to leave “the impression of his seal” upon each loaf of bread. It was decreed that “all kinds of fish brought into the City in closed baskets shall be as good at bottom of the basket as at the top,” and that “no stranger ought to buy of a stranger.”

Fishermen laboured under hundreds of regulations about what they could catch, how they could catch, and where they could catch; the size and mesh of their nets were carefully measured. There was also an elaborate system of tolls and taxes, so that “Every man who brings cheese or poultry if the same amounts to fourpence halfpenny shall pay one halfpenny. If a man on foot brings one hundred eggs or more he shall give five eggs. If a man or woman brings any manner of poultry by horse and lets it touch the ground” he or she will pay more. It was an intricate system but its purpose was simply to ensure that the inhabitants of the city were adequately fed and clothed. It attempted both to pre-empt the extortionate demands of those who bought and sold, and to protect the rights of the citizens to trade in the city at the expense of “aliens” or “strangers.” The regulations had a further primary purpose, in the efforts to systematise trading so that there was little possibility of false measures, adulterated food or shoddy manufactures.


It is in the context of this thriving, colourful and energetic city that we can trace specific events which reveal the dangerous condition of the streets. In court records of the period we read of unnamed beggar women collapsing and dying in the street, of occasional suicides and constant fatal accidents- “drowned in a ditch outside Aldersgate … fell into a tub of hot mash.” We learn that “A poor little woman named Alice was found drowned outside the City wall. No one is suspected … a certain Elias le Pourtour, who was carrying a load of cheese, fell dead in Bread Street … a girl of about eight years old was found dead in the churchyard of St. Mary Somerset. It was believed that she was thrown there by some prostitute. No one is suspected.” Suicide in this age of piety, was considered a token only of madness. Isabel de Pampesworth “hanged herself in a fit of insanity” in her house in Bread Street. Alice de Wanewyck “drowned herself in the port of Dowgate, being non compos mentis.” Drunkenness was general, and there are continual references to citizens falling from their solars to the ground, falling down steps into the Thames, falling off ladders. The reports of these, and other fatalities, are to be found in The London Eyre of 1244 edited by Chew and Weinbaum. Other incidents are redolent of the period. “A certain man named Turrock” was found dead but “it was found that three men were lying in the deceased’s bed when he died … and they are in mercy,” the last phrase denoting that they had been acquitted of any charge. In another instance “Roger struck Maud, Gilbert’s wife, with a hammer between the shoulders and Moses struck her in the face with the hilt of his sword, breaking many of her teeth. She lingered until the feast of St. Mary Magdalen, and then died.”

This litany of death and disaster highlights the crude violence of the city streets; tempers are short, and life is held very cheap. “Henry de Buk killed a certain Irishman, a tiler, with a knife in Fleet Bridge Street, and fled to the church of St. Mary Southwark. He acknowledged the deed, and … abjured the realm. He had no chattels.” The quarrel of three men in a tavern by Milk Street led to a fatality when one was attacked with an “Irish knife” and a “misericord,” a merciful knife which was meant to guarantee a quick exit from this life; the fatally wounded man reached the church of St. Peter in Cheapside, but none of the bystanders offered to assist him.

The various trade guilds openly fought against each other in the streets; a group of goldsmiths, for example, fell upon a saddler and proceeded to lay open his head with a sword, chop off his leg with an axe and generally belabour him with a staff; he died five days later. When apprentices of the law rioted by Aldersgate, a citizen “amused himself” by shooting into the crowd an arrow which killed an unfortunate bystander. A “love-day,” designed to reconcile the coppersmiths and ironsmiths, turned into a general and murderous riot. When a group of unruly men entered a tavern one of the customers enquired, “Who are these people?” and was promptly killed with a sword. There were continual fights in the street, ambushes and arguments over nothing-or over “goat’s wool” as it was known. Games of “dice” or “tables” frequently ended in drunken fights, while it is clear that some of the owners of dicing taverns were engaged in wholesale fraud. It is a curious but instructive fact that the officers of the ward or parish were quick to tend to the religious needs of the maimed or dying, but there were few attempts to administer any form of medical treatment by physician or barber-surgeon. The injured were generally left to recover, or die, as providence intended.

There were many assaults upon women; in the transcripts there are cases of female Londoners being beaten or kicked to death, or callously murdered in premeditated fashion. Lettice accused Richard of Norton, vintner, of “raping and deflowering her” but the case did not proceed to trial. Wife-beating was common and went largely unremarked; but the brutalised women themselves could then in turn become brutal. A drunken woman started howling out insults to certain builders who were working on the corner of Silver Street-she called them “tredekeiles,” which might be translated as “lousy slobs,” and promptly started a fight in which one man was stabbed in the heart. Women could also be exponents of justice, rough even by London standards: when a Breton murdered a widow in her bed, “women of the same parish come owte with stonys and canell dong, and there made an ende of hym in the hyghe strete.”

The aldermen and watch of each ward had other duties which cast an intriguing light upon the customs of medieval London. They were instructed, for example, to arrest anyone wearing a “visor or false face” in the streets; to be masked was to be considered a criminal. The Court Rolls suggest that they were also given power to remove the doors and windows from any house of dubious reputation; there is a record of their “entering the house of William Cok, butcher, in Cockes Lane and tearing away eleven doors and five windows with hammers and chisels.” It is significant that the name, trade and street of the offender are conflated in characteristic medieval manner; it is an indication of how one activity, in this case the slaughter of poultry, can imbue an entire area of the city. Other incidents may also be representative, although less violent. The watch arrested certain apprentices who had filled a barrel with stones and then rolled it downhill from Gracechurch Street to London Bridge “to the great terror of the neighbours.”

There were more salacious, or intimate, events noted in the judicial records of a slightly later date; in their striking immediacy we might almost be in the same chamber with these early Londoners. “Will’m Pegden saieth that one Morris Hore broughte one Cicell and the saide Colwell had the vse of the bodie of the saide Elizabeth and the saide Alice Daie burned [gave a venereal disease to] the saide Cicell … And then the saide Alice daie came vppe Imediatlie, and lepped vppon the bed amp; said Cicell with hir kissinge together, and laying hir legges so broade that a yoked sow might go betwene.”


The crimes could be egregious, but the punishments had a distinctively communal aspect. It has often been suggested that the officials of the medieval city were more lenient than their successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and there is a partial truth to this. Punishments such as amputation were often commuted. But the civic spirit could be violent indeed, at least when it was threatened, and there are many records of hanging or beheading for offences against the city’s peace. The fatal penalty was almost always imposed upon rebels and upon those offenders who had in some other way touched the king’s majesty; one man was hanged, for example, for tampering with the royal seal. The heads of rebels and traitors were boiled and placed upon London Bridge, sometimes adorned with a crown of ivy as a final theatrical touch in the drama of punishment. At times of tension or disorder within the city, also, the mayor and aldermen resorted to capital punishment as the most expeditious way of controlling the populace. Murder was always a hanging offence (except when committed by a woman who could prove herself to be pregnant) but, in more peaceful time, the prison and the pillory were the common remedies for crime. Walter Waldeskef was charged “with being addicted to playing knucklebones at night”; he was described in the report as “a night walker, well dressed and lavish of his money, though no one knew how he got his living.” In the year after his arrest he was stabbed in Lombard Street and died in the church of St. Swithin at Walbrook. Agnes de Bury was imprisoned “for selling old fur on Cornhill,” while Roger Wenlock was committed to prison “for selling beer at 2d a gallon.” John Mundy, baker, “was set vpon the pyllery in Cornhill for makyng and sellyng of false breed,” and in the same month Agnes Deynte was also put in the pillory for selling “false mengled buttur.” Many and various frauds were also detected and punished. One baker cut a hole upon his moulding board; when the customer brought in his dough to be cooked, part of it was removed by a member of the baker’s family crouched beneath the counter. In another instance a former servant of a law officer, dismissed, travelled to various taverns and pretended to confiscate ale; the good tavern wives paid him to leave them alone. Eventually he was caught, and placed in the pillory.

Some of the punishments were more exotic. Bawds and “whore-mongers” had their hair shaved, leaving a two-inch fringe upon the heads of men and a small clump upon the heads of women. They were taken to their respective pillories by minstrels, the female pillory being known as a “thew,” where they became the target of the honest citizens’ anger or high spirits. If a woman was found to be a prostitute “let her be taken from the prison unto Aldgate” while wearing a hood of striped cloth and carrying a white taper in her hand; the minstrels once more led her to the pillory and, after the ritual abuse, she was marched down Cheapside and through Newgate to take up guarded lodgings in Cock Lane by West Smithfield.

Those consigned to the pillory for fraudulent manufacture or for selling shoddy goods had the items of their trade burned before them. John Walter had sold false measures of coal; he was condemned to stand in the pillory for an hour “with his sakkis brent [burnt] under him.” The journey to this place of obloquy was accompanied by other diversions: the culprit sometimes was forced to ride backwards on a horse, the tail towards him, and crowned with a fool’s cap. When one priest was found in flagrante delicto he was paraded through the streets with his breeches down and his clerical robes carried before him. Sir Thomas de Turberville, traitor, was taken through the streets of London dressed in a striped coat and white shoes; he was tied to a horse while around him rode six officials dressed all in red as emblems of the devil. Punishment becomes a form of festivity; in a relatively small and enclosed city, it turns into a celebration of communal feeling.

Yet harshness-one might almost call it savagery-was never very far from the surface, and can best be exemplified by the destination for London criminals who were spared the pillory or the noose: Newgate. During the coroner’s inquests of 1315-16, sixty-two of the eighty-five corpses under investigation had been taken from Newgate Prison. That is why there were many desperate attempts to break out of what was, essentially, a house of death. On one occasion the prisoners forced their way on to the roof “and faught ageyn the Citizens and kept the gate a greate while,” reinforcing the point that it was Londoners themselves who were essentially their guards and captors. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that one of the first extant texts in London English, written in the middle of the thirteenth century, should be entitled “The Prisoner’s Prayer.”

There was essentially only one escape from the wrath of the citizens, and that was the plea of sanctuary. A felon who could avoid capture, and take refuge in one of the many churches, was safe there for forty days. A watch was always placed around the church, in case of a sudden escape, and a body of citizens would have been encamped there day and night. Other places of sanctuary were Southwark, south of the river, and the east side of the Tower; where the power of the city stopped, in other words, the criminal was free. This is another indication of the self-sufficiency of the city, even if on such occasions it might have preferred a wider jurisdiction. During the course of sanctuary the prisoner often made a confession to the officers of the law and, at the end of the forty days, he or she was forced to “abjure the realm” and flee into exile. The status of the outcast was then announced at the folkmoot.


So from ancient deeds and coroners’ inquests, chancery rolls and chancery warrants, calendars of inquisitions and court records, we can summon up the spirit of medieval London in the streets, lanes and alleys that survive even still. But if this urban society was often characterised by violent confrontation so, too, was its political culture.

For much of the thirteenth century the record is one of riots, and massacres, and street-fighting. During this period London was in almost perpetual conflict with the reigning monarch, Henry III, while the aspiring leadership of the city was divided between the optimates and the populares- the old commercial magnates who had comprised the oligarchical commune of the city, as against the representatives of the crafts and trades who were beginning to feel their power. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the magnates tended to be royalist in their sympathy while the populares, sometimes also known as the mediocres, instinctively supported the barons of the realm with whom the king was in open conflict. London, once more, was the key. Whoever controlled the city was close to controlling the kingdom. The periodic baronial wars had this further consequence; there were parties and families within the city who maintained different allegiances, so that the national struggle was played out in miniature within the streets of London. It was truly the epitome of all England.


A map of London, drawn by chronicler and illuminator Matthew Paris in 1252; it shows the Tower, St. Paul’s and Westminster.


CHAPTER 4. You Be All Law Worthy

<p>CHAPTER 4. You Be All Law Worthy</p>

In the last month of 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, marched down St. Giles High Street before turning south to Westminster. He had already savaged Southwark and now intended to lay siege to London Wall by Ludgate, which was then the principal entrance to the city. It was commonly said at the time that London “neither fears enemies nor dreads being taken by storm” because of its defences but, in fact, after some form of secret treaty or negotiations, certain Saxon nobles opened the gate. William’s troops made their way to St. Paul’s and Cheapside but then “in platea urbis”-an open space or wide street-they were attacked by a group, or perhaps even an army, of citizens who refused to countenance the entry of the foreign leader. A late eleventh-century chronicler, William of Jumieges, records that the Norman forces at once “engaged them in battle, causing no little mourning to the City because of the very many deaths of her own sons and citizens.” Eventually the Londoners capitulated. But their action demonstrates that they considered themselves to dwell in an independent city which could withstand foreign invasion. On this occasion they were mistaken, but for the next three hundred years Londoners would assert their sovereignty as members of a city-state.

The Battle of London, however, was over. Eleven bodies have recently been recovered just south-west of Ludgate, with some suggestion that they had been dismembered, while a hoard of several thousand coins of that period was found by the Walbrook.

The new monarch’s primary task was to subjugate the city. Work began on three military stockades at various points on the perimeter wall-Montfichet Tower, Baynard’s Castle and against the south-east section of the Wall, a structure that has since become known as the “Tower of London.” But the Tower never belonged to London and was considered by the citizens to be an affront or threat to their liberty. In The Making of London, Sir Laurence Gomme contemplates their displeasure when “they heard the taunts of the people who said that these walls had been built as an insult to them, and that if any one of them should dare to contend for the liberty of the city he would be shut up in them and consigned to imprisonment.”

After a great fire in 1077 which, like its predecessors, seems to have devastated much of the city, a stone tower was built in place of the original fortification; it took more than twenty years to complete, and pressed labour from the neighbouring shires was used in its construction. It was called the White Tower, and rose some ninety feet in the air to emphasise its power over the city. Elaborate rituals were drawn up in order to formalise the presence of London’s leaders in the Tower for judicial or administrative purposes, but it remained outside their jurisdiction. Built of alien material, cream-coloured Caen stone from Normandy, it was a visible token of foreign rule.

William was also graciously pleased to grant a “Charter” to London, on a tiny parchment less than six inches in length. It is written in Anglo-Saxon and French. Addressed to “the chiefs of the city” it granted to London “rights” that the city already possessed and had had since the days of Roman domination. “I do you to know that I will that you be all law worthy that were in King Edward’s day,” runs the translation. “And I will that every child be his father’s heir after his father’s day. And I will not endure that any man offer any wrong to you. God keep you.”

It may seem innocuous but, as Gomme suggests in The Governance of London, it represents “an entirely new constitutional factor in the history of London.” Londoners were to be allowed to live under the rule of law that the city itself had established. The king was asserting his sovereignty over the ancient governance of London.

William had, however, recognised the one central fact-that this city was the key both to his own fortunes and to those of the country he had conquered. That is why he had inaugurated the transition of London from the status of an independent city-state to that nation’s capital. In 1086 the Domesday Survey left London uninspected, no doubt on the ground that the complex financial and commercial activity within the city could not usefully be considered as part of the king’s revenue. At the same time the Norman king and his successors initiated an inspired plan of public works in order to emphasise the central place of London in the new politics. The cathedral of St. Paul was rebuilt and William’s successor, his son William Rufus, began the construction of Westminster Hall; a number of monastic houses and nunneries, together with priories and hospitals, were also erected in this period so that London and its environs were the site of prolonged and continual construction. The building and rebuilding, have been maintained ever since. The area around the Roman amphitheatre, for example, was cleared in the early twelfth century. In the same area the first guildhall was completed by 1127, and a second built in the early fifteenth century.


The earliest form of public administration was the folkmoot, which met three times a year, in the Roman amphitheatre and then latterly by St. Paul’s Cross. There was also a more formal court, known as the hustings. These institutions were of the greatest antiquity, dating to Saxon and Danish times when the city was autonomous and self-governing. The territorial divisions of London, still in existence, were also of very early date. By the eleventh century the principal unit of territory had become the ward, which was led and represented by an alderman. The ward was more than a collection of citizens administering their own streets and shops; it was also a unit of defence and attack, with a midsummer inspection when, according to an official document dating from the reign of Henry VIII, “ev’y alderman by hymself musteryd hys owne warde yn the fields, vewyng theym in harnes and sawe that ev’y man had a sworde and a dagger and suche as were not meate to be archars were turnyd to pykes.” As late as the fourteenth century a clerk could term London a respublica, and in this account of a carefully marshalled citizen army it is possible to trace the force and antiquity of the republican ideal.

But if the ward boundaries were the most significant within the city, they were not necessarily the most distinctive. Beneath the ward were the precincts with their own assemblies, and below them the individual parishes with their self-governing vestries. The city embodied a series of intricately related authorities, and that network of affiliations and interests has materially affected its life. Throughout the nineteenth century, for example, there were continual complaints about the rigidity and stubbornness of the city authorities. This resistance to change was the legacy of a thousand years, affecting and obscuring the capital as powerfully as its coal-smoke and its fog. It is also the setting in which succeeding events are best understood.


William the Conqueror’s successor, William Rufus, was characterised by his attempt to impose ever more extortionate taxes and dues and tolls on the citizens. In his struggles with the Norman barons ensconced in England, it was also Rufus’s custom to send prisoners to be executed in London; it was a token of its role as capital, perhaps, but also of the king’s authority.

After the death of Rufus in 1100, his brother, Henry I, hastened to the city in order to be acclaimed as the new sovereign. The records of his reign include a list of aldermen, from 1127, which displays so comprehensive a mixture of English and French names that a thoroughly ordered and working association between citizens who were now properly “Londoners” can be assumed. In fact the study of the names of Londoners becomes of extreme interest and significance in this period, as Old English names are gradually supplanted by those of French origin. Surnames were by no means universal, but were attached to a person because of locality or occupation-Godwinus Baker was thus distinguished from Godwin Ladubur (moneyer) and Godwyn Turk (fishmonger) or Godwinne Worstede (mercer) and Godwynne Sall (hatter). Other citizens were identified by patronymics or, more commonly, by nicknames. Edwin Atter’s name meant Edwin of the sharp tongue while Robert Badding’s implied an effeminate man; Hugh Fleg was “wide awake,” Johannes Flocc had woolly hair, John Godale sold good ale while Thomas Gotsaul was honest.

Even as they associated with each other in trade and commerce, however, the relationship of the citizens with the king became more problematic. For him, the city was predominantly a place to be “farmed” for revenue; the reason why Henry rarely interfered in the life of London was simply that he needed it to prosper in order to benefit from its wealth.

After Henry’s death in 1135, the dynastic struggles of the various claimants to the throne were directly affected by the loyalties and allegiances of Londoners; Henry’s nephew Stephen, Count of Blois, claiming the right of succession, promptly “came to London, and the London folk received him … and hallowed him king on midwinter day.” So says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and another ancient source adds that the “Alderman and wise folk gathered together the folkmoot, and there providing at their own will for the good of the realm unanimously resolved to choose a king.” The citizens of London had, in other words, formally elected a king for the entire country. It is not clear what Stephen promised or granted the city, in return, but from this time forward it takes the first place in national affairs with a degree of independence which suggests that London is almost self-governing.

The coronation of Stephen, however, was not in itself enough. The landing in 1139 of his rival, Henry’s daughter the Empress Matilda, and his own capture at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, meant that London was forced to choose again. A great conference was held at Winchester in order to consider the royal claims of Matilda, and a speech in her favour by Stephen’s own brother was concluded with the following significant remarks: “We have despatched messengers for the Londoners, who, from the importance of their city in England, are almost nobles, as it were, to meet us on this business; and have sent them a safe-conduct.” They arrived on the following day, saying that they had been sent a communione quam vocant Londoniarum-“from the community, or commune, of London.” This testimony from William of Malmesbury is the clearest possible evidence of the city’s significance. As the nation divided in baronial wars, London had ceased to be a capital and had once again become a city-state. The events of Matilda’s short subsequent reign reinforce this impression. She tried to curb the power of London and unwisely demanded money from its richest citizens. That is why, when Stephen’s own queen, Maud, approached London, its inhabitants rushed into the streets, according to Gesta Stephani, with weapons “like thronging swarms from beehives” in order to support her. Matilda fled from the irate citizenry, and never regained the throne.

A proviso must be entered here, if only to dispel the impression of thorough independence. When the national policy was disrupted by dynastic struggle, then London naturally took the lead. But in a peaceful well-ordered kingdom the citizens, equally naturally, accepted the authority of the sovereign. So it was that the reign of Henry II, Matilda’s son and Stephen’s successor, marked a slight diminution of the city’s authority. In his charter the king granted to Londoners “all their liberties and free customs which they had in the time of Henry my grandfather,” but the royal sheriffs conducted much of the administration under the king’s direct control.

The murder of Thomas à Becket in the winter of 1170 at Canterbury, for example, ought to have been a matter for Londoners. The archbishop was known to his contemporaries as “Thomas of London” and for many centuries he was the only Londoner to be canonised; his theatricality and flamboyance were also characteristic of the city. But there is no evidence of any popular support for his cause among Londoners. Perhaps he is one of those striking figures in the city’s history who move beyond their immediate context into eternity.


Yet it was Becket’s own twelfth-century biographer, William Fitz-Stephen, who celebrated the more earthly values of the city in that period. His account is written in the new style of urban encomia, since the formation of flourishing cities and the conduct of their citizens were then at the centre of European debate, but Fitz-Stephen’s depiction is nevertheless remarkable for its enthusiasm. It is also highly significant as the first general description of London.

He describes the sound or “clatter” of the mills, turned by streams in the meadows of Finsbury and Moorgate, as well as the shouts and cries of the market vendors who “have each their separate station, which they take every morning.” There were many wine shops close by the Thames, to accommodate the local artisans as well as traders who came to the docks; there was also a large “public eating-house,” where servants could purchase bread and meat for their masters or where the local vendors could sit and eat. Fitz-Stephen also depicts the “high and thick wall” which surrounded and protected all this activity, with its seven double gates and northern towers; there was also a great fortress to the east, “the mortar used in the building being tempered with the blood of beasts,” and two “strongly fortified” castles on the western side. Beyond the walls were gardens and vineyards, the mansions of the noble and the powerful interspersed among them. These great houses were generally in the western suburbs, where Holborn is now situated, while to the north were meadows and pastures which bordered upon “an immense forest” of which Hampstead and Highgate are the only remnants. Just beyond the city wall, on the north-western side, was a “smooth-field” now known as Smithfield where horses were sold every Friday. In paddocks close by, oxen and pigs were also slaughtered and sold. The same activity had taken place in precisely the same area for almost a thousand years.

Fitz-Stephen’s account is distinctive for the emphasis he lays upon the energy, combativeness and vivacity of the citizens. There were games of football every evening in the fields outside the city, when the young men were watched and cheered by their teachers, parents or fellow apprentices; upon each Sunday, at the same time, there were games of combat when they rode against one another “with lances and shields.” Even in its sports London had a reputation as a violent city. At Easter a tree was fixed into the middle of the Thames with a target hung upon it; a boat was rowed hard against it, carrying a young man with a lance. If he missed the target he fell into the river, to the amusement of the spectators. In the coldest days of winter, when the marshland of Moorfields froze, the more sportive citizens would sit upon great blocks of ice, which were pulled along by their friends; others fashioned skates from the shin bones of animals. But again there was an element of competition and violence in their pursuit; they skated towards each other until “either one or both of them fall, not without some bodily hurt” and “very frequently the leg or arm of the falling party” was broken. Even the lessons and debates of schoolboys were characterised in combative terms, with a steady stream of “scoffs and sarcasms.” It was a world of bear-baiting and cock-fighting, somehow consonant with Fitz-Stephen’s report that London could raise an army of 80,000 men, a world of violence and laughter mingled with what Fitz-Stephen terms “abundant wealth, extensive commerce, great grandeur and magnificence.” His is a portrait of a city celebrating its destiny.

It was a time, therefore, of prosperity and growth. The docks were expanding, as the waterfront was continually reclaimed and extended in order to accommodate the Flemings and the French and the Hanseatics as well as the merchants from Brabant and Rouen and Ponthieu; there was trade in fur, wool, wine, cloth, grain, timber, iron, salt, wax, dried fish and a hundred other commodities to feed, clothe and support an ever increasing population. Most of this population was itself busily engaged in commerce: the furriers of Walbrook, the goldsmiths of Guthrun’s Lane, the butchers of East Cheap, the shoe-makers of Cordwainer Street, the mercers in West Chepe, the fishmongers in Thames Street, the woodmongers of Billingsgate, the candlestick-makers of Lothbury, the ironmongers of Old Jewry, the cutlers of Pope’s Head Alley, the prayer-bead-makers of Paternoster Row, the vintners of Vintry, all of them involved in perpetual trade.

The city was indeed a much noisier place than it is now, filled with continual cries of porters and water-bearers as well as the general uproar of wagons and bells, of blacksmiths and pewterers beating out their wares, of porters and apprentices, of carpenters and coopers working alongside each other in the same small area of lanes and alleys. There was of course the smell as well as the noise, concocted from tanneries and breweries, slaughter-houses and vinegar-makers, cook-houses and dung-heaps as well as the ever flowing tide of refuse and water which ran down the middle of the narrower streets. All this created a miasma of deep odours which could not be dispersed by even the most violent wind. It was further enriched by the increased use of coal by brewers and bakers and metal-forgers.

Throughout this period, too, there was a continual process of building and rebuilding; not one part of the city was untouched by this expansion as new shops and “sleds” or covered markets, churches and monasteries, houses of stone and timber were constructed. When these layers of the city were excavated there lay revealed foundations of chalk and ragstone, chalk cesspits, arches of Reigate stone, building rubble, beechwood piles, oak timbers and threshold beams as well as the various impressions of walls, drains, floors, vaults, wells, rubbish-pits and stake holes. They were evidence of protracted and productive activity.

There was also constant activity in the “suburbs,” or fields just outside the walls. In the twelfth century the great priories of Clerkenwell and Smithfield, St. John and St. Bartholomew, were established, while in the succeeding century the religious houses of Austin Friars, St. Helen, St. Clare and Our Lady of Bethlehem were also founded. The church of St. Paul’s was rebuilt, and the monastic hospital of St. Mary Spital erected. The white friars and the black friars completed their great religious houses within twenty years of each other in the west of the city. This was the part of London in which there was the most heavy investment, with vacant land being sold on the promise of immediate development while buildings and tenancies were continually being subdivided into more profitable units. Yet the grandest work in all the rebuilding was that of London Bridge. It rose in stone and became the great highway of commerce and communication which has remained upon the same site for almost nine hundred years.

On either side of the southern entrance to that bridge, there now rear two griffins daubed in red and silver. They are the totems of the city, raised at all its entrances and thresholds, and are singularly appropriate. The griffin was the monster which protected gold mines and buried treasure; it has now flown out of classical mythology in order to guard the city of London. The presiding deity of this place has always been money. Thus did John Lydgate write of London in the fifteenth century: “lacking money I might not spede.” Alexander Pope repeated his sentiments in the eighteenth, invoking, “There, London’s voice: ‘Get Money, Money still!’”

“The only inconveniences of London,” Fitz-Stephen wrote, “are, the immoderate drinking of foolish persons, and the frequent fires.” In this he was prophetic as well as descriptive. Other observers at a slightly later date in the twelfth century, however, were more critical. One Yorkshire writer, Roger of Howden, reported that the sons of the wealthier citizens would assemble at night “in large gangs” in order to threaten or assault anyone who passed by. A monk from Winchester, Richard of Devizes, was more colourful in his condemnation: for him London was a place of evil and wrong-doing, filled with the worst elements of every race as well as native pimps and braggarts. He referred to the crowded eating houses and taverns, where dicing and gambling were customary. It is perhaps significant that he also mentioned theatrum, “the theatre,” which suggests that the London appetite for drama was already being satisfied in forms other than those of the mystery or miracle plays staged at Clerkenwell. (The “first” theatres of 1576, the Theatre and the Curtain, may well descend from lost originals.) The monk also provided an interesting survey of the city’s population, comprising in part “pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts.” They are joined by “quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes” in a panoply of urban life that would be celebrated, rather than condemned, in other centuries by writers as diverse as Johnson and Fielding, Congreve and Smollett. It is, in other words, the permanent condition of London.


William Fitz-Stephen noted that “The city is delightful indeed, when it has a good governor.” The word itself might be construed as “leader” or “master,” and has generally been taken to refer to the king. Yet in the years immediately succeeding his chronicle, the term is susceptible to other interpretations. There came a moment, in the last decade of the twelfth century, when it was shouted abroad that “Londoners shall have no king but their mayor!” This short-lived revolution was the direct consequence of a king’s absence on crusade in Palestine and Europe. Richard I had come to London for his coronation and was anointed on the first Sunday in September 1189 “that was marked unlucky in the calendar”; indeed it proved “very much so to the Jews in London, who were destroyed that day.” These cryptic words describe a mass slaughter-called by Richard of Devizes a “holocaust”-which has generally been scantily treated by historians. It has often been said that the principal culprits were those who owed money to the Jews, but it is hard to overestimate the savagery of the London mob; it represented a violent and ruthless society where the metaphor for the native population was that of bees swarming in angry clusters. The multitude are “busie Bees,” according to the sixteenth-century author of The Singularities of the City of London; their clamour, according to Thomas More in the same period, was “neyther loude nor distincke but as it were the sounde of a swarme of bees.” On this occasion the mob of bees stung the Jews and their families to death.

In the absence of the king on his religious wars, the leaders of London once more became the ascendant voice of England. The animus and will of Londoners were materially strengthened by the fact that Richard’s representative, William Longchamp, established himself in the Tower and began to erect new fortifications around it. It was a symbol of authority which was unwelcome. When Richard’s brother, John, aspired to the crown in 1191, the citizens of London assembled at a folkmoot in order to pronounce upon his claims; at this significant moment they agreed to accept him as king as long as he in turn recognised the inalienable right of London to form its own commune as a self-governing and self-elected city-state. To this John agreed. It was not a new title but for the first time it was accepted by the reigning monarch as a public organisation “to which all the nobles of the kingdom, and even the very bishops of that province, are compelled to swear.” These are the words of Richard of Devizes, who considered the new arrangement to be nothing other than a “tumor” or swelling-up of the people which could have no good consequences.

The connotations of the word “commune” are, from the French example, generally considered to be radical or revolutionary, but this particular revolution was instigated by the richest and most powerful of the London citizens. It was in fact, and in effect, a civic oligarchy comprising the most influential families-the Basings and the Rokesleys, the Fitz-Thedmars and the Fitz-Reiners-who styled themselves aristocrats or “optimates.” They were a governing elite who took advantage of the political situation in order to reassert the power and independence of the city which had been curtailed by the Norman kings. So we read in the great chronicle of the city, Liber Albus, that “the barons of the city of London shall choose for themselves each year a mayor from among themselves … provided always that when so elected he shall be presented unto his lordship the king, or in the king’s absence unto his justiciar.” Thus the mayor and his governing council of probi homines, the “honest men” of aldermanic rank, attained formal rank and dignity. The honour of becoming the first mayor of London goes to Henry Fitz-Ailwin of Londenstone, who remained in office for twenty-five years until his death in 1212.

It was not long after the authority of the mayor and commune was established that a sense of tradition entered the affairs of London: it is almost as if it had reacquired its history at the same time that its old powers were restored. Communal archives and records were deposited in the Guildhall, together with wills, charters and guild documents; from this period, too, issues a great spate of laws and mandates and ordinances. London had thereby acquired an administrative identity which animated such later bodies as the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London County Council of the nineteenth century as well as the Greater London Council of the twentieth. Here is the evidence of organic development which has not faded in time.

The administration of the city also began to demand the full-time employment of clerks, notaries and lawyers. An extraordinarily detailed code of civic legislation was established, and courts were instituted to deal with various misdemeanours. These courts also exercised general supervision over the condition of the city, such as the state of London Bridge and the creation of a water supply, with the various wards supervising matters of local sanitation, paving and lighting. The wards were also responsible for public safety as well as health, with twenty-six separate forces of police who were classified as “unpaid constables … beadles or bellmen, street keepers, or watchmen.” Extant records show that this was by no means a sinecure: we may estimate the population of London in the late twelfth century at approximately forty thousand, many of whom were not disposed to obey the precepts of authority and good order imposed by the optimates.

When in 1193 the citizens of London were asked to provide money for the ransom of the absent king, his brother’s brief rebellion having been effectively suppressed, there were many who resented the imposition. When Richard himself returned to London in the following year he was greeted with great ceremony, but then proceeded to milk the revenues of the city with methods ever more exacting; he is once supposed to have stated that “he would sell London if he could find a buyer,” which scarcely endeared him to the already hard-pressed citizens. It seems likely that those artisans and merchants beneath the level of the optimates carried the heaviest burden, and in 1196 a revolt of these Londoners was led by William Fitz-Osbert “of the long beard.” The beard was long but the rebellion was short. He seems to have had the support of a large number of citizens, and has been variously described as a demagogue and a defender of the poor. These are not in fact incompatible descriptions; but his insurrection was put down in a ruthless and violent manner which was entirely characteristic of the city. Fitz-Osbert sought sanctuary in St. Mary-le-Bow, on Cheapside, but the city authorities summarily removed him and hanged him with eight others at Smithfield in the sight of his erstwhile supporters. But the significance of the brief tumult was in the fact that a group of citizens had refused to obey the royal officials and merchant princes who controlled the city. It was the harbinger of necessary and inevitable change, as the population began to assert its own place in the general polity.

Yet the central area of tension, and possible conflict, still lay between city and king. The death of Richard I in 1199, and the elevation of John, did nothing to alleviate what seems to have been an instinctively anti-monarchical trend in London politics. It was the familiar story of the citizens being forced to pay increasing taxes or “tallage” to cover the king’s expenditure. The mayor and the most powerful citizens attempted to maintain a spirit of cooperation, if only because many of them were involved with the king’s household and would not necessarily benefit from his eclipse. But there was a growing disaffection within the commune. It would seem that King John, despite earlier promises, had abrogated certain rights and properties to himself, which prompted the thirteenth-century chronicler Matthew Paris to conclude that the citizens had almost turned into slaves. Yet the elective capacity of the folkmoot could still be asserted. In 1216 five wealthy Londoners gave 1,000 marks to the French prince, Louis, in order that he might travel to the city and be consecrated as king in place of John. The civic ritual of coronation proved unnecessary, however, when John died in the autumn of that year. London sent Louis home again, with more money, and welcomed the young Henry III, John’s nine-year-old son, as its rightful sovereign.


We may walk the streets of London during the long reign of Henry III (1216-72). There were great houses as well as hovels, fine stone churches against which were erected wooden stalls for passing trade. The contrast of fair and foul can be put in another context with the statistic that, out of forty thousand citizens, more than two thousand were forced to beg for alms. The richer merchants constructed halls and courtyards while the poorest shopkeepers might live and work in two rooms ten feet square; the more affluent citizens owned fine furniture and silver, while those of straiter means possessed only the simplest pottery and kitchen utensils together with the tools of their trade.

One examination of a murder, when a young man killed his wife with a knife, incidentally provides a household inventory of the “middling” sort. The unfortunate pair lived in a house of wooden construction with two rooms, one above the other, and a thatched roof. In the lower room which opened upon the street there were a folding table and two chairs, with the walls “hung about with kitchen utensils, tools and weapons.” Among them were a frying pan, an iron spit and eight brass pots. The upper room was reached by means of a ladder-here were a bed and mattress, with two pillows. A wooden chest held six blankets, eight linen sheets, nine tablecloths and a coverlet. Their clothes “which were laid in chests or hung upon the walls” consisted of three surcoats, one coat with a hood, two robes, another hood, a suit of leather armour and half a dozen aprons. There were a candlestick, two plates, some cushions, a green carpet, and curtains hung before the doors to keep out the draughts. There would also have been rushes on the floor, not included in any inventory. It was a small, but comfortable, residence.

Those in poorer situations lived in rooms built within tenements which could be found down the narrow alleys between wide thoroughfares. The upper floor of these small houses was known as the “solar,” which protruded into the street itself so that little of the sky could be seen between two overhanging solars. Many of the smaller houses had been built of wood with thatched roofs, still reflecting the appearance of Saxon or early Norman building; London retained in part the atmosphere of a much earlier city, with tribal or territorial connotations. Yet after the many fires that visited the city, particularly a great conflagration in 1212, ordinances compelled householders to build their walls of stone and their roofs of tiles. Broken tiles from this period have been found in cesspits, wells, cellars, rubbish dumps and the foundation stones of roads. So there was a general process of transition, not perfectly managed, in which new stone and old timber stood side by side.

The condition of the streets themselves can be ascertained from the extant documents of the period. In the pleas and memoranda of the Guildhall, for example, we read of the master of Ludgate putting dung into the Fleet to such an extent that the water was stopped in certain places; a common privy is “diffectif” and “the ordur therof rotith the stone wallys.” The taverners of St. Bride’s parish put their empty barrels, and slops, into the street “to nusauns of all folk ther passyng.” There were complaints about defective paving in Hosier Lane, while in Foster Lane the fourteen households had the habit of casting from their windows “ordure amp; vrine, the which annoyet alle the pepol of the warde.” The cooks of Bread Street were indicted for keeping “dung and garbage” under their stalls, while a great stream of “dong and water and other diverse filth” was known to pour down Trinity Lane and Cordwainer Street by Garlickhithe Street, and descend between the shops of John Hatherle and Richard Whitman before discharging itself into the Thames. A dung-hill in Watergate Street beside Bear Lane “is noyowse to all the commune people, kasting out in-to this lane ordour of Prevees and other orrible sightis.” There are reports of stinking fish and bad oysters, of common steps in disrepair and of thoroughfares being blocked up, of areas or “pryue places” where thieves and “money strumpettes” congregate.

But some of the best evidence for the condition of the streets comes in the many regulations which were, from the evidence of the courts, being continually flouted. Stallholders were supposed to set up their stands only in the middle of the street, between the two “kennels” or gutters on either side. In the narrower thoroughfares the kennel ran down the middle of the street, thus effectively forcing pedestrians to “take the wall.” The scavengers and rakers of each ward were ordered “to preserve, lower and raise the pavements, and to remove all nuisances of filth”; all such “filth” was taken by horse and cart down to the river where it was carried off in boats built for the purpose. Special arrangements were made for carting off the noisome stuff from the sites of butchery-the shambles, the Stocks Market and the market at East Cheap-but there were always complaints of foul odours. In More’s Utopia (1516) the killing of animals takes place outside the city walls; his pointed recommendation is evidence of the real disgust which many citizens felt about the proximity of this trade.

In the Liber Albus there are also instructions that pigs and dogs be not allowed to wander through the city; more curiously, perhaps, it was decreed that “barbers shall not place blood in their windows.” No citizen was allowed to carry a bow for firing stones, and no “courtesans” were permitted to dwell within the city walls. This last ordinance was persistently flouted. There were elaborate regulations about the building of houses and walls, with special provisions applied for neighbours’ disputes; once again the impression is of a close compacted town. In the same spirit of good order it was decreed that the owners of the larger houses should always possess a ladder and a barrel of water in case of fire; since it had been ordained that tile rather than thatch should be the standard material of the roofs, the aldermen of each ward had the power to come with a pole or hook in order to remove any offending straw.

It is indicative of the close watch kept upon all citizens that there were also regulations about private and social arrangements. Every aspect of life was covered by an elaborate network of law, ordinance and custom. No “stranger” was allowed to spend more than one day and a night in a citizen’s house, and no one might be harboured within a ward “unless he be of good repute.” No lepers were ever allowed within the city. No one was permitted to walk abroad “after forbidden hours”-that is, after the bells or curfew had been sounded-unless he or she wished to be arrested as a “night-walker.” It was also forbidden that “any person shall keep a tavern for wine or for ale after the curfew aforesaid … nor shall they have any persons therein, sleeping or sitting up; nor shall anyone receive persons into his house from out of a common tavern, by night or by day.”

The curfew itself was rung at nine o’clock in the summer months, earlier in the darkness of winter. When the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside rang curfew, followed by the bell of St. Martin’s, St. Laurence’s and St. Bride’s, the taverns were cleared, the apprentices left their work, the lights dimmed as rush or candle were put out, the gates of the city were locked and bolted. Some of these apprentices believed that the clerk of St. Mary-le-Bow kept them at work too long by ringing too late and, according to John Stow, a rhyme was issued against

Clerke of the Bow bell with the yellow lockes

For thy late ringing thy head shall have knocks.

To which the offending clerk responded:

Children of Cheape, hold you all still,

For you shall have the Bow bell rung at your will.

This exchange testifies to the close relationship between all the members of the city so that everyone, for example, knew the bell-ringer with yellow hair. But the most striking image is perhaps that of the dark and silent city, barricaded against the outer world.

That silence was sometimes punctuated by screams, shouts and cries. It was the citizens’ duty to “raise hue and cry” against any transgressor of the peace, for example, and any citizen “who comes not on such hue and cry raised” was heavily fined. London was a city where everyone was watching everyone else, for the sake of the spirit of the commune, and there are numerous reports of neighbours “crying shame” at the ill treatment of an apprentice or the abuse of a wife.

Yet it is to be expected that, in a mercantile culture, the greatest body of law should be concerned with commercial transactions. There are many hundreds of regulations in this period, controlling every aspect of trading life. It was ordered that the vendors of certain products like cheese and poultry “shall stand between the kennels in the market of Cornhulle so as to be a nuisance to no one” with other trades distributed in various sites in the city. No vendor could “buy any victuals for resale before prime rung at St. Paul’s.” From the twenty regulations applying to bakers alone, it might be noted that a baker of “tourte” or pan-baked bread was not permitted to sell white bread; every baker also was commanded to leave “the impression of his seal” upon each loaf of bread. It was decreed that “all kinds of fish brought into the City in closed baskets shall be as good at bottom of the basket as at the top,” and that “no stranger ought to buy of a stranger.”

Fishermen laboured under hundreds of regulations about what they could catch, how they could catch, and where they could catch; the size and mesh of their nets were carefully measured. There was also an elaborate system of tolls and taxes, so that “Every man who brings cheese or poultry if the same amounts to fourpence halfpenny shall pay one halfpenny. If a man on foot brings one hundred eggs or more he shall give five eggs. If a man or woman brings any manner of poultry by horse and lets it touch the ground” he or she will pay more. It was an intricate system but its purpose was simply to ensure that the inhabitants of the city were adequately fed and clothed. It attempted both to pre-empt the extortionate demands of those who bought and sold, and to protect the rights of the citizens to trade in the city at the expense of “aliens” or “strangers.” The regulations had a further primary purpose, in the efforts to systematise trading so that there was little possibility of false measures, adulterated food or shoddy manufactures.


It is in the context of this thriving, colourful and energetic city that we can trace specific events which reveal the dangerous condition of the streets. In court records of the period we read of unnamed beggar women collapsing and dying in the street, of occasional suicides and constant fatal accidents- “drowned in a ditch outside Aldersgate … fell into a tub of hot mash.” We learn that “A poor little woman named Alice was found drowned outside the City wall. No one is suspected … a certain Elias le Pourtour, who was carrying a load of cheese, fell dead in Bread Street … a girl of about eight years old was found dead in the churchyard of St. Mary Somerset. It was believed that she was thrown there by some prostitute. No one is suspected.” Suicide in this age of piety, was considered a token only of madness. Isabel de Pampesworth “hanged herself in a fit of insanity” in her house in Bread Street. Alice de Wanewyck “drowned herself in the port of Dowgate, being non compos mentis.” Drunkenness was general, and there are continual references to citizens falling from their solars to the ground, falling down steps into the Thames, falling off ladders. The reports of these, and other fatalities, are to be found in The London Eyre of 1244 edited by Chew and Weinbaum. Other incidents are redolent of the period. “A certain man named Turrock” was found dead but “it was found that three men were lying in the deceased’s bed when he died … and they are in mercy,” the last phrase denoting that they had been acquitted of any charge. In another instance “Roger struck Maud, Gilbert’s wife, with a hammer between the shoulders and Moses struck her in the face with the hilt of his sword, breaking many of her teeth. She lingered until the feast of St. Mary Magdalen, and then died.”

This litany of death and disaster highlights the crude violence of the city streets; tempers are short, and life is held very cheap. “Henry de Buk killed a certain Irishman, a tiler, with a knife in Fleet Bridge Street, and fled to the church of St. Mary Southwark. He acknowledged the deed, and … abjured the realm. He had no chattels.” The quarrel of three men in a tavern by Milk Street led to a fatality when one was attacked with an “Irish knife” and a “misericord,” a merciful knife which was meant to guarantee a quick exit from this life; the fatally wounded man reached the church of St. Peter in Cheapside, but none of the bystanders offered to assist him.

The various trade guilds openly fought against each other in the streets; a group of goldsmiths, for example, fell upon a saddler and proceeded to lay open his head with a sword, chop off his leg with an axe and generally belabour him with a staff; he died five days later. When apprentices of the law rioted by Aldersgate, a citizen “amused himself” by shooting into the crowd an arrow which killed an unfortunate bystander. A “love-day,” designed to reconcile the coppersmiths and ironsmiths, turned into a general and murderous riot. When a group of unruly men entered a tavern one of the customers enquired, “Who are these people?” and was promptly killed with a sword. There were continual fights in the street, ambushes and arguments over nothing-or over “goat’s wool” as it was known. Games of “dice” or “tables” frequently ended in drunken fights, while it is clear that some of the owners of dicing taverns were engaged in wholesale fraud. It is a curious but instructive fact that the officers of the ward or parish were quick to tend to the religious needs of the maimed or dying, but there were few attempts to administer any form of medical treatment by physician or barber-surgeon. The injured were generally left to recover, or die, as providence intended.

There were many assaults upon women; in the transcripts there are cases of female Londoners being beaten or kicked to death, or callously murdered in premeditated fashion. Lettice accused Richard of Norton, vintner, of “raping and deflowering her” but the case did not proceed to trial. Wife-beating was common and went largely unremarked; but the brutalised women themselves could then in turn become brutal. A drunken woman started howling out insults to certain builders who were working on the corner of Silver Street-she called them “tredekeiles,” which might be translated as “lousy slobs,” and promptly started a fight in which one man was stabbed in the heart. Women could also be exponents of justice, rough even by London standards: when a Breton murdered a widow in her bed, “women of the same parish come owte with stonys and canell dong, and there made an ende of hym in the hyghe strete.”

The aldermen and watch of each ward had other duties which cast an intriguing light upon the customs of medieval London. They were instructed, for example, to arrest anyone wearing a “visor or false face” in the streets; to be masked was to be considered a criminal. The Court Rolls suggest that they were also given power to remove the doors and windows from any house of dubious reputation; there is a record of their “entering the house of William Cok, butcher, in Cockes Lane and tearing away eleven doors and five windows with hammers and chisels.” It is significant that the name, trade and street of the offender are conflated in characteristic medieval manner; it is an indication of how one activity, in this case the slaughter of poultry, can imbue an entire area of the city. Other incidents may also be representative, although less violent. The watch arrested certain apprentices who had filled a barrel with stones and then rolled it downhill from Gracechurch Street to London Bridge “to the great terror of the neighbours.”

There were more salacious, or intimate, events noted in the judicial records of a slightly later date; in their striking immediacy we might almost be in the same chamber with these early Londoners. “Will’m Pegden saieth that one Morris Hore broughte one Cicell and the saide Colwell had the vse of the bodie of the saide Elizabeth and the saide Alice Daie burned [gave a venereal disease to] the saide Cicell … And then the saide Alice daie came vppe Imediatlie, and lepped vppon the bed amp; said Cicell with hir kissinge together, and laying hir legges so broade that a yoked sow might go betwene.”


The crimes could be egregious, but the punishments had a distinctively communal aspect. It has often been suggested that the officials of the medieval city were more lenient than their successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and there is a partial truth to this. Punishments such as amputation were often commuted. But the civic spirit could be violent indeed, at least when it was threatened, and there are many records of hanging or beheading for offences against the city’s peace. The fatal penalty was almost always imposed upon rebels and upon those offenders who had in some other way touched the king’s majesty; one man was hanged, for example, for tampering with the royal seal. The heads of rebels and traitors were boiled and placed upon London Bridge, sometimes adorned with a crown of ivy as a final theatrical touch in the drama of punishment. At times of tension or disorder within the city, also, the mayor and aldermen resorted to capital punishment as the most expeditious way of controlling the populace. Murder was always a hanging offence (except when committed by a woman who could prove herself to be pregnant) but, in more peaceful time, the prison and the pillory were the common remedies for crime. Walter Waldeskef was charged “with being addicted to playing knucklebones at night”; he was described in the report as “a night walker, well dressed and lavish of his money, though no one knew how he got his living.” In the year after his arrest he was stabbed in Lombard Street and died in the church of St. Swithin at Walbrook. Agnes de Bury was imprisoned “for selling old fur on Cornhill,” while Roger Wenlock was committed to prison “for selling beer at 2d a gallon.” John Mundy, baker, “was set vpon the pyllery in Cornhill for makyng and sellyng of false breed,” and in the same month Agnes Deynte was also put in the pillory for selling “false mengled buttur.” Many and various frauds were also detected and punished. One baker cut a hole upon his moulding board; when the customer brought in his dough to be cooked, part of it was removed by a member of the baker’s family crouched beneath the counter. In another instance a former servant of a law officer, dismissed, travelled to various taverns and pretended to confiscate ale; the good tavern wives paid him to leave them alone. Eventually he was caught, and placed in the pillory.

Some of the punishments were more exotic. Bawds and “whore-mongers” had their hair shaved, leaving a two-inch fringe upon the heads of men and a small clump upon the heads of women. They were taken to their respective pillories by minstrels, the female pillory being known as a “thew,” where they became the target of the honest citizens’ anger or high spirits. If a woman was found to be a prostitute “let her be taken from the prison unto Aldgate” while wearing a hood of striped cloth and carrying a white taper in her hand; the minstrels once more led her to the pillory and, after the ritual abuse, she was marched down Cheapside and through Newgate to take up guarded lodgings in Cock Lane by West Smithfield.

Those consigned to the pillory for fraudulent manufacture or for selling shoddy goods had the items of their trade burned before them. John Walter had sold false measures of coal; he was condemned to stand in the pillory for an hour “with his sakkis brent [burnt] under him.” The journey to this place of obloquy was accompanied by other diversions: the culprit sometimes was forced to ride backwards on a horse, the tail towards him, and crowned with a fool’s cap. When one priest was found in flagrante delicto he was paraded through the streets with his breeches down and his clerical robes carried before him. Sir Thomas de Turberville, traitor, was taken through the streets of London dressed in a striped coat and white shoes; he was tied to a horse while around him rode six officials dressed all in red as emblems of the devil. Punishment becomes a form of festivity; in a relatively small and enclosed city, it turns into a celebration of communal feeling.

Yet harshness-one might almost call it savagery-was never very far from the surface, and can best be exemplified by the destination for London criminals who were spared the pillory or the noose: Newgate. During the coroner’s inquests of 1315-16, sixty-two of the eighty-five corpses under investigation had been taken from Newgate Prison. That is why there were many desperate attempts to break out of what was, essentially, a house of death. On one occasion the prisoners forced their way on to the roof “and faught ageyn the Citizens and kept the gate a greate while,” reinforcing the point that it was Londoners themselves who were essentially their guards and captors. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that one of the first extant texts in London English, written in the middle of the thirteenth century, should be entitled “The Prisoner’s Prayer.”

There was essentially only one escape from the wrath of the citizens, and that was the plea of sanctuary. A felon who could avoid capture, and take refuge in one of the many churches, was safe there for forty days. A watch was always placed around the church, in case of a sudden escape, and a body of citizens would have been encamped there day and night. Other places of sanctuary were Southwark, south of the river, and the east side of the Tower; where the power of the city stopped, in other words, the criminal was free. This is another indication of the self-sufficiency of the city, even if on such occasions it might have preferred a wider jurisdiction. During the course of sanctuary the prisoner often made a confession to the officers of the law and, at the end of the forty days, he or she was forced to “abjure the realm” and flee into exile. The status of the outcast was then announced at the folkmoot.


So from ancient deeds and coroners’ inquests, chancery rolls and chancery warrants, calendars of inquisitions and court records, we can summon up the spirit of medieval London in the streets, lanes and alleys that survive even still. But if this urban society was often characterised by violent confrontation so, too, was its political culture.

For much of the thirteenth century the record is one of riots, and massacres, and street-fighting. During this period London was in almost perpetual conflict with the reigning monarch, Henry III, while the aspiring leadership of the city was divided between the optimates and the populares- the old commercial magnates who had comprised the oligarchical commune of the city, as against the representatives of the crafts and trades who were beginning to feel their power. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the magnates tended to be royalist in their sympathy while the populares, sometimes also known as the mediocres, instinctively supported the barons of the realm with whom the king was in open conflict. London, once more, was the key. Whoever controlled the city was close to controlling the kingdom. The periodic baronial wars had this further consequence; there were parties and families within the city who maintained different allegiances, so that the national struggle was played out in miniature within the streets of London. It was truly the epitome of all England.


London Contrasts

CHAPTER 5. Loud and Everlasting

CHAPTER 6. Silence Is Golden

<p>London Contrasts</p>

A traffic “lock” or jam on Ludgate Hill, sketched by the French artist Gustave Doré towards the close of the nineteenth century.

<p>CHAPTER 5. Loud and Everlasting</p>

London has always been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness. It is part of its unnaturalness, too, like the roaring of some monstrous creature. But it is also a token of its energy and of its power.

From its earliest foundation London rang with the hammers of artisans and the cries of tradesmen; it produced more noise than any other part of the country, and in certain quarters, like those of the smiths and the barrel-makers, the clamour was almost insupportable. But there were other noises. In the early medieval city, the clatter of manufacturing trades and crafts would have been accompanied by the sound of bells, among them secular bells, church bells, convent bells, the bell of the curfew and the bell of the watchman.

It might be surmised that the effect of the bells ended with the Reformation, when London ceased to be a notably pious Catholic city, but all the evidence suggests that the citizens continued to be addicted to them. A German duke entered London on the evening of 12 September 1602, and was astonished by the unique character of the city’s sound. “On arriving in London we heard a great ringing of bells in almost all the churches going on very late in the evening, also on the following days until 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening. We were informed that the young people do that for the sake of exercise and amusement, and sometimes they lay considerable sums of money as a wager, who will pull a bell longest or ring it in the most approved fashion. Parishes spend much money in harmoniously-sounding bells, that one being preferred which has the best bells. The old Queen is said to have been pleased very much by this exercise, considering it as a sign of the health of the people.” This account is taken from The Acoustic World of Early Modern England by Bruce R. Smith, which offers an intimate version of London’s history. There is some suggestion here that the harmony of the bells is in some sense intended to demonstrate the harmony of the city, with the attendant “health” of its citizens, but there is also an element of theatricality or bravura intrinsic to London and Londoners. Indeed there is almost a kind of violence attached to their liking of loud sound. Another German traveller, of 1598, wrote that Londoners are “vastly fond of great noises that fill the ear, such as the firing of cannon, drums, and the ringing of bells, so that it is common for a number of them … to go up into some belfry, and ring the bells for hours together for the sake of exercise.” A chaplain to the Venetian ambassador similarly reported that London boys made bets “who can make the parish bells be heard at the greatest distance.” To the element of display are added aggression and competition.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the very definition of the Londoner should be adduced in terms of loud noise. A Cockney was one who was born within the sound of the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow, in Cheapside, which according to John Stow was “more famous than any other Parish Church of the whole Cittie or suburbs.” Fynes Moryson, in 1617, announced that “Londiners, and all within the sound of Bow-Bell, are in reproach called Cocknies, and eaters of buttered tostes.” Bruce R. Smith has suggested that “cockney” in fact derives from the “cock-shaped weathervane” which once surmounted the belfry of St. Mary-le-Bow and that the Londoners’ identification with the sound came from their own “loud loquaciousness” or “boastfulness.”


As the city grew, so did its level of noise. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, according to Walter Besant’s London, “there was no noisier city in the whole world”; it could be heard from Highgate and from the Surrey hills. Dekker in The Seven deadly Sinnes of London evokes something of the incessant din-“hammers are beating in one place; Tubs hooping in another, Pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth.” Here noise itself is associated with energy, and specifically with the making of money. Sound was intrinsic to the trades of the carpenters and the coopers, the blacksmiths and the armourers. Other occupations, such as dockers and porters, the loaders and unloaders by the wharves, actively employed noise as an agent of business; it was the only way of affirming or expressing their role within the commercial city.

Certain areas produced particular noises. The metal foundries of Lothbury, for example, produced “a loathsome noise to the by-passers, that hath not been used to the like” and the quarter of the blacksmiths was permeated “with the noise of and sound of their hammers amp; anuiles.” There was also the general circumambient noise of the London streets where, according once more to Thomas Dekker, “carts and Coaches make such a thundring” and where “in the open streetes is such walking, such talking, such running, such riding, such clapping too of windowes, such rapping at Chamber doores, such crying out for drink, such buying vp of meate, and such calling vppon Shottes, that at every such time, I verily beleeue I dwell in a Towne of Warre.” Images of violence and assault spring unimpeded from the experience of London sound. In 1598 Everard Guilpin wrote a verse satire upon “the peopled streets” of London, which he depicts as a “hotch-potch of so many noyses … so many severall voyces.” Here the heterogeneity of London is seen as an aspect of its noise. Yet without the perpetual hum of traffic and machines which seems to characterise the noise of contemporary London streets, individual voices would have been heard more clearly. The wooden and plaster houses on either side of the main thoroughfares acted as an echo-chamber, so that one of the characteristics of the sixteenth-century city would be a continual babble of voices making up one single and insistent conversation; it might be termed the conversation of the city with itself.

There were certain places where the voices reached such a pitch and intensity that they could also be characterised as a London sound. The interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral was known for its particular timbre. To quote once more from Bruce Smith’s account, “the noyse in it is like that of Bees, a strange humming or buzze, mixt of walking, tongues, and feet: It is a kind of still roare or loud whisper.” The Royal Exchange, where merchants from all over the world congregated, was “vaulted and hollow, and hath such an Eccho, as multiplies euery worde that is spoken.” At the centre of commerce there is a great reverberation, as if the conduct of finance could only take place within thunder. Then, in the taverns to which the dealers and merchants retired, “men come here to make merry but indeed make a noise.” So, in the places of power and speculation, the insistent sound is that of raised male voices. Samuel Johnson once remarked upon the subject of taverns, “Sir, there is no other place where the more noise you make, the more welcome you are.” It is a suggestive observation, with its implications of theatricality and aggression as part of the London experience; the more “noise” you make, the more you become a true inhabitant of the city. In the theatres, too, there was unabated noise, with the hucksters and the criers and the huddled throng; everybody talking together, breaking nuts, and crying out for ale.

On the streets outside were the bells, the wagons, the cries, the barking dogs, the squeaking of shop signs blowing in the wind. But there was another sound, relatively unfamiliar to Londoners of later generations. It was that of rushing water. The sixteenth-century city was crossed by streams and rivers. The sound of water from fifteen conduits mingled with the noise of the Thames and its lapping tides, audible along all the lanes and thoroughfares which led to the river. Great wheels were used to pump water from the Thames into small wooden pipes, and their endless grinding and reverberation added materially to the overwhelming noise of the city.

In 1682 it was still the same endless sound, like a great shout perpetually renewed. “I lie down in Storms,” Sir John Oldham announced in that year, “in Thunders, rise.” He evokes the “Din” of the “restless Bells” as well as

Huzza’s of Drunkards, Bellmen’s midnight Rhimes


The noise of Shops, with Hawkers early Screams.

The allusion here is to a city that is always wakeful; there is no end to its activity, neither at night nor at day, and it lives continually. In the seventeenth century, too, London was still a city of animals as well as people. Samuel Pepys was disturbed one night by a “damned noise between a sow gelder and a cow and a dog.” The noise of horses, cattle, cats, dogs, pigs, sheep and chickens, which were kept in the capital, was confounded also with the sound of the great herds of beasts being driven towards Smithfield and the other open markets; London consumed the countryside, or so it was said, and the noise which accompanied its devouring appetite was everywhere apparent.

It has often been observed how foreigners, or strangers, were astonished and perplexed by the noise of London. On one level it was regarded as representative of London’s “license,” where the boundary between anarchy and freedom remained ambiguous. In a city filled with an implicitly egalitarian spirit, each inhabitant was free to occupy his or her own space with endless noisy expressiveness. In Hogarth’s engraving of 1741, The Enraged Musician, a foreign visitor is assailed by the sound of a sow-gelder (perhaps a descendant of the one who annoyed Pepys), by howling cats, a girl’s rattle, a boy’s drum, a milkmaid’s cry, a ballad-seller’s plaintive call, a knife-grinder and a pewterer at their respective trades, a carillon of bells, a parrot, a wandering “haut-boy” or oboe player, a shrieking dustman and a barking dog. The significance of these heterogeneous images is that they are all striking and familiar London types. Hogarth is here celebrating the noises of the city as an intrinsic aspect of its life. It is the prerogative of Londoners to make noise; therefore, noise is a natural and inevitable part of their existence in the city. Without that right, for example, many of the vendors and street-sellers would perish.

Those who came to the city as visitors were not of course necessarily able to share Hogarth’s implicit enthusiasm for this native uproar. In Tobias Smollett’s novel of 1771 Humphry Clinker is dismayed by its nocturnal aspects. “I start every hour from my sleep, at the horrid noise of the watchmen bawling the hour through every street and thundering at every door,” thus illustrating the fact that time itself can be imposed with a shout. In the morning, too: “I start out of bed, in consequence of the still more dreadful alarm made by the country carts, and noisy rustics bellowing green peas under my window.” Commerce, as well as time, must be understood in raucous terms. Joseph Haydn complained that he might fly to Vienna “to have more quiet in which to work, for the noise that the common people make as they sell their wares in the street is intolerable.” Yet there were others who so wished to enter the spirit of London that they rejoiced in the clamour and embraced it like a lover. “The noise,” Boswell wrote upon his first arrival in London in 1762, “the crowd, the glare of the shops and signs agreeably confused me.” He arrived in the capital by way of Highgate, from which eminence he would already have heard the noise. “Let anyone ride down Highgate Hill on a summer’s day,” Laetitia Landon wrote in the early nineteenth century, “see the immense mass of buildings spread like a dark panorama, hear the ceaseless and peculiar sound, which has been likened to the hollow roar of the ocean, but has an utterly different tone … then say, if ever was witnessed hill or valley that so powerfully impressed the imagination with that sublime and awful feeling, which is the epic of poetry.” So the noise of the city partakes of its greatness.

This sense of disturbing, almost transcendental, sound was essentially a discovery of the nineteenth century when London represented the great urban myth of the world. Its noise became an aspect of its mightiness, and horror; it became numinous. In 1857 Charles Manby Smith, in the paradoxically entitled The Little World of London, described it as “that indefinable boom of distant but ever-present sound which tells that London is up and doing, and which will swell into a deafening roar as the day grows older [and] now rises faintly but continuously upon the ear.” The “roar” here suggests the presence of some great beast, but more significant is this sense of a continuous, distant sound as if it were a form of meditation or self-communing. We read in the same narrative of “the uninterrupted and crashing roar of deafening sounds, which tell of the rush of the current of London’s life blood through its thousand channels-a phenomenon, however, of which the born Londoner is no more unpleasantly conscious than is the Indian savage, cradled at the foot of a cataract, of its everlasting voice.” This is an interesting image, which identifies London itself with some kind of natural force; at the same time it covertly admits savagery among the citizens, in a locale both untamed and untamable.

From three miles’ distance, in what was then an “outlying” suburb soon to be drawn within the vortex of the city, the sound of London is “like the swell of the sea-surge beating upon a pebbly shore when it is heard far inland.” Here is a haunting impression of proximity to the great city. That perpetual sound was variously compared to Niagara, in its persistence and remorselessness, and to the beating of a human heart. It is intimate and yet impersonal, like the noise of life itself. That same intuition was vouchsafed to Shelley who wrote of

London: that great sea whose ebb and flow


At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore


Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more.

The adjectives “deaf” and “loud” summon up an image of pitiless activity; the verb “howls” one of fear, pain and rage in equal measure. The noise is one of greed and helplessness, as if it were in a perpetually infantile state. Its noise is ancient, but always renewed.

A celebrated American of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell, has written: “I confess that I never think of London, which I love, without thinking of that palace which David built for Bathsheba, sitting in hearing of one hundred streams-streams of thought, of intelligence, of activity. One other thing about London impresses me beyond any other sound I have ever heard, and that is the low, unceasing roar one hears always in the air; it is not a mere accident, like a tempest or a cataract, but it is impressive, because it always indicates human will, and impulse, and conscious movement; and I confess that when I hear it I almost feel as if I were listening to the roaring loom of time.”

Here, then, is a further sense of the numinous. London becomes the image of time itself. The great “streams” of thought and intelligence never cease; to change the metaphor, they resemble cosmic winds. But is the sound of the city also the sound of time itself? The noise would then be striated by the shuttling of the future into the past, that instantaneous and irremediable process that takes place in a “present” moment that can never really be glimpsed or known. The sound is then one of vast loss, the “howl” of which Shelley writes. In the phrase of T.S. Eliot, a poet whose vision of time and eternity sprang directly from his experience of London, “All time is unredeemable.” London is unredeemable, too, and we may also think of its noise as comprising a vast mass of subjective private times continually retreating into non-existence.

Even in the middle of that maelstrom, however, it was possible to pick out and to remember specific London sounds which belonged to that place and to no other in the nineteenth century. There were the notes of the “German band,” with their horn and trombone and clarionet; there was the lament of the barrel organ and the barrel piano; there was the cry of “Lucifers” from an old man bearing a tray of matches. There was the rumble of the scavenger’s cart drawn by great horses “adorned with tiaras of tinkling bells.” There was the incessant clatter of horses’ hooves which, when they departed, left London bereft. “I shall miss the ‘orses’ feet at night, somethin’ shockin’,” one Cockney lady put it, “they was sech comp’ny like.” There was of course the continual noise of wheels, endlessly turning with their own resistless momentum. “To the stranger’s ear,” a journalist wrote in 1837, “the loud and everlasting rattle of the countless vehicles which ply the streets of London is an intolerable annoyance. Conversation with a friend whom one chances to meet in midday is out of the question … one cannot hear a word the other says.” Jane Carlyle, having settled in London with her husband Thomas, asked a correspondent in 1843: “Is it not strange that I should have an everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, wagons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door-bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay.” It is as if the whole world had broken in upon her. That same sense emerges in a book entitled Memories of London in the 1840s where the constant roar of traffic was described “as if all the noises of all the wheels of all the carriages in creation were mingled and ground together into one subdued, hoarse, moaning hum.”

Wooden paving was laid upon many of the main thoroughfares in the 1830s-Oxford Street and the Strand being two particular examples-but nothing could really withstand the encroaching noise of the city. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) R. L. Stevenson writes of “the low growl of London from all round.” In a life of Tennyson it is remarked that the poet “always delighted in the ‘central roar’ of London.” “This is the mind,” he told his son, “that is a mood of it.” Charlotte Brontë heard that “roar” and was deeply excited by it. In each instance the presence of a living thing is being registered, perhaps with some disquiet; it is one great life comprising the sum of individual lives so that, at the end of Little Dorrit, the little heroine and her husband “went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.” Those who are “blessed” are silent, like strangers in the city, but the “eager” and the restless maintain their uproar. Or, rather, the sound of London is transmitted through them.


It has changed during the course of the twentieth century. Those at the beginning recall the noise of horse-driven vans and the apoplectic roar of the omnibuses mingled with the strangely peaceful and satisfying sound of horses’ hooves. It is perhaps not surprising that the writers who dwelled in the city in the first decades of the twentieth century, should instil an enchantment in those noises; it is as if they were aware of their imminent destruction.

In 1929, according to the Journal of the London Society, a deputation from the British Medical Association had visited the Ministry of Health to suggest that “city noise” was “a menace to public health.” Instead of the sound of London being celebrated as a token of life itself, or at least of the energy of the city, it was now being construed as injurious and unwelcome. It had become more uniform and monotonous so that, two years later, a report noted that “people are beginning to rebel against this disturbing, wearying factor in their lives.” It had also become more impersonal and, in response to its dehumanising potential, the measurement of the “decibel” was introduced. Various sources of what was now considered a nuisance were reported. It offers an odd contrast with Hogarth’s print of The Enraged Musician, surrounded by human sources of sound, to note that the new disturbers of the peace in the 1930s included the pneumatic street drill, the motor horn, building construction, and the railway steam-whistle described as “harsh and grating.” Much attention was paid to the “unnatural” quality of London noise-“a riveter is equal to 112 decibels, whereas thunder can register only 70”-thus reintroducing the old notion of a city intrinsically opposed to natural laws of growth and development. It was also suggested that the sound of London had a wholly deleterious effect upon “the brain and nervous system,” creating fatigue, inattention and general weariness.

D.H. Lawrence had a peculiar intuition of this change in the city’s noise. He had considered it, in the first decade of the twentieth century, as an expression of “the vast and roaring heart of all adventure” with the emphasis upon “roar” or “uproar” as a token of exhilaration; but then the traffic had become “too heavy.” This was also the gist of official reports, so that the novelist can be presumed to have touched upon an authentic alteration. “The traffic of London used to roar with the mystery of man’s adventure on the seas of life” but now “it booms like monotonous, far-off guns, in a monotony of crushing something, crushing the earth, crushing out life, crushing everything dead.”

The reiterated note of monotony is entirely characteristic of descriptions of modern London sound. Virginia Woolf described the noise of traffic as “churned into one sound, steel blue, circular” which adequately conveys the artificiality or impersonality of the circumambient noise. In recent years, too, there have been reports of a low humming sound which can be discerned everywhere. It is an accompaniment of fluorescent light, perhaps, or of the vast electronic systems working continuously beneath the surface of the city; it is now the low-level “background” noise which masks other sounds. The noise of cars and cooling systems has changed the air of London in every sense, principally by dulling down the variety and heterogeneity of sound. The great roar of nineteenth-century London is today diminished in intensity but more widespread in its effects; from a distance it might be recognised as an incessant grinding sound. The image would no longer be that of a sea but, rather, of a machine. The beating “heart” of London can no longer be credited with human or natural attributes.

The sound of voices, once such an intrinsic aspect of the street, has now been marginalised-except for the individual voice responding to the call of the mobile telephone, in a manner louder and more abrupt than that of ordinary conversation. Yet two aspects of these changing soundscapes have remained constant. Native Londoners have for many centuries been known to talk louder than their contemporaries, with a marked tendency towards shouting. London has become one unyielding and unending shout. There is a second characteristic noise. If you stand in Lombard Street at any time of the day, for example, that narrow thoroughfare like others in the vicinity echoes to hurrying footfalls. It has been a continuous sound for many hundreds of years, in the very centre of the City, and it may be that the perpetual steady echo of passing footsteps is the true sound of London in its transience and in its permanence.

<p>CHAPTER 6. Silence Is Golden</p>

Yet, on Sundays and public holidays, Lombard Street falls quiet. Throughout the old City, silence returns.

The history of silence is one of London’s secrets. It has been said of the city that its most glorious aspects are concealed, and that observation is wonderfully well fitted to account for the nature of silence in London. It comes upon the pedestrian, or traveller, suddenly and unexpectedly; it momentarily bathes the senses, as if going from bright light into a darkened room. Yet if London sound is that of energy and animation, silence must therefore be an ambiguous presence within city life. It may offer peace and tranquillity, but it may also suggest absence of being. It may be a negative force. The city’s history is striated with moments of silence: the silence of the surrounding country when the anonymous poet of London Lickpenny leaves Cheapside in 1390, the silence of the civic assembly when Richard III was first proposed as king in 1483, the silence of desolation after the Fire in 1666.

There was the silence of sixteenth-century London, after the day’s last cry at the stroke of midnight:

Looke well to your locke,

Your fier and your light,

And so good-night.

Of course the London night was not wholly quiet. What London night ever is, or ever will be? It is the contrast that is significant, in an almost theatrical sense, because it marks an interdiction upon the natural ardour of the citizens. In that sense the silence of London is indeed unnatural. There is a mid-seventeenth-century poem by Abraham Cowley which intimates that, on the departure of all the wicked and the foolish, the city would become “a solitude almost,” the implied silence suggesting here that noise and bustle are indistinguishable from sinfulness or folly. In that sense London could never be a silent city.

The absence of noise has also been marked as yet another contrast in an endlessly contrasting place. An eighteenth-century traveller observed that in the smaller streets off the Strand, running down to the Thames, there was “so pleasing a calm” that it struck the senses. This is a constant refrain. When the American connoisseur of antiquity, Washington Irving, wandered through the grounds of the Temple, off Fleet Street, “strangely situated in the very centre of sordid traffic,” he entered the silence of the chapel of the Knights Templar. “I do not know a more impressive lesson for the man of the world,” he wrote, “than thus suddenly to turn aside from the high way of busy money seeking life and sit down among these shadowy sepulchres, where all is twilight, dust and forgetfulness.” Here silence becomes an intimation of eternity, with the suggestion that London once emerged from a great silence and will one day return to it.

The great locus solus of silence, amid the overbearing noise of nineteenth-century London, acquired therefore an almost sacred status. Another American writer of that century, Nathaniel Hawthorne, entered it, having gone astray in Holborn. He walked “through an arched entrance, over which was ‘Staple Inn’ … but in a court opening inwards from this was a surrounding seclusion of quiet dwelling houses … there was not a quieter spot in England than this. In all the hundreds of years since London was built, it has not been able to sweep its roaring tide over that little island of quiet.” Silence has derived its power here by being able to withstand the sound of London, and in the process has itself acquired a kind of immensity-“there was not a quieter spot in England.”

Dickens knew the same courtyard well and employed it in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “It is one of those nooks, the turning into which out of the clashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet soles on his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in smoky trees, as though they called to one another, ‘Let’s play at country.’” There is almost a theatrical aspect to this silence, therefore, as if it had been tainted by the artificiality of London. It is not a natural silence but a “play,” one of a series of violent contrasts which the inhabitants of London must endure. It is in that sense wholly ambiguous; it may provoke peaceful contemplation, or it may arouse anxiety.

When Hawthorne continued his pilgrimage to the centres of silence-a journey by an antiquarian determined to prove that “modern” London had not obtained full mastery over the silent past-he entered the precincts of Gray’s Inn. “It is very strange to find so much of ancient quietude right in the monster city’s very jaws,” he wrote, confirming his intuition that noise is a consequence of inattention or ignorance. It is silence which partakes of the past, and redeems the present. “Nothing else in London is so like the effect of a spell, as to pass under one of these archways, and find yourself transported from the jumble, rush, tumult, uproar, as if an age of weekdays condensed into the present hour, into what seems an eternal Sabbath.” So silence is the equivalent of the holy days of rest. Silence is the sound of not working, not making money.

But this again is ambiguous since the Sunday of London was known for its altogether dismal aspect, gloomy and generally disheartening. So does silence itself partake of this dreariness? In London the absence of noise, and activity, may be peculiarly enervating. Gabriel Mourey, a French traveller of the nineteenth century, remarked that on a Sunday “it is like a dead city; all trace of life and activity of the past six days has vanished.” Everyone noticed the change. It was “horrible,” and manifested a contrast which no other place on earth could afford. Once more the uniqueness of this sudden transition is being emphasised, so that even silence itself reflects the magniloquence of nineteenth-century London.

Yet there are other forms of silence which seem to presage activity. The author of The Little World of London recognised, and heard, them all. There was the moment of early dawn, a brief period of stillness before the distant noise “of horses’ hooves and grinding wheels” marked the awakening of the city into life. And then, at night, “a dead sepulchral silence seems to reign in the deserted thoroughfares, where but a few hours ago the ear was distracted by every variety of sounds.” This “stillness so sudden and complete … has a solemn suggestiveness,” containing within itself the idea of death as the “sudden and complete” surcease. The nature of the nineteenth-century city was such that it invited and provoked such “solemn” contemplation, precisely because it included the elements of life and death within itself. This is not the silence of the countryside, in other words, where repose seems natural and unforced. The silence of London is an active element; it is filled with an obvious absence (of people, of business) and is therefore filled with presence. It is a teeming silence.

That is why it can actually awake the sleeper. An inhabitant of Cheapside was asked by a London reporter how he knew when it was past two in the morning. “He will tell you, as he has told us, that the silence of the City sometimes wakes him at that hour.” Silence can sound like an alarm. Henry Mayhew noted the “almost painful silence that everywhere prevailed” in certain deserted London alleys, as if the absence of sound provoked mental or physical suffering. Silence can also be associated with what the poet James Thomson described as “the Doom of a City.” Many images abound of silent stone. The City at night, “the city of the dead” as it has been called, has been seen to resemble “a prehistoric forest of stone.” One writer within the great volumes of London, edited by Charles Knight and published in 1841, contemplated the city “with its streets silent and every house untenanted-how should we be excited and thrilled by so touching a sight!” The advent of this silence strangely excites him, as if it represents the erasure of all human energy.

The silence of the nineteenth-century city can induce an almost spiritual sense of transcendence; Matthew Arnold wrote some lines in Kensington Gardens, where peace and silence prevailed over “men’s impious roar” and the “city’s hum”:

Calm Soul of all things! make it mine

To feel, amid the city’s jar,

That there abides a peace of thine,

Man did not make, and cannot mar.

So the “soul of all things” is to be recognised within this silence. Charles Lamb considered it to be a token of all lost and past things, while others believed it to be an emanation or manifestation of that which is secret and hidden. The silence then becomes another aspect of what a contemporary critic has described as “London’s unknowability.” Certainly, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was an obscure fascination for what Julian Wolfreys in Writing London has called “the hidden court, the forgotten square, the unobserved portico” as if the mystery of London exists within its silence. It is the mystery which Whistler observed in his Nocturnes, and which generations of Londoners have encountered in silent streets and strange byways.

Fountain Court, in the Temple, is one such sacred spot that has survived until the beginning of the twenty-first century; its solace seems to be unchanging. The silence of Tower Hamlets cemetery, in the middle of the East End, is also profound and permanent; there is silence in the square by St. Alban the Martyr, off busy Holborn, and there is a sudden silence in Keystone Crescent off the Caledonian Road. There is the silence of Kerry Street in Kentish Town, of Courtenay Square off Kennington Lane, of Arnold Circus in Shoreditch. And then there is the silence of the outer suburbs, waiting to be born within the encroaching and approaching noise of London.

Perhaps these quarters of silence are necessary for the harmony of the city itself; perhaps it needs its antithesis in order properly to define itself. It is like the quiet of the dead upon whom London rests, the silence as a token of transience and eventual dissolution. So oblivion and wakefulness, silence and sound, will always accompany each other in the life of the city. As it is written in that great urban poem of the late nineteenth century, The City of Dreadful Night,

Thus step for step with lonely sounding feet

We travelled many a long dim silent street.


A traffic “lock” or jam on Ludgate Hill, sketched by the French artist Gustave Doré towards the close of the nineteenth century.


CHAPTER 5. Loud and Everlasting

<p>CHAPTER 5. Loud and Everlasting</p>

London has always been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness. It is part of its unnaturalness, too, like the roaring of some monstrous creature. But it is also a token of its energy and of its power.

From its earliest foundation London rang with the hammers of artisans and the cries of tradesmen; it produced more noise than any other part of the country, and in certain quarters, like those of the smiths and the barrel-makers, the clamour was almost insupportable. But there were other noises. In the early medieval city, the clatter of manufacturing trades and crafts would have been accompanied by the sound of bells, among them secular bells, church bells, convent bells, the bell of the curfew and the bell of the watchman.

It might be surmised that the effect of the bells ended with the Reformation, when London ceased to be a notably pious Catholic city, but all the evidence suggests that the citizens continued to be addicted to them. A German duke entered London on the evening of 12 September 1602, and was astonished by the unique character of the city’s sound. “On arriving in London we heard a great ringing of bells in almost all the churches going on very late in the evening, also on the following days until 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening. We were informed that the young people do that for the sake of exercise and amusement, and sometimes they lay considerable sums of money as a wager, who will pull a bell longest or ring it in the most approved fashion. Parishes spend much money in harmoniously-sounding bells, that one being preferred which has the best bells. The old Queen is said to have been pleased very much by this exercise, considering it as a sign of the health of the people.” This account is taken from The Acoustic World of Early Modern England by Bruce R. Smith, which offers an intimate version of London’s history. There is some suggestion here that the harmony of the bells is in some sense intended to demonstrate the harmony of the city, with the attendant “health” of its citizens, but there is also an element of theatricality or bravura intrinsic to London and Londoners. Indeed there is almost a kind of violence attached to their liking of loud sound. Another German traveller, of 1598, wrote that Londoners are “vastly fond of great noises that fill the ear, such as the firing of cannon, drums, and the ringing of bells, so that it is common for a number of them … to go up into some belfry, and ring the bells for hours together for the sake of exercise.” A chaplain to the Venetian ambassador similarly reported that London boys made bets “who can make the parish bells be heard at the greatest distance.” To the element of display are added aggression and competition.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the very definition of the Londoner should be adduced in terms of loud noise. A Cockney was one who was born within the sound of the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow, in Cheapside, which according to John Stow was “more famous than any other Parish Church of the whole Cittie or suburbs.” Fynes Moryson, in 1617, announced that “Londiners, and all within the sound of Bow-Bell, are in reproach called Cocknies, and eaters of buttered tostes.” Bruce R. Smith has suggested that “cockney” in fact derives from the “cock-shaped weathervane” which once surmounted the belfry of St. Mary-le-Bow and that the Londoners’ identification with the sound came from their own “loud loquaciousness” or “boastfulness.”


As the city grew, so did its level of noise. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, according to Walter Besant’s London, “there was no noisier city in the whole world”; it could be heard from Highgate and from the Surrey hills. Dekker in The Seven deadly Sinnes of London evokes something of the incessant din-“hammers are beating in one place; Tubs hooping in another, Pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth.” Here noise itself is associated with energy, and specifically with the making of money. Sound was intrinsic to the trades of the carpenters and the coopers, the blacksmiths and the armourers. Other occupations, such as dockers and porters, the loaders and unloaders by the wharves, actively employed noise as an agent of business; it was the only way of affirming or expressing their role within the commercial city.

Certain areas produced particular noises. The metal foundries of Lothbury, for example, produced “a loathsome noise to the by-passers, that hath not been used to the like” and the quarter of the blacksmiths was permeated “with the noise of and sound of their hammers amp; anuiles.” There was also the general circumambient noise of the London streets where, according once more to Thomas Dekker, “carts and Coaches make such a thundring” and where “in the open streetes is such walking, such talking, such running, such riding, such clapping too of windowes, such rapping at Chamber doores, such crying out for drink, such buying vp of meate, and such calling vppon Shottes, that at every such time, I verily beleeue I dwell in a Towne of Warre.” Images of violence and assault spring unimpeded from the experience of London sound. In 1598 Everard Guilpin wrote a verse satire upon “the peopled streets” of London, which he depicts as a “hotch-potch of so many noyses … so many severall voyces.” Here the heterogeneity of London is seen as an aspect of its noise. Yet without the perpetual hum of traffic and machines which seems to characterise the noise of contemporary London streets, individual voices would have been heard more clearly. The wooden and plaster houses on either side of the main thoroughfares acted as an echo-chamber, so that one of the characteristics of the sixteenth-century city would be a continual babble of voices making up one single and insistent conversation; it might be termed the conversation of the city with itself.

There were certain places where the voices reached such a pitch and intensity that they could also be characterised as a London sound. The interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral was known for its particular timbre. To quote once more from Bruce Smith’s account, “the noyse in it is like that of Bees, a strange humming or buzze, mixt of walking, tongues, and feet: It is a kind of still roare or loud whisper.” The Royal Exchange, where merchants from all over the world congregated, was “vaulted and hollow, and hath such an Eccho, as multiplies euery worde that is spoken.” At the centre of commerce there is a great reverberation, as if the conduct of finance could only take place within thunder. Then, in the taverns to which the dealers and merchants retired, “men come here to make merry but indeed make a noise.” So, in the places of power and speculation, the insistent sound is that of raised male voices. Samuel Johnson once remarked upon the subject of taverns, “Sir, there is no other place where the more noise you make, the more welcome you are.” It is a suggestive observation, with its implications of theatricality and aggression as part of the London experience; the more “noise” you make, the more you become a true inhabitant of the city. In the theatres, too, there was unabated noise, with the hucksters and the criers and the huddled throng; everybody talking together, breaking nuts, and crying out for ale.

On the streets outside were the bells, the wagons, the cries, the barking dogs, the squeaking of shop signs blowing in the wind. But there was another sound, relatively unfamiliar to Londoners of later generations. It was that of rushing water. The sixteenth-century city was crossed by streams and rivers. The sound of water from fifteen conduits mingled with the noise of the Thames and its lapping tides, audible along all the lanes and thoroughfares which led to the river. Great wheels were used to pump water from the Thames into small wooden pipes, and their endless grinding and reverberation added materially to the overwhelming noise of the city.

In 1682 it was still the same endless sound, like a great shout perpetually renewed. “I lie down in Storms,” Sir John Oldham announced in that year, “in Thunders, rise.” He evokes the “Din” of the “restless Bells” as well as

Huzza’s of Drunkards, Bellmen’s midnight Rhimes


The noise of Shops, with Hawkers early Screams.

The allusion here is to a city that is always wakeful; there is no end to its activity, neither at night nor at day, and it lives continually. In the seventeenth century, too, London was still a city of animals as well as people. Samuel Pepys was disturbed one night by a “damned noise between a sow gelder and a cow and a dog.” The noise of horses, cattle, cats, dogs, pigs, sheep and chickens, which were kept in the capital, was confounded also with the sound of the great herds of beasts being driven towards Smithfield and the other open markets; London consumed the countryside, or so it was said, and the noise which accompanied its devouring appetite was everywhere apparent.

It has often been observed how foreigners, or strangers, were astonished and perplexed by the noise of London. On one level it was regarded as representative of London’s “license,” where the boundary between anarchy and freedom remained ambiguous. In a city filled with an implicitly egalitarian spirit, each inhabitant was free to occupy his or her own space with endless noisy expressiveness. In Hogarth’s engraving of 1741, The Enraged Musician, a foreign visitor is assailed by the sound of a sow-gelder (perhaps a descendant of the one who annoyed Pepys), by howling cats, a girl’s rattle, a boy’s drum, a milkmaid’s cry, a ballad-seller’s plaintive call, a knife-grinder and a pewterer at their respective trades, a carillon of bells, a parrot, a wandering “haut-boy” or oboe player, a shrieking dustman and a barking dog. The significance of these heterogeneous images is that they are all striking and familiar London types. Hogarth is here celebrating the noises of the city as an intrinsic aspect of its life. It is the prerogative of Londoners to make noise; therefore, noise is a natural and inevitable part of their existence in the city. Without that right, for example, many of the vendors and street-sellers would perish.

Those who came to the city as visitors were not of course necessarily able to share Hogarth’s implicit enthusiasm for this native uproar. In Tobias Smollett’s novel of 1771 Humphry Clinker is dismayed by its nocturnal aspects. “I start every hour from my sleep, at the horrid noise of the watchmen bawling the hour through every street and thundering at every door,” thus illustrating the fact that time itself can be imposed with a shout. In the morning, too: “I start out of bed, in consequence of the still more dreadful alarm made by the country carts, and noisy rustics bellowing green peas under my window.” Commerce, as well as time, must be understood in raucous terms. Joseph Haydn complained that he might fly to Vienna “to have more quiet in which to work, for the noise that the common people make as they sell their wares in the street is intolerable.” Yet there were others who so wished to enter the spirit of London that they rejoiced in the clamour and embraced it like a lover. “The noise,” Boswell wrote upon his first arrival in London in 1762, “the crowd, the glare of the shops and signs agreeably confused me.” He arrived in the capital by way of Highgate, from which eminence he would already have heard the noise. “Let anyone ride down Highgate Hill on a summer’s day,” Laetitia Landon wrote in the early nineteenth century, “see the immense mass of buildings spread like a dark panorama, hear the ceaseless and peculiar sound, which has been likened to the hollow roar of the ocean, but has an utterly different tone … then say, if ever was witnessed hill or valley that so powerfully impressed the imagination with that sublime and awful feeling, which is the epic of poetry.” So the noise of the city partakes of its greatness.

This sense of disturbing, almost transcendental, sound was essentially a discovery of the nineteenth century when London represented the great urban myth of the world. Its noise became an aspect of its mightiness, and horror; it became numinous. In 1857 Charles Manby Smith, in the paradoxically entitled The Little World of London, described it as “that indefinable boom of distant but ever-present sound which tells that London is up and doing, and which will swell into a deafening roar as the day grows older [and] now rises faintly but continuously upon the ear.” The “roar” here suggests the presence of some great beast, but more significant is this sense of a continuous, distant sound as if it were a form of meditation or self-communing. We read in the same narrative of “the uninterrupted and crashing roar of deafening sounds, which tell of the rush of the current of London’s life blood through its thousand channels-a phenomenon, however, of which the born Londoner is no more unpleasantly conscious than is the Indian savage, cradled at the foot of a cataract, of its everlasting voice.” This is an interesting image, which identifies London itself with some kind of natural force; at the same time it covertly admits savagery among the citizens, in a locale both untamed and untamable.

From three miles’ distance, in what was then an “outlying” suburb soon to be drawn within the vortex of the city, the sound of London is “like the swell of the sea-surge beating upon a pebbly shore when it is heard far inland.” Here is a haunting impression of proximity to the great city. That perpetual sound was variously compared to Niagara, in its persistence and remorselessness, and to the beating of a human heart. It is intimate and yet impersonal, like the noise of life itself. That same intuition was vouchsafed to Shelley who wrote of

London: that great sea whose ebb and flow


At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore


Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more.

The adjectives “deaf” and “loud” summon up an image of pitiless activity; the verb “howls” one of fear, pain and rage in equal measure. The noise is one of greed and helplessness, as if it were in a perpetually infantile state. Its noise is ancient, but always renewed.

A celebrated American of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell, has written: “I confess that I never think of London, which I love, without thinking of that palace which David built for Bathsheba, sitting in hearing of one hundred streams-streams of thought, of intelligence, of activity. One other thing about London impresses me beyond any other sound I have ever heard, and that is the low, unceasing roar one hears always in the air; it is not a mere accident, like a tempest or a cataract, but it is impressive, because it always indicates human will, and impulse, and conscious movement; and I confess that when I hear it I almost feel as if I were listening to the roaring loom of time.”

Here, then, is a further sense of the numinous. London becomes the image of time itself. The great “streams” of thought and intelligence never cease; to change the metaphor, they resemble cosmic winds. But is the sound of the city also the sound of time itself? The noise would then be striated by the shuttling of the future into the past, that instantaneous and irremediable process that takes place in a “present” moment that can never really be glimpsed or known. The sound is then one of vast loss, the “howl” of which Shelley writes. In the phrase of T.S. Eliot, a poet whose vision of time and eternity sprang directly from his experience of London, “All time is unredeemable.” London is unredeemable, too, and we may also think of its noise as comprising a vast mass of subjective private times continually retreating into non-existence.

Even in the middle of that maelstrom, however, it was possible to pick out and to remember specific London sounds which belonged to that place and to no other in the nineteenth century. There were the notes of the “German band,” with their horn and trombone and clarionet; there was the lament of the barrel organ and the barrel piano; there was the cry of “Lucifers” from an old man bearing a tray of matches. There was the rumble of the scavenger’s cart drawn by great horses “adorned with tiaras of tinkling bells.” There was the incessant clatter of horses’ hooves which, when they departed, left London bereft. “I shall miss the ‘orses’ feet at night, somethin’ shockin’,” one Cockney lady put it, “they was sech comp’ny like.” There was of course the continual noise of wheels, endlessly turning with their own resistless momentum. “To the stranger’s ear,” a journalist wrote in 1837, “the loud and everlasting rattle of the countless vehicles which ply the streets of London is an intolerable annoyance. Conversation with a friend whom one chances to meet in midday is out of the question … one cannot hear a word the other says.” Jane Carlyle, having settled in London with her husband Thomas, asked a correspondent in 1843: “Is it not strange that I should have an everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, wagons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door-bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay.” It is as if the whole world had broken in upon her. That same sense emerges in a book entitled Memories of London in the 1840s where the constant roar of traffic was described “as if all the noises of all the wheels of all the carriages in creation were mingled and ground together into one subdued, hoarse, moaning hum.”

Wooden paving was laid upon many of the main thoroughfares in the 1830s-Oxford Street and the Strand being two particular examples-but nothing could really withstand the encroaching noise of the city. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) R. L. Stevenson writes of “the low growl of London from all round.” In a life of Tennyson it is remarked that the poet “always delighted in the ‘central roar’ of London.” “This is the mind,” he told his son, “that is a mood of it.” Charlotte Brontë heard that “roar” and was deeply excited by it. In each instance the presence of a living thing is being registered, perhaps with some disquiet; it is one great life comprising the sum of individual lives so that, at the end of Little Dorrit, the little heroine and her husband “went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.” Those who are “blessed” are silent, like strangers in the city, but the “eager” and the restless maintain their uproar. Or, rather, the sound of London is transmitted through them.


It has changed during the course of the twentieth century. Those at the beginning recall the noise of horse-driven vans and the apoplectic roar of the omnibuses mingled with the strangely peaceful and satisfying sound of horses’ hooves. It is perhaps not surprising that the writers who dwelled in the city in the first decades of the twentieth century, should instil an enchantment in those noises; it is as if they were aware of their imminent destruction.

In 1929, according to the Journal of the London Society, a deputation from the British Medical Association had visited the Ministry of Health to suggest that “city noise” was “a menace to public health.” Instead of the sound of London being celebrated as a token of life itself, or at least of the energy of the city, it was now being construed as injurious and unwelcome. It had become more uniform and monotonous so that, two years later, a report noted that “people are beginning to rebel against this disturbing, wearying factor in their lives.” It had also become more impersonal and, in response to its dehumanising potential, the measurement of the “decibel” was introduced. Various sources of what was now considered a nuisance were reported. It offers an odd contrast with Hogarth’s print of The Enraged Musician, surrounded by human sources of sound, to note that the new disturbers of the peace in the 1930s included the pneumatic street drill, the motor horn, building construction, and the railway steam-whistle described as “harsh and grating.” Much attention was paid to the “unnatural” quality of London noise-“a riveter is equal to 112 decibels, whereas thunder can register only 70”-thus reintroducing the old notion of a city intrinsically opposed to natural laws of growth and development. It was also suggested that the sound of London had a wholly deleterious effect upon “the brain and nervous system,” creating fatigue, inattention and general weariness.

D.H. Lawrence had a peculiar intuition of this change in the city’s noise. He had considered it, in the first decade of the twentieth century, as an expression of “the vast and roaring heart of all adventure” with the emphasis upon “roar” or “uproar” as a token of exhilaration; but then the traffic had become “too heavy.” This was also the gist of official reports, so that the novelist can be presumed to have touched upon an authentic alteration. “The traffic of London used to roar with the mystery of man’s adventure on the seas of life” but now “it booms like monotonous, far-off guns, in a monotony of crushing something, crushing the earth, crushing out life, crushing everything dead.”

The reiterated note of monotony is entirely characteristic of descriptions of modern London sound. Virginia Woolf described the noise of traffic as “churned into one sound, steel blue, circular” which adequately conveys the artificiality or impersonality of the circumambient noise. In recent years, too, there have been reports of a low humming sound which can be discerned everywhere. It is an accompaniment of fluorescent light, perhaps, or of the vast electronic systems working continuously beneath the surface of the city; it is now the low-level “background” noise which masks other sounds. The noise of cars and cooling systems has changed the air of London in every sense, principally by dulling down the variety and heterogeneity of sound. The great roar of nineteenth-century London is today diminished in intensity but more widespread in its effects; from a distance it might be recognised as an incessant grinding sound. The image would no longer be that of a sea but, rather, of a machine. The beating “heart” of London can no longer be credited with human or natural attributes.

The sound of voices, once such an intrinsic aspect of the street, has now been marginalised-except for the individual voice responding to the call of the mobile telephone, in a manner louder and more abrupt than that of ordinary conversation. Yet two aspects of these changing soundscapes have remained constant. Native Londoners have for many centuries been known to talk louder than their contemporaries, with a marked tendency towards shouting. London has become one unyielding and unending shout. There is a second characteristic noise. If you stand in Lombard Street at any time of the day, for example, that narrow thoroughfare like others in the vicinity echoes to hurrying footfalls. It has been a continuous sound for many hundreds of years, in the very centre of the City, and it may be that the perpetual steady echo of passing footsteps is the true sound of London in its transience and in its permanence.


CHAPTER 6. Silence Is Golden

<p>CHAPTER 6. Silence Is Golden</p>

Yet, on Sundays and public holidays, Lombard Street falls quiet. Throughout the old City, silence returns.

The history of silence is one of London’s secrets. It has been said of the city that its most glorious aspects are concealed, and that observation is wonderfully well fitted to account for the nature of silence in London. It comes upon the pedestrian, or traveller, suddenly and unexpectedly; it momentarily bathes the senses, as if going from bright light into a darkened room. Yet if London sound is that of energy and animation, silence must therefore be an ambiguous presence within city life. It may offer peace and tranquillity, but it may also suggest absence of being. It may be a negative force. The city’s history is striated with moments of silence: the silence of the surrounding country when the anonymous poet of London Lickpenny leaves Cheapside in 1390, the silence of the civic assembly when Richard III was first proposed as king in 1483, the silence of desolation after the Fire in 1666.

There was the silence of sixteenth-century London, after the day’s last cry at the stroke of midnight:

Looke well to your locke,

Your fier and your light,

And so good-night.

Of course the London night was not wholly quiet. What London night ever is, or ever will be? It is the contrast that is significant, in an almost theatrical sense, because it marks an interdiction upon the natural ardour of the citizens. In that sense the silence of London is indeed unnatural. There is a mid-seventeenth-century poem by Abraham Cowley which intimates that, on the departure of all the wicked and the foolish, the city would become “a solitude almost,” the implied silence suggesting here that noise and bustle are indistinguishable from sinfulness or folly. In that sense London could never be a silent city.

The absence of noise has also been marked as yet another contrast in an endlessly contrasting place. An eighteenth-century traveller observed that in the smaller streets off the Strand, running down to the Thames, there was “so pleasing a calm” that it struck the senses. This is a constant refrain. When the American connoisseur of antiquity, Washington Irving, wandered through the grounds of the Temple, off Fleet Street, “strangely situated in the very centre of sordid traffic,” he entered the silence of the chapel of the Knights Templar. “I do not know a more impressive lesson for the man of the world,” he wrote, “than thus suddenly to turn aside from the high way of busy money seeking life and sit down among these shadowy sepulchres, where all is twilight, dust and forgetfulness.” Here silence becomes an intimation of eternity, with the suggestion that London once emerged from a great silence and will one day return to it.

The great locus solus of silence, amid the overbearing noise of nineteenth-century London, acquired therefore an almost sacred status. Another American writer of that century, Nathaniel Hawthorne, entered it, having gone astray in Holborn. He walked “through an arched entrance, over which was ‘Staple Inn’ … but in a court opening inwards from this was a surrounding seclusion of quiet dwelling houses … there was not a quieter spot in England than this. In all the hundreds of years since London was built, it has not been able to sweep its roaring tide over that little island of quiet.” Silence has derived its power here by being able to withstand the sound of London, and in the process has itself acquired a kind of immensity-“there was not a quieter spot in England.”

Dickens knew the same courtyard well and employed it in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “It is one of those nooks, the turning into which out of the clashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet soles on his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in smoky trees, as though they called to one another, ‘Let’s play at country.’” There is almost a theatrical aspect to this silence, therefore, as if it had been tainted by the artificiality of London. It is not a natural silence but a “play,” one of a series of violent contrasts which the inhabitants of London must endure. It is in that sense wholly ambiguous; it may provoke peaceful contemplation, or it may arouse anxiety.

When Hawthorne continued his pilgrimage to the centres of silence-a journey by an antiquarian determined to prove that “modern” London had not obtained full mastery over the silent past-he entered the precincts of Gray’s Inn. “It is very strange to find so much of ancient quietude right in the monster city’s very jaws,” he wrote, confirming his intuition that noise is a consequence of inattention or ignorance. It is silence which partakes of the past, and redeems the present. “Nothing else in London is so like the effect of a spell, as to pass under one of these archways, and find yourself transported from the jumble, rush, tumult, uproar, as if an age of weekdays condensed into the present hour, into what seems an eternal Sabbath.” So silence is the equivalent of the holy days of rest. Silence is the sound of not working, not making money.

But this again is ambiguous since the Sunday of London was known for its altogether dismal aspect, gloomy and generally disheartening. So does silence itself partake of this dreariness? In London the absence of noise, and activity, may be peculiarly enervating. Gabriel Mourey, a French traveller of the nineteenth century, remarked that on a Sunday “it is like a dead city; all trace of life and activity of the past six days has vanished.” Everyone noticed the change. It was “horrible,” and manifested a contrast which no other place on earth could afford. Once more the uniqueness of this sudden transition is being emphasised, so that even silence itself reflects the magniloquence of nineteenth-century London.

Yet there are other forms of silence which seem to presage activity. The author of The Little World of London recognised, and heard, them all. There was the moment of early dawn, a brief period of stillness before the distant noise “of horses’ hooves and grinding wheels” marked the awakening of the city into life. And then, at night, “a dead sepulchral silence seems to reign in the deserted thoroughfares, where but a few hours ago the ear was distracted by every variety of sounds.” This “stillness so sudden and complete … has a solemn suggestiveness,” containing within itself the idea of death as the “sudden and complete” surcease. The nature of the nineteenth-century city was such that it invited and provoked such “solemn” contemplation, precisely because it included the elements of life and death within itself. This is not the silence of the countryside, in other words, where repose seems natural and unforced. The silence of London is an active element; it is filled with an obvious absence (of people, of business) and is therefore filled with presence. It is a teeming silence.

That is why it can actually awake the sleeper. An inhabitant of Cheapside was asked by a London reporter how he knew when it was past two in the morning. “He will tell you, as he has told us, that the silence of the City sometimes wakes him at that hour.” Silence can sound like an alarm. Henry Mayhew noted the “almost painful silence that everywhere prevailed” in certain deserted London alleys, as if the absence of sound provoked mental or physical suffering. Silence can also be associated with what the poet James Thomson described as “the Doom of a City.” Many images abound of silent stone. The City at night, “the city of the dead” as it has been called, has been seen to resemble “a prehistoric forest of stone.” One writer within the great volumes of London, edited by Charles Knight and published in 1841, contemplated the city “with its streets silent and every house untenanted-how should we be excited and thrilled by so touching a sight!” The advent of this silence strangely excites him, as if it represents the erasure of all human energy.

The silence of the nineteenth-century city can induce an almost spiritual sense of transcendence; Matthew Arnold wrote some lines in Kensington Gardens, where peace and silence prevailed over “men’s impious roar” and the “city’s hum”:

Calm Soul of all things! make it mine

To feel, amid the city’s jar,

That there abides a peace of thine,

Man did not make, and cannot mar.

So the “soul of all things” is to be recognised within this silence. Charles Lamb considered it to be a token of all lost and past things, while others believed it to be an emanation or manifestation of that which is secret and hidden. The silence then becomes another aspect of what a contemporary critic has described as “London’s unknowability.” Certainly, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was an obscure fascination for what Julian Wolfreys in Writing London has called “the hidden court, the forgotten square, the unobserved portico” as if the mystery of London exists within its silence. It is the mystery which Whistler observed in his Nocturnes, and which generations of Londoners have encountered in silent streets and strange byways.

Fountain Court, in the Temple, is one such sacred spot that has survived until the beginning of the twenty-first century; its solace seems to be unchanging. The silence of Tower Hamlets cemetery, in the middle of the East End, is also profound and permanent; there is silence in the square by St. Alban the Martyr, off busy Holborn, and there is a sudden silence in Keystone Crescent off the Caledonian Road. There is the silence of Kerry Street in Kentish Town, of Courtenay Square off Kennington Lane, of Arnold Circus in Shoreditch. And then there is the silence of the outer suburbs, waiting to be born within the encroaching and approaching noise of London.

Perhaps these quarters of silence are necessary for the harmony of the city itself; perhaps it needs its antithesis in order properly to define itself. It is like the quiet of the dead upon whom London rests, the silence as a token of transience and eventual dissolution. So oblivion and wakefulness, silence and sound, will always accompany each other in the life of the city. As it is written in that great urban poem of the late nineteenth century, The City of Dreadful Night,

Thus step for step with lonely sounding feet

We travelled many a long dim silent street.


The Late Medieval City

CHAPTER 7. This Companye

<p>The Late Medieval City</p>

A Tudor depiction of the market of East Cheap; note the number of butchers’ shops, in a city where meat was at a premium.

<p>CHAPTER 7. This Companye</p>

The visitation of “the death” in the last months of 1348 destroyed 40 per cent of London’s population. Perhaps 50,000 people died within the city. A decade later, one-third of the land within the walls remained uninhabited. It was called “the great pestilence” as well as “the death,” and reoccurred with extraordinary virulence eleven years later. London (like most other European cities) remained under the threat of bubonic plague for the rest of the century. It was not an urban disease but it flourished in urban conditions; it was transmitted by rats, living in the straw and thatch of medieval dwellings, as well as by close respiratory proximity.

Yet London seems inured to disaster, and there is no evidence of any discontinuity in the history of this period. It was said that in the city itself there were not enough living to bury the dead but, for those who survived, the disease offered an unparalleled opportunity to thrive and flourish. Many, for example, became prosperous as a result of unexpected inheritance; while, for others, the demand for labour meant that their worth was greater than they had imagined. The late fourteenth century was a time when many families, those of labourers and merchants alike, moved from the neighbouring provinces to the great city in order to make their fortunes. From this period dates the apocryphal history of Dick Whittington, which once more spread the story of London as “Cockaigne” or the realm of gold.


The real Richard Whittington was a member of the mercers’ guild, and London’s history cannot properly be understood without also understanding the nature of those fraternities which combined the regulation of work with religious observances and parish duties. London may not have been recognised as a “city of god” upon the earth, but there were many late medieval theorists who believed that the city itself was the pattern of human existence as well as an emblem of human harmony.

There seem to have been trading guilds since the time of the Saxons, gegildan, later known as “frith guilds,” which also possessed military or defensive functions. In the twelfth century certain traders, such as the bakers and the fishmongers, were allowed to collect their own taxes without being “farmed” or tolled by the royal administration. As part of a complementary, if not directly connected, process we find the various trades congregating in separate areas; the bakers were ensconced in Bread Street, while the fishmongers might be found in Friday Street (good Catholics ate no meat on Fridays).

The growth of craft guilds, located in a specific area, cannot be distinguished from the parish guilds of the same vicinity. The tanners who pursued their noisome craft along the banks of the River Fleet, for example, were accustomed to meet at their own “fraternity” in the Carmelite house in Fleet Street. By the late thirteenth century there were approximately two hundred fraternities in which craft regulation and religious observance were mingled. In the church of St. Stephen, Coleman Street, for example, three fraternities are recorded; while at St. James Garlickhythe there was a “litel companye” of joiners. It was a typically late medieval arrangement, which effectively allowed a self-regulating and self-sustaining community to prosper within the context of a rapidly developing city. In the early fourteenth century was issued a royal charter in which it was formally announced that no man might join a specific craft without the recommendation and security of six other members of that craft; a further stipulation decreed that only members of a craft might be admitted to the freedom of the city. Only citizens, in other words, could belong to a trade guild. In this fashion the guilds acquired enormous economic power within the city. One ordinance, for example, required that ale or beer could be bought only from freemen enfranchised in and inhabiting London.

But in London economic power in turn purchased political and social preeminence so that, in 1351 and again in 1377, the crafts themselves elected the Common Council of the city. It ought to be remembered, also, that there were “many craftes” and “mochel smale poeple” who would simply have met for business in their local church. The religious and social constraints of these trading “mysteries”-the word has no sacred significance, but comes from the French métier-are also implicit within the ordinances of the guilds themselves which emphasised the importance of honesty and good reputation. The rules of the fraternity of St. Anne at St. Laurence Jewry, for example, demanded that “yif any of the company be of wikked fame of his body and take othere wyues than his owene or yif he be a sengle man and be holde a comone lechour or contecour or rebell of his tonge” then he is to be admonished. After three such warnings, if unavailing, he is to be expelled so that “godemen of this companye ne be nat sclaundered bi cause of hym.”

There are other aspects of these guild ordinances which reveal the very condition of the time. It is noted in the same rules that anyone who “vse hym to lye longe in bedde amp; atte risyng of his bed ne wil nat worcke to wynne his sustenaunce amp; kepe his house amp; go to the tavernne to the wyn to the ale to wrastelynge to schetynge,” “schal be put of for euermore of this companye.” Clearly the enjoyment of drink and what might now be termed “spectator sport” was not considered compatible with good working practice; the same admonitions against urban amusements were made by Daniel Defoe in his seventeenth-century manual on London trade. In a similar spirit there are injunctions against any who acquire an “euel name” as “theft or commune barettour or comune questmonger or meyntenour of quereles”; the guilds were here condemning those who breached public peace, as if the act of quarrelling or disputing might itself be construed as sinful in a community whose harmony was maintained only with great difficulty. The emphasis here is upon good standing, and the avoidance of shame among equals; it is typical of the regulations which “smale poeple” devised in order to protect their “good name” and therefore assist them in the remorseless pressure to move “upward” in the hierarchy of trades. That is why the ordinary workmen or “journeymen” sometimes tried to combine against their employers, but the city authorities were generally able to prevent any “union” of the lower workers. There came a time when the victualling and manufacturing trades were indeed engaged in bitter dispute about precedence and power, but it was essentially only a further stage in the continual restless and dissatisfied movement of those “lower” trades and professions who gradually pushed themselves forward into the social and political life of the city. This is the true history of London which lives and moves beneath the incidents and events of public record.


But no account of medieval London would be complete without an understanding of the elaborate and complicated manner in which the Church itself remained the single most disciplined and authoritative director of the city’s affairs. In the simply material sphere, the administrators of the Church were the biggest landlords and employers both within and without the walls. Many thousands of people, both secular and spiritual, owed their livings to the great abbeys and monastic foundations of the city, but these large communities also owned ancient lands and manors beyond the jurisdiction of the city itself. The bishop of St. Paul’s, for example, owned the manor of Stepney which stretched to the boundaries of Essex on the east and to Wimbledon and Barnes on the south-west; the canons of that establishment possessed thirteen other manors, ranging from Pancras and Islington to Hoxton and Holborn. This territorial power is a direct expression of secular, as well as spiritual, authority which dates from a very early period indeed; during the steady disintegration of Romanised England, and the dissolution of Roman London, these magnates of the Church had already become the true governing class of the country. The bishop of each province had taken on “the mantle of the Roman consul” and, in default of other public institutions, the parish church and the monastery became the centre of all organised activity. That is why the earliest administrative records of London emphasise the power of the Church authorities. In 900 we read that “the bishop and the reeves who belong to London make, in the name of citizens, laws which were confirmed by the king,” and it was customary for priors and abbots also to become aldermen. There was no distinction between secular and spiritual power because both were seen as intrinsic aspects of the divine order.

London itself was a city of churches, containing a larger number than any other city in Europe. There were more than a hundred churches within the walls of the old City, sixteen alone devoted to St. Mary, and it can reasonably be inferred that many were originally of Saxon date and of wooden construction. In London Walter Besant has noted that “there was no street without its monastery, its convent garden, its college of priests, its friars, its pardoners, its sextons and its serving brothers.” This may seem exaggerated but, although not every lane and alley contained a monastery or a convent garden, a look at any map will show that the main thoroughfares did indeed harbour religious institutions great and small. Beside the 126 parish churches there were thirteen conventual churches, including St. Martin’s le Grand and the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem; there were seven great friaries, including the Carthusian friars of Hart Street; there were five priories, among them St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield and St. Saviour’s in Bermondsey; there were four large nunneries and five priests’ colleges. Of the hospitals and refuges, for the sick and the indigent, we have records of seventeen in areas as diverse as Bevis Marks and Aldgate, Charing Cross and St. Laurence Pountney (among them a refuge for the insane at Barking, and thus the phrase “barking mad”). This is not to mention the chantries, the church schools and the private chapels. It is a further indication of the sanctity of London that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there was continual reconstruction of these sacred edifices. The piety of Londoners is not in doubt.

The evidence of medieval wills in London is of some consequence, and in the last testaments of John Toker, vintner (1428), of Robert Ameray, cordwainer (1410), of Richard Whyteman, wax-chandler (1428), and Roger Elmesley, wax-chandler’s servant (1434), there are tokens of a simple but profound piety. In the details of these testaments there is all the paraphernalia of ordinary London life, with bequests of towels and spoons, beds and blankets; Roger Elmesley left an iron rack for roasting eggs as well as some peacock feathers and “my roller for a towell,” but his main wish was that he be buried “vnder the stone with-oute the Dore of the porche” of St. Margaret Pattens in Little Tower Street. He was concerned also with the spiritual destiny of his godson, to whom he left “a prymmer for to serve god with,” as well as “a litel cofur to putte in his smale thynges.” All of these wills mention sums of money to be given to the poor, or the imprisoned, or the sick, on condition that these disadvantaged would then pray for the soul of the departed. John Toker the vintner, for example, gave various bequests to the priests of St. Mildred’s in Bread Street “forto praie for my soule” with other moneys to be paid to the prisoners of “Ludgate, Marchalsie Kyngesbenche,” as well as to the “pore folk lying sike in the spitell of our lady with-oute Bisshopes-gate, Oure lady of Bedlem, Oure lady of Elsingspitel, of Seynt Bathilmewys in Smythfeeld, And seint Thomas in Sowthwerk.” Many of these institutions exist today, albeit in altered form, while others linger only in the folk memory of London. John Toker left to his apprentice Henry Thommissone “my mancion that is cleped the Mermaid in Bredstreet” which is the very same tavern where Shakespeare and Jonson were supposed to have drunk. The history of London is a palimpsest of different realities and lingering truths.

The patron saint of the medieval city was a seventh-century monk who ruled as the bishop of London: Erkenwald was the spiritual leader of the East Saxons for eighteen years and, after his death, many miracles were vouchsafed on his behalf. The wooden cart or litter upon which Bishop Erkenwald would travel through the streets of London, when age and sickness prevented him from walking through his diocese, became the centre of a cult. Fragments and splinters of this vehicle were credited with curative properties, and the litter was enshrined behind the main altar of St. Paul’s with the relics of the saint himself. The physical remains of Erkenwald were sealed within a leaden casket which was fashioned “in the form of a gabled house or church,” thus rendering in sacred space the physical topography of the city itself.

The cult of Erkenwald survived for many centuries, testifying once more to the piety or credulity of the citizens. There was a miracle at Stratford, where now an industrial park is sited by the River Lea, as well as many other reported wonders in the thoroughfares around St. Paul’s itself. It was in fact something of a miracle that the physical remains of St. Erkenwald survived the various fires that visited the cathedral, most notably the great fire of 1087, after which the relics were placed in a silver shrine befitting Lundoniae maxime sanctus, “the most holy figure of London.” We read of the servants of the abbey moving the body of the saint to yet another great shrine clandestinely by night, since its exposure during the day would have created hysteria among the crowd assembled. This devotion was not of the populace alone. Even in the early sixteenth century the shrine of St. Erkenwald was an object of pilgrimage to the most successful lawyers of London who, on being nominated as serjeants of law, would walk in procession to St. Paul’s in order to venerate the physical presence of the saint.

Legends of dead saints may seem of little relevance, but they were part of the very texture of London life. The citizens when they first carried Erkenwald’s body to the cathedral, declared: “We are like strong and vigorous men who will … undermine and overturn cities heavily fortified with men and weapons before we will give up the servant of God, our protector … we ourselves intend that such a glorious city and congregation should be strengthened and honoured by such a patron.” There is indeed an Erconwald Street in the western part of the twenty-first-century city. So we may still name him as the patron saint of London, whose cult survived for over eight hundred years, before entering the temporary darkness of the last four centuries.

· · ·

The medieval city can be understood in a variety of ways, therefore, whether in terms of its violence or its devotion, its commercial imperatives or its spiritual precepts. The bells of the church tolled the end of each trading day, and the traders’ weights were tested and measured at the market cross. Could we say that the administrators of the Church in London were thoroughly secularised? Or that the citizens, avid for trade and capable of great savagery, were thoroughly spiritualised? The question lends absorbing interest to the lives of medieval Londoners. Perhaps the perpetual press of business and of domestic routine was viewed in the terms of eternity. Perhaps there was so much savagery because life itself, in contrast to the immortal soul, was considered to be relatively worthless. The city then becomes the true home of fallen humankind.


A Tudor depiction of the market of East Cheap; note the number of butchers’ shops, in a city where meat was at a premium.


CHAPTER 7. This Companye

<p>CHAPTER 7. This Companye</p>

The visitation of “the death” in the last months of 1348 destroyed 40 per cent of London’s population. Perhaps 50,000 people died within the city. A decade later, one-third of the land within the walls remained uninhabited. It was called “the great pestilence” as well as “the death,” and reoccurred with extraordinary virulence eleven years later. London (like most other European cities) remained under the threat of bubonic plague for the rest of the century. It was not an urban disease but it flourished in urban conditions; it was transmitted by rats, living in the straw and thatch of medieval dwellings, as well as by close respiratory proximity.

Yet London seems inured to disaster, and there is no evidence of any discontinuity in the history of this period. It was said that in the city itself there were not enough living to bury the dead but, for those who survived, the disease offered an unparalleled opportunity to thrive and flourish. Many, for example, became prosperous as a result of unexpected inheritance; while, for others, the demand for labour meant that their worth was greater than they had imagined. The late fourteenth century was a time when many families, those of labourers and merchants alike, moved from the neighbouring provinces to the great city in order to make their fortunes. From this period dates the apocryphal history of Dick Whittington, which once more spread the story of London as “Cockaigne” or the realm of gold.


The real Richard Whittington was a member of the mercers’ guild, and London’s history cannot properly be understood without also understanding the nature of those fraternities which combined the regulation of work with religious observances and parish duties. London may not have been recognised as a “city of god” upon the earth, but there were many late medieval theorists who believed that the city itself was the pattern of human existence as well as an emblem of human harmony.

There seem to have been trading guilds since the time of the Saxons, gegildan, later known as “frith guilds,” which also possessed military or defensive functions. In the twelfth century certain traders, such as the bakers and the fishmongers, were allowed to collect their own taxes without being “farmed” or tolled by the royal administration. As part of a complementary, if not directly connected, process we find the various trades congregating in separate areas; the bakers were ensconced in Bread Street, while the fishmongers might be found in Friday Street (good Catholics ate no meat on Fridays).

The growth of craft guilds, located in a specific area, cannot be distinguished from the parish guilds of the same vicinity. The tanners who pursued their noisome craft along the banks of the River Fleet, for example, were accustomed to meet at their own “fraternity” in the Carmelite house in Fleet Street. By the late thirteenth century there were approximately two hundred fraternities in which craft regulation and religious observance were mingled. In the church of St. Stephen, Coleman Street, for example, three fraternities are recorded; while at St. James Garlickhythe there was a “litel companye” of joiners. It was a typically late medieval arrangement, which effectively allowed a self-regulating and self-sustaining community to prosper within the context of a rapidly developing city. In the early fourteenth century was issued a royal charter in which it was formally announced that no man might join a specific craft without the recommendation and security of six other members of that craft; a further stipulation decreed that only members of a craft might be admitted to the freedom of the city. Only citizens, in other words, could belong to a trade guild. In this fashion the guilds acquired enormous economic power within the city. One ordinance, for example, required that ale or beer could be bought only from freemen enfranchised in and inhabiting London.

But in London economic power in turn purchased political and social preeminence so that, in 1351 and again in 1377, the crafts themselves elected the Common Council of the city. It ought to be remembered, also, that there were “many craftes” and “mochel smale poeple” who would simply have met for business in their local church. The religious and social constraints of these trading “mysteries”-the word has no sacred significance, but comes from the French métier-are also implicit within the ordinances of the guilds themselves which emphasised the importance of honesty and good reputation. The rules of the fraternity of St. Anne at St. Laurence Jewry, for example, demanded that “yif any of the company be of wikked fame of his body and take othere wyues than his owene or yif he be a sengle man and be holde a comone lechour or contecour or rebell of his tonge” then he is to be admonished. After three such warnings, if unavailing, he is to be expelled so that “godemen of this companye ne be nat sclaundered bi cause of hym.”

There are other aspects of these guild ordinances which reveal the very condition of the time. It is noted in the same rules that anyone who “vse hym to lye longe in bedde amp; atte risyng of his bed ne wil nat worcke to wynne his sustenaunce amp; kepe his house amp; go to the tavernne to the wyn to the ale to wrastelynge to schetynge,” “schal be put of for euermore of this companye.” Clearly the enjoyment of drink and what might now be termed “spectator sport” was not considered compatible with good working practice; the same admonitions against urban amusements were made by Daniel Defoe in his seventeenth-century manual on London trade. In a similar spirit there are injunctions against any who acquire an “euel name” as “theft or commune barettour or comune questmonger or meyntenour of quereles”; the guilds were here condemning those who breached public peace, as if the act of quarrelling or disputing might itself be construed as sinful in a community whose harmony was maintained only with great difficulty. The emphasis here is upon good standing, and the avoidance of shame among equals; it is typical of the regulations which “smale poeple” devised in order to protect their “good name” and therefore assist them in the remorseless pressure to move “upward” in the hierarchy of trades. That is why the ordinary workmen or “journeymen” sometimes tried to combine against their employers, but the city authorities were generally able to prevent any “union” of the lower workers. There came a time when the victualling and manufacturing trades were indeed engaged in bitter dispute about precedence and power, but it was essentially only a further stage in the continual restless and dissatisfied movement of those “lower” trades and professions who gradually pushed themselves forward into the social and political life of the city. This is the true history of London which lives and moves beneath the incidents and events of public record.


But no account of medieval London would be complete without an understanding of the elaborate and complicated manner in which the Church itself remained the single most disciplined and authoritative director of the city’s affairs. In the simply material sphere, the administrators of the Church were the biggest landlords and employers both within and without the walls. Many thousands of people, both secular and spiritual, owed their livings to the great abbeys and monastic foundations of the city, but these large communities also owned ancient lands and manors beyond the jurisdiction of the city itself. The bishop of St. Paul’s, for example, owned the manor of Stepney which stretched to the boundaries of Essex on the east and to Wimbledon and Barnes on the south-west; the canons of that establishment possessed thirteen other manors, ranging from Pancras and Islington to Hoxton and Holborn. This territorial power is a direct expression of secular, as well as spiritual, authority which dates from a very early period indeed; during the steady disintegration of Romanised England, and the dissolution of Roman London, these magnates of the Church had already become the true governing class of the country. The bishop of each province had taken on “the mantle of the Roman consul” and, in default of other public institutions, the parish church and the monastery became the centre of all organised activity. That is why the earliest administrative records of London emphasise the power of the Church authorities. In 900 we read that “the bishop and the reeves who belong to London make, in the name of citizens, laws which were confirmed by the king,” and it was customary for priors and abbots also to become aldermen. There was no distinction between secular and spiritual power because both were seen as intrinsic aspects of the divine order.

London itself was a city of churches, containing a larger number than any other city in Europe. There were more than a hundred churches within the walls of the old City, sixteen alone devoted to St. Mary, and it can reasonably be inferred that many were originally of Saxon date and of wooden construction. In London Walter Besant has noted that “there was no street without its monastery, its convent garden, its college of priests, its friars, its pardoners, its sextons and its serving brothers.” This may seem exaggerated but, although not every lane and alley contained a monastery or a convent garden, a look at any map will show that the main thoroughfares did indeed harbour religious institutions great and small. Beside the 126 parish churches there were thirteen conventual churches, including St. Martin’s le Grand and the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem; there were seven great friaries, including the Carthusian friars of Hart Street; there were five priories, among them St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield and St. Saviour’s in Bermondsey; there were four large nunneries and five priests’ colleges. Of the hospitals and refuges, for the sick and the indigent, we have records of seventeen in areas as diverse as Bevis Marks and Aldgate, Charing Cross and St. Laurence Pountney (among them a refuge for the insane at Barking, and thus the phrase “barking mad”). This is not to mention the chantries, the church schools and the private chapels. It is a further indication of the sanctity of London that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there was continual reconstruction of these sacred edifices. The piety of Londoners is not in doubt.

The evidence of medieval wills in London is of some consequence, and in the last testaments of John Toker, vintner (1428), of Robert Ameray, cordwainer (1410), of Richard Whyteman, wax-chandler (1428), and Roger Elmesley, wax-chandler’s servant (1434), there are tokens of a simple but profound piety. In the details of these testaments there is all the paraphernalia of ordinary London life, with bequests of towels and spoons, beds and blankets; Roger Elmesley left an iron rack for roasting eggs as well as some peacock feathers and “my roller for a towell,” but his main wish was that he be buried “vnder the stone with-oute the Dore of the porche” of St. Margaret Pattens in Little Tower Street. He was concerned also with the spiritual destiny of his godson, to whom he left “a prymmer for to serve god with,” as well as “a litel cofur to putte in his smale thynges.” All of these wills mention sums of money to be given to the poor, or the imprisoned, or the sick, on condition that these disadvantaged would then pray for the soul of the departed. John Toker the vintner, for example, gave various bequests to the priests of St. Mildred’s in Bread Street “forto praie for my soule” with other moneys to be paid to the prisoners of “Ludgate, Marchalsie Kyngesbenche,” as well as to the “pore folk lying sike in the spitell of our lady with-oute Bisshopes-gate, Oure lady of Bedlem, Oure lady of Elsingspitel, of Seynt Bathilmewys in Smythfeeld, And seint Thomas in Sowthwerk.” Many of these institutions exist today, albeit in altered form, while others linger only in the folk memory of London. John Toker left to his apprentice Henry Thommissone “my mancion that is cleped the Mermaid in Bredstreet” which is the very same tavern where Shakespeare and Jonson were supposed to have drunk. The history of London is a palimpsest of different realities and lingering truths.

The patron saint of the medieval city was a seventh-century monk who ruled as the bishop of London: Erkenwald was the spiritual leader of the East Saxons for eighteen years and, after his death, many miracles were vouchsafed on his behalf. The wooden cart or litter upon which Bishop Erkenwald would travel through the streets of London, when age and sickness prevented him from walking through his diocese, became the centre of a cult. Fragments and splinters of this vehicle were credited with curative properties, and the litter was enshrined behind the main altar of St. Paul’s with the relics of the saint himself. The physical remains of Erkenwald were sealed within a leaden casket which was fashioned “in the form of a gabled house or church,” thus rendering in sacred space the physical topography of the city itself.

The cult of Erkenwald survived for many centuries, testifying once more to the piety or credulity of the citizens. There was a miracle at Stratford, where now an industrial park is sited by the River Lea, as well as many other reported wonders in the thoroughfares around St. Paul’s itself. It was in fact something of a miracle that the physical remains of St. Erkenwald survived the various fires that visited the cathedral, most notably the great fire of 1087, after which the relics were placed in a silver shrine befitting Lundoniae maxime sanctus, “the most holy figure of London.” We read of the servants of the abbey moving the body of the saint to yet another great shrine clandestinely by night, since its exposure during the day would have created hysteria among the crowd assembled. This devotion was not of the populace alone. Even in the early sixteenth century the shrine of St. Erkenwald was an object of pilgrimage to the most successful lawyers of London who, on being nominated as serjeants of law, would walk in procession to St. Paul’s in order to venerate the physical presence of the saint.

Legends of dead saints may seem of little relevance, but they were part of the very texture of London life. The citizens when they first carried Erkenwald’s body to the cathedral, declared: “We are like strong and vigorous men who will … undermine and overturn cities heavily fortified with men and weapons before we will give up the servant of God, our protector … we ourselves intend that such a glorious city and congregation should be strengthened and honoured by such a patron.” There is indeed an Erconwald Street in the western part of the twenty-first-century city. So we may still name him as the patron saint of London, whose cult survived for over eight hundred years, before entering the temporary darkness of the last four centuries.

· · ·

The medieval city can be understood in a variety of ways, therefore, whether in terms of its violence or its devotion, its commercial imperatives or its spiritual precepts. The bells of the church tolled the end of each trading day, and the traders’ weights were tested and measured at the market cross. Could we say that the administrators of the Church in London were thoroughly secularised? Or that the citizens, avid for trade and capable of great savagery, were thoroughly spiritualised? The question lends absorbing interest to the lives of medieval Londoners. Perhaps the perpetual press of business and of domestic routine was viewed in the terms of eternity. Perhaps there was so much savagery because life itself, in contrast to the immortal soul, was considered to be relatively worthless. The city then becomes the true home of fallen humankind.


Onward and Upward

CHAPTER 8. Rather Dark and Narrow

CHAPTER 9. Packed to Blackness

CHAPTER 10. Maps and Antiquarians

<p>Onward and Upward</p>

A mid-sixteenth-century map of Moorfields, north of London. Some women dry linen upon the ground, while the citizens engage in archery. The line of Bishopsgate Street marks the accelerating growth of the city.

<p>CHAPTER 8. Rather Dark and Narrow</p>

John Stow, the great sixteenth-century antiquarian, offered the most vivid and elaborate description of Tudor London. He wrote of new streets and new buildings continually springing up beyond the walls and, within the city itself, of “encroachments on the highways, lanes, and common grounds.” Where once there had been sheds or shops, in one of which an old woman used to sell “seeds, roots and herbs,” there were now houses “largely built on both side outward, and also upward, some three, four or five stories high.” Growth is the continual condition of the city, but one which Stow himself lamented when it encroached upon the ancient topography of the place which he had known as a child in Cordwainer Lane.


We can follow John Stow down Butchers’ Alley, beside St. Nicholas Shambles and Stinking Lane, where he discoursed on the rising price of meat. In the old days, he said, a fat ox was sold for 26s 8d “at the most” and a fat lamb for a shilling, but “what the price is now I need not to set down.” In such local touches, Stow stands alone among the chroniclers of the city. It was said that “he reporteth res in se minutas, toys and trifles, being such a smell-feast that he cannot pass by Guildhall, but his pen must taste of the good chear therein.” But that is what makes him such an excellent London surveyor, and such a characteristic Londoner. In his Survey of London, he provides a detailed and immediate account of the lanes and alleys which he had known all his life.

He was born in 1525 and came from at least two generations of tallow chandlers who resided in Threadneedle or Threeneedle Street; Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s familiar councillor, encroached upon his father’s garden there, and Stow ruefully noted “that the sudden rising of some men causeth them in some matters to forget themselves.” Little is known of any formal education which Stow may have received, although it is likely that he attended one of London’s free grammar schools. He himself recalled how he used to walk to a farm belonging to the nuns of the Minories where “I myself have fetched many a halfpenny worth of milk,” thus indicating that there was grazing land by the very walls of the city. But of other juvenile incidents he is silent. It is known that he took up the profession of a tailor, however, and established himself in a house by the well at Aldgate close to the farm where he had bought milk as a child, but his true labours had not yet begun.

Antiquarian studies seem to be an instinctive London passion, and Stow remains their greatest exemplar. It is appropriate that his first work should be an edition of Chaucer; that fine London poet was Stow’s original pursuit before he turned to the city which nourished his genius. He began the study of London records, primarily kept in the Guildhall, as a “fee’d chronicler”; we may imagine him among slips of parchment, manuscript rolls and broken-backed volumes, trying to decipher the history of his city. In one of his first volumes, A Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, he wrote that “It is now eight years since I, seeing the confused order of our late English Chronicles, and the ignorant handling of ancient affairs, leaving mine own peculiar gains, consecrated myself to the search of our famous antiquities.” This might suggest that he had abandoned his trade as a tailor in order to devote himself to historical study, but extant documents show that he maintained his business for some time. He complained about being called a “prick-louse,” an invidious catchphrase for those who sewed as a profession, and he testified that a neighbour threw stones and tiles at his apprentice.

The “antiquities” were all around him. A few yards from his own house, between Billiter Lane and Lime Street, were buried a wall and gate of stone “about two fathoms deep” under the ground. They had been discovered after demolition work in 1590; Stow investigated the curiosity, and believed the old stonework to date from the reign of King Stephen some 450 years before. The ground of London was always rising, built again and again upon the ash and rubble of its previous incarnations. Stow walked everywhere, and once confessed that his labours “cost many a weary mile’s travel, many a hard-earned penny and pound, and many a cold winter night’s study.” He was tall and lean, “of a pleasant and cheerful countenance; his sight and memory were good; very sober, mild, and courteous to any that required his instructions.”

There was much to instruct since, in the early sixteenth century, London would indeed have been an antiquarian’s delight. Stow often mentions the presence of great houses “of old time built upon arched vaults, and with gates of stone” which date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries; there would still have been extant walls, pillars and pavements from the Roman period. Much of the brick and masonry of that early time had been pillaged for modern rebuilding, but there is no doubt that there would have been evidence of the first century in succeeding periods of London’s history. Yet much also was being destroyed even as Stow continued his survey. The Reformation of faith, inaugurated by Henry VIII, wreaked a sudden transformation upon the buildings as well as the beliefs of London. The fabric of the Roman communion, to which the citizens had so fervently attached themselves, was shattered; the uncertainty and bewilderment of Londoners were in turn embodied in the changing fabric of the city itself where monasteries and chantry chapels and lady chapels were vandalised or broken. The dissolution of the abbeys, churches and monastic hospitals in particular meant that the entire city was in a fevered period of demolition and construction. Parts of it would have resembled a vast building site, while other areas were left to slow neglect and in Stow’s words became “sore decayed.”

London was in many respects a place of ruins. Stow notes the remains of an “old court hall” in Aldermanbury Street, now “employed as a carpenter’s yard.” A mayor’s great house in Old Jewry became in turn a synagogue, a house of friars, a nobleman’s house, a merchant’s house, and then a “wine tavern” known as the Windmill. A chapel became a “warehouse and shops towards the street, with lodgings over them,” bishops’ houses were turned into tenements, and so on. Other documentary sources reveal that a Cistercian house was pulled “clean down” and in its place were erected storehouses, tenements and “ovens for making ship’s biscuit.” The convent of the Poor Clares, known as the Minories, was destroyed to make way for storehouses; the church of the Crutched Friars became a carpenter’s shop and a tennis court; the church of the Blackfriars was turned into a warehouse for the carts and properties of the “pageants.” (It is perhaps appropriate that on this same site rose the Blackfriars Playhouse.) St. Martin’s le Grand was pulled down and a tavern built upon its remains.

There are many other examples, but the salient point remains that after the Reformation much of late Tudor London was in a ruined condition, with walls and gateways and ancient stone windows to be glimpsed among the shops and houses which lined the lanes and thoroughfares. Even in the area outside the walls, where the palaces of the bishops and nobles had led down from the Strand towards the river, the grand houses were, according to the Venetian ambassador, “disfigured by the ruins of a multitude of churches and monasteries.”

Yet even in the midst of lamentation there was also renovation. In Goldsmiths Row, between Bread Street and Cheapside Cross, Stow extols the shops and dwellings-built just thirty-five years before his birth- which are “beautified towards the street with the Goldsmith’s arms … riding on monstrous beasts, all of which is cast in lead, richly painted over and gilt.” A fifteenth-century traveller, Dominic Mancini, noted, in the same area, “gold and silver cups, dyed stuffs, various silks, carpets, tapestry.” These are the true tinctures of Tudor London. An old church may be pulled down, but in its place Stow remarks that there has been erected “a fair strong frame of timber … wherein dwell men of divers trades.” An old cross is removed, and on the same site is constructed a glistening water-conduit. An aristocratic dwelling is converted into a market “for the sale of woollen baize, watmols [coarse wool], flannels and such like.” A stone building of great antiquity is gradually taken down and in its place are erected “divers fair houses.”

This is the trade, and energy, of Tudor London. Stow himself, quintessential Londoner as he is, cannot prevent himself from enumerating the gardens, the mills, the houses of stone and timber, the taverns, the conduits, the stables, the yards, the hostelries, the markets, the tenements and guild halls which comprise the city’s life.


The older versions of the grand London house, established around a separate hall and courtyard, were no longer appropriate to the new conditions of the city; they were built over, or encroached upon, by smaller dwellings in streets which were already acquiring a reputation for being “rather dark and narrow.” Even the mansions of the wealthy merchants were now more compact, with a shop and warehouse on the ground floor, a hall and parlour on the first floor and the other living quarters above; it was not uncommon for such a house to rise to five or six storeys, with two rooms on each level, in the customary timber and mortar fashion. Such was the premium upon space in the bustling city that cellars and garrets were utilised as dwellings for the poor. Estimates of population can only be approximate but there are figures of 85,000 by 1565, rising to 155,000 by 1605; this does not include those who lived in “the liberties” or within “the bars,” which would increase the figures by more than 20,000. It represents, to use a perhaps anachronistic phrase, a population explosion.

The price of property had risen so steeply that no one would willingly demolish even the smallest shop or house. So the growth of the city meant that the ancient ditches, used for both defence and refuse, were now filled in and covered over and became the site of more properties. The main roads leading to the city gates were “improved” and paved, so that within a very short time shops and houses were erected beside them. The road to Aldgate, for example, was, according to Stow, “not only fully replenished with buildings outward” but “also pestered with divers alleys on either side to the bars.” Even the fields beyond the city, where once the younger citizens had shot their arrows or walked among the streams, had “now within a few years made a continual building throughout of garden houses and small cottages, and the fields on either side turned into garden plots, tenter yards, bowling alleys, and such like.”

The overcrowding became so serious that, in 1580, Elizabeth I issued a proclamation “perceiving the state of the city of London (being anciently termed her chamber) and the suburbs and confines thereof to increase slowly, by access of people to inhabit the same” so that there was no chance of sustaining “victual food, and other like necessaries for man’s life, upon reasonable prices, without which no city can long continue.” There was further cause for alarm concerning the overpopulation within the city itself “where there are such great multitudes of people brought to inhabit in small rooms, whereof a great part are seen very poor, yea, such as must live begging, or by worse means, and they heaped up together, and in a sort smothered with many families of children and servants in one house or small tenement.” This is one of the earliest accounts of overcrowding in London, and can be considered the first extended version of a description which has haunted the city ever since. The queen’s remedy was to prohibit “any new buildings of any house or tenement within three miles from any of the gates of the said city of London.” It has been suggested that this was the first venture at a “green belt” around London, a surmise which would at least have the merit of emphasising the historical continuity within all apparently “modern” plans for the city, but it was more likely to be an attempt to protect the trading and commercial monopoly of the citizens within the walls who did not relish the appearances of trades and shops beyond their jurisdiction.

Another aspect of the proclamation is also of some significance, in that passage where the monarch and her city advisers prohibit “any more families than one only to be placed, or to inhabit from henceforth in any house that hereto fore hath been inhabited.” The idea of one family occupying one house was indeed the stated purpose behind much of the city’s development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it has even been considered a peculiarly London solution. It is peculiar to the city because it is historical in spirit; as S.E. Rasmussen put it in London: The Unique City, the Elizabethan remedy represented a “conservative clinging to the medieval form of housing.” In a similar spirit new building was only allowed if it were raised “on old foundations.” Here we have an inkling of that continuity, and sense of permanence, which London still exemplifies.

It did not, however, work. Within three years of Elizabeth’s proclamations the city authorities were lamenting the continual increase in sheds, lodgings and tenements outside the walls. There were further edicts and orders issued at regular intervals throughout the reign of her successors; none of them was ever obeyed, and none of them was in the least successful at controlling the growth of the city.

The truth is that the growth of London could not, and cannot, be controlled. It spread to the east along the high street of Whitechapel, and to the west along the Strand. It spread north to Clerkenwell and Hoxton; to the south, Southwark and its environs became “pestered,” to use Stow’s word, with places of popular resort, taverns, brothels, pleasure grounds and theatres. In turn the Inns of Court, clustered in the “suburbs” of Holborn between the city and the royal palaces of Westminster, were extended and embellished.

Yet the quality of transport from suburb to city was not always of the best. In the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII the high road between the Temple “and the village of Charing,” now known as the Strand, was noted in the Rolls of Parliament to be “full of pits and sloughs, very perilous … very noyous and foul, and in many places thereof very jeopardous to all people passing and repassing, as well on horseback as on foot.” More modern forms of transportation, however, were not necessarily welcomed. The introduction of hackney coaches, known as “chariots” or “whirlicotes,” led Stow to reflect that “the world runs on wheels with many whose parents were glad to go on foot.”

The state of traffic in the capital was a source of constant complaint in the sixteenth century, as it has become for each generation. Stow again noted “the number of cars, drays, carts and coaches, more than hath been accustomed, the streets and lanes being straitened, must needs be dangerous, as daily experience proveth”-dangers not tempered when coachmen lashed their horses forward without checking what was behind them and inebriated drivers quarrelled frequently and violently in the street over who had right of passage. And there was the noise “where even the very earth quakes and trembles, the casements shatter, tatter, and clatter.”

There was, however, a significant improvement in the conditions of urban living at least for those who could afford the new “luxuries” of city life. There were pillows and bedding where there had once lain a log and a straw pallet; even the poorer citizens dined off pewter rather than wood and the “middling” households might boast of wall-coverings, brass, soft linen, cupboards garnished with plate, jars and pots made from green glazed earthenware. There was also a fashion for brick and stone chimneys, which in turn had an effect both upon the appearance and atmosphere of London.


The city had forfeited some of its independence to Parliament and to the sovereign, even to the extent of accepting Henry VIII’s recommendations for the mayoralty, but in turn it had become the recognised capital of a unified nation. The municipal ideal had been displaced by a national ideal-and how could it not be so in a city which was now largely populated by immigrants? The new arrivals came from every area of England, Cornwall to Cumberland (it has been estimated that one-sixth of all Englishmen became Londoners in the second half of the sixteenth century), and the number of foreign immigrants rose at an accelerating pace, making the city truly cosmopolitan. So high was the mortality, and so low the birth rate, that without this influx of traders and workers the population would in fact have steadily declined. Yet instead it continued to expand, with brewers and book-binders from the Low Countries, tailors and embroiderers from France, gun-makers and dyers from Italy, weavers from the Netherlands and elsewhere. There was an African or “Moor” in Cheapside who made steel needles without ever imparting the secret of his craft. Fashion followed population, just as the populace followed fashion. In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) there was a surfeit of silk shops, selling everything from gold thread to silk stockings, and at the time of her accession it was reported that no country gentleman could “be content to have eyther cappe, coat, doublet, hose or shirt … but they must have their geare from London.”

If London had become the centre of fashion, it had also become the centre of death. Mortality was higher than in any other part of the country, the two great harvesters being the plague and the sweating sickness. In poorer parishes life expectancy was only between twenty and twenty-five years, while in the richer it rose to thirty or thirty-five years. These fatal infections confirm the evident truth that sixteenth-century London remained a city of the young. The greatest proportion of the citizens were under the age of thirty, and it is this actuarial statistic which helps to explain the energy and restlessness of urban life in all its forms.

The most striking example comes from within the turbulent body of the apprentices, a peculiarly London phenomenon of young men who were bound by strict articles of agreement and yet managed to retain a high-spiritedness and almost feverish buoyancy which spilled over into the streets. They “wold ether bee at the taverne, filling their heads with wine, or at the Dagger in Cheapeside cramming their bellies with minced pyes; but above al other times it was their common costome, as London prentises use, to follow their maisters upon Sundays to the Church dore and then to leave them, and hie unto the taverne.” There are reports of various fights and “affrays,” the common victims being foreigners, “night-walkers,” or the servants of noblemen who were considered to take on the airs of their superiors. A declaration, in 1576, warned apprentices not to “misuse, molest, or evil treat any servant, page, or lackey of any nobleman, gentleman, or other going in the streets.” There were often disturbances after football matches and three young men were put in the local prison for “outrageously and riotously behaving themselves at a football play in Cheapside.” But drunken high spirits could turn into something more violent, and threatening. Apprentices as well as artisans and children took part in the “evil May-day” riots of 1517, in which the houses of foreigners were ransacked. In the last decade of the sixteenth century there were still more outbreaks of riot and disorder but, unlike other continental cities, London never became unstable or ungovernable.


The accounts of foreign travellers suggest the unique status of London in this period. A Greek visitor reported that the treasures in the Tower were “said to exceed the anciently famed wealth of Croesus and Midas,” while a Swiss medical student reported that “London is not said to be in England, but rather England to be in London.” There was a standard guided tour for visitors, who were first taken to the Tower and the Royal Exchange before being escorted to the west, with Cheapside, St. Paul’s, Ludgate and the Strand viewed, before a magnificent arrival at Westminster and Whitehall. The roads were unpaved in parts, but a journey on horse was still sometimes preferable to that upon the Thames. Giordano Bruno, spy and magician, has left a graphic account of his attempts to hire the services of a wherry. He and his companions, wishing to travel to Westminster, spent a great deal of time looking for a boat and vainly crying out “Oars!” At last a boat arrived with two elderly boatsmen-“After much question and reply as to whence, where, why, how and when, they brought the prow to the foot of the stairs.” The Italians believed they were at last on their way to the destination but then, after about a third of the journey had been completed, the boatsmen began to row towards the shore. They had reached their “station,” and would go no further. This is a small incident, of course, but it reveals the rudeness and obstinacy which was seen by strangers to be characteristic of London behaviour. Just as typical, perhaps, is Bruno’s arrival on the shore only to find a footpath thick with mud where he was forced to journey through “a deep and gloomy hell.”

Other reports emphasise both the violence and xenophobia of ordinary Londoners. A French physician, in London between 1552 and 1553, observed that “the common people are proud and seditious … these villains hate all sorts of strangers” and even “spit in our faces.” Gangs of apprentices were also likely to set upon foreigners in the street, and one traveller saw a Spaniard being forced to take refuge in a shop from a mob after he dared to wear his national costume. The Swiss medical student was in that respect perhaps too kind when he mentioned that “the common people are still somewhat coarse and uncultured … and believe that the world beyond England is boarded off.”

Yet the city also lives in its details gathered in these foreign accounts. One traveller noted that it was remarkable for the number of kites which were “quite tame” and wandered through the streets as if they owned them; they were the city’s scavengers and the butchers threw out offal for them to consume. The number of butchers’ shops was matched only by the number of taverns. A passion for privacy was also noted, with individual dwellings separated from their neighbours by walls of stone; the same conditions applied in the taverns themselves, where wooden partitions were set up “so that one table cannot overlook the next.” It may be that in a teeming and overcrowded city such attempts at privacy were natural or inevitable, yet they also represent a significant and permanent aspect of the London character.

In other accounts “between meals one sees men, women, and children always munching through the streets.” The same children, when not eating apples and nuts, could be seen “gathering up the blood which had fallen through the slits in the scaffold” after a beheading on Tower Hill. The executioner on this occasion wore a white apron “like a butcher.” We seem to have come full circle in a city dominated by violence, blood, meat and continual consuming appetite.

<p>CHAPTER 9. Packed to Blackness</p>

There was once a Dark Lane, in the medieval city; a tavern was erected there, known as the Darkhouse. That narrow thoroughfare was then renamed Dark House Lane, and is to be seen on eighteenth-century maps of London. On the same site there now stands Dark House Wharf, which is dominated by the headquarters of the Bank of Hong Kong. This building is clad in dark blue steel and dark, tinted glass. So does the city maintain its dark secret life.


Dust, mud, soot, slime and smut were the objects of continual dissatisfaction. “Though a chamber be never so closely locked up,” John Evelyn complained in the seventeenth century, “men find at their return all things that are in it evenly covered with a black thin soot.” In the same century a Venetian chaplain described “a sort of soft and stinking mud which abounds here at all seasons, so that the place more deserves to be called Lorda (filth) than Londra (London).” The “filth of the city” was also depicted as being “rich and black as thick ink.” In the eighteenth century the road outside Aldgate “resembled a stagnant lake of deep mud,” while in the Strand the puddles of filth were three or four inches deep so that they “fill coaches when their windows happen not to be up, and bedaub all the lower parts of the houses.” If they were not strewn with mud, the streets were filled with dust. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, according to the Quarterly Review, there was not a man or woman in London “whose skin and clothes and nostrils are not of necessity more or less loaded with a compound of powdered granite, soot, and still more nauseous substances.” It was said that St. Paul’s Cathedral had a right to be blackened because it was built with a tax upon sea coal, but it was hard upon the animals of the city which were similarly affected by the smoke and dirt; the feathers of the redstarts and the martins were suffused with soot, while the dust of London was believed to clog the breathing and dull the senses of the omnipresent spiders. All creatures were affected and, as a late twentieth-century character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince puts it, “I could feel the thick filth and muck of London under my feet, under my bottom, behind my back.”

Yet it is more than material filth. There is a drawing of Fish Street Hill by George Scharf, executed in the late 1830s, as accomplished and as detailed as all his work. But in the foreground a vast shadow obscures the people and the house-fronts; it is in fact the outline of the Monument, otherwise concealed from sight, but in that shadow Scharf has somehow managed to depict something of the nature of London itself. It has always been a shadowy city.

As James Bone, the author of The London Perambulator, remarked in 1931, it resides in “the appearance of great shadows where there can be no shadows, throwing blackness up and down.” This is also the London vision of Verlaine, who writes of “l’odieuse obscurité … quel deuil profond, quelles ténèbres!” within “la monstrueuse cité.” Much of the slate used in London building is striated by what geologists term “pressure shadows” but they are inconspicuous beside the blackened surfaces of Portland stone. One foreign traveller remarked that the streets of London were so dark that the citizenry seemed to delight in playing “hide and seek” with the light, like children in a wood, while in the summer of 1782 Charles Moritz noted that “the houses in general struck me as if they were dark and gloomy.” The gloom affected him profoundly: “At that moment I could not in my own mind compare the external view of London with that of any other city I had ever before seen.”

There were almost a score of Dirty Alleys, Dirty Hills and Dirty Lanes in the medieval city; there were Inkhorn Courts and Foul Lanes and Deadman’s Places. Lombard Street in the City, at the centre of capitalist imperialism, was a notoriously dark street. At the beginning of the nineteenth century its brick was so blackened with smoke that the walls resembled the mud in the road. Today, in the twenty-first century, it is still just as narrow and just as dark, its stone walls constantly echoing to the sound of hurried footsteps. It is still close to what a century ago Nathaniel Hawthorne called “the black heart of London.” Hawthorne’s compatriot Henry James also noticed the “deadly darkness” but he revelled in it as if he were a “born Londoner.” In the 1870s Hippolyte Taine simply found the darkness “horrible”; the houses from a distance looked “like ink-stains on blotting paper” while from a closer vantage the “tall, flat straight façades are of dark brick.” The darkness of London seems to have entered Taine’s soul with his crepuscular invocations of “a bone-black factory” which is a London dwelling, of “porticoes foul with soot … every crevice inked in … long ranks of blind windows … the fluting of the columns full of greasy filth, as if sticky mud had been set flowing down there.”

There were others who were intimate with this darkness. In his account of nineteenth-century Whitechapel, Charles Booth, the sympathetic chronicler of The Life and Labour of the People of London, mentions that the tables of the poor are “fairly black” with thick swarms of flies congregating on every available surface while, in the streets outside, at the level of the hip, “is a broad dirty mark, showing where the men and lads are in the constant habit of standing.”

Charles Booth’s images of disease and torpor somehow increase the darkness of the capital, as the very embodiment of those shadows which the rich and powerful cast upon the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. The effect of the industrial revolution, although less noticeable in London than in some of the northern manufacturing towns, deepened those shadows. The growth of factories as well as small workshops, and the increasing demand for coal in a city which by the beginning of the eighteenth century was already the manufacturing centre of Europe, only intensified London’s characteristic darkness.

In another sense its darkness suggests secrecy, and the titles of many accounts of the city confirm that sense of concealment, among them Unknown London, its Romance and Tragedy, The London Nobody Knows and London in Shadow. And yet that secrecy is of its essence. When Joseph Conrad described the city “half lost in night,” in The Secret Agent (1907), he was echoing Charles Dickens’s remark seventy years before in Sketches by Boz that “the streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark dull murky winter’s night.” The tone is ironic but the meaning is by no means so. In his last completed work Dickens returned to it in his description of “a black shrill city … a gritty city … a hopeless city, with no vent in the leaden canopy of its sky.” Darkness is of the city’s essence; it partakes of its true identity; in a literal sense London is possessed by darkness.

<p>CHAPTER 10. Maps and Antiquarians</p>

The history of London is represented by the history of its maps. They can be seen as symbolic tokens of the city, and as attempts to picture its disorder in terms of fluent and harmonious design. From the first great copperplate map of the mid-sixteenth century to the “Underground” map of the late twentieth century, the mapping of London represents an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to mitigate it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.

That is why the first map, from which John Stow himself borrowed, has always been a source of wonder and curiosity. It is inscribed upon copper plates by an unknown hand, but all the evidence suggests that this carefully prepared map was commissioned by Queen Mary I. In its complete form (only three fragments remain) it would have been some eight feet in width and five feet in depth, covering the entire area of city and suburbs. It is in certain respects extraordinarily detailed: the very scales of Leadenhall Market are depicted, together with the dog-kennels in some of the gardens; the position of a tree or the number of buckets by a well are faithfully recorded; shirts and bed linen lie stretched out to dry in Moor Field, while games of musketry and archery are conducted in the neighbouring pastures. The churches and monastic remains are also visible, many of them rendered in such detail that we may distinguish between wood and stone. When Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt compared the sea around England with “a moat defensive to a house,” we now know that his audience, coming to the Theatre, by Shoreditch, had passed just such a moated house on the road out of London through Finsbury Fields. Since this copperplate is also the original upon which most other maps of sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century London are based, in its lineaments we may find the most lucid and significant outline of the city.

In certain respects, however, the map inevitably strays from accuracy. The actual warren of passages and alleyways is ignored in order to display the principal lanes and streets; the city has in that respect been cleansed. The number and variety of houses are also neglected in order to create a more uniform and pleasing appearance. The citizens depicted at work or at play are in turn of an unnatural size, suggesting that the cartographer wished to emphasise the human dimension of the city. Nevertheless it is a beautiful feat of engraving, and it is no accident that it did become the source and inspiration for maps completed some years later.

One coloured map of mid-Tudor London, for example, which is known as the “Braun and Hogenberg,” is a smaller copy of the great original. Here the city is given compact form and, although it is by no means a spiritualised shape, it is in instinctive harmony with its surroundings; the skiffs and wherries ply their river trade in graceful formation, while the main thoroughfares themselves seem to mimic the natural passage of the water. It depicts the “fair city” of contemporary report, but it also has one other significant aspect; in the foreground, quite out of proportion, stand four Londoners. An older man is dressed in the robes of a merchant, with cap and fur-trimmed coat, while upon his right hand stands his apprentice wearing a short coat like a doublet as well as sword and buckler; the merchant’s wife is dressed in a simple blue gown over a Spanish farthingale while her maid is plainly attired in gown and apron. These are modest figures but they stand upon a hill above London as the true representatives of the city. The map itself can be seen as an advertisement of London’s mercantile power, with the vessels on the Thames behind the four Londoners depicting its status as a port.


In similar spirit the two great “panoramas” of London, before the Fire of 1666 utterly destroyed its appearance, take the river as the leading spirit of their design. Anthony van den Wyngaerde’s riverine views of the mid-seventeenth century have been eclipsed by Hollar’s panorama of 1647, but Wyngaerde’s study has the merit of showing the bustling life of the Thames. Some row, while others fish. Travellers wait at Stargate Horse Ferry, while others make their way up Southwark High Street towards London Bridge.

Of course Hollar’s more powerfully executed engraving is perhaps the most beautiful and harmonious of all London panoramas. In his work, London has become a world city of which the horizons are scarcely visible. The artist takes his stand upon the roof of St. Mary Overie by Bankside, so that in the foreground of the engraving are great clusters of roofs and house-fronts by the entrance to London Bridge. The chimneys and windows, the rooftops of tile and wood, suggest the massive presence of a city already congregating by its southern mouth; on the Thames there are almost eighty great vessels as well as innumerable smaller craft, the river itself forming a great sheath of light and space which lends London a monumental aspect. There are more intimate details on the southern bank where, among the throng of roofs and chimneys, Hollar has opened up two short vistas of the streets. A dog can be seen, a man on horseback, couples wandering, here and there a solitary figure, all fixed for ever as part of the pattern of London. From Hollar’s high vantage a walled garden can be observed and, beyond it, two circular buildings labelled “The Globe” and “Beere bayting” respectively. Beyond them lie fields, where horses are grazing. On the other side of the Thames there is a forest of rooftops and church spires; although that of St. Paul’s had been destroyed by a thunderstorm some eighty years before, the cathedral church still dominates the skyline of the city. It rises above the streets and wharves, where people can be seen working or waiting for transport. There is continuous building eastwards from the Tower to Shadwell, while the line of the city is prolonged westward to Whitehall. The effect is that of great activity caught in majestic perspective, with the city arrayed in glory. The panorama is completed by various classical deities who, as it were, introduce and applaud the scene from the wings; the figure of Apollo hovers just above St. Paul’s.

It is perhaps the finest ever representation of London, and certainly the greatest image of the city before the Great Fire of 1666. Later maps by Norden, as well as Newcourt and Faithorne, in style and spirit reflect the first great copperplate map. Similarly, the familiar map of the London Underground today still completes and complements the one first designed with such clarity of purpose in 1933. The original Underground map bears only approximate relation to the location of lines and stations, but it is so aesthetically pleasing that its lineaments have never been changed.

In 1658 Wenceslaus Hollar completed a further etching, of the western aspect of the city. We observe that still more areas of fields and stiles and country lanes have been replaced by squares and piazzas and dwellings. Some of these houses are several storeys high, others on a smaller scale, but all reflect a pleasing symmetry which did not in fact exist. Another theme obtrudes, at least in retrospect. The streets and open areas are devoid of figures or any depiction of active life-the city had already grown too large to register even the symbolic presence of its citizens-and so it seems like some great empty place waiting silently for its destruction in the Great Fire.

The extent of that destruction can be see in another engraving by Hollar; it was completed in 1667, and depicts the razed city as more than four hundred acres of whitened contours. The ruins of the churches, prisons and main public buildings are sketched in, but the rest is empty space encroached upon by dark clusters of building which had escaped the flames.

Within days of that Fire, however, various speculative maps of a new London were being completed. These were visionary schemes. To a certain extent they resemble the structure of planned cities such as Paris and New York which were to be laid out grandly in the nineteenth century. Many of these seventeenth-century designs for London incorporated grid systems of intersecting thoroughfares, with great avenues linking majestic public edifices. Wren and Evelyn conceived of a humane and civilised city built upon a preordained pattern, while some of their contemporaries presented mathematically ingenious systems of roads and squares. These noble plans could not work, and they did not work. The very nature of the city defeated them: its ancient foundations lie deeper than the level at which any fire might touch, and the spirit of the place remained unscathed.

London is not a civilised nor a graceful city, despite the testimony of the maps. It is tortuous, inexact and oppressive. It could never be laid out again with mathematic precision, in any case, because the long history of streets and estates meant that there was a bewildering network of owners and landlords with their own especial claims or privileges. This is a social and topographical fact, but it in turn suggests a no less tangible aspect of London. It is a city built upon profit and speculation, not upon need, and no mayor or sovereign could withstand its essential organic will.

That is why the map of reconstructed London, published ten years after the Fire, shows the city restored approximately to its original state. One new thoroughfare has been built, the new King Street and the new Queen Street leading to the Guildhall from the river, but the congerie of streets around it- Milk Street, Wood Street, Aldermansbury, Old Jewry, and all the rest-have sprung up again. Thoroughfares were widened after more stringent fire precautions and building regulations were applied, but the essential topography of the neighbourhood was revived.

There was one other change. The surveyors of this post-Fire map, John Ogilby and William Morgan, had declared that they would chart “all Bye-streets and Lanes, all Courts and Allies, all Churches and Churchyards” by scientific principles of “Mesuration and Plotting” with theodolites and “circumferentors.” So for the first time the city became susceptible to scientific measurement, with the result that it could no longer be depicted as an aesthetic or harmonious whole. Paradoxically it then became fragmented, chaotic, unknowable. The twenty sheets of this topographical survey are covered by rectangles and numbers-“i 90 … B69 … C54”-which are designed to expedite identification, but the general effect is one of bewildering complexity. When London is seen in terms of abstract size and measurement, it becomes unimaginable.


There was, instead, a vogue for guidebooks which rendered London intimate and identifiable-among them Couch’s Historical Remarques and Observations of 1681, de Laune’s The Present State of London and Colsoni’s Le Guide de Londres of 1693. They were complemented by such volumes as The Antiquities of London and Westminster, with accounts of the town-ditch, the gates, the schools, hospitals, churches and wards.

By the eighteenth century there was an efflorescence of those books which emphasise “whatever is most remarkable for GRANDEUR, ELEGANCE, CURIOSITY OR USE.” There were others designed to aid visitors, or new residents, as to the way in which they should conduct themselves in the city. One, for example, suggests that should a carrier of a sedan chair behave unmannerly, “take the Number of the Chair, as you do of a Hackney Coach, and complaining at the office abovementioned, the Commissioners will correct their Insolence.” The London Adviser and Guide of 1790 offers similar advice, with the note that common people will be charged one shilling for swearing in the street and that every gentleman will face the higher penalty of five shillings. The number of convictions is not mentioned.

The next attempt at a comprehensive cartography, undertaken by John Roque, in 1783, emphasises the problems that were now inevitably encountered; trigonometrical measurements of the streets did not align with actual measurements, and street names were thoroughly confused. The project took seven years to finish and, in the process, Roque himself came close to bankruptcy. The plan itself was of enormous size and the publishers suggested that it be placed on a “Roller” so that “it will not interfere with any other Furniture.” Yet it is by no means a complete survey. It omits certain smaller or inconsiderable features, place names are missing, and there has been no effort to include individual buildings. This is hardly surprising in a map covering some ten thousand acres of built land, and the publishers were tactful enough to encourage subscribers to point out “Inaccuracies and Omissions.” So it remains in many respects an impressionistic survey, with the actual lanes, tenements and shops reduced to a fine grey shading; it has an “enduring enchantment,” according to the authors of The History of London in Maps, but it is the enchantment of distance.


At the end of the eighteenth century the largest map ever printed in England conveyed what seemed to be, even then, the immensity of London. Richard Horwood’s map was ninety-four feet square, and contained street numbers as well as names and houses. The project continued for nine years but four years after its publication Horwood, tired and careworn, died at the age of forty-five. Some of the inevitable difficulties he encountered can be measured by changes in four different editions. Within the space of thirteen years the fields adjacent to Commercial Road were gradually filled with houses and terraced streets. In the space of twenty years the number of houses in Mile End had tripled. The persistent and steady growth of London, in a sense, had killed its map-maker.

Horwood’s aim was largely utilitarian. The enterprise was sponsored by the Phoenix Fire Insurance office, one of the city’s most significant institutions, and was advertised as indispensable “in bringing Ejectments or Actions, in leasing or conveying Premises etcetera.” In that, it proved successful, if only because every subsequent attempt at conveying the specific houses or buildings of the city was engulfed by its sheer immensity. The first Ordnance Survey of London completed in 1850, for example, comprised some 847 sheets; it was greatly reduced for publication but then proved to be on too small a scale to be useful for travellers and inhabitants alike. This and later maps of mid-and late Victorian London simply display lines of streets linked together, with shading used indiscriminately to represent the shops, offices, houses, tenements and public buildings.

These are the direct predecessors of the contemporary A to Z gazetteer in which hundreds of pages are needed to chart a city which cannot be recognised or understood in terms of one central image. The begetter of the A to Z, Phyllis Pearsall, entranced by London’s immensity, compiled the first edition in the mid-1930s by “rising at five and walking for 18 miles per day.” She covered 3,000 miles of streets, and completed 23,000 entries which she kept in shoeboxes beneath her bed. Michael Hebbert, the author of London, has revealed that the maps “were drawn by a single draughtsman, and Pearsall herself compiled, designed and proof-read the book.” No publisher was interested, however, until she delivered copies on a wheelbarrow to a W.H. Smith buyer. By the time of her death, in 1996, the number of London streets had risen to approximately 50,000.

The nineteenth-century city, already seeming too vast for comprehension, was sometimes plotted in terms of theme or subject. There were “cab-fare maps” outlining the distance which could be travelled for a certain fare, maps of street improvements with the renovated thoroughfares outlined in vivid red, maps of the “modern plague of London” which marked each public house with a red spot, and maps displaying the incidence of death by cholera. Maps of the underground railway, of trams, and of other forms of modern transport soon followed so that London became a city of maps, one laid upon another like an historical palimpsest. It never ceased to grow and, in the process, glowed perpetually with various colours-those of death, alcohol and poverty competing with those of improvements and railways.


“Up to this time,” Henry James wrote in 1869, “I have been crushed under a sense of the mere magnitude of London-its inconceivable immensity-in such a way as to paralyse my mind for any appreciation of details.” Yet for the true antiquarian of London those details live and survive within the memory, beyond the reach of any plan or survey. “In my youth,” John Stow wrote in the sixteenth century, “I remember, devout people, as well men as women of this city, were accustomed oftentimes, especially on Fridays, weekly to walk that way [to Houndsditch] purposely there to bestow their charitable alms; every poor man or woman lying in their bed within their window, which was towards the street, open so low that every man might see them.” It is a distinct and striking image, in a city of spectacle and ritual. And then again: “I remember within this fifty four years Malmsey not to be sold more than one penny halfpenny the pint.” Memory here must complete the task of observation, if only “to stop the tongues of unthankful men, such as used to ask, Why have ye not noted this, or that? and give no thanks for what is done.”

Stow remains the guardian spirit of all those Londoners who came after him, filled with their own memories of time passing and time gone. There is Charles Lamb wandering through the Temple in the early 1820s, noting “what an antique air had the now almost effaced sun-dials, with their moral inscriptions, seeming coevals with that Time which they measured”; these were “my oldest recollections.” A decade later Macaulay spoke of a coming time when the citizens of London, “ancient and gigantic as it is, will in vain seek, amidst new streets, and squares, and railway stations for the site of that dwelling” which was in their youth the centre of their lives or destinies. Leigh Hunt, in The Town of 1848, observed of the city, “nor perhaps is there a single spot in London in which the past is not visibly present to us, either in the shape of some old buildings or at least in the names of the streets.” At the very beginning of the nineteenth century a London journalist known as “Aleph” wandered down Lothbury, recalling its previous “tortuous, dark vista of lofty houses” lit only by oil-lamps; since Aleph’s journey it has changed many times, yet it still remains unique and identifiable, most particularly with its recurrent “darkness” and “loftiness.”


It has been said that no stone ever leaves London but is reused and redeployed, adding to that great pile upon which the city rests. The paradox here is of continual change and constant underlying identity; it is at the core of the antiquarian passion for a continually altering and expanding city which nevertheless remains an echo chamber for stray memories and unfulfilled desires. That is perhaps why, as V.S. Pritchett noted in the late 1960s, “London has the effect of making one feel personally historic.” “It is strange,” he once wrote, “that although London wipes out its past, the Londoner does not quite forget.” Every journey through the streets of London can then become a journey into the past, and there will always be Londoners who thrill to that past like an obsession. In the early 1920s another London visionary, Arthur Machen, walked through Camden Town and found himself witnessing like a revenant the city of 1840, with pony gigs and dimly lit interiors, all of it conjured up by the sudden glimpse of a “little coach-house and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away.”

Until recent years it was possible to find inhabitants of Bermondsey who were, in the words of one reporter, “enthralled by the history of their borough.” It is a genuine London passion. Where Thomas Hardy could hear “the voice of Paul” in ancient stones exhibited within the British Museum, Londoners hear the voices of all those who came before them in the smallest houses and meanest streets. Charles Lamb remembered a cashier in the South-Sea House, Mr. Evans, who was eloquent “in relation to old and new London-the site of old theatres, churches, streets gone to decay-where Rosamond’s pond stood-the Mulberry Gardens-and the Conduit in Cheap.” The author of Highways and Byways in London, Mrs. E.T. Cook, stood upon Westminster Bridge in a winter’s twilight, when “as the light faded, and the mist rose, I seemed to lose the forms of the modern buildings, and to see, as though in a vision, the ‘Thorney Isle’ of the dim past.” Yet even as this early twentieth-century observer sees intimations of the eighth century, her meditations are broken by a beggarwoman’s plea for money. “I ain’t got a place ter sleep in this night. Gawd knows I ain’t, dear lydy.” Past and present collide in a thousand different forms. When Rose Macaulay visited the wilderness of a bomb-site in the Second World War, she had an intimation of “the primeval chaos and old night which had been before Londinium was.” In the preceding century Leigh Hunt observed that St. Paul’s Churchyard was “a place in which you may get the last new novel, and find remains of the ancient Britons and of the sea.” Despite his fear of the city’s immensity Henry James himself experienced “the ghostly sense, the disembodied presences of the old London.” There is a foot-tunnel under the Thames, linking Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs, which seems to harbour something of its mystery; for Stephen Graham, the author of the lachrymose London Nights, it “told of an enigma which would never be solved; the enigma of London’s sorrow, her burden, her slavery.”

There have always been solitary Londoners meditating upon the past, musing, even, upon civilisations which like their own had fallen into decay and dissolution. Edward Gibbon sat alone in his lodgings in Bond Street and, to the sound of rattling coaches, reflected upon the fall of Rome. The young John Milton sat up half the night in his bed-chamber in Bread Street, his candle glimmering at the window, while he dreamed of ancient London and its founders. There have been such men in every generation, men who have spent “their lives in the disquisition of venerable ANTIQUITY concerning this city.” One of the first, Fabyan, a sheriff and alderman of London, wrote a Chronicle or Concordance of Histories of which the first edition was published in 1485. Among other topics he compiled a chronology of the successive weathercocks upon St. Paul’s. Arnold’s Chronicle, or Customs of London appeared in 1521 where among a record of the charters of the city can be found “an estimate of the livings of London” and a recipe “to pickle sturgeon.”

The work of Stow himself was successively edited and corrected by Munday, Dyson and Strype who also considered themselves the faithful recorders of London, “being birthplace and breeder to us.” They were followed by William Stukeley, who found evidence of Julius Caesar’s camp by Old St. Pancras Church and traced the line of Roman roads through eighteenth-century London. He “appears to have had all the quiet virtues and gentle dispositions becoming an antiquarian-one living in the half-visionary world of the past,” as so many other Londoners have done. He died in Queen Square and by his particular direction was buried in the forlorn churchyard of East Ham.


The most elaborate and extensive antiquarian studies, however, can be dated from the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It was the time of encyclopaedic surveys, including the six great volumes of Old and New London edited by W. Thornbury and E. Walford. There are literally hundreds of other volumes chronicling the “curiosities” and “celebrities” of what had become the largest and wealthiest city in the world. This was also the period in which were completed various histories of London, a tradition which was maintained into the early twentieth century by Sir Walter Besant, the founder of “the People’s Palace,” whose memorial can now be viewed beneath Hungerford Railway Bridge. It was Besant who remarked, on his death-bed, “I’ve been walking about London for the last thirty years, and I find something fresh in it every day,” an observation which could be confirmed by almost any admirer of London.

By the 1870s, at the time when urban chroniclers were extolling the size and variety of the new city, there were others who, like their predecessors in earlier centuries, mourned the passing of the old. The Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was established in 1875, as a direct result of the threat of demolition of the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, and its work was complemented by such books as London Vanished and Vanishing and Unknown London. There were individual writers, many of them journalists from London newspapers, who explored the vestiges of the past concealed in old courts and antique squares. Their labours were in turn continued in the twentieth century by books such as London’s Secret History, The Vanished City and Lost London. The city has always provoked sensations of loss and transitoriness.

Yet antiquarianism can take many forms. At the turn of the twentieth century Sir Laurence Gomme, a great administrative historian, wrote a series of volumes which suggested, even if they did not entirely prove, that London had retained a territorial and judicial identity since the time of the Roman occupation. The permanent and unchanging nature of London was, thereby, affirmed in the very face of change. Gomme’s work was in a sense complemented by that of Lewis Spence whose Legendary London connected the history of the city with the tribal patterns of the Celts as well as the magic of the Druids.

Their contributions to the history of London have been sadly neglected or derided, partly as a result of the more precise and “scientific” record of the city’s growth maintained by the various London archaeological societies whose own work has proved invaluable. A more fundamental challenge came from the numerous sociologists and demographers who in the postwar years were more concerned with rebuilding and with new forms of urban planning.

Antiquarianism might itself be considered outmoded, therefore, except for one curious ceremony which is conducted every year at the church of St. Andrew Undershaft. Here rests John Stow’s tomb, with a memorial figure of the Tudor antiquarian resting upon it. He holds a quill pen in his hand and every year, at the beginning of April, the Lord Mayor of London and a distinguished historian proceed to the memorial where a new quill is placed in Stow’s stone hand. So the city honours one of its greatest citizens, with the changing of the quill a solemn token of the fact that the writing of London’s history will never come to an end.


A mid-sixteenth-century map of Moorfields, north of London. Some women dry linen upon the ground, while the citizens engage in archery. The line of Bishopsgate Street marks the accelerating growth of the city.


CHAPTER 8. Rather Dark and Narrow

<p>CHAPTER 8. Rather Dark and Narrow</p>

John Stow, the great sixteenth-century antiquarian, offered the most vivid and elaborate description of Tudor London. He wrote of new streets and new buildings continually springing up beyond the walls and, within the city itself, of “encroachments on the highways, lanes, and common grounds.” Where once there had been sheds or shops, in one of which an old woman used to sell “seeds, roots and herbs,” there were now houses “largely built on both side outward, and also upward, some three, four or five stories high.” Growth is the continual condition of the city, but one which Stow himself lamented when it encroached upon the ancient topography of the place which he had known as a child in Cordwainer Lane.


We can follow John Stow down Butchers’ Alley, beside St. Nicholas Shambles and Stinking Lane, where he discoursed on the rising price of meat. In the old days, he said, a fat ox was sold for 26s 8d “at the most” and a fat lamb for a shilling, but “what the price is now I need not to set down.” In such local touches, Stow stands alone among the chroniclers of the city. It was said that “he reporteth res in se minutas, toys and trifles, being such a smell-feast that he cannot pass by Guildhall, but his pen must taste of the good chear therein.” But that is what makes him such an excellent London surveyor, and such a characteristic Londoner. In his Survey of London, he provides a detailed and immediate account of the lanes and alleys which he had known all his life.

He was born in 1525 and came from at least two generations of tallow chandlers who resided in Threadneedle or Threeneedle Street; Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s familiar councillor, encroached upon his father’s garden there, and Stow ruefully noted “that the sudden rising of some men causeth them in some matters to forget themselves.” Little is known of any formal education which Stow may have received, although it is likely that he attended one of London’s free grammar schools. He himself recalled how he used to walk to a farm belonging to the nuns of the Minories where “I myself have fetched many a halfpenny worth of milk,” thus indicating that there was grazing land by the very walls of the city. But of other juvenile incidents he is silent. It is known that he took up the profession of a tailor, however, and established himself in a house by the well at Aldgate close to the farm where he had bought milk as a child, but his true labours had not yet begun.

Antiquarian studies seem to be an instinctive London passion, and Stow remains their greatest exemplar. It is appropriate that his first work should be an edition of Chaucer; that fine London poet was Stow’s original pursuit before he turned to the city which nourished his genius. He began the study of London records, primarily kept in the Guildhall, as a “fee’d chronicler”; we may imagine him among slips of parchment, manuscript rolls and broken-backed volumes, trying to decipher the history of his city. In one of his first volumes, A Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, he wrote that “It is now eight years since I, seeing the confused order of our late English Chronicles, and the ignorant handling of ancient affairs, leaving mine own peculiar gains, consecrated myself to the search of our famous antiquities.” This might suggest that he had abandoned his trade as a tailor in order to devote himself to historical study, but extant documents show that he maintained his business for some time. He complained about being called a “prick-louse,” an invidious catchphrase for those who sewed as a profession, and he testified that a neighbour threw stones and tiles at his apprentice.

The “antiquities” were all around him. A few yards from his own house, between Billiter Lane and Lime Street, were buried a wall and gate of stone “about two fathoms deep” under the ground. They had been discovered after demolition work in 1590; Stow investigated the curiosity, and believed the old stonework to date from the reign of King Stephen some 450 years before. The ground of London was always rising, built again and again upon the ash and rubble of its previous incarnations. Stow walked everywhere, and once confessed that his labours “cost many a weary mile’s travel, many a hard-earned penny and pound, and many a cold winter night’s study.” He was tall and lean, “of a pleasant and cheerful countenance; his sight and memory were good; very sober, mild, and courteous to any that required his instructions.”

There was much to instruct since, in the early sixteenth century, London would indeed have been an antiquarian’s delight. Stow often mentions the presence of great houses “of old time built upon arched vaults, and with gates of stone” which date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries; there would still have been extant walls, pillars and pavements from the Roman period. Much of the brick and masonry of that early time had been pillaged for modern rebuilding, but there is no doubt that there would have been evidence of the first century in succeeding periods of London’s history. Yet much also was being destroyed even as Stow continued his survey. The Reformation of faith, inaugurated by Henry VIII, wreaked a sudden transformation upon the buildings as well as the beliefs of London. The fabric of the Roman communion, to which the citizens had so fervently attached themselves, was shattered; the uncertainty and bewilderment of Londoners were in turn embodied in the changing fabric of the city itself where monasteries and chantry chapels and lady chapels were vandalised or broken. The dissolution of the abbeys, churches and monastic hospitals in particular meant that the entire city was in a fevered period of demolition and construction. Parts of it would have resembled a vast building site, while other areas were left to slow neglect and in Stow’s words became “sore decayed.”

London was in many respects a place of ruins. Stow notes the remains of an “old court hall” in Aldermanbury Street, now “employed as a carpenter’s yard.” A mayor’s great house in Old Jewry became in turn a synagogue, a house of friars, a nobleman’s house, a merchant’s house, and then a “wine tavern” known as the Windmill. A chapel became a “warehouse and shops towards the street, with lodgings over them,” bishops’ houses were turned into tenements, and so on. Other documentary sources reveal that a Cistercian house was pulled “clean down” and in its place were erected storehouses, tenements and “ovens for making ship’s biscuit.” The convent of the Poor Clares, known as the Minories, was destroyed to make way for storehouses; the church of the Crutched Friars became a carpenter’s shop and a tennis court; the church of the Blackfriars was turned into a warehouse for the carts and properties of the “pageants.” (It is perhaps appropriate that on this same site rose the Blackfriars Playhouse.) St. Martin’s le Grand was pulled down and a tavern built upon its remains.

There are many other examples, but the salient point remains that after the Reformation much of late Tudor London was in a ruined condition, with walls and gateways and ancient stone windows to be glimpsed among the shops and houses which lined the lanes and thoroughfares. Even in the area outside the walls, where the palaces of the bishops and nobles had led down from the Strand towards the river, the grand houses were, according to the Venetian ambassador, “disfigured by the ruins of a multitude of churches and monasteries.”

Yet even in the midst of lamentation there was also renovation. In Goldsmiths Row, between Bread Street and Cheapside Cross, Stow extols the shops and dwellings-built just thirty-five years before his birth- which are “beautified towards the street with the Goldsmith’s arms … riding on monstrous beasts, all of which is cast in lead, richly painted over and gilt.” A fifteenth-century traveller, Dominic Mancini, noted, in the same area, “gold and silver cups, dyed stuffs, various silks, carpets, tapestry.” These are the true tinctures of Tudor London. An old church may be pulled down, but in its place Stow remarks that there has been erected “a fair strong frame of timber … wherein dwell men of divers trades.” An old cross is removed, and on the same site is constructed a glistening water-conduit. An aristocratic dwelling is converted into a market “for the sale of woollen baize, watmols [coarse wool], flannels and such like.” A stone building of great antiquity is gradually taken down and in its place are erected “divers fair houses.”

This is the trade, and energy, of Tudor London. Stow himself, quintessential Londoner as he is, cannot prevent himself from enumerating the gardens, the mills, the houses of stone and timber, the taverns, the conduits, the stables, the yards, the hostelries, the markets, the tenements and guild halls which comprise the city’s life.


The older versions of the grand London house, established around a separate hall and courtyard, were no longer appropriate to the new conditions of the city; they were built over, or encroached upon, by smaller dwellings in streets which were already acquiring a reputation for being “rather dark and narrow.” Even the mansions of the wealthy merchants were now more compact, with a shop and warehouse on the ground floor, a hall and parlour on the first floor and the other living quarters above; it was not uncommon for such a house to rise to five or six storeys, with two rooms on each level, in the customary timber and mortar fashion. Such was the premium upon space in the bustling city that cellars and garrets were utilised as dwellings for the poor. Estimates of population can only be approximate but there are figures of 85,000 by 1565, rising to 155,000 by 1605; this does not include those who lived in “the liberties” or within “the bars,” which would increase the figures by more than 20,000. It represents, to use a perhaps anachronistic phrase, a population explosion.

The price of property had risen so steeply that no one would willingly demolish even the smallest shop or house. So the growth of the city meant that the ancient ditches, used for both defence and refuse, were now filled in and covered over and became the site of more properties. The main roads leading to the city gates were “improved” and paved, so that within a very short time shops and houses were erected beside them. The road to Aldgate, for example, was, according to Stow, “not only fully replenished with buildings outward” but “also pestered with divers alleys on either side to the bars.” Even the fields beyond the city, where once the younger citizens had shot their arrows or walked among the streams, had “now within a few years made a continual building throughout of garden houses and small cottages, and the fields on either side turned into garden plots, tenter yards, bowling alleys, and such like.”

The overcrowding became so serious that, in 1580, Elizabeth I issued a proclamation “perceiving the state of the city of London (being anciently termed her chamber) and the suburbs and confines thereof to increase slowly, by access of people to inhabit the same” so that there was no chance of sustaining “victual food, and other like necessaries for man’s life, upon reasonable prices, without which no city can long continue.” There was further cause for alarm concerning the overpopulation within the city itself “where there are such great multitudes of people brought to inhabit in small rooms, whereof a great part are seen very poor, yea, such as must live begging, or by worse means, and they heaped up together, and in a sort smothered with many families of children and servants in one house or small tenement.” This is one of the earliest accounts of overcrowding in London, and can be considered the first extended version of a description which has haunted the city ever since. The queen’s remedy was to prohibit “any new buildings of any house or tenement within three miles from any of the gates of the said city of London.” It has been suggested that this was the first venture at a “green belt” around London, a surmise which would at least have the merit of emphasising the historical continuity within all apparently “modern” plans for the city, but it was more likely to be an attempt to protect the trading and commercial monopoly of the citizens within the walls who did not relish the appearances of trades and shops beyond their jurisdiction.

Another aspect of the proclamation is also of some significance, in that passage where the monarch and her city advisers prohibit “any more families than one only to be placed, or to inhabit from henceforth in any house that hereto fore hath been inhabited.” The idea of one family occupying one house was indeed the stated purpose behind much of the city’s development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it has even been considered a peculiarly London solution. It is peculiar to the city because it is historical in spirit; as S.E. Rasmussen put it in London: The Unique City, the Elizabethan remedy represented a “conservative clinging to the medieval form of housing.” In a similar spirit new building was only allowed if it were raised “on old foundations.” Here we have an inkling of that continuity, and sense of permanence, which London still exemplifies.

It did not, however, work. Within three years of Elizabeth’s proclamations the city authorities were lamenting the continual increase in sheds, lodgings and tenements outside the walls. There were further edicts and orders issued at regular intervals throughout the reign of her successors; none of them was ever obeyed, and none of them was in the least successful at controlling the growth of the city.

The truth is that the growth of London could not, and cannot, be controlled. It spread to the east along the high street of Whitechapel, and to the west along the Strand. It spread north to Clerkenwell and Hoxton; to the south, Southwark and its environs became “pestered,” to use Stow’s word, with places of popular resort, taverns, brothels, pleasure grounds and theatres. In turn the Inns of Court, clustered in the “suburbs” of Holborn between the city and the royal palaces of Westminster, were extended and embellished.

Yet the quality of transport from suburb to city was not always of the best. In the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII the high road between the Temple “and the village of Charing,” now known as the Strand, was noted in the Rolls of Parliament to be “full of pits and sloughs, very perilous … very noyous and foul, and in many places thereof very jeopardous to all people passing and repassing, as well on horseback as on foot.” More modern forms of transportation, however, were not necessarily welcomed. The introduction of hackney coaches, known as “chariots” or “whirlicotes,” led Stow to reflect that “the world runs on wheels with many whose parents were glad to go on foot.”

The state of traffic in the capital was a source of constant complaint in the sixteenth century, as it has become for each generation. Stow again noted “the number of cars, drays, carts and coaches, more than hath been accustomed, the streets and lanes being straitened, must needs be dangerous, as daily experience proveth”-dangers not tempered when coachmen lashed their horses forward without checking what was behind them and inebriated drivers quarrelled frequently and violently in the street over who had right of passage. And there was the noise “where even the very earth quakes and trembles, the casements shatter, tatter, and clatter.”

There was, however, a significant improvement in the conditions of urban living at least for those who could afford the new “luxuries” of city life. There were pillows and bedding where there had once lain a log and a straw pallet; even the poorer citizens dined off pewter rather than wood and the “middling” households might boast of wall-coverings, brass, soft linen, cupboards garnished with plate, jars and pots made from green glazed earthenware. There was also a fashion for brick and stone chimneys, which in turn had an effect both upon the appearance and atmosphere of London.


The city had forfeited some of its independence to Parliament and to the sovereign, even to the extent of accepting Henry VIII’s recommendations for the mayoralty, but in turn it had become the recognised capital of a unified nation. The municipal ideal had been displaced by a national ideal-and how could it not be so in a city which was now largely populated by immigrants? The new arrivals came from every area of England, Cornwall to Cumberland (it has been estimated that one-sixth of all Englishmen became Londoners in the second half of the sixteenth century), and the number of foreign immigrants rose at an accelerating pace, making the city truly cosmopolitan. So high was the mortality, and so low the birth rate, that without this influx of traders and workers the population would in fact have steadily declined. Yet instead it continued to expand, with brewers and book-binders from the Low Countries, tailors and embroiderers from France, gun-makers and dyers from Italy, weavers from the Netherlands and elsewhere. There was an African or “Moor” in Cheapside who made steel needles without ever imparting the secret of his craft. Fashion followed population, just as the populace followed fashion. In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) there was a surfeit of silk shops, selling everything from gold thread to silk stockings, and at the time of her accession it was reported that no country gentleman could “be content to have eyther cappe, coat, doublet, hose or shirt … but they must have their geare from London.”

If London had become the centre of fashion, it had also become the centre of death. Mortality was higher than in any other part of the country, the two great harvesters being the plague and the sweating sickness. In poorer parishes life expectancy was only between twenty and twenty-five years, while in the richer it rose to thirty or thirty-five years. These fatal infections confirm the evident truth that sixteenth-century London remained a city of the young. The greatest proportion of the citizens were under the age of thirty, and it is this actuarial statistic which helps to explain the energy and restlessness of urban life in all its forms.

The most striking example comes from within the turbulent body of the apprentices, a peculiarly London phenomenon of young men who were bound by strict articles of agreement and yet managed to retain a high-spiritedness and almost feverish buoyancy which spilled over into the streets. They “wold ether bee at the taverne, filling their heads with wine, or at the Dagger in Cheapeside cramming their bellies with minced pyes; but above al other times it was their common costome, as London prentises use, to follow their maisters upon Sundays to the Church dore and then to leave them, and hie unto the taverne.” There are reports of various fights and “affrays,” the common victims being foreigners, “night-walkers,” or the servants of noblemen who were considered to take on the airs of their superiors. A declaration, in 1576, warned apprentices not to “misuse, molest, or evil treat any servant, page, or lackey of any nobleman, gentleman, or other going in the streets.” There were often disturbances after football matches and three young men were put in the local prison for “outrageously and riotously behaving themselves at a football play in Cheapside.” But drunken high spirits could turn into something more violent, and threatening. Apprentices as well as artisans and children took part in the “evil May-day” riots of 1517, in which the houses of foreigners were ransacked. In the last decade of the sixteenth century there were still more outbreaks of riot and disorder but, unlike other continental cities, London never became unstable or ungovernable.


The accounts of foreign travellers suggest the unique status of London in this period. A Greek visitor reported that the treasures in the Tower were “said to exceed the anciently famed wealth of Croesus and Midas,” while a Swiss medical student reported that “London is not said to be in England, but rather England to be in London.” There was a standard guided tour for visitors, who were first taken to the Tower and the Royal Exchange before being escorted to the west, with Cheapside, St. Paul’s, Ludgate and the Strand viewed, before a magnificent arrival at Westminster and Whitehall. The roads were unpaved in parts, but a journey on horse was still sometimes preferable to that upon the Thames. Giordano Bruno, spy and magician, has left a graphic account of his attempts to hire the services of a wherry. He and his companions, wishing to travel to Westminster, spent a great deal of time looking for a boat and vainly crying out “Oars!” At last a boat arrived with two elderly boatsmen-“After much question and reply as to whence, where, why, how and when, they brought the prow to the foot of the stairs.” The Italians believed they were at last on their way to the destination but then, after about a third of the journey had been completed, the boatsmen began to row towards the shore. They had reached their “station,” and would go no further. This is a small incident, of course, but it reveals the rudeness and obstinacy which was seen by strangers to be characteristic of London behaviour. Just as typical, perhaps, is Bruno’s arrival on the shore only to find a footpath thick with mud where he was forced to journey through “a deep and gloomy hell.”

Other reports emphasise both the violence and xenophobia of ordinary Londoners. A French physician, in London between 1552 and 1553, observed that “the common people are proud and seditious … these villains hate all sorts of strangers” and even “spit in our faces.” Gangs of apprentices were also likely to set upon foreigners in the street, and one traveller saw a Spaniard being forced to take refuge in a shop from a mob after he dared to wear his national costume. The Swiss medical student was in that respect perhaps too kind when he mentioned that “the common people are still somewhat coarse and uncultured … and believe that the world beyond England is boarded off.”

Yet the city also lives in its details gathered in these foreign accounts. One traveller noted that it was remarkable for the number of kites which were “quite tame” and wandered through the streets as if they owned them; they were the city’s scavengers and the butchers threw out offal for them to consume. The number of butchers’ shops was matched only by the number of taverns. A passion for privacy was also noted, with individual dwellings separated from their neighbours by walls of stone; the same conditions applied in the taverns themselves, where wooden partitions were set up “so that one table cannot overlook the next.” It may be that in a teeming and overcrowded city such attempts at privacy were natural or inevitable, yet they also represent a significant and permanent aspect of the London character.

In other accounts “between meals one sees men, women, and children always munching through the streets.” The same children, when not eating apples and nuts, could be seen “gathering up the blood which had fallen through the slits in the scaffold” after a beheading on Tower Hill. The executioner on this occasion wore a white apron “like a butcher.” We seem to have come full circle in a city dominated by violence, blood, meat and continual consuming appetite.


CHAPTER 9. Packed to Blackness

<p>CHAPTER 9. Packed to Blackness</p>

There was once a Dark Lane, in the medieval city; a tavern was erected there, known as the Darkhouse. That narrow thoroughfare was then renamed Dark House Lane, and is to be seen on eighteenth-century maps of London. On the same site there now stands Dark House Wharf, which is dominated by the headquarters of the Bank of Hong Kong. This building is clad in dark blue steel and dark, tinted glass. So does the city maintain its dark secret life.


Dust, mud, soot, slime and smut were the objects of continual dissatisfaction. “Though a chamber be never so closely locked up,” John Evelyn complained in the seventeenth century, “men find at their return all things that are in it evenly covered with a black thin soot.” In the same century a Venetian chaplain described “a sort of soft and stinking mud which abounds here at all seasons, so that the place more deserves to be called Lorda (filth) than Londra (London).” The “filth of the city” was also depicted as being “rich and black as thick ink.” In the eighteenth century the road outside Aldgate “resembled a stagnant lake of deep mud,” while in the Strand the puddles of filth were three or four inches deep so that they “fill coaches when their windows happen not to be up, and bedaub all the lower parts of the houses.” If they were not strewn with mud, the streets were filled with dust. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, according to the Quarterly Review, there was not a man or woman in London “whose skin and clothes and nostrils are not of necessity more or less loaded with a compound of powdered granite, soot, and still more nauseous substances.” It was said that St. Paul’s Cathedral had a right to be blackened because it was built with a tax upon sea coal, but it was hard upon the animals of the city which were similarly affected by the smoke and dirt; the feathers of the redstarts and the martins were suffused with soot, while the dust of London was believed to clog the breathing and dull the senses of the omnipresent spiders. All creatures were affected and, as a late twentieth-century character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince puts it, “I could feel the thick filth and muck of London under my feet, under my bottom, behind my back.”

Yet it is more than material filth. There is a drawing of Fish Street Hill by George Scharf, executed in the late 1830s, as accomplished and as detailed as all his work. But in the foreground a vast shadow obscures the people and the house-fronts; it is in fact the outline of the Monument, otherwise concealed from sight, but in that shadow Scharf has somehow managed to depict something of the nature of London itself. It has always been a shadowy city.

As James Bone, the author of The London Perambulator, remarked in 1931, it resides in “the appearance of great shadows where there can be no shadows, throwing blackness up and down.” This is also the London vision of Verlaine, who writes of “l’odieuse obscurité … quel deuil profond, quelles ténèbres!” within “la monstrueuse cité.” Much of the slate used in London building is striated by what geologists term “pressure shadows” but they are inconspicuous beside the blackened surfaces of Portland stone. One foreign traveller remarked that the streets of London were so dark that the citizenry seemed to delight in playing “hide and seek” with the light, like children in a wood, while in the summer of 1782 Charles Moritz noted that “the houses in general struck me as if they were dark and gloomy.” The gloom affected him profoundly: “At that moment I could not in my own mind compare the external view of London with that of any other city I had ever before seen.”

There were almost a score of Dirty Alleys, Dirty Hills and Dirty Lanes in the medieval city; there were Inkhorn Courts and Foul Lanes and Deadman’s Places. Lombard Street in the City, at the centre of capitalist imperialism, was a notoriously dark street. At the beginning of the nineteenth century its brick was so blackened with smoke that the walls resembled the mud in the road. Today, in the twenty-first century, it is still just as narrow and just as dark, its stone walls constantly echoing to the sound of hurried footsteps. It is still close to what a century ago Nathaniel Hawthorne called “the black heart of London.” Hawthorne’s compatriot Henry James also noticed the “deadly darkness” but he revelled in it as if he were a “born Londoner.” In the 1870s Hippolyte Taine simply found the darkness “horrible”; the houses from a distance looked “like ink-stains on blotting paper” while from a closer vantage the “tall, flat straight façades are of dark brick.” The darkness of London seems to have entered Taine’s soul with his crepuscular invocations of “a bone-black factory” which is a London dwelling, of “porticoes foul with soot … every crevice inked in … long ranks of blind windows … the fluting of the columns full of greasy filth, as if sticky mud had been set flowing down there.”

There were others who were intimate with this darkness. In his account of nineteenth-century Whitechapel, Charles Booth, the sympathetic chronicler of The Life and Labour of the People of London, mentions that the tables of the poor are “fairly black” with thick swarms of flies congregating on every available surface while, in the streets outside, at the level of the hip, “is a broad dirty mark, showing where the men and lads are in the constant habit of standing.”

Charles Booth’s images of disease and torpor somehow increase the darkness of the capital, as the very embodiment of those shadows which the rich and powerful cast upon the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. The effect of the industrial revolution, although less noticeable in London than in some of the northern manufacturing towns, deepened those shadows. The growth of factories as well as small workshops, and the increasing demand for coal in a city which by the beginning of the eighteenth century was already the manufacturing centre of Europe, only intensified London’s characteristic darkness.

In another sense its darkness suggests secrecy, and the titles of many accounts of the city confirm that sense of concealment, among them Unknown London, its Romance and Tragedy, The London Nobody Knows and London in Shadow. And yet that secrecy is of its essence. When Joseph Conrad described the city “half lost in night,” in The Secret Agent (1907), he was echoing Charles Dickens’s remark seventy years before in Sketches by Boz that “the streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark dull murky winter’s night.” The tone is ironic but the meaning is by no means so. In his last completed work Dickens returned to it in his description of “a black shrill city … a gritty city … a hopeless city, with no vent in the leaden canopy of its sky.” Darkness is of the city’s essence; it partakes of its true identity; in a literal sense London is possessed by darkness.


CHAPTER 10. Maps and Antiquarians

<p>CHAPTER 10. Maps and Antiquarians</p>

The history of London is represented by the history of its maps. They can be seen as symbolic tokens of the city, and as attempts to picture its disorder in terms of fluent and harmonious design. From the first great copperplate map of the mid-sixteenth century to the “Underground” map of the late twentieth century, the mapping of London represents an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to mitigate it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.

That is why the first map, from which John Stow himself borrowed, has always been a source of wonder and curiosity. It is inscribed upon copper plates by an unknown hand, but all the evidence suggests that this carefully prepared map was commissioned by Queen Mary I. In its complete form (only three fragments remain) it would have been some eight feet in width and five feet in depth, covering the entire area of city and suburbs. It is in certain respects extraordinarily detailed: the very scales of Leadenhall Market are depicted, together with the dog-kennels in some of the gardens; the position of a tree or the number of buckets by a well are faithfully recorded; shirts and bed linen lie stretched out to dry in Moor Field, while games of musketry and archery are conducted in the neighbouring pastures. The churches and monastic remains are also visible, many of them rendered in such detail that we may distinguish between wood and stone. When Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt compared the sea around England with “a moat defensive to a house,” we now know that his audience, coming to the Theatre, by Shoreditch, had passed just such a moated house on the road out of London through Finsbury Fields. Since this copperplate is also the original upon which most other maps of sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century London are based, in its lineaments we may find the most lucid and significant outline of the city.

In certain respects, however, the map inevitably strays from accuracy. The actual warren of passages and alleyways is ignored in order to display the principal lanes and streets; the city has in that respect been cleansed. The number and variety of houses are also neglected in order to create a more uniform and pleasing appearance. The citizens depicted at work or at play are in turn of an unnatural size, suggesting that the cartographer wished to emphasise the human dimension of the city. Nevertheless it is a beautiful feat of engraving, and it is no accident that it did become the source and inspiration for maps completed some years later.

One coloured map of mid-Tudor London, for example, which is known as the “Braun and Hogenberg,” is a smaller copy of the great original. Here the city is given compact form and, although it is by no means a spiritualised shape, it is in instinctive harmony with its surroundings; the skiffs and wherries ply their river trade in graceful formation, while the main thoroughfares themselves seem to mimic the natural passage of the water. It depicts the “fair city” of contemporary report, but it also has one other significant aspect; in the foreground, quite out of proportion, stand four Londoners. An older man is dressed in the robes of a merchant, with cap and fur-trimmed coat, while upon his right hand stands his apprentice wearing a short coat like a doublet as well as sword and buckler; the merchant’s wife is dressed in a simple blue gown over a Spanish farthingale while her maid is plainly attired in gown and apron. These are modest figures but they stand upon a hill above London as the true representatives of the city. The map itself can be seen as an advertisement of London’s mercantile power, with the vessels on the Thames behind the four Londoners depicting its status as a port.


In similar spirit the two great “panoramas” of London, before the Fire of 1666 utterly destroyed its appearance, take the river as the leading spirit of their design. Anthony van den Wyngaerde’s riverine views of the mid-seventeenth century have been eclipsed by Hollar’s panorama of 1647, but Wyngaerde’s study has the merit of showing the bustling life of the Thames. Some row, while others fish. Travellers wait at Stargate Horse Ferry, while others make their way up Southwark High Street towards London Bridge.

Of course Hollar’s more powerfully executed engraving is perhaps the most beautiful and harmonious of all London panoramas. In his work, London has become a world city of which the horizons are scarcely visible. The artist takes his stand upon the roof of St. Mary Overie by Bankside, so that in the foreground of the engraving are great clusters of roofs and house-fronts by the entrance to London Bridge. The chimneys and windows, the rooftops of tile and wood, suggest the massive presence of a city already congregating by its southern mouth; on the Thames there are almost eighty great vessels as well as innumerable smaller craft, the river itself forming a great sheath of light and space which lends London a monumental aspect. There are more intimate details on the southern bank where, among the throng of roofs and chimneys, Hollar has opened up two short vistas of the streets. A dog can be seen, a man on horseback, couples wandering, here and there a solitary figure, all fixed for ever as part of the pattern of London. From Hollar’s high vantage a walled garden can be observed and, beyond it, two circular buildings labelled “The Globe” and “Beere bayting” respectively. Beyond them lie fields, where horses are grazing. On the other side of the Thames there is a forest of rooftops and church spires; although that of St. Paul’s had been destroyed by a thunderstorm some eighty years before, the cathedral church still dominates the skyline of the city. It rises above the streets and wharves, where people can be seen working or waiting for transport. There is continuous building eastwards from the Tower to Shadwell, while the line of the city is prolonged westward to Whitehall. The effect is that of great activity caught in majestic perspective, with the city arrayed in glory. The panorama is completed by various classical deities who, as it were, introduce and applaud the scene from the wings; the figure of Apollo hovers just above St. Paul’s.

It is perhaps the finest ever representation of London, and certainly the greatest image of the city before the Great Fire of 1666. Later maps by Norden, as well as Newcourt and Faithorne, in style and spirit reflect the first great copperplate map. Similarly, the familiar map of the London Underground today still completes and complements the one first designed with such clarity of purpose in 1933. The original Underground map bears only approximate relation to the location of lines and stations, but it is so aesthetically pleasing that its lineaments have never been changed.

In 1658 Wenceslaus Hollar completed a further etching, of the western aspect of the city. We observe that still more areas of fields and stiles and country lanes have been replaced by squares and piazzas and dwellings. Some of these houses are several storeys high, others on a smaller scale, but all reflect a pleasing symmetry which did not in fact exist. Another theme obtrudes, at least in retrospect. The streets and open areas are devoid of figures or any depiction of active life-the city had already grown too large to register even the symbolic presence of its citizens-and so it seems like some great empty place waiting silently for its destruction in the Great Fire.

The extent of that destruction can be see in another engraving by Hollar; it was completed in 1667, and depicts the razed city as more than four hundred acres of whitened contours. The ruins of the churches, prisons and main public buildings are sketched in, but the rest is empty space encroached upon by dark clusters of building which had escaped the flames.

Within days of that Fire, however, various speculative maps of a new London were being completed. These were visionary schemes. To a certain extent they resemble the structure of planned cities such as Paris and New York which were to be laid out grandly in the nineteenth century. Many of these seventeenth-century designs for London incorporated grid systems of intersecting thoroughfares, with great avenues linking majestic public edifices. Wren and Evelyn conceived of a humane and civilised city built upon a preordained pattern, while some of their contemporaries presented mathematically ingenious systems of roads and squares. These noble plans could not work, and they did not work. The very nature of the city defeated them: its ancient foundations lie deeper than the level at which any fire might touch, and the spirit of the place remained unscathed.

London is not a civilised nor a graceful city, despite the testimony of the maps. It is tortuous, inexact and oppressive. It could never be laid out again with mathematic precision, in any case, because the long history of streets and estates meant that there was a bewildering network of owners and landlords with their own especial claims or privileges. This is a social and topographical fact, but it in turn suggests a no less tangible aspect of London. It is a city built upon profit and speculation, not upon need, and no mayor or sovereign could withstand its essential organic will.

That is why the map of reconstructed London, published ten years after the Fire, shows the city restored approximately to its original state. One new thoroughfare has been built, the new King Street and the new Queen Street leading to the Guildhall from the river, but the congerie of streets around it- Milk Street, Wood Street, Aldermansbury, Old Jewry, and all the rest-have sprung up again. Thoroughfares were widened after more stringent fire precautions and building regulations were applied, but the essential topography of the neighbourhood was revived.

There was one other change. The surveyors of this post-Fire map, John Ogilby and William Morgan, had declared that they would chart “all Bye-streets and Lanes, all Courts and Allies, all Churches and Churchyards” by scientific principles of “Mesuration and Plotting” with theodolites and “circumferentors.” So for the first time the city became susceptible to scientific measurement, with the result that it could no longer be depicted as an aesthetic or harmonious whole. Paradoxically it then became fragmented, chaotic, unknowable. The twenty sheets of this topographical survey are covered by rectangles and numbers-“i 90 … B69 … C54”-which are designed to expedite identification, but the general effect is one of bewildering complexity. When London is seen in terms of abstract size and measurement, it becomes unimaginable.


There was, instead, a vogue for guidebooks which rendered London intimate and identifiable-among them Couch’s Historical Remarques and Observations of 1681, de Laune’s The Present State of London and Colsoni’s Le Guide de Londres of 1693. They were complemented by such volumes as The Antiquities of London and Westminster, with accounts of the town-ditch, the gates, the schools, hospitals, churches and wards.

By the eighteenth century there was an efflorescence of those books which emphasise “whatever is most remarkable for GRANDEUR, ELEGANCE, CURIOSITY OR USE.” There were others designed to aid visitors, or new residents, as to the way in which they should conduct themselves in the city. One, for example, suggests that should a carrier of a sedan chair behave unmannerly, “take the Number of the Chair, as you do of a Hackney Coach, and complaining at the office abovementioned, the Commissioners will correct their Insolence.” The London Adviser and Guide of 1790 offers similar advice, with the note that common people will be charged one shilling for swearing in the street and that every gentleman will face the higher penalty of five shillings. The number of convictions is not mentioned.

The next attempt at a comprehensive cartography, undertaken by John Roque, in 1783, emphasises the problems that were now inevitably encountered; trigonometrical measurements of the streets did not align with actual measurements, and street names were thoroughly confused. The project took seven years to finish and, in the process, Roque himself came close to bankruptcy. The plan itself was of enormous size and the publishers suggested that it be placed on a “Roller” so that “it will not interfere with any other Furniture.” Yet it is by no means a complete survey. It omits certain smaller or inconsiderable features, place names are missing, and there has been no effort to include individual buildings. This is hardly surprising in a map covering some ten thousand acres of built land, and the publishers were tactful enough to encourage subscribers to point out “Inaccuracies and Omissions.” So it remains in many respects an impressionistic survey, with the actual lanes, tenements and shops reduced to a fine grey shading; it has an “enduring enchantment,” according to the authors of The History of London in Maps, but it is the enchantment of distance.


At the end of the eighteenth century the largest map ever printed in England conveyed what seemed to be, even then, the immensity of London. Richard Horwood’s map was ninety-four feet square, and contained street numbers as well as names and houses. The project continued for nine years but four years after its publication Horwood, tired and careworn, died at the age of forty-five. Some of the inevitable difficulties he encountered can be measured by changes in four different editions. Within the space of thirteen years the fields adjacent to Commercial Road were gradually filled with houses and terraced streets. In the space of twenty years the number of houses in Mile End had tripled. The persistent and steady growth of London, in a sense, had killed its map-maker.

Horwood’s aim was largely utilitarian. The enterprise was sponsored by the Phoenix Fire Insurance office, one of the city’s most significant institutions, and was advertised as indispensable “in bringing Ejectments or Actions, in leasing or conveying Premises etcetera.” In that, it proved successful, if only because every subsequent attempt at conveying the specific houses or buildings of the city was engulfed by its sheer immensity. The first Ordnance Survey of London completed in 1850, for example, comprised some 847 sheets; it was greatly reduced for publication but then proved to be on too small a scale to be useful for travellers and inhabitants alike. This and later maps of mid-and late Victorian London simply display lines of streets linked together, with shading used indiscriminately to represent the shops, offices, houses, tenements and public buildings.

These are the direct predecessors of the contemporary A to Z gazetteer in which hundreds of pages are needed to chart a city which cannot be recognised or understood in terms of one central image. The begetter of the A to Z, Phyllis Pearsall, entranced by London’s immensity, compiled the first edition in the mid-1930s by “rising at five and walking for 18 miles per day.” She covered 3,000 miles of streets, and completed 23,000 entries which she kept in shoeboxes beneath her bed. Michael Hebbert, the author of London, has revealed that the maps “were drawn by a single draughtsman, and Pearsall herself compiled, designed and proof-read the book.” No publisher was interested, however, until she delivered copies on a wheelbarrow to a W.H. Smith buyer. By the time of her death, in 1996, the number of London streets had risen to approximately 50,000.

The nineteenth-century city, already seeming too vast for comprehension, was sometimes plotted in terms of theme or subject. There were “cab-fare maps” outlining the distance which could be travelled for a certain fare, maps of street improvements with the renovated thoroughfares outlined in vivid red, maps of the “modern plague of London” which marked each public house with a red spot, and maps displaying the incidence of death by cholera. Maps of the underground railway, of trams, and of other forms of modern transport soon followed so that London became a city of maps, one laid upon another like an historical palimpsest. It never ceased to grow and, in the process, glowed perpetually with various colours-those of death, alcohol and poverty competing with those of improvements and railways.


“Up to this time,” Henry James wrote in 1869, “I have been crushed under a sense of the mere magnitude of London-its inconceivable immensity-in such a way as to paralyse my mind for any appreciation of details.” Yet for the true antiquarian of London those details live and survive within the memory, beyond the reach of any plan or survey. “In my youth,” John Stow wrote in the sixteenth century, “I remember, devout people, as well men as women of this city, were accustomed oftentimes, especially on Fridays, weekly to walk that way [to Houndsditch] purposely there to bestow their charitable alms; every poor man or woman lying in their bed within their window, which was towards the street, open so low that every man might see them.” It is a distinct and striking image, in a city of spectacle and ritual. And then again: “I remember within this fifty four years Malmsey not to be sold more than one penny halfpenny the pint.” Memory here must complete the task of observation, if only “to stop the tongues of unthankful men, such as used to ask, Why have ye not noted this, or that? and give no thanks for what is done.”

Stow remains the guardian spirit of all those Londoners who came after him, filled with their own memories of time passing and time gone. There is Charles Lamb wandering through the Temple in the early 1820s, noting “what an antique air had the now almost effaced sun-dials, with their moral inscriptions, seeming coevals with that Time which they measured”; these were “my oldest recollections.” A decade later Macaulay spoke of a coming time when the citizens of London, “ancient and gigantic as it is, will in vain seek, amidst new streets, and squares, and railway stations for the site of that dwelling” which was in their youth the centre of their lives or destinies. Leigh Hunt, in The Town of 1848, observed of the city, “nor perhaps is there a single spot in London in which the past is not visibly present to us, either in the shape of some old buildings or at least in the names of the streets.” At the very beginning of the nineteenth century a London journalist known as “Aleph” wandered down Lothbury, recalling its previous “tortuous, dark vista of lofty houses” lit only by oil-lamps; since Aleph’s journey it has changed many times, yet it still remains unique and identifiable, most particularly with its recurrent “darkness” and “loftiness.”


It has been said that no stone ever leaves London but is reused and redeployed, adding to that great pile upon which the city rests. The paradox here is of continual change and constant underlying identity; it is at the core of the antiquarian passion for a continually altering and expanding city which nevertheless remains an echo chamber for stray memories and unfulfilled desires. That is perhaps why, as V.S. Pritchett noted in the late 1960s, “London has the effect of making one feel personally historic.” “It is strange,” he once wrote, “that although London wipes out its past, the Londoner does not quite forget.” Every journey through the streets of London can then become a journey into the past, and there will always be Londoners who thrill to that past like an obsession. In the early 1920s another London visionary, Arthur Machen, walked through Camden Town and found himself witnessing like a revenant the city of 1840, with pony gigs and dimly lit interiors, all of it conjured up by the sudden glimpse of a “little coach-house and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away.”

Until recent years it was possible to find inhabitants of Bermondsey who were, in the words of one reporter, “enthralled by the history of their borough.” It is a genuine London passion. Where Thomas Hardy could hear “the voice of Paul” in ancient stones exhibited within the British Museum, Londoners hear the voices of all those who came before them in the smallest houses and meanest streets. Charles Lamb remembered a cashier in the South-Sea House, Mr. Evans, who was eloquent “in relation to old and new London-the site of old theatres, churches, streets gone to decay-where Rosamond’s pond stood-the Mulberry Gardens-and the Conduit in Cheap.” The author of Highways and Byways in London, Mrs. E.T. Cook, stood upon Westminster Bridge in a winter’s twilight, when “as the light faded, and the mist rose, I seemed to lose the forms of the modern buildings, and to see, as though in a vision, the ‘Thorney Isle’ of the dim past.” Yet even as this early twentieth-century observer sees intimations of the eighth century, her meditations are broken by a beggarwoman’s plea for money. “I ain’t got a place ter sleep in this night. Gawd knows I ain’t, dear lydy.” Past and present collide in a thousand different forms. When Rose Macaulay visited the wilderness of a bomb-site in the Second World War, she had an intimation of “the primeval chaos and old night which had been before Londinium was.” In the preceding century Leigh Hunt observed that St. Paul’s Churchyard was “a place in which you may get the last new novel, and find remains of the ancient Britons and of the sea.” Despite his fear of the city’s immensity Henry James himself experienced “the ghostly sense, the disembodied presences of the old London.” There is a foot-tunnel under the Thames, linking Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs, which seems to harbour something of its mystery; for Stephen Graham, the author of the lachrymose London Nights, it “told of an enigma which would never be solved; the enigma of London’s sorrow, her burden, her slavery.”

There have always been solitary Londoners meditating upon the past, musing, even, upon civilisations which like their own had fallen into decay and dissolution. Edward Gibbon sat alone in his lodgings in Bond Street and, to the sound of rattling coaches, reflected upon the fall of Rome. The young John Milton sat up half the night in his bed-chamber in Bread Street, his candle glimmering at the window, while he dreamed of ancient London and its founders. There have been such men in every generation, men who have spent “their lives in the disquisition of venerable ANTIQUITY concerning this city.” One of the first, Fabyan, a sheriff and alderman of London, wrote a Chronicle or Concordance of Histories of which the first edition was published in 1485. Among other topics he compiled a chronology of the successive weathercocks upon St. Paul’s. Arnold’s Chronicle, or Customs of London appeared in 1521 where among a record of the charters of the city can be found “an estimate of the livings of London” and a recipe “to pickle sturgeon.”

The work of Stow himself was successively edited and corrected by Munday, Dyson and Strype who also considered themselves the faithful recorders of London, “being birthplace and breeder to us.” They were followed by William Stukeley, who found evidence of Julius Caesar’s camp by Old St. Pancras Church and traced the line of Roman roads through eighteenth-century London. He “appears to have had all the quiet virtues and gentle dispositions becoming an antiquarian-one living in the half-visionary world of the past,” as so many other Londoners have done. He died in Queen Square and by his particular direction was buried in the forlorn churchyard of East Ham.


The most elaborate and extensive antiquarian studies, however, can be dated from the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It was the time of encyclopaedic surveys, including the six great volumes of Old and New London edited by W. Thornbury and E. Walford. There are literally hundreds of other volumes chronicling the “curiosities” and “celebrities” of what had become the largest and wealthiest city in the world. This was also the period in which were completed various histories of London, a tradition which was maintained into the early twentieth century by Sir Walter Besant, the founder of “the People’s Palace,” whose memorial can now be viewed beneath Hungerford Railway Bridge. It was Besant who remarked, on his death-bed, “I’ve been walking about London for the last thirty years, and I find something fresh in it every day,” an observation which could be confirmed by almost any admirer of London.

By the 1870s, at the time when urban chroniclers were extolling the size and variety of the new city, there were others who, like their predecessors in earlier centuries, mourned the passing of the old. The Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was established in 1875, as a direct result of the threat of demolition of the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, and its work was complemented by such books as London Vanished and Vanishing and Unknown London. There were individual writers, many of them journalists from London newspapers, who explored the vestiges of the past concealed in old courts and antique squares. Their labours were in turn continued in the twentieth century by books such as London’s Secret History, The Vanished City and Lost London. The city has always provoked sensations of loss and transitoriness.

Yet antiquarianism can take many forms. At the turn of the twentieth century Sir Laurence Gomme, a great administrative historian, wrote a series of volumes which suggested, even if they did not entirely prove, that London had retained a territorial and judicial identity since the time of the Roman occupation. The permanent and unchanging nature of London was, thereby, affirmed in the very face of change. Gomme’s work was in a sense complemented by that of Lewis Spence whose Legendary London connected the history of the city with the tribal patterns of the Celts as well as the magic of the Druids.

Their contributions to the history of London have been sadly neglected or derided, partly as a result of the more precise and “scientific” record of the city’s growth maintained by the various London archaeological societies whose own work has proved invaluable. A more fundamental challenge came from the numerous sociologists and demographers who in the postwar years were more concerned with rebuilding and with new forms of urban planning.

Antiquarianism might itself be considered outmoded, therefore, except for one curious ceremony which is conducted every year at the church of St. Andrew Undershaft. Here rests John Stow’s tomb, with a memorial figure of the Tudor antiquarian resting upon it. He holds a quill pen in his hand and every year, at the beginning of April, the Lord Mayor of London and a distinguished historian proceed to the memorial where a new quill is placed in Stow’s stone hand. So the city honours one of its greatest citizens, with the changing of the quill a solemn token of the fact that the writing of London’s history will never come to an end.


Trading Streets and Trading Parishes

CHAPTER 11. Where Is the Cheese of Thames Street?

<p>Trading Streets and Trading Parishes</p>

The London milkmaid, as portrayed by Marcellus Laroon in the mid-seventeenth century; milkmaids were generally Welsh and seldom merry. The silver plate on her head was part of Mayday festivities.

<p>CHAPTER 11. Where Is the Cheese of Thames Street?</p>

In the nineteenth century, old clothes were sold by male Jews. The largest number of bakers, in the same century, came from Scotland, while London barbers were characteristically city-born. Brick-makers were of London, too, while their labourers were “almost exclusively Irish.” “Navvies” sprang from Yorkshire and Lancashire, while a large proportion of shoe-makers arrived from Northampton. Sugar-refining and the trade in toys were once almost entirely in the hands of Germans, who confined themselves to Whitechapel and its environs. Most butchers and fishmongers, of Smithfield and Billingsgate respectively, were London-born but cheesemongers characteristically arrived from Hampshire and dairymen from Wales; the Welsh “milk-maid” was once a regular sight of the capital. Linen drapers came from Manchester, and only a small proportion of their assistants were Londoners; most came from the counties of Devon and Somerset. In each case members of the same profession tended to form distinct enclaves of habitation and employment.

The same segregation has always been part of London’s trade. Thus in the seventeenth century opticians tended to congregate in Ludgate Street, pawn-brokers in Long Lane, booksellers in St. Paul’s Churchyard. In the eighteenth century cheese was to be found in Thames Street, and playing cards along the Strand. Signs for shops and taverns were on sale in Hoop Alley, Shoe Lane, where the sign-painters kept large stocks ranging from teapots to white harts and red lions. Bird-sellers were located in Seven Dials, coach-makers in Long Acre, statuaries in Euston Road, clothiers in Tottenham Court Road and dentists along St. Martin’s Lane.

Yet sometimes a street will shake off old associations and change its trade. Catherine Street was once known as the quarter for pornographic book-dealers, despite the fact that the saint’s name is derived from the Greek for “purity,” but then in the early decades of the nineteenth century it changed its trade to eating-houses, newsvendors and advertising agents. The Strand was notable for its publication of newspapers before that industry moved eastwards to Fleet Street, and then eastwards again to the newly resurgent Docklands.

Certain parishes were identified by the trades which were continued within them; there were poulterers in St. George’s, lace-men in St. Martin’s, artists in Holy Sepulchre without Newgate and timber merchants in Lambeth. Wheelwrights were to be found in Deptford, millers in Stratford and saddlers at Charing Cross.

Trades sometimes delayed their departure even when the streets themselves were pulled down. “Very curious it is to mark,” Walford wrote in Old and New London, “how old trades and old types of inhabitants linger about localities.” He gave the example of the silversmiths in Cranbourn Street; the street was demolished, together with the adjacent Cranbourn Alley, when suddenly shops in the recently created New Cranbourn Street were “overflowing with plates, jewellery and trinkets.”

The segregation of districts, within London, is also reflected in the curious fact that “the London artisan rarely understands more than one department of the trade to which he serves his apprenticeship,” while country workmen tend to know all the aspects of their profession. It is another token of the “specialisation” of London. By the nineteenth century the divisions and distinctions manifested themselves in the smallest place and in the smallest trade. In Hoxton there grew up the industry of fur-and feather-dressing, for example, and in East London Walter Besant observed that “the number of their branches and subdivisions is simply bewildering”; “a man will go through life in comfort knowing but one infinitesimal piece of work … a man or woman generally knows how to do one thing and one thing only, and if that one piece of work cannot be obtained the man is lost for he can do nothing else.”

So these workers become a small component of the intricate and gigantic mechanism which is London and London trade. A map of the “industrial quarters of north-east London, 1948” shows well-defined patches of light blue for “Camden Town instruments” and the “Hackney clothing quarter” as well as the “South Hackney shoe area.” A dark blue area shows the “Aldersgate clothing quarter” close to the “Shoreditch printing quarter” which is bordered on the north by “furniture quarter” and on the south by “East End clothing quarter.” These areas, comprising many small industries and businesses, were described in The Times London History Atlas as “the successors of long-established crafts which originated in the medieval city.” Then, as if in imitation of the conditions of the city’s medieval origin, other more outlying areas began to specialise in certain trades. Hammersmith and Woolwich were known for engineering and metals, Holborn and Hackney for their textiles.

Certain other professions migrate together, flocking over the centuries to new territories as if by instinct or impulse. It is well known that doctors and surgeons now cluster in Harley Street. But in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries notable medical practitioners inhabited Finsbury Square, Finsbury Pavement, Finsbury Place and Finsbury Circus, while the younger or less affluent doctors took lodgings in the immediate vicinity. They all migrated in the 1840s and 1850s, and Finsbury became a “socially deserted district.” There was a similar movement in the manufacture of hats. They were made in an area of Bermondsey known as “the Maze,” between Bermondsey Street and Borough High Street, together with Tooley Street, but then some unknown migratory instinct pushed “the grand centre of hat manufacture” further westward until it came to reside by the Blackfriars Road; why Bermondsey should thus be abandoned is unknown although it would be fair to guess that it was the result of some hidden mechanism involved in commerce. By some similar process the business of furniture-making removed from Curtain Road, Shoreditch, to Camden Town.

The phenomenon of trading streets and trading parishes can also be recognised on a larger urban scale, with the employment of “land use” maps; these demonstrate that the whole area was once divided into regions marked “built up area,” “clay pits (unproductive),” “market garden,” “pasture,” “mixed farming” and “grain rotations” in a remarkably fluent pattern of organisation. A map of eighteenth-century food markets shows a similar natural pattern, as if the very topography of London was determined by silent and invisible lines of commerce.

Why have the furniture dealers of Tottenham Court Road, still operating in that street after 150 years, in recent times been joined by shops selling electronic apparatus? Why have the clock-makers of Clerkenwell been supplemented by design consultancies and advertising companies? Why has Wardour Street, the home of antique bric-à-brac, now become the centre of the film industry? An intervening period in the late nineteenth century, when Soho became the centre of music publishing, may help to account for the transition but it does not explain it. Like much else in London there is no surviving rhyme or reason to elucidate its secret and mysterious changes.


The London milkmaid, as portrayed by Marcellus Laroon in the mid-seventeenth century; milkmaids were generally Welsh and seldom merry. The silver plate on her head was part of Mayday festivities.


CHAPTER 11. Where Is the Cheese of Thames Street?

<p>CHAPTER 11. Where Is the Cheese of Thames Street?</p>

In the nineteenth century, old clothes were sold by male Jews. The largest number of bakers, in the same century, came from Scotland, while London barbers were characteristically city-born. Brick-makers were of London, too, while their labourers were “almost exclusively Irish.” “Navvies” sprang from Yorkshire and Lancashire, while a large proportion of shoe-makers arrived from Northampton. Sugar-refining and the trade in toys were once almost entirely in the hands of Germans, who confined themselves to Whitechapel and its environs. Most butchers and fishmongers, of Smithfield and Billingsgate respectively, were London-born but cheesemongers characteristically arrived from Hampshire and dairymen from Wales; the Welsh “milk-maid” was once a regular sight of the capital. Linen drapers came from Manchester, and only a small proportion of their assistants were Londoners; most came from the counties of Devon and Somerset. In each case members of the same profession tended to form distinct enclaves of habitation and employment.

The same segregation has always been part of London’s trade. Thus in the seventeenth century opticians tended to congregate in Ludgate Street, pawn-brokers in Long Lane, booksellers in St. Paul’s Churchyard. In the eighteenth century cheese was to be found in Thames Street, and playing cards along the Strand. Signs for shops and taverns were on sale in Hoop Alley, Shoe Lane, where the sign-painters kept large stocks ranging from teapots to white harts and red lions. Bird-sellers were located in Seven Dials, coach-makers in Long Acre, statuaries in Euston Road, clothiers in Tottenham Court Road and dentists along St. Martin’s Lane.

Yet sometimes a street will shake off old associations and change its trade. Catherine Street was once known as the quarter for pornographic book-dealers, despite the fact that the saint’s name is derived from the Greek for “purity,” but then in the early decades of the nineteenth century it changed its trade to eating-houses, newsvendors and advertising agents. The Strand was notable for its publication of newspapers before that industry moved eastwards to Fleet Street, and then eastwards again to the newly resurgent Docklands.

Certain parishes were identified by the trades which were continued within them; there were poulterers in St. George’s, lace-men in St. Martin’s, artists in Holy Sepulchre without Newgate and timber merchants in Lambeth. Wheelwrights were to be found in Deptford, millers in Stratford and saddlers at Charing Cross.

Trades sometimes delayed their departure even when the streets themselves were pulled down. “Very curious it is to mark,” Walford wrote in Old and New London, “how old trades and old types of inhabitants linger about localities.” He gave the example of the silversmiths in Cranbourn Street; the street was demolished, together with the adjacent Cranbourn Alley, when suddenly shops in the recently created New Cranbourn Street were “overflowing with plates, jewellery and trinkets.”

The segregation of districts, within London, is also reflected in the curious fact that “the London artisan rarely understands more than one department of the trade to which he serves his apprenticeship,” while country workmen tend to know all the aspects of their profession. It is another token of the “specialisation” of London. By the nineteenth century the divisions and distinctions manifested themselves in the smallest place and in the smallest trade. In Hoxton there grew up the industry of fur-and feather-dressing, for example, and in East London Walter Besant observed that “the number of their branches and subdivisions is simply bewildering”; “a man will go through life in comfort knowing but one infinitesimal piece of work … a man or woman generally knows how to do one thing and one thing only, and if that one piece of work cannot be obtained the man is lost for he can do nothing else.”

So these workers become a small component of the intricate and gigantic mechanism which is London and London trade. A map of the “industrial quarters of north-east London, 1948” shows well-defined patches of light blue for “Camden Town instruments” and the “Hackney clothing quarter” as well as the “South Hackney shoe area.” A dark blue area shows the “Aldersgate clothing quarter” close to the “Shoreditch printing quarter” which is bordered on the north by “furniture quarter” and on the south by “East End clothing quarter.” These areas, comprising many small industries and businesses, were described in The Times London History Atlas as “the successors of long-established crafts which originated in the medieval city.” Then, as if in imitation of the conditions of the city’s medieval origin, other more outlying areas began to specialise in certain trades. Hammersmith and Woolwich were known for engineering and metals, Holborn and Hackney for their textiles.

Certain other professions migrate together, flocking over the centuries to new territories as if by instinct or impulse. It is well known that doctors and surgeons now cluster in Harley Street. But in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries notable medical practitioners inhabited Finsbury Square, Finsbury Pavement, Finsbury Place and Finsbury Circus, while the younger or less affluent doctors took lodgings in the immediate vicinity. They all migrated in the 1840s and 1850s, and Finsbury became a “socially deserted district.” There was a similar movement in the manufacture of hats. They were made in an area of Bermondsey known as “the Maze,” between Bermondsey Street and Borough High Street, together with Tooley Street, but then some unknown migratory instinct pushed “the grand centre of hat manufacture” further westward until it came to reside by the Blackfriars Road; why Bermondsey should thus be abandoned is unknown although it would be fair to guess that it was the result of some hidden mechanism involved in commerce. By some similar process the business of furniture-making removed from Curtain Road, Shoreditch, to Camden Town.

The phenomenon of trading streets and trading parishes can also be recognised on a larger urban scale, with the employment of “land use” maps; these demonstrate that the whole area was once divided into regions marked “built up area,” “clay pits (unproductive),” “market garden,” “pasture,” “mixed farming” and “grain rotations” in a remarkably fluent pattern of organisation. A map of eighteenth-century food markets shows a similar natural pattern, as if the very topography of London was determined by silent and invisible lines of commerce.

Why have the furniture dealers of Tottenham Court Road, still operating in that street after 150 years, in recent times been joined by shops selling electronic apparatus? Why have the clock-makers of Clerkenwell been supplemented by design consultancies and advertising companies? Why has Wardour Street, the home of antique bric-à-brac, now become the centre of the film industry? An intervening period in the late nineteenth century, when Soho became the centre of music publishing, may help to account for the transition but it does not explain it. Like much else in London there is no surviving rhyme or reason to elucidate its secret and mysterious changes.


A London Neighbourhood

CHAPTER 12. The Crossroads

<p>A London Neighbourhood</p>

A depiction of the “rookery” of St. Giles parish, in 1800; it was perhaps even more noisome and squalid than this sketch suggests. Note the pig.

<p>CHAPTER 12. The Crossroads</p>

The bells of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, according to a church report, “are in very fair condition, and, in spite of their great age, work very well.” They are more than three hundred years old, and yet are still heard every Thursday lunchtime. But the history of this London parish stretches back much further.

In familiar and almost characteristic fashion, there was a Saxon church on the site of the present St. Giles. Drury Lane, once known as “via de Aldwych,” was the main road leading towards Watling Street from the settlement of Lundenwic, or Covent Garden; at its northern end was a village cross and a chapel administered by “John of good memory.” Upon this site, in the first years of the twelfth century, were established a chapel and a hospital for lepers; they were dedicated to St. Giles, himself the patron saint of lepers. The establishments lay among fields and marshes, their contagion kept apart from the city. But St. Giles was also the intercessionary saint for beggars and cripples, for those afflicted with misery or those consigned to loneliness. He himself was lame but refused to be treated for his disability in order that he might practise self-mortification all the more fervently.

The invocation of sorrow and loneliness, first embodied in the twelfth-century foundation, has never entirely left this area; throughout its history it has been the haunt of the poor and the outcast. Vagrants even now roam its streets and close to the church there is still a centre for the homeless.

The grounds belonging to the hospital, which eventually became the parish of St. Giles, are now roughly delineated by the triangle of Charing Cross Road (formerly Hog Lane and, even earlier, Eldestrate), New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. It remained a refuge for lepers until the fifteenth century, when it seems that it also made provision for the very poor and the infirm; it was, in the words of a London County Council survey, a “peculiarly London institution.” A village sprang up beside the refuge, with small shops catering to the needs of the inmates; Gervasele Lyngedrap (linen-draper) is one of the late medieval merchants mentioned in the hospital records. At the time of the Reformation the establishment was dissolved, and the chapel transformed into the parish church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. The first post-Catholic building was erected in 1631, but by that time the nature of the district had changed. Always an ambiguous and ill-defined area, hovering between city and country, in the ninth century it had been on the Saxon highway and, as London grew more prosperous, its trade and traffic had increased; there were taverns and hostels for travellers. Another kind of wanderer arrived when, by proclamation of Elizabeth in 1585, many foreigners were ejected from the city itself and settled in the vicinity. These in turn were followed by the vagrant and the impoverished. Meanwhile, the position of St. Giles, outside the city and close to Westminster, attracted various notables who built grand houses among pasture grounds recreated as gardens. By the seventeenth century St. Giles was known for its startling contrasts between rich and poor, the latter clustering to the south of what is now New Oxford Street. It remained in that unsettled state for several centuries. “Numbers of the habitations seem calculated for the depth of misery,” one chronicler of the parish wrote in the nineteenth century, “others for the extremes of opulence.”

It functioned, then, as both entrance and exit; it greeted arrivals and harboured those who had been expelled from the city. It was in every sense a crossroads. A gallows and, later, a “cage” or “pound” were placed on the spot where now Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street and New Oxford Street meet. Beneath St. Giles Circus, as it is called, exists the crossroads of the “Northern” and “Central” lines of the Underground system. St. Giles has also been the crossroads between time and eternity. “For a shroud for a poor woman that dyed in the cage,” reads one notation in the churchwarden’s account. Even after the gallows had been removed, in the late fifteenth century, St. Giles was still the guardian of the threshold to death; all malefactors on their way to the “Tyburn tree” halted at the aptly named “Resurrection Gate” of St. Giles-in-the-Fields where they were given a bowl of ale to comfort them on their journey. It might almost be described as a local celebration, since St. Giles was remarkable for nurturing the hangmen of the day, as well as being the second largest source of those who were hanged. In the words of an old lyric: “St. Giles’ breed, better hang than seed.”

That final drink upon the rite of passage was appropriate in another sense, also, since the parish was celebrated or condemned, according to taste, for the number of taverns and the incidence of drunkenness. The White Hart, established in the thirteenth century, survives in name at least by the corner of Drury Lane, but many others have crumbled to dust-the Maidenhead in Dyot Street, the Owl Bowl in Canter’s Alley, the Black Bear, the Black Jack, the Black Lamb, the Vine and the Rose. The Maid in the Moon, off Drury Lane, has now been curiously succeeded by the Moon Under Water along the Charing Cross Road. There is another connection with alcohol; the present Grape Street is aligned with the old vineyard of the hospital.

This is also the neighbourhood where William Hogarth set Gin Lane. The tradition of the last drink or “the St. Giles bowl,” according to John Timbs, the author of the nineteenth-century Curiosities of London, had “made it a retreat for noisome and squalid outcasts.” But no description can match the outrage and despair of the eighteenth-century engraving. Hogarth has established the essential spirit of the place where vagrants still sit in small groups drinking ale from cans-the emaciated young man, the drunken woman with syphilitic sores, the suicide, the hasty burials in situ, the child about to fall to its death, all these reflect in exaggerated detail the reality of St. Giles as a centre of death-dealing drink but they are also uncannily prophetic of the early nineteenth-century slums known as the “Rookeries” which would arise on the identical spot some fifty years later.

Another calamity was visited by drink upon St. Giles-in-the-Fields in 1818. A great vat of the Horseshoe Brewery, situated just north of the crossroads, exploded and released approximately ten thousand gallons of beer; stalls, carts and walls were washed away in the flood and the beer quickly filled the cellars of the vicinity, drowning eight people. Gin Lane and Beer Lane met in confluence.

The cellars that proved so fatal have their own history. “To have a cellar in St. Giles” was a catchphrase for squalor and misery. As early as 1637 the churchwardens’ accounts refer to “the great influx of poor people into this parish … persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.” These lower rooms acquired their reputation for foulness because of the locality itself: St. Giles-in-the-Fields was known for being “damp and unwholesome.” A parliamentary Act of 1606 had condemned Drury Lane and its environs as “deepe foul and dangerous to all who pass those ways.” A report by Christopher Wren complained of its “noisomnesse,” as it was surrounded by marshland, conduits and open ditches; and in the same period an inquiry at Westminster complained that the area “was very much overflowed with water” and had become “exceeding miry, dirty and dangerous.”


was dangerous in more than one respect since, from Drury Lane and the little courts beside it, emerged that pestilence which became known as the Great Plague of London. In the last weeks of 1664 the first people to be visited by that contagion were living at the northern end of the lane, opposite the Cole Yard where the fourteen-year-old Nell Gwynne dwelled. The outbreak “turned people’s eyes pretty much to that quarter,” as Daniel Defoe put it in his Journal of the Plague Year, and the sudden increase of burials in the parish led everyone to suspect “that the plague was among the people at that end of the town.” So this unlucky spot was the source of the great distemper which threatened to destroy the greater part of London’s citizens before being purged by fire. Many of the houses were closed down, and in his diary for 7 June 1665 Samuel Pepys noticed “much against my will” the red crosses daubed upon the wooden doors. The area was in a curious way blamed for the virulent disease-“that one parish of St. Giles at London hath done us all this mischief” Sir Thomas Peyton wrote-and it seems likely that its ambiguous status as a resort for the wretched and the outcast was now responsible for its dire reputation. The refuse of the city were, in a most threatening form, coming back into the city.


Yet this was not the end of St. Giles’s unhappy history. Waves of poor settlers generally inhabited its large buildings which over the years were converted into tenements and cellars. It is not too fanciful to suggest that the spirit of St. Giles himself influenced the journey of the poor to the parish of St. Giles since, as a direct consequence of its earlier history as a hospital, it was known for the scale of its charitable relief. The mid-seventeenth-century accounts of the parish note: “Gone to Tottenham-court Meg, being verie sicke, 1s. 0d…. Geven to the Ballet-singing Cobler 1s. 0d…. Gave to old Fritz-wig 0s. 6d…. Pd a year’s rent for Mad Bess £1 4s. 6d.” There are many references to relief granted for “poore plundered Irish,” to families “that came oute of Ireland,” and in fact that nation was to maintain its hold upon the area for two centuries. But the French also came, and those expelled from the city for vagrancy, as well as black servants reduced to beggary who were known as “St. Giles blackbirds.” In this quarter there emerged a tradition of mendicity which it has not wholly exorcised; as early as 1629 there were calls for “idle persons” to be taken up and within a generation complaints that the parish was the resort of “Irish and aliens, beggars, and dissolute and depraved characters.” Three generations later the area was considered to be “overburthened with poor.” The whole history of London vagrancy can be understood by proper attention to this small territory.

Most poignant, perhaps, is the unhappy fate of individuals who appear in the annals of poor relief. In the mid-eighteenth century “Old Simon” lived with his dog under a staircase in a ruined house within Dyot Street; a contemporary description of him by J.T. Smith in Book for a Rainy Day is similar to that which could be given of late twentieth-century vagrants: “He had several waistcoats, and as many coats, increasing in size, so that he was enabled by the extent of the uppermost garment to cover the greater part of the bundles, containing rags of various colours, and distinct parcels with which he was girded about, consisting of books, canisters containing bread, cheese, and other articles of food; matches, a tinder-box, and meat for his dog.” The presence or companionship of a dog seems to be a permanent characteristic of the London vagrant.

“Old Jack Norris, the Musical Shrimp Man” lived, some seventy years later, in the same street (now renamed George Street). A beggar, engaged in the “cadging ramble” under the guise of selling shrimps, he starved to death or, as the jury put it, “died by the visitation of God.” There was Anne Henley, who in the spring of 1820 died in her 105th year in Smart’s Buildings. “She used to sit at various doors in Holborn to sell her pincushions. She was short in stature, mild and modest in her deportment, cleanly in her person and generally wore a grey cloak.”

At the time of writing, a large woman, with a shaved head, sits on New Oxford Street between Earnshaw Street and Dyott Street (which has reacquired its old name); she carries bags filled with newspapers and talks to herself continually, but she never asks for money. It is not clear why she should choose each day the same very public position, unless we were to surmise that the old lure of Dyott Street has not been wholly lost in the rebuilding of the area. A young man, with close-cropped hair and steel-rimmed glasses, sits and begs near the corner of Dyott Street. On St. Giles High Street, between Earnshaw Street and Dyott Street, the steps and doorway of a disused office block are used by middle-aged men who beg money for “a cup of tea.” St. Giles is indeed still a haven for beggars and vagrants, among them the woman who sits surrounded by pigeons in a urine-stained corner off High Holborn, and the old man who is always drunk but never begs by the Dominion Theatre where once the brewery stood. Vagrant youths beg from passers-by around the corner of the theatre. They lie in sleeping bags directly across the road from the YMCA hostel, emphasising that the place of transients in the life of St. Giles has never faded.

On the threshold of St. Giles, where the great road of High Holborn passes the entrances of Southampton Row and Proctor Street, vagrants can always be seen singly or in groups as if they were guardians of the area. They also linger in the churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, whiskered, red-faced, dirty, drinking spirits like the generations who came before them.


In this spirit of individual narrative we can note the end of the characteristically short lives in this neighbourhood, as recounted in the parish record, like those of “Elizabeth Otley, and one Grace, who were killed by the fall of a chimney in Partridge-alley … one Farmer’s child in the Cole-yard, drowned in a tub of water … a dead man, being thrust in the eye by a footman … one Goddid White, that drowned herself … a girl in Hogg Lane, that hanged herself … the deathe of a childe that parte of the limbes were bitt off by a dog or cat, at my Lord of Southampton’s house, in Long-fielde … a male child murdered, and layed at the backside of the King’s Head inne … indictment against Priscilla Owen, for biting her husband’s finger, which occasioned his death.”

There is another way of describing its inhabitants. In pictorial narratives they are seen as emblematic of a certain urban type, whose depraved or drunken character leads inevitably to an early demise through illness or upon the gallows. Death, then, becomes once more the province of St. Giles. The fatal stages of Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress are set in Drury Lane, and in a neighbouring night-cellar the “Idle Apprentice” is arrested for murder before being dispatched to the gallows. Another of Hogarth’s infamous characters, Tom Nero in Four Stages of Cruelty, is a St. Giles charity boy. He also ends upon the gallows. Death was rife within the parish in another sense, since St. Giles had the second greatest rate of mortality in the entire city.

The poor can also become the creatures of another narrative device, when their lives are retold by those with a taste for neo-Gothic sensationalism or prurience. Charles Dickens was repeatedly drawn to this area, either alone or in the company of police inspectors, and immortalised one of its most celebrated thoroughfares in his “Reflections upon Monmouth Street.” Tobias Smollett wrote of “two tatterdemalions from the purlieus of St. Giles, and between them both was but one shirt and a pair of breeches.” In 1751 Henry Fielding, another great London novelist, published his own account of infamous proceedings in St. Giles where “men and women, often strangers to each other, lie promiscuously, the price of a double bed being no more than three-pence, as an encouragement for them to lie together: That as these places are adapted to whoredom, so are they no less provided for drunkenness, gin being sold in them all at a penny a quartern … in one of these houses, and that not a large one, he [Mr Welch, high constable of Holborn] hath numbered fifty eight persons of both sexes, the stench of whom was so intolerable, that it soon compelled him to quit the place.” Drink, sex and smell are here mingled in a heady compound designed to titillate the senses of those fortunate enough to be able otherwise to avoid the area; these are precisely the scenes and scents which Fielding could not have presented within any of his official fiction but in the guise of sober reportage he could indulge his novelistic appetite for the “filth” and “noisomness.”

It is not necessary to emphasise that the lives of the St. Giles poor were indeed wretched, and that there were dirty houses of assignation in the parish; but it ought also to be remembered that the great London novelists, such as Dickens and Fielding, created a strange shadow-play of urban imagery. Their own occluded or obsessive characters mingled with the darker forces of the city to create a theatrical and symbolic London which has on many occasions supplanted the “reality” of various areas.


The most sensational accounts of St. Giles-in-the-Fields were reserved for the first decades of the nineteenth century. This was the time of the Rookeries, an island of cellars and tenements roughly bounded by St. Giles High Street, Bainbridge Street and Dyott Street. Within this unfortunate triangle, before New Oxford Street was constructed to lay waste the slums, were Church Lane, Maynard Street, Carrier Street, Ivy Lane and Church Street together with a congregation of yards and courts and alleys which turned the area into a maze used both as a refuge and as a hiding-place for those who dwelled there. “None else have any business there,” wrote Edward Walford in Old and New London, “and if they had, they would find it to their interest to get out of it as soon as possible.”

“The Rookeries” were also known as “Little Dublin” or “The Holy Land” because of the Irish population which dwelled there. But there were thieves, coiners, prostitutes and vagrants as well as labourers, road-sweepers and street-sellers. The lanes here were narrow and dirty, windows of decaying tenements were stuffed with rags or paper, while the interiors were damp and unwholesome. The walls were sagging, the floors covered in dirt, the low ceilings discoloured by mould; their smell was altogether indescribable. Thomas Beames, in The Rookeries of London, described how these sinister streets were “crowded with loiterers … women with short pipes in their mouths and bloated faces and men who filled every intermediate occupation between greengrocer and bird-catcher.” Its inhabitants were also “squalid children, haggard men with long uncombed hair, in rags … wolfish looking dogs.” Behind some of the most populous and busy streets in the capital were these areas of stale inactivity and impoverished languor; it was one of the many permanent and formidable contrasts within the city. The night lodgings here were known colloquially as “beggar’s operas” because of the drink and tumult which were encouraged.

For many generations there was also an annual carnival of beggars in the vicinity. In fact only sex and drink could make the conditions bearable. An official report in 1847 states that one room in a house “was occupied by only three families in the day but as many as could be got into it at night.” More than twenty people were often found in one small space, together with the wares which they sold in the street, oranges, onions, herrings and watercress being the favoured articles. In one alley behind Church Street there was a chamber like “a cow house” where “seventeen human beings eat, drunk and slept.” In this fearful place “the floor was damp and below the level of the court.”

Once again the peculiar dampness or fetidness of the parish is emphasised, the “noisomness” of which Wren and others had complained. The area was filled with vermin of every description and, in these conditions, there were innumerable cases of fever, cholera and consumption. Thomas Beames found a young man with a fatal consumptive cough-“he was quite naked, had not a rag to his back, but over him was thrown a thin blanket, and a blue rug like a horse cloth-these he removed to let us see there was no deception.” In many cases of mortal disease “those stricken were left to die alone, untended, unheeded, “they died and made no sign” … without a word which betokened religious feeling on their lips, without God in the world …” Nobody was beside them to murmur “St. Giles, protect them!,” because the presiding saint may be said to have fled the vicinity. The Irish behaved in a reckless and violent manner because they believed that they had entered a “heathen city.” “The Rookeries” embodied the worst living conditions in all of London’s history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach before death took hold of them, and to the Irish it seemed that the city and its inhabitants were already given over to the devil.

They were given over to the landlord, however, and not to the devil. London is established upon commercial profit and financial speculation, and the pattern of its housing has followed similar imperatives. It has grown largely from speculative building, advancing in succeeding waves of investment and profit-taking while being momentarily stilled in periods of recession. The parish of St. Giles was a particularly interesting case of exploitation. A small group of individuals owned the housing stock of the area-eight people, for example, owned about 80 per cent of the houses in the Church Lane quarter-and they in turn let out the streets one by one. A person for an agreed sum rented a street by the year and then let out certain houses on a weekly return, while the proprietor of each house rented out separate rooms. The person who rented a room would then take money from those who inhabited a corner of it. It represents an absolute hierarchy of need, or desperation, in which no one assumed responsibility for the dreadful conditions which prevailed. They were instead blamed upon the “Irish” or the vices of the “lower orders” who somehow were seen to have brought their unhappy fate upon themselves. The caricatures of Hogarth, or of Fielding, damn the victims rather than their oppression.

There also emerged the “mob” of St. Giles, an undifferentiated mass of common human beings who posed a threat to order and security. In one armed raid upon “an Irish ken,” as reported in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, “the whole district had become alarmed, and hundreds came pouring down upon us-men, women, and children. Women, did I say!-they looked fiends, half naked.” Here the demonic language of the heathen city is applied to the tormented themselves. But if we look more closely at this “mob,” it will perhaps become more variegated and more interesting. It was often assumed that, because St. Giles was a haven for transients, it was therefore inhabited by a wholly transient population. But in fact the evidence of the settlement and examination books of the period reveals that the population was relatively stable and the movement in the parish took place only within sharply defined boundaries; the poor, in other words, clung to their neighbourhood and had no desire to move outside it. When later redevelopment of the area removed many parts of “the Rookeries,” their inhabitants migrated to adjacent streets where they lived in even more overcrowded circumstances. It is in fact a general characteristic of Londoners that they tend to conduct their lives in a relatively restricted area; it is still possible to find people in Hackney or Leytonstone, for example, who have never “gone West” and, similarly, inhabitants of Bayswater or Acton who have never travelled to the eastern portions of the city. In the case of the paupers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, that territorial imperative was very strong; they lived and died within the same few square yards with their own network of shops, public houses, markets and street contacts.

The great social topographer Charles Booth described St. Giles-in-the-Fields as the repository of “ordinary labour” but this term, like “mob,” hardly does justice to the nature of employment in this quarter of outcast London. There were knife-grinders and street-singers, dealers in vegetables and makers of door mats, dog-breakers and crossing sweepers, bird dealers and shoemakers, hawkers of prints and sellers of herring. More exotic trades, too, flourished in the neighbourhood.

Until 1666, when houses were built upon it, the southern region of the parish was a wasteland known as Cock and Pye Fields. It was not properly urbanised until 1693, however, when seven streets were laid out to meet at a central pillar and thereby form a star. This area was known as the Seven Dials. Perhaps the symbolic dimension of this late seventeenth-century development materially encouraged the presence of the astrologers who assembled here. There was Gilbert Anderson, “a notorious quack” who lived beside the inn called the Cradle and Coffin, in Cross Street; there was Dr. James Tilbury at the Black Swan by St. Giles-in-the-Fields, who sold the herb spoonwart supposedly mingled with gold; W. Baynham, who resided a few yards away at “the Corner house over against the upper end of St. Martin’s Lane near the Seven Dials, St. Giles,” was able to inform his customers “Which shall win in Horse or Foot races”; again “near the Seven Dials in St. Giles, Liveth a Gentlewoman, the seventh daughter of a Seventh Daughter” who could divine the result of pregnancies and lawsuits: “SHE ALSO INTERPRETS DREAMS.” Another famous quack and alchemist lived “by St. Giles Church, where you may see over the door a printed paper,” where he promised to reveal the workings of “Sulphur and Mercury,” and there was the notorious Jack Edwards who lived “in Castle-street in the Parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields” where he sold medicines, pills and potions for the treatment of humans and animals alike. All of them can be found in The Quacks of Old London by C.J. Thompson.

These examples of what we might now term alternative medicine are taken from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but the neighbourhood has never lost its oblique reputation for occultism and strange practice. In succeeding years the Freemasons, the Swedenborg Society, the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn have established themselves in the same parish. A few hundred yards from Monmouth Street is the Atlantis Bookshop, which remains the most celebrated depository of occult literature in England. Here again may be another example of that territorial imperative, or genius loci, which keeps inhabitants and activities in the same small area.

Jack Edwards was a ballad singer as well as a doctor, and the ballads of Seven Dials were as notorious as the events and people whom they commemorated. James Catnach of Monmouth Court was the first begetter and promoter of the broadsides, songs and pamphlets which circulated through the streets of eighteenth-century London. They cost a penny each, hence the term “catchpenny” as a tribute to his marketing skills. He was forced to take the coppers to a bank, however, because no one else would touch them in case of infection springing off the metal. The reputation of Seven Dials was always dark and disturbed, although Catnach himself remedied his own position by boiling the pennies in potash and vinegar so that they became bright once more.

There were five other printers of ballads in the immediate vicinity of St. Giles, publishing street literature with titles such as “Unhappy Lady of Hackney,” “Letter Written by Jesus Christ,” “Last Dying Speech of …” These broadsides were, for the people of London, the real “news” passing from hand to hand; in many instances it was disruptive or polemical news, concerning events which affected the citizens themselves. There was one mid-eighteenth-century ballad, for example, which was issued from Seven Dials and which concerned the local workhouse-“The Workhouse Cruelty, Workhouses turn’d Gaols, and Gaolers Executioners.” The death of “one Mrs. Mary Whistle” in the institution became the subject of popular resentment. There were also ballad complaints about the conditions of paupers and beggars, many left to die in the very same streets from which the ballads were issued. In that sense St. Giles-in-the-Fields, perhaps because of its raging population and its awful mortality, acted as an alternative source of authority. That made it a suitable haven for “coiners” who were in effect issuing another kind of money, in the process helping to disrupt the system of commerce and finance which cast so palpable a shadow over the impoverished inhabitants of this area.

It is appropriate, also, that the parish should be the haunt of prostitutes and a harbour of “night houses.” The courts and lanes adjoining Drury Lane were the most notorious for the trade and it was here, in his London Labour and the London Poor published between 1851 and 1862, that Henry Mayhew recorded the statement of one woman “over forty, shabbily dressed and with a disreputable unprepossessing appearance.” Mayhew’s accounts are a remarkable and affecting source of street life as well as street anecdote. His veracity and accuracy have sometimes been questioned, largely because he was part of a generation of mid-Victorian writers who tended to sensationalise or fictionalise the events and inhabitants of the “great wen.” But the general tenor and candour of Mayhew’s transcriptions can be trusted, as in this unhappy woman’s story: “I lodge in Charles Street, Drury Lane, now. I did live in Nottingham Court once and Earl Street. But, Lord, I’ve lived in a many places you wouldn’t think, and I don’t imagine you’d believe one half. I’m always a-chopping and a-changing like the wind as you may say … I don’t think much of my way of life. You folks as has honour, and character, and feelings, and such, can’t understand how all that’s been beaten out of people like me. I don’t feel. I’m used to it … I don’t suppose I’ll live much longer, and that’s another thing that pleases me. I don’t want to live, and yet I don’t care enough about dying to make away with myself. I arn’t got that amount of feeling that some has, and that’s where it is.” Mayhew declares that “she had become brutal,” but in fact the city had brutalised her.

Her fatalism, however, has not necessarily been shared. D.M. Green, in People of the Rookery, remarked that because of its dreadful conditions St. Giles contained “the seeds of revolution.” It is a curious chance, then, that in 1903, the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party should take place on Tottenham Court Road itself; it was organised by Lenin, and resulted in the separation of Bolsheviks from Mensheviks. As the author of Lenin in London, Lionel Kochahs, has put it, “It is almost true to say that Bolshevism as a political party was actually founded in Tottenham Court Road.” So the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields did indeed contain those “seeds” of violent social disruption, even if it were a species of instinctive and distant revenge.

• • •

The area around St. Giles was, in the language of the period, a “sore” or “abscess” that might poison the whole body politic, with the unspoken assumption that it must in some way be purged or cauterised. So between the years 1842 and 1847 a great thoroughfare known as New Oxford Street was run through it, leading to wholesale demolition of the worst lanes and courts with an attendant exodus of the poor inhabitants-although most of them moved only a few streets further south. The language of the body was once more used by contemporary moralists who characteristically celebrated the fact that “one huge filthy mass” had been dispersed. Yet the heady atmosphere of the place was by no means removed; the exiled poor simply lived in conditions worse and more overcrowded than before, while the premises and shops of the new street remained unlet for some years. It was still a damp, dismal and “noisome” place to which few new residents could be attracted. And so it stands today. New Oxford Street is one of the least interesting thoroughfares in London, with no character except the somewhat dubious one of being dominated by the high-rise block of Centrepoint. The building towers above the site of the old “cage” and gallows, and may perhaps be considered a fitting successor to them. It is an area now without character or purpose, the home of computer suppliers, an Argos superstore, some indistinguishable and undistinguished office buildings, and shops designed for the trade of passing tourists. There are still the vagrants lingering in the recesses of the area as a token of its past, but where there was once life and suffering there is now a dismal quiet from which St. Giles himself can offer no deliverance.


A depiction of the “rookery” of St. Giles parish, in 1800; it was perhaps even more noisome and squalid than this sketch suggests. Note the pig.


CHAPTER 12. The Crossroads

<p>CHAPTER 12. The Crossroads</p>

The bells of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, according to a church report, “are in very fair condition, and, in spite of their great age, work very well.” They are more than three hundred years old, and yet are still heard every Thursday lunchtime. But the history of this London parish stretches back much further.

In familiar and almost characteristic fashion, there was a Saxon church on the site of the present St. Giles. Drury Lane, once known as “via de Aldwych,” was the main road leading towards Watling Street from the settlement of Lundenwic, or Covent Garden; at its northern end was a village cross and a chapel administered by “John of good memory.” Upon this site, in the first years of the twelfth century, were established a chapel and a hospital for lepers; they were dedicated to St. Giles, himself the patron saint of lepers. The establishments lay among fields and marshes, their contagion kept apart from the city. But St. Giles was also the intercessionary saint for beggars and cripples, for those afflicted with misery or those consigned to loneliness. He himself was lame but refused to be treated for his disability in order that he might practise self-mortification all the more fervently.

The invocation of sorrow and loneliness, first embodied in the twelfth-century foundation, has never entirely left this area; throughout its history it has been the haunt of the poor and the outcast. Vagrants even now roam its streets and close to the church there is still a centre for the homeless.

The grounds belonging to the hospital, which eventually became the parish of St. Giles, are now roughly delineated by the triangle of Charing Cross Road (formerly Hog Lane and, even earlier, Eldestrate), New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. It remained a refuge for lepers until the fifteenth century, when it seems that it also made provision for the very poor and the infirm; it was, in the words of a London County Council survey, a “peculiarly London institution.” A village sprang up beside the refuge, with small shops catering to the needs of the inmates; Gervasele Lyngedrap (linen-draper) is one of the late medieval merchants mentioned in the hospital records. At the time of the Reformation the establishment was dissolved, and the chapel transformed into the parish church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. The first post-Catholic building was erected in 1631, but by that time the nature of the district had changed. Always an ambiguous and ill-defined area, hovering between city and country, in the ninth century it had been on the Saxon highway and, as London grew more prosperous, its trade and traffic had increased; there were taverns and hostels for travellers. Another kind of wanderer arrived when, by proclamation of Elizabeth in 1585, many foreigners were ejected from the city itself and settled in the vicinity. These in turn were followed by the vagrant and the impoverished. Meanwhile, the position of St. Giles, outside the city and close to Westminster, attracted various notables who built grand houses among pasture grounds recreated as gardens. By the seventeenth century St. Giles was known for its startling contrasts between rich and poor, the latter clustering to the south of what is now New Oxford Street. It remained in that unsettled state for several centuries. “Numbers of the habitations seem calculated for the depth of misery,” one chronicler of the parish wrote in the nineteenth century, “others for the extremes of opulence.”

It functioned, then, as both entrance and exit; it greeted arrivals and harboured those who had been expelled from the city. It was in every sense a crossroads. A gallows and, later, a “cage” or “pound” were placed on the spot where now Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street and New Oxford Street meet. Beneath St. Giles Circus, as it is called, exists the crossroads of the “Northern” and “Central” lines of the Underground system. St. Giles has also been the crossroads between time and eternity. “For a shroud for a poor woman that dyed in the cage,” reads one notation in the churchwarden’s account. Even after the gallows had been removed, in the late fifteenth century, St. Giles was still the guardian of the threshold to death; all malefactors on their way to the “Tyburn tree” halted at the aptly named “Resurrection Gate” of St. Giles-in-the-Fields where they were given a bowl of ale to comfort them on their journey. It might almost be described as a local celebration, since St. Giles was remarkable for nurturing the hangmen of the day, as well as being the second largest source of those who were hanged. In the words of an old lyric: “St. Giles’ breed, better hang than seed.”

That final drink upon the rite of passage was appropriate in another sense, also, since the parish was celebrated or condemned, according to taste, for the number of taverns and the incidence of drunkenness. The White Hart, established in the thirteenth century, survives in name at least by the corner of Drury Lane, but many others have crumbled to dust-the Maidenhead in Dyot Street, the Owl Bowl in Canter’s Alley, the Black Bear, the Black Jack, the Black Lamb, the Vine and the Rose. The Maid in the Moon, off Drury Lane, has now been curiously succeeded by the Moon Under Water along the Charing Cross Road. There is another connection with alcohol; the present Grape Street is aligned with the old vineyard of the hospital.

This is also the neighbourhood where William Hogarth set Gin Lane. The tradition of the last drink or “the St. Giles bowl,” according to John Timbs, the author of the nineteenth-century Curiosities of London, had “made it a retreat for noisome and squalid outcasts.” But no description can match the outrage and despair of the eighteenth-century engraving. Hogarth has established the essential spirit of the place where vagrants still sit in small groups drinking ale from cans-the emaciated young man, the drunken woman with syphilitic sores, the suicide, the hasty burials in situ, the child about to fall to its death, all these reflect in exaggerated detail the reality of St. Giles as a centre of death-dealing drink but they are also uncannily prophetic of the early nineteenth-century slums known as the “Rookeries” which would arise on the identical spot some fifty years later.

Another calamity was visited by drink upon St. Giles-in-the-Fields in 1818. A great vat of the Horseshoe Brewery, situated just north of the crossroads, exploded and released approximately ten thousand gallons of beer; stalls, carts and walls were washed away in the flood and the beer quickly filled the cellars of the vicinity, drowning eight people. Gin Lane and Beer Lane met in confluence.

The cellars that proved so fatal have their own history. “To have a cellar in St. Giles” was a catchphrase for squalor and misery. As early as 1637 the churchwardens’ accounts refer to “the great influx of poor people into this parish … persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.” These lower rooms acquired their reputation for foulness because of the locality itself: St. Giles-in-the-Fields was known for being “damp and unwholesome.” A parliamentary Act of 1606 had condemned Drury Lane and its environs as “deepe foul and dangerous to all who pass those ways.” A report by Christopher Wren complained of its “noisomnesse,” as it was surrounded by marshland, conduits and open ditches; and in the same period an inquiry at Westminster complained that the area “was very much overflowed with water” and had become “exceeding miry, dirty and dangerous.”


was dangerous in more than one respect since, from Drury Lane and the little courts beside it, emerged that pestilence which became known as the Great Plague of London. In the last weeks of 1664 the first people to be visited by that contagion were living at the northern end of the lane, opposite the Cole Yard where the fourteen-year-old Nell Gwynne dwelled. The outbreak “turned people’s eyes pretty much to that quarter,” as Daniel Defoe put it in his Journal of the Plague Year, and the sudden increase of burials in the parish led everyone to suspect “that the plague was among the people at that end of the town.” So this unlucky spot was the source of the great distemper which threatened to destroy the greater part of London’s citizens before being purged by fire. Many of the houses were closed down, and in his diary for 7 June 1665 Samuel Pepys noticed “much against my will” the red crosses daubed upon the wooden doors. The area was in a curious way blamed for the virulent disease-“that one parish of St. Giles at London hath done us all this mischief” Sir Thomas Peyton wrote-and it seems likely that its ambiguous status as a resort for the wretched and the outcast was now responsible for its dire reputation. The refuse of the city were, in a most threatening form, coming back into the city.


Yet this was not the end of St. Giles’s unhappy history. Waves of poor settlers generally inhabited its large buildings which over the years were converted into tenements and cellars. It is not too fanciful to suggest that the spirit of St. Giles himself influenced the journey of the poor to the parish of St. Giles since, as a direct consequence of its earlier history as a hospital, it was known for the scale of its charitable relief. The mid-seventeenth-century accounts of the parish note: “Gone to Tottenham-court Meg, being verie sicke, 1s. 0d…. Geven to the Ballet-singing Cobler 1s. 0d…. Gave to old Fritz-wig 0s. 6d…. Pd a year’s rent for Mad Bess £1 4s. 6d.” There are many references to relief granted for “poore plundered Irish,” to families “that came oute of Ireland,” and in fact that nation was to maintain its hold upon the area for two centuries. But the French also came, and those expelled from the city for vagrancy, as well as black servants reduced to beggary who were known as “St. Giles blackbirds.” In this quarter there emerged a tradition of mendicity which it has not wholly exorcised; as early as 1629 there were calls for “idle persons” to be taken up and within a generation complaints that the parish was the resort of “Irish and aliens, beggars, and dissolute and depraved characters.” Three generations later the area was considered to be “overburthened with poor.” The whole history of London vagrancy can be understood by proper attention to this small territory.

Most poignant, perhaps, is the unhappy fate of individuals who appear in the annals of poor relief. In the mid-eighteenth century “Old Simon” lived with his dog under a staircase in a ruined house within Dyot Street; a contemporary description of him by J.T. Smith in Book for a Rainy Day is similar to that which could be given of late twentieth-century vagrants: “He had several waistcoats, and as many coats, increasing in size, so that he was enabled by the extent of the uppermost garment to cover the greater part of the bundles, containing rags of various colours, and distinct parcels with which he was girded about, consisting of books, canisters containing bread, cheese, and other articles of food; matches, a tinder-box, and meat for his dog.” The presence or companionship of a dog seems to be a permanent characteristic of the London vagrant.

“Old Jack Norris, the Musical Shrimp Man” lived, some seventy years later, in the same street (now renamed George Street). A beggar, engaged in the “cadging ramble” under the guise of selling shrimps, he starved to death or, as the jury put it, “died by the visitation of God.” There was Anne Henley, who in the spring of 1820 died in her 105th year in Smart’s Buildings. “She used to sit at various doors in Holborn to sell her pincushions. She was short in stature, mild and modest in her deportment, cleanly in her person and generally wore a grey cloak.”

At the time of writing, a large woman, with a shaved head, sits on New Oxford Street between Earnshaw Street and Dyott Street (which has reacquired its old name); she carries bags filled with newspapers and talks to herself continually, but she never asks for money. It is not clear why she should choose each day the same very public position, unless we were to surmise that the old lure of Dyott Street has not been wholly lost in the rebuilding of the area. A young man, with close-cropped hair and steel-rimmed glasses, sits and begs near the corner of Dyott Street. On St. Giles High Street, between Earnshaw Street and Dyott Street, the steps and doorway of a disused office block are used by middle-aged men who beg money for “a cup of tea.” St. Giles is indeed still a haven for beggars and vagrants, among them the woman who sits surrounded by pigeons in a urine-stained corner off High Holborn, and the old man who is always drunk but never begs by the Dominion Theatre where once the brewery stood. Vagrant youths beg from passers-by around the corner of the theatre. They lie in sleeping bags directly across the road from the YMCA hostel, emphasising that the place of transients in the life of St. Giles has never faded.

On the threshold of St. Giles, where the great road of High Holborn passes the entrances of Southampton Row and Proctor Street, vagrants can always be seen singly or in groups as if they were guardians of the area. They also linger in the churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, whiskered, red-faced, dirty, drinking spirits like the generations who came before them.


In this spirit of individual narrative we can note the end of the characteristically short lives in this neighbourhood, as recounted in the parish record, like those of “Elizabeth Otley, and one Grace, who were killed by the fall of a chimney in Partridge-alley … one Farmer’s child in the Cole-yard, drowned in a tub of water … a dead man, being thrust in the eye by a footman … one Goddid White, that drowned herself … a girl in Hogg Lane, that hanged herself … the deathe of a childe that parte of the limbes were bitt off by a dog or cat, at my Lord of Southampton’s house, in Long-fielde … a male child murdered, and layed at the backside of the King’s Head inne … indictment against Priscilla Owen, for biting her husband’s finger, which occasioned his death.”

There is another way of describing its inhabitants. In pictorial narratives they are seen as emblematic of a certain urban type, whose depraved or drunken character leads inevitably to an early demise through illness or upon the gallows. Death, then, becomes once more the province of St. Giles. The fatal stages of Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress are set in Drury Lane, and in a neighbouring night-cellar the “Idle Apprentice” is arrested for murder before being dispatched to the gallows. Another of Hogarth’s infamous characters, Tom Nero in Four Stages of Cruelty, is a St. Giles charity boy. He also ends upon the gallows. Death was rife within the parish in another sense, since St. Giles had the second greatest rate of mortality in the entire city.

The poor can also become the creatures of another narrative device, when their lives are retold by those with a taste for neo-Gothic sensationalism or prurience. Charles Dickens was repeatedly drawn to this area, either alone or in the company of police inspectors, and immortalised one of its most celebrated thoroughfares in his “Reflections upon Monmouth Street.” Tobias Smollett wrote of “two tatterdemalions from the purlieus of St. Giles, and between them both was but one shirt and a pair of breeches.” In 1751 Henry Fielding, another great London novelist, published his own account of infamous proceedings in St. Giles where “men and women, often strangers to each other, lie promiscuously, the price of a double bed being no more than three-pence, as an encouragement for them to lie together: That as these places are adapted to whoredom, so are they no less provided for drunkenness, gin being sold in them all at a penny a quartern … in one of these houses, and that not a large one, he [Mr Welch, high constable of Holborn] hath numbered fifty eight persons of both sexes, the stench of whom was so intolerable, that it soon compelled him to quit the place.” Drink, sex and smell are here mingled in a heady compound designed to titillate the senses of those fortunate enough to be able otherwise to avoid the area; these are precisely the scenes and scents which Fielding could not have presented within any of his official fiction but in the guise of sober reportage he could indulge his novelistic appetite for the “filth” and “noisomness.”

It is not necessary to emphasise that the lives of the St. Giles poor were indeed wretched, and that there were dirty houses of assignation in the parish; but it ought also to be remembered that the great London novelists, such as Dickens and Fielding, created a strange shadow-play of urban imagery. Their own occluded or obsessive characters mingled with the darker forces of the city to create a theatrical and symbolic London which has on many occasions supplanted the “reality” of various areas.


The most sensational accounts of St. Giles-in-the-Fields were reserved for the first decades of the nineteenth century. This was the time of the Rookeries, an island of cellars and tenements roughly bounded by St. Giles High Street, Bainbridge Street and Dyott Street. Within this unfortunate triangle, before New Oxford Street was constructed to lay waste the slums, were Church Lane, Maynard Street, Carrier Street, Ivy Lane and Church Street together with a congregation of yards and courts and alleys which turned the area into a maze used both as a refuge and as a hiding-place for those who dwelled there. “None else have any business there,” wrote Edward Walford in Old and New London, “and if they had, they would find it to their interest to get out of it as soon as possible.”

“The Rookeries” were also known as “Little Dublin” or “The Holy Land” because of the Irish population which dwelled there. But there were thieves, coiners, prostitutes and vagrants as well as labourers, road-sweepers and street-sellers. The lanes here were narrow and dirty, windows of decaying tenements were stuffed with rags or paper, while the interiors were damp and unwholesome. The walls were sagging, the floors covered in dirt, the low ceilings discoloured by mould; their smell was altogether indescribable. Thomas Beames, in The Rookeries of London, described how these sinister streets were “crowded with loiterers … women with short pipes in their mouths and bloated faces and men who filled every intermediate occupation between greengrocer and bird-catcher.” Its inhabitants were also “squalid children, haggard men with long uncombed hair, in rags … wolfish looking dogs.” Behind some of the most populous and busy streets in the capital were these areas of stale inactivity and impoverished languor; it was one of the many permanent and formidable contrasts within the city. The night lodgings here were known colloquially as “beggar’s operas” because of the drink and tumult which were encouraged.

For many generations there was also an annual carnival of beggars in the vicinity. In fact only sex and drink could make the conditions bearable. An official report in 1847 states that one room in a house “was occupied by only three families in the day but as many as could be got into it at night.” More than twenty people were often found in one small space, together with the wares which they sold in the street, oranges, onions, herrings and watercress being the favoured articles. In one alley behind Church Street there was a chamber like “a cow house” where “seventeen human beings eat, drunk and slept.” In this fearful place “the floor was damp and below the level of the court.”

Once again the peculiar dampness or fetidness of the parish is emphasised, the “noisomness” of which Wren and others had complained. The area was filled with vermin of every description and, in these conditions, there were innumerable cases of fever, cholera and consumption. Thomas Beames found a young man with a fatal consumptive cough-“he was quite naked, had not a rag to his back, but over him was thrown a thin blanket, and a blue rug like a horse cloth-these he removed to let us see there was no deception.” In many cases of mortal disease “those stricken were left to die alone, untended, unheeded, “they died and made no sign” … without a word which betokened religious feeling on their lips, without God in the world …” Nobody was beside them to murmur “St. Giles, protect them!,” because the presiding saint may be said to have fled the vicinity. The Irish behaved in a reckless and violent manner because they believed that they had entered a “heathen city.” “The Rookeries” embodied the worst living conditions in all of London’s history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach before death took hold of them, and to the Irish it seemed that the city and its inhabitants were already given over to the devil.

They were given over to the landlord, however, and not to the devil. London is established upon commercial profit and financial speculation, and the pattern of its housing has followed similar imperatives. It has grown largely from speculative building, advancing in succeeding waves of investment and profit-taking while being momentarily stilled in periods of recession. The parish of St. Giles was a particularly interesting case of exploitation. A small group of individuals owned the housing stock of the area-eight people, for example, owned about 80 per cent of the houses in the Church Lane quarter-and they in turn let out the streets one by one. A person for an agreed sum rented a street by the year and then let out certain houses on a weekly return, while the proprietor of each house rented out separate rooms. The person who rented a room would then take money from those who inhabited a corner of it. It represents an absolute hierarchy of need, or desperation, in which no one assumed responsibility for the dreadful conditions which prevailed. They were instead blamed upon the “Irish” or the vices of the “lower orders” who somehow were seen to have brought their unhappy fate upon themselves. The caricatures of Hogarth, or of Fielding, damn the victims rather than their oppression.

There also emerged the “mob” of St. Giles, an undifferentiated mass of common human beings who posed a threat to order and security. In one armed raid upon “an Irish ken,” as reported in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, “the whole district had become alarmed, and hundreds came pouring down upon us-men, women, and children. Women, did I say!-they looked fiends, half naked.” Here the demonic language of the heathen city is applied to the tormented themselves. But if we look more closely at this “mob,” it will perhaps become more variegated and more interesting. It was often assumed that, because St. Giles was a haven for transients, it was therefore inhabited by a wholly transient population. But in fact the evidence of the settlement and examination books of the period reveals that the population was relatively stable and the movement in the parish took place only within sharply defined boundaries; the poor, in other words, clung to their neighbourhood and had no desire to move outside it. When later redevelopment of the area removed many parts of “the Rookeries,” their inhabitants migrated to adjacent streets where they lived in even more overcrowded circumstances. It is in fact a general characteristic of Londoners that they tend to conduct their lives in a relatively restricted area; it is still possible to find people in Hackney or Leytonstone, for example, who have never “gone West” and, similarly, inhabitants of Bayswater or Acton who have never travelled to the eastern portions of the city. In the case of the paupers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, that territorial imperative was very strong; they lived and died within the same few square yards with their own network of shops, public houses, markets and street contacts.

The great social topographer Charles Booth described St. Giles-in-the-Fields as the repository of “ordinary labour” but this term, like “mob,” hardly does justice to the nature of employment in this quarter of outcast London. There were knife-grinders and street-singers, dealers in vegetables and makers of door mats, dog-breakers and crossing sweepers, bird dealers and shoemakers, hawkers of prints and sellers of herring. More exotic trades, too, flourished in the neighbourhood.

Until 1666, when houses were built upon it, the southern region of the parish was a wasteland known as Cock and Pye Fields. It was not properly urbanised until 1693, however, when seven streets were laid out to meet at a central pillar and thereby form a star. This area was known as the Seven Dials. Perhaps the symbolic dimension of this late seventeenth-century development materially encouraged the presence of the astrologers who assembled here. There was Gilbert Anderson, “a notorious quack” who lived beside the inn called the Cradle and Coffin, in Cross Street; there was Dr. James Tilbury at the Black Swan by St. Giles-in-the-Fields, who sold the herb spoonwart supposedly mingled with gold; W. Baynham, who resided a few yards away at “the Corner house over against the upper end of St. Martin’s Lane near the Seven Dials, St. Giles,” was able to inform his customers “Which shall win in Horse or Foot races”; again “near the Seven Dials in St. Giles, Liveth a Gentlewoman, the seventh daughter of a Seventh Daughter” who could divine the result of pregnancies and lawsuits: “SHE ALSO INTERPRETS DREAMS.” Another famous quack and alchemist lived “by St. Giles Church, where you may see over the door a printed paper,” where he promised to reveal the workings of “Sulphur and Mercury,” and there was the notorious Jack Edwards who lived “in Castle-street in the Parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields” where he sold medicines, pills and potions for the treatment of humans and animals alike. All of them can be found in The Quacks of Old London by C.J. Thompson.

These examples of what we might now term alternative medicine are taken from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but the neighbourhood has never lost its oblique reputation for occultism and strange practice. In succeeding years the Freemasons, the Swedenborg Society, the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn have established themselves in the same parish. A few hundred yards from Monmouth Street is the Atlantis Bookshop, which remains the most celebrated depository of occult literature in England. Here again may be another example of that territorial imperative, or genius loci, which keeps inhabitants and activities in the same small area.

Jack Edwards was a ballad singer as well as a doctor, and the ballads of Seven Dials were as notorious as the events and people whom they commemorated. James Catnach of Monmouth Court was the first begetter and promoter of the broadsides, songs and pamphlets which circulated through the streets of eighteenth-century London. They cost a penny each, hence the term “catchpenny” as a tribute to his marketing skills. He was forced to take the coppers to a bank, however, because no one else would touch them in case of infection springing off the metal. The reputation of Seven Dials was always dark and disturbed, although Catnach himself remedied his own position by boiling the pennies in potash and vinegar so that they became bright once more.

There were five other printers of ballads in the immediate vicinity of St. Giles, publishing street literature with titles such as “Unhappy Lady of Hackney,” “Letter Written by Jesus Christ,” “Last Dying Speech of …” These broadsides were, for the people of London, the real “news” passing from hand to hand; in many instances it was disruptive or polemical news, concerning events which affected the citizens themselves. There was one mid-eighteenth-century ballad, for example, which was issued from Seven Dials and which concerned the local workhouse-“The Workhouse Cruelty, Workhouses turn’d Gaols, and Gaolers Executioners.” The death of “one Mrs. Mary Whistle” in the institution became the subject of popular resentment. There were also ballad complaints about the conditions of paupers and beggars, many left to die in the very same streets from which the ballads were issued. In that sense St. Giles-in-the-Fields, perhaps because of its raging population and its awful mortality, acted as an alternative source of authority. That made it a suitable haven for “coiners” who were in effect issuing another kind of money, in the process helping to disrupt the system of commerce and finance which cast so palpable a shadow over the impoverished inhabitants of this area.

It is appropriate, also, that the parish should be the haunt of prostitutes and a harbour of “night houses.” The courts and lanes adjoining Drury Lane were the most notorious for the trade and it was here, in his London Labour and the London Poor published between 1851 and 1862, that Henry Mayhew recorded the statement of one woman “over forty, shabbily dressed and with a disreputable unprepossessing appearance.” Mayhew’s accounts are a remarkable and affecting source of street life as well as street anecdote. His veracity and accuracy have sometimes been questioned, largely because he was part of a generation of mid-Victorian writers who tended to sensationalise or fictionalise the events and inhabitants of the “great wen.” But the general tenor and candour of Mayhew’s transcriptions can be trusted, as in this unhappy woman’s story: “I lodge in Charles Street, Drury Lane, now. I did live in Nottingham Court once and Earl Street. But, Lord, I’ve lived in a many places you wouldn’t think, and I don’t imagine you’d believe one half. I’m always a-chopping and a-changing like the wind as you may say … I don’t think much of my way of life. You folks as has honour, and character, and feelings, and such, can’t understand how all that’s been beaten out of people like me. I don’t feel. I’m used to it … I don’t suppose I’ll live much longer, and that’s another thing that pleases me. I don’t want to live, and yet I don’t care enough about dying to make away with myself. I arn’t got that amount of feeling that some has, and that’s where it is.” Mayhew declares that “she had become brutal,” but in fact the city had brutalised her.

Her fatalism, however, has not necessarily been shared. D.M. Green, in People of the Rookery, remarked that because of its dreadful conditions St. Giles contained “the seeds of revolution.” It is a curious chance, then, that in 1903, the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party should take place on Tottenham Court Road itself; it was organised by Lenin, and resulted in the separation of Bolsheviks from Mensheviks. As the author of Lenin in London, Lionel Kochahs, has put it, “It is almost true to say that Bolshevism as a political party was actually founded in Tottenham Court Road.” So the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields did indeed contain those “seeds” of violent social disruption, even if it were a species of instinctive and distant revenge.

• • •

The area around St. Giles was, in the language of the period, a “sore” or “abscess” that might poison the whole body politic, with the unspoken assumption that it must in some way be purged or cauterised. So between the years 1842 and 1847 a great thoroughfare known as New Oxford Street was run through it, leading to wholesale demolition of the worst lanes and courts with an attendant exodus of the poor inhabitants-although most of them moved only a few streets further south. The language of the body was once more used by contemporary moralists who characteristically celebrated the fact that “one huge filthy mass” had been dispersed. Yet the heady atmosphere of the place was by no means removed; the exiled poor simply lived in conditions worse and more overcrowded than before, while the premises and shops of the new street remained unlet for some years. It was still a damp, dismal and “noisome” place to which few new residents could be attracted. And so it stands today. New Oxford Street is one of the least interesting thoroughfares in London, with no character except the somewhat dubious one of being dominated by the high-rise block of Centrepoint. The building towers above the site of the old “cage” and gallows, and may perhaps be considered a fitting successor to them. It is an area now without character or purpose, the home of computer suppliers, an Argos superstore, some indistinguishable and undistinguished office buildings, and shops designed for the trade of passing tourists. There are still the vagrants lingering in the recesses of the area as a token of its past, but where there was once life and suffering there is now a dismal quiet from which St. Giles himself can offer no deliverance.


London as Theatre

CHAPTER 13. Show! Show! Show! Show! Show!

CHAPTER 14. He Shuld Neuer Trobell the Parish No More

CHAPTER 15. Theatrical City

CHAPTER 16. Violent Delights

CHAPTER 17. Music, Please

CHAPTER 18. Signs of the Times

CHAPTER 19. All of Them Citizens

<p>London as Theatre</p>

“Punch and Judy” arrived early in London and could be seen on the streets until recent times. Street entertainers have haunted the city since the thirteenth century, and perhaps before.

<p>CHAPTER 13. Show! Show! Show! Show! Show!</p>

Show! Show! Show! Show! Show! This was the cry of a seventeenth-century city crowd, as recorded in Ned Ward’s London Spy. There were indeed many shows to be seen on the London streets, but the greatest fair of all was held at Smithfield. It was known as Bartholomew’s Fair.

Smithfield itself began as a simple trading area, for cloth in one place and cattle in another, but its history has always been one of turbulence and spectacle. Great jousts and tournaments were held there in the fourteenth century; it was the ritual place for duels and ordeal by battle; it was the home of the gallows and the stake. That festive nature was also evident in less forbidding ways. Football matches and wrestling contests were commonly staged and the appropriately named Cock Lane, just beyond the open ground, was the haunt of prostitutes. Miracle plays were also part of its entertainment.

The trading market for cloth had become outmoded by the middle of the sixteenth century but “the privileges of the fair” were still retained by the city corporation. So, instead of a three-day market, it was transformed into a fourteen-day festival which resounds through the plays and novels of succeeding centuries with the cry of “What do you lack? What is it you buy?” From the beginning of its fame there were puppet-shows and street performers, human freaks and games of dice and thimble, canvas tents for dancing or for drinking, eating-houses which specialised in roast pork.

This was the fair which Jonson celebrated in his play of the same name. He notes the sound of rattles, drums and fiddles. Here on the wooden stalls were laid out mousetraps and gingerbread, purses and pouches. There were booths and toyshops. Displayed “at the sign of the Shoe and Slap” was “THE WONDER OF NATURE, a girl about sixteen years of age, born in Cheshire, and not above eighteen inches long … Reads very well, whistles, and all very pleasant to hear.” Close by was exhibited “a Man with one Head and two distinct Bodies,” as well as a “Giant Man” and “Little Fairy Woman” performing among the other freak shows and theatrical booths. There were puppies, whistling birds and horses for sale; there were ballads cried out, with bottled ale and tobacco being constantly consumed. Cunning men cast nativities, and prostitutes plied their trade. Jonson himself noted small details, too, and watched as the cores of apples were gathered up for the bears. As one of his characters puts it, “Bless me! deliver me, help, hold me! the Fair!”

It continued, curiously enough, during the Puritan Commonwealth, no doubt with the primary motive of venting the steam of the more unruly citizens, but flourished after the Restoration of 1660 when liberty and licence came back into fashion. One versifier of the period notes masquerades dramatising “The Woman of Babylon, The Devil and The Pope,” as well as shows of dancing bears and acrobats. Some acts came year after year: there was the “Tall Dutchwoman” who made annual appearances for at least seventeen years, together with the “Horse and no Horse, whose tail stands where his head should do.” And there were always rope-walkers, among them the famous Scaramouch “dancing on the rope, with a wheelbarrow before him with two children and a dog in it, and with a duck on his head,” and the notable rope-dancer Jacob Hall “that can jump it, jump it.” Perhaps the most celebrated of all the acts, however, was that of Joseph Clark, “the English Posture Master” or “Posture Clark” as he was known. It seems that he could “put out of joynt almost any Bone or Vertebra of his Body, and to replace it again”; he could so contort himself that he became unrecognisable even to his closest friends.

And so the fair went on, as all fairs do. There was even a Ferris wheel, known then as a “Whirligig” (later an “Up and Down”) where, according to Ned Ward in The London Spy (1709), “Children lock’d up in Flying Coaches who insensibly climb’d upwards … being once Elevated to a certain height come down again according to the Circular Motion of the Sphere they move in.”

The general noise and clamour, together with the inevitable crowd of pickpockets, finally proved too much for the city authorities. In 1708 the fortnight of the fair was reduced to three days at the end of August. But if it became less riotous, it was no less festive. Contemporary accounts dwell upon the drollery of “merry Andrews,” otherwise known as Jack Puddings or Pickled Herrings; they wore a costume with donkey’s ears, and accompanied other performers with their fiddles. One of the more famous fools was a seller of gingerbread nuts in Covent Garden; since he was paid one guinea a day for his work at Bartholomew Fair, “he was at pains never to cheapen himself by laughing, or by noticing a joke, during the other 362 days of the year.”

Alongside the merry Andrews leapt the mountebanks who sold miracle cures and patent medicines to those credulous enough to purchase them. In an illustration by Marcellus Laroon one such is dressed as a harlequin from commedia dell’arte with a monkey tied to a rope beside him. His voice, too, might be heard among the general noise and tumult-“a rare cordial to strengthen and cheer the Heart under any Misfortune … a most rare dentifrice … good to fortifie the stomach against all Infections, Unwholesome damps, malignant effluvias.” And so the fair rolled on. It is perhaps appropriate, amid the noise and excitement, that in 1688 John Bunyan collapsed and died at the corner of Snow Hill and Cock Lane.

If there was one central character, however, it was that of Punch, the uncrowned monarch of “puppet-plays, hobby-horses, tabors, crowds, and bagpipes.” He had emerged upon the little stage by the end of the seventeenth century, announced by a jester and accompanied by fiddle, trumpet or drum. He is not a uniquely London phenomenon, but he became a permanent entertainer at the fairs and streets of the city; with his violence, his vulgarity and his sexual innuendo he was a recognisable urban character. “Often turning towards a tightly packed bend of girls, he sits himself down near to them: My beautiful ones, he says, winking roguishly, here’s a girl friend come to join you!” With his great belly, big nose and long stick he is the very essence of a gross sexual joke which, unfortunately, in later centuries became smaller, squeakier, and somehow transformed into entertainment for children. There is a watercolour by Rowlandson, dated 1785, which shows a puppet-play with Punch in action. George III and Queen Charlotte are driving to Deptford, but the attention of the citizens is drawn more towards the wooden booth where Punch is beating the bare buttocks of his wife. He was often conceived as a “hen-pecked” husband but, here, the worm has turned. Rowlandson’s work is of course partly conceived as a satire against the royal family, but it is filled with a greater and all-encompassing urban energy.

Within Bartholomew Fair itself there was a complete erasure of ordinary social distinctions. One of the complaints against it lay in the fact that apprentice and lord might be enjoying the same entertainments, or betting at the same gaming tables. This is entirely characteristic of London itself, heterogeneous and instinctively egalitarian. It is no coincidence, for example, that at the time of the Fair an annual supper was held in Smithfield for young chimney-sweeps. Charles Lamb has immortalised the occasion in one of his essays, “The Praise of Chimney Sweepers,” where he reports that “hundreds of grinning teeth startled the night with their brightness” while in the background could be heard the “agreeable hubbub” of the Fair itself. It might be argued that there is no true egalitarianism in the gesture, and that such solemn festivities merely accustom the little “’weeps” to their dismal fate. This might then be considered one of the paradoxes of London, which consoles those whom it is about to consume.


Punch is also advertised in Hogarth’s print of Southwark Fair. Known as “the Lady Fair,” it was held in the streets around the Borough in the month after Bartholomew Fair. But since Hogarth announced his engraving as “The Fair” and “the Humours of a Fair” we may safely assume that he is portraying a characteristic and familiar London entertainment. Here Punch is mounted upon a stage horse which picks the pocket of a clown; above him, there is a poster announcing “Punches Opera” which depicts the large-nosed figure wheeling his wife in a barrow towards the open mouth of a dragon.

Elsewhere in this fair a motley group of performers stands upon a wooden balcony where a painted cloth announces “The Siege of Troy is here”; the entertainers have been identified as part of Hannah Lee’s theatrical company, and one of their advertisements has in fact survived. “To which will be added, a New Pantomime Opera … intermixed with Comic scenes between Punch, Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot and Columbine. N.B. We shall begin at Ten in the Morning, and continue Playing till Ten at Night.” It was a long day at the fair.

On each side of the players there are various feats of acrobatics; a tightrope-walker spans two wooden buildings, while a rope-flyer descends precipitously from the tower of St. George the Martyr. In another corner of the fair a wooden stage has collapsed, and the actors fall upon stalls selling china and upset a table where two gamblers are playing at dice. There are dwarves, conjurors and waxworks, performing dogs and monkeys; a girl beats a drum while a mountebank sells his medicine; a pickpocket plies his trade while another kind of performer swallows fire. One customer can be seen gazing into the aperture of a wooden peep-show and does not notice that, by his side, a man is being arrested by a bailiff.


Bartholomew Fair itself became the arena for fictional characters whose authors used it as the setting of their adventures, but perhaps the most famous account is autobiographical in nature. In the seventh book of his Prelude Wordsworth memorialised his youthful residence in London in the 1790s, and chose Bartholomew Fair as one of its emblems with its “anarchy and din Barbarian and informal”-a word which we might better translate as formless. It was

Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound

filled with

chattering monkeys dangling from their poles,


… And children whirling in their roundabouts …


The Stone-eater, the Man that swallows fire

It is clear that the entertainments had not changed throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but Wordsworth’s particular response to its barbaric “din” and shapelessness is an example of his general attitude towards the city itself. The fair becomes, in fact, a simulacrum of London. The first lines of Pope’s Dunciad make a similar point by extolling:

The Mighty Mother, and her Son who brings


The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings

It is a symbol of disorder and anarchy, threatening to overwhelm the values of a humanised and civilised London with all its vulgar paraphernalia of “shews, machines, and dramatical entertainments, formerly agreeable only to the taste of the Rabble.” The egalitarian energies of the city, therefore, are treated with the gravest mistrust by those who wrote for smaller London circles.

At the time of Wordsworth’s visit the Fair was gradually being extended until, by 1815, it had spread up along one side of St. John’s Street and, in the other direction, had almost reached the Old Bailey. It had also become a place of danger and lawlessness with gangs of thieves, known as “Lady Holland’s mob,” who “robbed visitors, beat inoffensive passers-by with bludgeons, and pelted harmless persons.” These were no longer the festivities of the eighteenth century, and were certainly not to be endured in the more respectable climate of the mid-nineteenth. Bartholomew Fair could never have lasted long into the Victorian era, and in 1855 it passed away without much sign of public mourning.

Yet Wordsworth had divined, in the spectacle of the Fair, a permanent aspect of London life. He recognised and recoiled from an innate and exuberant theatricality, which was content to manifest sheer contrast and display with no interior or residual meaning. In this book of The Prelude, “Residence in London,” he remarks:

On Strangers of all ages, the quick dance


Of colours, lights and forms, the Babel din

It is the play of difference, characterised by mobility and indeterminacy, which disturbs him. Within a few lines he notes “Shop after Shop, with Symbols, blazon’d Names … fronts of houses, like a title page” as if the city harboured endless forms of representation, not one of which is superior to any other. He records the ballads hanging upon the walls, the huge advertisements, the “London Cries” and the stock urban characters of the “Cripple … the Bachelor … the military Idler,” as if they were all part of some great and endless theatre.

Yet it is at least possible that he did not fully understand the very reality which he so vividly describes-these “shifting pantomimic scenes,” these “dramas of living Men,” this “great Stage” and “public Shows,” the spectacles and the showmen, may indeed represent the true nature of London. Its theatricality therefore leads to “Extravagance in gesture, mien, and dress,” just as in all the streets and lanes the citizens were “living shapes”; even the roadside beggar wears “a written paper” announcing his story. Thus all may be, or seem, unreal. Wordsworth believed that he saw only “parts,” in every sense, and could derive no “feeling of the whole.” He may have been mistaken.


Wordsworth was correct about the essential theatricality of the city, but it may also be considered from another vantage. It may become a cause for celebration. Charles Lamb, that great Londoner, extolled his city as “a pantomime and masquerade … The wonder of these sights, impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life.” Macaulay wondered at the “dazzling brilliancy of London spectacles,” while James Boswell believed it to comprise “the whole of human life in all its variety”; for Dickens it was the “magic lantern” which filled his imagination with the glimpse of strange dramas and sudden spectacles. For each of these Londoners, whether by birth or adoption, the theatricality of London is its single most important characteristic.

The crowd that gathered to see the inauguration of the first underground railway, in 1863, was compared in newspaper accounts “to the crush at the doors of a theatre on the night of a pantomime,” and Donald J. Olsen, the author of The Growth of Victorian London, has compared the speed and scale of city transport in that period to the “magical transformation of the pantomime continually being translated into life.” That is why London has always been considered to be the home of stock theatrical characters-the “shabby genteel,” the “city slicker,” the “wide boy.” In print-shop windows of the mid-eighteenth century there were caricatures of London “types,” while the more fashionable citizens of the same period dressed up in costume for masques and disguisings.

The most famous pictorial series displaying London characters, Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life, published in 1687, reveals many professions and trades where the actual principle was that of acting. Many beggars put on a masquerade for the benefit of their passing audience, but Laroon himself chose a particular female vagrant to exemplify what he called “The London Beggar.” He did not give her name, but in fact she was known as Nan Mills who, according to the most recent editors of his work, was “not only a good physiognomist but an excellent mimic … and could adapt her countenance to every circumstance of distress.” There is no reason to doubt that she was also poor, and conscious of her degradation. Here, too, is part of the mystery of London where suffering and mimicry, penury and drama, are aligned with each other to a degree where they become indistinguishable.

The rituals of crime have, in London, also taken on a theatrical guise. Jonathan Wild, the master criminal of mid-eighteenth-century London, declared that “The mask is the summum bonum of our age” while the marshalmen, or city police of a slightly later date, were costumed in cocked hats and spangled buttons. There were more subtle disguises available to the detective of the city. One is reminded of Sherlock Holmes, a character who could have existed only in the heart of London. According to his amanuensis, Holmes “had at least five small refuges in different parts of London, in which he was able to change his personality.” The mysteries of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, too, could be conducted only through “the swirling wreaths” of London fog where character and identity may suddenly and dramatically be obscured.

If crime and detection rely upon disguise, so London punishment had its own theatre of judgement and of pain. The Old Bailey itself was designed as a dramatic spectacle, and was indeed compared with “a giant Punch and Judy show” where the judges sat within the open portico of a Sessions House which resembled a theatrical backdrop.

Yet since Punch, who in the end manages to hang the hangman Jack Ketch, is the epitome of disorder it is likely that his spirit would also be found in noisome circumstances. The cellar floor of the Fleet Prison was known as “Bartholomew Fair,” while in the chapel of Newgate there were galleries where spectators were invited to watch the antics of those condemned to die who deliberately entertained their audience with acts of outrageousness or defiance. We read, for example, of one John Riggleton who “made a practice of sneaking up to the Ordinary [prison clergyman] when his eyes were fast shut in prayer and shouting out loud in his ear.” This of course is the role of the pantaloon in pantomime.

The theatre did not end in the prison chapel, but continued upon the little stage where the execution took place. “The upturned faces of the eager spectators,” wrote one contributor to The Chronicles of Newgate, “resembled those of the ‘gods’ at Drury Lane on Boxing Night.” Another witness remarked upon the fact that, just before the execution, there was a roar of “‘Hats off!’ and ‘Down in front!’ as at a theatre.” There was one peculiarly theatrical episode at the execution in 1820 of Thistlewood and his “Cato Street” companions for treason; according to the traditional sentence, they were to be hanged and then beheaded. “When the executioner had come to the last of the heads, he lifted it up, but, by some clumsiness, allowed it to drop. At this the crowd yelled out, ‘Ah, Butter-fingers!’” This small episode manifests the peculiar temperament of the London crowd, combining humour and savagery in equal measure.


The witnesses at executions were not the only inhabitants of London to appreciate the virtues of urban theatre. Inigo Jones’s construction of the Banqueting House in 1622 was, in the words of John Summerson’s Georgian London, “really an extension of his stage work”; the same might be said of his other great urban projects. In a similar spirit, two hundred years later, John Nash disguised a concerted effort at town planning, dividing the poor of the east from the wealthy of the west, by creating streets and squares which represented the principles of “picturesque beauty” by means of scenic effects. George Moore commented that the “circular line” of Regent Street was very much like that of an amphitheatre, and it has been noted that the time of Nash’s “Improvements” was also the period of the great panoramas and dioramas of London. Buckingham Palace, as viewed from the end of the Mall, seems nothing more than an elaborate stage-set while the House of Commons is an exercise in wistful neo-Gothic not unlike the elaborate dramas to be seen in the patent theatres of the period. The latest Pevsner guide notes that the clearing banks of the City of London “were built to impress inside and out,” while much of the architecture of the 1960s “took the expressive potential of concrete to a theatrical extreme.”

That central spirit of London has been divined by artists as well as architects. In the work of Hogarth the streets are delineated in terms of scenic perspective. In many of his prints, perhaps most notably in his delineation of the Fair, the division between performers and spectators is for all practical purposes invisible; the citizens fulfil their roles with even more animation than the stage actors, and there are more genuinely dramatic episodes among the crowd than upon the boards.

Some of the more famous portraits of London also borrow their effects from the theatre of the period. It has been remarked, for example, how Edward Penny’s painting of A City Shower is taken from a scene from David Garrick’s The Suspicious Husband. One of the greatest painters of mid-nineteenth-century cityscapes, John O’Connor, was also an accomplished painter of theatrical scenery. The editors of the most comprehensive volume upon the subject, London in Paint, go so far as to suggest that “further research will be carried out into this vital link between the two professions” of urban painter and theatrical designer. They may not be two professions, however, but one.

· · ·

It would seem that everyone in London wore a costume. From the earliest period the city records reveal the vivid displays of rank and hierarchy, noting garments of coloured stripes and gowns of rainbow hues. When the dignitaries of the city attended the first day of Bartholomew Fair, for example, they were expected to wear “violet gowns, lined,” but the emphasis on colour and effect was shared by all manner of London citizens. In fact in such a crowded city people could be recognised only by their costume, the butcher by his “Blue-Sleeves and Woollen Apron” or the prostitute by “Hood, Scarf and Top-Knot.” That is why at the Fair, when costumes change, all social hierarchy is undermined.

A shopkeeper of the mid-eighteenth century would advertise the traditional worth of his wares “with his hair full-powdered, his silver knee and shoe buckles, and his hands surrounded with the nicely-plaited ruffle.” In the early twentieth century it was noted that the bank messengers and fishboys, waiters and city policemen, still wore mid-Victorian costume as if to display their antique deference or respectability. In any one period of London’s history, in fact, it is possible to detect the presence of several decades in the dress and deportment of those in the streets.

Yet disguise can also be a form of deception; one notorious highwayman escaped Newgate “dressed up as an oyster-girl,” while a character in Humphry Clinker, Matthew Bramble, noticed how mere journeymen in London went around “disguised like their betters.” In turn Boswell delighted in “low” impersonation, dressing up and taking on the role of a “blackguard” or soldier in order to pick up prostitutes and generally to entertain himself in the streets and taverns of the city. Boswell was entranced by London precisely because it allowed him to assume a number of disguises and thus escape from his own identity. There was, as Matthew Bramble had written, “no distinction or subordination left,” which accounts precisely for the combination of egalitarianism and theatricality that is so characteristic of London.


London is truly the home of the spectacle, whether of the living or of the dead. When in 1509 the cadaver of Henry VII was carried along Cheapside, a wax effigy of his royal person, dressed in the robes of state, was placed upon the hearse. The wagon was surrounded by priests and bishops, weeping, while the king’s household of six hundred persons followed in procession with lighted candles. It was the kind of funeral parade at which London has always excelled. The funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852 was no less ornate and sumptuous, and a contemporary account describes the event in highly theatrical terms-“the effect is novel and striking” with the mass of shade relieved by colour, particularly that of “a Grenadier Guardsman, his scarlet uniform strongly contrasting with the sable decorations around him.”

On the arrival of foreign monarchs, or upon the birth of princes, or after news of success in wars, the city decked itself out in colourful pageants. When Catherine of Aragon entered London in 1501 she was greeted by painted wooden castles built upon stone foundations, columns and statues, fountains and artificial mountains, mechanical zodiacs and battlements. It is impossible to overestimate the thirst for spectacle among Londoners through many centuries. When Henry V returned from Agincourt in 1415 he saw two gigantic figures placed upon the entrance to London Bridge; on the bridge itself “were innumerable boys representing the angelic host, arrayed in white, with glittering wings, and their hair set with sprigs of laurel”; the conduit on Cornhill was covered by a pavilion of crimson cloth and, on the king’s approach, “a great quantity of sparrows and other small birds” were set free. At the conduit in Cheapside there were virgins, dressed entirely in white, “who from cups in their hands blew forth golden leaves on the king.” An image of the sun, “which glittered above all things,” was placed upon a throne and “round it were angels singing and playing all kinds of musical instruments.” In succeeding reigns the conduits of Cornhill and Cheapside were arrayed with trees and caves, artificial hills and elaborate streams of wine or milk; the streets themselves were draped with tapestries and cloth of gold. As Agnes Strickland, an early biographer of Elizabeth I, remarked upon these manifestations, “The city of London might, at that time, have been termed a stage.” A German traveller similarly observed that, at the coronation of George IV, the king “was obliged to present himself, as chief actor in a pantomime” while the royal costume “reminded me strikingly of one of those historical plays which are here got up so well.”

There is another kind of drama which seems close to the life of the city. The streets provided a permanent arena, for example, in which any “patterer” or chanting trader could attract an inquisitive audience. The stages of sixteenth-century theatres were built to face the south, so that more light might fall upon the players, but we may imagine the actions and deportment of less professional actors to be similarly lit upon the crowded thoroughfares of London. Historical scenes were dramatised by street performers. There are extant photographs of actors in nineteenth-century street theatre; they seem poor, and perhaps grimy, but they wear spangling tights and elaborate costumes against garishly painted backdrops. In the early twentieth century, too, scenes from the novels of Dickens were played out on open carts on the very sites where those scenes were set.

Dickens may have appreciated such a gesture, since he turned London itself into a vast symbolic theatre; much of his dramatic imagination was formed by visiting the playhouses which abounded in his youth, particularly the penny gaffs and the small theatrical “houses” around the Drury Lane Theatre. In one of them he saw a pantomime and “noticed that the people who kept the shops, and who represented the passengers in the thoroughfares, and so forth, had no conventionality in them, but were unusually like the real thing.” He is adverting to the fact that ordinary Londoners, mainly of the younger generation, paid to be allowed to act in that season’s latest urban drama or pantomime. In Vanity Fair his contemporary, Thackeray, noted two London boys as having “a taste for painting theatrical characters.” In a similar spirit almost every street of London was once the object of dramatic curiosity, from A Chaste Maid of Cheapside to The Cripple of Fenchurch Street, from the Boss of Billingsgate to The Lovers of Ludgate, from The Devil of Dowgate to The Black Boy of Newgate. The audience found in them what they also found in Bartholomew Fair, a theatre which reflected the nature of their lives as well as the nature of the city itself. These plays were generally violent and melodramatic in theme, but that is precisely why they offered a true image of teeming city life.

London life itself could in turn become street theatre, even if it were sometimes of a tragic and inadvertent kind. The poor, and the outcast in particular, can claim no privacy and, as Gissing noted in his novel The Nether World (1889), “their scenes alike of tenderness and of anger must for the more part be enacted on peopled ways” where their shouts and muttered words could plainly be heard.

<p>CHAPTER 14. He Shuld Neuer Trobell the Parish No More</p>

Out you rogue, you hedge-bird, you pimp … Does’t so, snotty nose? Good lord, are you snivelling? You were engendered on a she-beggar in a barn.” These lines from Bartholomew Fair evoke something of the flavour of London speech, even if they do not catch its particular accent and intonation.

London speech has been variously described both as harsh and as soft, but the predominant characteristic is that of slackness. W. Matthews, author of Cockneys Past and Present, suggests that “Cockneys avoid movement of the lips and jaw as far as possible”; M. MacBride, author of London’s Dialect, makes the same point, after examining microsegments and terminal contour peaks, nuclei and junctures, by declaring that “the Cockneys avoid, as far as possible, any unnecessary movements of the articulating organs.” In other words, they are lazy speakers. One more obvious point might also be made. If the Cockney voice is indeed “harsh,” it is perhaps because Cockneys have always inhabited a harsh and noisy city where the need to be heard above the roar of “unresting London” is paramount.

There are many famous examples of what became known as Cockney- a “piper” rather than a “paper,” “Eye O pen” rather than “High Holborn,” “wot” not “what.” There are also very familiar constructions-“so I goes … and he goes” is now more common than “so I says … and he says,” but the immediacy is still there. “Innit?” or “Ennit?” are now more favoured than “Ain’t it?,” and memorable phrases such as “’E didn’t ’alf ’it ’er, ’e did” or “You ain’t seen nuffin” or “nuffink” can still be heard in certain regions of the East End. Other Cockneyisms, however, have not survived the middle decades of the twentieth century. “For why?” is uncommon, as is “summut.” Even “blimey” is fading out of discourse. Certain Cockneyisms-familiar perhaps from the novels of Dickens-are now of distant vintage. “Wery” instead of “very,” “wulgar” rather than “vulgar,” are quite out of use, although the device was always more popular in fiction than upon the streets; the same might be said of “Hexcuse” rather than “excuse.” In the early decades of the twentieth century you might hear a stall-keeper shouting out: “Plees to reck-leck [please recollect] that at this ’ere stall you gets …”; but no longer. It would once have been possible to hear the following sentence from a Cockney waiter-“There are a leg of mutton, and there is chops”-but that particular construction appears to have gone out of favour. Some words have simply shifted allegiance; in the mid-nineteenth century Cockneys would tend to employ “Ax” rather than “Ask,” but that ellipsis is now in use predominantly among black Londoners. One construction is still current- “paralysed, like” or “fresh, like”-even though it has been part of the London tongue for at least two centuries. A more substantial point can be made in this context, too, since there is clear evidence that Cockney English has not changed in its essentials for over five hundred years.

Its history is significant, therefore, if only to demonstrate once more the essential continuities of London life. Cockney has always represented an oral rather than a written culture, sustained by an unbroken succession of native speakers, but for many centuries there was no standard London speech. The legacy of the Old English tongue left a variety of identifiable dialects among the citizens of early medieval London; we can trace south-eastern speech, south-western speech and East Midland speech. West Saxon was the language of Westminster, because of the historical connection between the reigning sovereign’s household and Winchester, while the predominant language of the city itself was East Saxon; hence the connections throughout the centuries between the London dialect and the Essex dialect. “Strate” in London was “strete” at Westminster. There was no standard or uniform pronunciation, in other words; it would have differed even from parish to parish.

There were other forms of speech, too, which rendered the language of the city more heterogeneous and polyglot. One linguistic survey of the registers of London English, from the last decade of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fifteenth, reveals a vast range of sources and borrowings. In the previously unstudied archives of London Bridge, generally dealing with the employment of Thames fishermen, there are elements of Old English, Anglo-Norman and medieval Latin as well as Middle Dutch and Middle Low German; this might be considered merely the work of educated clerks transcribing the rough tongue into a more polished and formal style, but in fact all the evidence suggests that there was a truly “mixed” or “macaronic” style caused by “the interaction between different registers of London English.” The author of Sources of London English, Laura Wright, has also pointed out that Londoners “who used French and Latin habitually in their work would in all probability retain the terminology of these languages even when discussing or thinking about their work in English.” We do not need to imagine Thames fishermen, however, speaking classical Latin. Their Latin would have been some form of argot or patois which included terms inherited from the time of the Romans. The addition of French is predictable enough, after the Conquest, when all these tongues became part of the fabric of living speech.

There were, however, broad patterns of change. During the fourteenth century the dominant East Saxon voice of London was displaced by that from the Central and East Midlands; there is no single reason for this shift, although it is likely that over several generations the more wealthy or educated merchant families had emigrated from that region into the city. There was in the same period another essential linguistic change, when this different and apparently more “educated” language inaugurated a slow process of standardisation. By the end of the fourteenth century there had emerged a single dialect, known as “London English,” which in turn became what the editor of the Cambridge History of the English Language calls “modern literary Standard English.” Writing standards were progressively set by the scribes of Chancery, too, with their emphasis upon correctness, uniformity and propriety.

So the East and Central Midland dialect became the language spoken by educated Londoners and increasingly the language of the English generally. What happened, then, to the East Saxon dialect which had previously been the native tongue of the native Londoner? To a certain extent it was displaced but, more importantly, it was demoted. One of the central prejudices against its use lay in the fact that it had always been spoken and rarely, if ever, written down. Thus these “vocal cries” were filled with “Incongruities and Barbarism.” By the sixteenth century this difference between “standard” and what had become “Cockney” English was well enough understood to be the subject of critical attention, but the salient fact was its survival.

The vestry records of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries show that Cockney was not only well established but already exhibited certain permanent features. Thus “the abbot of Westmynster and the monks reprevyed … Mr. Phipp who was chosen constable in which complaint he made appear his imbecility … yt was erecktyde by most voysses … without the least predyges of the paryshe … he wold nott church a woman owt-sept she wold com at vi in the mornyng.” Then there were the double negatives: “he shuld neuer trobell the parish no more … not otherwysse to be ussyd at noo tyme”; in a seventeenth-century stage play this is parodied as “Were you never none of Mister Moncaster’s scholars?” Here again we can hear them talking: “Att this vestry it was ffurder menshoned whether the parishe would be pleased to Accept of Mr. Gardener for to bee a Lecterrer … greytt necklygence of our pyssheners.” In diaries of the sixteenth century, particularly that of Henry Machyn, there are phonetic spellings that catch the very accent and intonation of these early Cockneys: “anodur” for “another” and “alff” for “half.” Vestmynster, Smytfeld, Hondyche and Powlles Cross are mentioned together with Honsley heth and Bednoll Grene. One of Machyn’s entries concerns a sudden bolt of lightning, when “on of servand was so freyd that ys here stod up, and yt wyll never come down synes.” A diligent investigator has also found many devices, used by Cockneys of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which are still familiar; among them are “Stren” instead of “Strand,” “sattisfectory” instead of “satisfactory,” “texes” instead of “taxes,” “towled” instead of “told,” “owlde” instead of “old,” “chynes” not “chains,” “rile” instead of “rail,” “suthe” instead of “south,” “hoathe” instead of “oath,” “orfunt” instead of “orphan,” “cloues” instead of “clothes,” “sawgars” instead of “soldiers,” “notamy” instead of “anatomy,” “vill” instead of “will,” “usse” instead of “house,” “’im” instead of “him.” Certain key words and phrases have also survived the centuries, among them “sav’d ’is bacon,” bouze (drink), poppet (girl), elbow-grease (energy), paw (hand), swop (exchange) and tick (credit). The central point is clear: the Cockney speech of the twenty-first century is in many respects identical to that of the sixteenth century. As an oral tradition, it has never died.

Cockney of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was also reproduced on stage, as well as in written reports, but at this early date it was parodied rather than mocked. Mistress Quickly, the garrulous hostess of the Boar’s Head in East Cheap in the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, might stand as an emblem for the more strident Cockney females. “I was before Master Tisick, the debuty, t’other day; and, as he said to me, ‘twas no longer than Wednesday last, ‘I’ good faith, neighbour Quickly,’ says he; Master Dumbe, our minister, was by then; ‘neighbour Quickly,’ says he, ‘receive those that are civil; for’ said he, ‘you are in an ill name.’” It might be the voice of Mrs. Gamp, almost three centuries later. Shakespeare must have heard these elisions, repetitions and asides whenever he walked through the streets of the city.

Fielding was another wonderful observer of London life in the first decades of the eighteenth century; he heard the voices, too, and reproduced them with great precision. “It would be the hiest preasumption to imagine you eggnorant of my loave. No, madam, I sollemly purtest,” writes Jonathan Wild to an assumed admirer, “… I have not slept a wink since I had the hapness of seing you last; therefore hop you will, out of Kumpassion …”

It is the same accent identified by Smollett at a slightly later date. “Coind sur, Heaving the playsure of meating with you at the ospital of anvilheads [invalids], I take this lubbertea of latin you know …” There is more than humour here; there is also a sense of farce and singularity which in no way condemns the Cockney speakers for their mannerisms. In the same spirit the dramatic vitality and sympathy, to be found in Shakespeare, emerge in these other urban writers. Smollett practised for a while as a surgeon in Downing Street, and Fielding as a judge in Bow Street; they knew all the voices. Their connection with London speech also throws a suggestive light upon the observations of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, writing in his journal of 1826, that for “a man of letters who endeavours to cultivate, however modestly, the medium of Shakespeare and Milton … London must ever have a great illustrative and suggestive value, and indeed a kind of sanctity.”

Writers of a later generation were more concerned with polite taste and the maintenance of “good” English as the medium of enlightenment. In that context the Cockney accent becomes absurd, and deplorable. So, in dramas of the mid-eighteenth century, it is lampooned. “I have heard, good Sir, that every Body has a more betterer and more worserer Side of the Face than the other … It is the onliest way to rise in the world … all them kind of things.” Soon enough there were treatises and educational manuals which condemned the vulgarity and incorrectness of Cockney speech; their prejudice was strengthened with the proliferation of board schools and religious schools where, in the context of national education, the Cockney speaker was considered “uneducated” and illiterate. Since “London English” had become the standard of “proper” English, so in turn the native dialect of London was all the more strongly condemned. It became the mark of error and vulgarity.

The figure of the Cockney, however, never disappeared. The term itself has been considered one of derision. “Cockney” is generally supposed to derive from the medieval term “cokenay” or cock’s egg; in other words an unnatural object or freak of nature. There is another, equally derisory, explanation. A Londoner, on his first visit to the country, is supposed innocently to have asked, “Does a cock neigh too?” But there is also the possibility of more agreeable origins. One historian has suggested that it comes from the Latin term coquina, or “cookery,” and derives from the time when London was considered the great centre of cook-shops. It may also come from the Celtic myth of London as “Cockaigne,” a place of milk and honey, of whom the Cockneys are the true inhabitants. Yet even this origin has been held against them. By the fifteenth century the term was synonymous with “a milksop … an effeminate fellow” and in the sixteenth century was “a derisive appellation for a townsman as a type of effeminacy, in contrast to the hardier inhabitants of the country.” Sometimes he or she seems to be an image of pity, then, as in Dickens’s reproduction of the crossing-sweeper’s conversation-“a sov’ring as waw give me by a lady in a wale as sed she was a servant and as come to my crossin’ one night as asked to be showd this ’ere ouse.” But there are many Cockney characters in Dickens who retain their exuberance and vitality. There is Ikey in “A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle,” from Sketches by Boz, who has the very model of a Cockney manner: “He seed her several times, and then he up and said he’d keep company with her … the young lady’s father he behaved even worser and more unnatural … So then he turns round to me and says … and wasn’t he a trembling, neither.” Dickens was a master of the spoken word and throughout his fiction he evinces his command of the London dialect. It might even be said that the nineteenth century was the one in which Cockneys and Cockneyisms really flourished. They were no longer the city merchants or innkeepers of the seventeenth-century drama or the aspiring (if vulgar) neighbours of the eighteenth-century novel; they were considered to be members of a distinctive and extensive group.

The rise of rhyming slang, for example, can be dated to the first decades of the nineteenth century, when there emerged phrases such as “apples and pears” for “stairs” and “trouble and strife” for “wife.” Back-slang, or the reversal of words, also appeared at this time. Thus is “yob,” for example, slang for “boy.”

In the same century, too, the Cockney fully emerged as an identifiable if not always lovable character. Writers including Pierce Egan, Henry Mayhew and G.A.H. Sala-whose careers span the entire century-copied a recognisable idiom in such phrases as “She’s a bloody rum customer when she gets lushy” or “They doesn’t care nothink for nobody” or “She tipp’d him a volloper right across the snout.”

The literature of Cockney in the nineteenth century is for all practical purposes endless, but it found one specific focus in the language of the music hall. Performers such as Albert Chevalier, Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and Gus Elan gave Cockney idiom artistic form and direction; it allowed the genuine outflow of communal feeling with songs such as “My Shadow is My Only Friend” and “I Wonder What It Feels like to be Poor.” They are the true songs of London. The routines of the “halls” encouraged much elaboration and ingenuity, also, so that it can fairly be said that the standard of Cockney was set by the 1880s. Certainly this was the period that witnessed the emergence of what may still be called modern Cockney.

Its most fastidious exponent was, perhaps, Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle: “There’s menners f’yer. Te-oo banches o’ voylet trod into the mad … Ow eez yee-ooa san, is ’e?” The last sentence-“Oh he’s your son, is he?”- is indicative of Shaw’s skill at phonetic reproduction, but it is not always easy upon the ear or eye. Other examples of twentieth-century Cockney may be more amenable. “The other dye I ‘appened ter pick up a extry ’alf-thick-un throo puttin’ money on my opinyun of the Gran’ Neshnal. Well, nar, the fancy tikin’ me, I drops in on a plice as were a cut above whart I patterinizes as a yooshal thing.” This dates from 1901, and then twenty-one years later we have the following: “Vere was a bloke goin’ dahn Tah’r Bridge Road, an’ ve Decima Stree’ click se’ abaht ’im. Vey dropped ’im one …”

Pronunciations like “relytions” (relations), “toime” (time), “owm” (home), “flahs” (flowers), “inselt” (insult), “arst” (asked), “gorn” (gone), “I done it” (I did it), have become standard. Certain words and phrases have changed. “Smashin’,” for example, has become “blindin’” or “brilliant.” Other words have been retrieved. “Mate” or “mite” went quite out of fashion, but then returned through the intermediary of Australian television soap opera. But in general terms construction and intonation have remained the same. A speaker from the 1960s-“He did not say nothing … so he come in and just as he come in … Right in the corner it was … Of course they was cursing … So-any way-I give one look … I seen them … Them days”-does not differ radically from any Cockney speaker of the early twenty-first century.

One proviso ought to be entered, however. There are still speakers of modern or standard Cockney but among younger Londoners it has become milder or at least more subdued; this may be the result of better formal education, but is perhaps more closely related to the general diminution of local or native dialects as a result of mass “media” communications.

Yet it is still a remarkable record of continuity; native London speech has survived all the incursions of intellectual fashion, educational practice or social disapproval and has managed to retain its vitality after many centuries of growth. Its success reflects, and indeed may even be said to embody, the success of the city itself. Cockney grew, like London, by assimilation; it borrowed other forms of speech, and made them its own. It has taken words from Dutch and Spanish, Arabic and Italian, French and German; it has borrowed the cant of thieves and the argot of prison. Since the city itself has on many occasions been described as a prison, it is fitting that the language of the Cockney should in part be the language of the convict, from “nark” to “copper.” Given the general and persistent violence of London life, also, it is not altogether surprising that the London dialect has taken many words and phrases from the boxing ring including “kisser,” “conk,” “scrap” and “hammer.” Other terms have come from the army and navy, where Cockneys served, and in recent decades Americanisms have also been assimilated. Thus the language thrives.

Cockney has other characteristics which also serve to define the life of the city. It benefits from an extraordinary theatricality; it is filled with a magniloquence and intensity not unconnected to braggadocio. In Machyn’s diaries of the sixteenth century we encounter the same bravura which, with some modifications, can still be heard on the streets of London: “the goodlyest scollers as ever you saw … the greth pykkepus as ever was … ther was syche a cry and showtt as has not byne.” This is also related to the Cockney tendency to mix up, or misunderstand, apparently impressive words in an effort to convince the hearer. A bathroom wall may be “covered in condescension” or an elderly person may suffer from “Alka-seltzer disease.” Other observers have noted such phrases as “Yer a septic … collector of internal residue … jumbo sale … give ’im a momentum when he retires.” The list is endless.

There is a certain cheerfulness and perkiness, too, which is as much a characteristic of the city as of the language. Londoners are fond of proverbs and of catchphrases, and of very harsh oaths which are a combination of comedy, aggression and cynicism. Their tongue has therefore been described as generally “crude and materialistic” but with precisely those characteristics it resembles and reflects the city in which it was fashioned.

Slang and catchphrases are as old as the language itself. The streets of London have always been filled with slogans and catcalls. We can date some as far back as the fifteenth century. “Who put a turd in the boy’s mouth?,” “As bare as a bird’s arse” and “God save you from the rain” are typical examples of street language. There were other expressions which had a specific urban origin. A famous performing horse, Morocco, for example, when asked by its owner to pick out the biggest fool in the audience, chose the comedian and jester Richard Tarleton, whose response, “God a mercy, horse,” ran through London at the end of the sixteenth century. It could be used as a token of any kind of annoyance, but it had a comic touch because of its associations. “Oh good, Sir Robert, knock!” became in the seventeenth century a general cry of reproach among Londoners at some naughty deed; its derivation was the knock of a hammer to stop flagellation in Bridewell.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, too, street slang appears and disappears for no particular reason. The word “quoz” was a great favourite, for example, and was capable of almost any meaning. According to Charles Mackay, in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, it was a mark of incredulity, or hilarity, or condescension. “When a mischievous urchin wished to annoy a passenger, and create mirth for his chums, he looked him in the face and cried out ‘Quoz!’ … Every alehouse resounded with Quoz; every street corner was noisy with it, and every wall for miles around was chalked with it.” It was followed by another favourite phrase of street life, “What a shocking bad hat!,” which was directed at almost anyone of distinctive appearance. This in turn was followed by the single word “Walker!,” which was designed to cause maximum offence and “was uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last.” It was used by young women to deter an admirer, by young boys mocking a drunk, or to anyone impeding the way. It lasted three or four months only, and was replaced by another piece of London slang which lasted an equally short period, “There he goes with his eye out.” This was rivalled in its unfathomability by another popular phrase, “Has your mother sold her mangle?,” which became a customary term of abuse among the Cockney population. Brevity and incomprehensibility are the two marks of popular favour. In the 1830s another phrase, “flare up,” became literally the talk of the town. “It answered all questions and settled all disputes,” Charles Mackay wrote, “… and suddenly became the most comprehensive phrase in the English language.” A man who had spoken out of turn, or who had drunk too much, or had been involved in a quarrel, had consequently “flared up.” Its popularity lasted, again, for a short time, to be followed by “Does your mother know you’re out?,” addressed to anyone who looked a little too pompous or self-satisfied-as in the retort by the cab driver to the peer who resisted the attempt to be charged double.

There are other examples of this continual invention of new words or phrases which seem mysteriously to resound in the streets of London immediately after they have been coined by-who knows whom? It is almost as if they were invented by the city itself, and sent echoing down the alleys and thoroughfares in the litany of London generations: “I can come it slap … Would you be surprised to hear? … Go it! … Immensikoff! … It’s naughty but it’s nice … Whatcher me old brown son … Chase me … Whoa, Emma! … Have a banana … Twiggey-voo! … Archibald, certainly not … There’s a lot of it about it … He’s a splendid performer, I don’t think … Can I do you now, sir … It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going … See you later alligator … Shut that door.” The most recent examples come respectively from music hall, radio and television-television, together with cinema and popular music, now being the most fruitful source of street slang.


The tradition continues, principally because it is an aspect of Cockney humour once known as “chaff.” We hear in the eighteenth century of Londoners being sent into “convulsions” of laughter by prints of a couple yawning after sexual intercourse. The humour could also be of a more personal kind. Steele, in the Spectator of 11 August 1712, tells the story of an eighteenth-century gentleman who was approached by a beggar and politely asked for sixpence so that he might visit a tavern. “He urged, with a melancholy Face, that all his Family had died of Thirst. All the Mob have Humour, and two or three began to take the Jest.” The “Humour” of “the Mob” here consists in the beggar implicitly mocking the gentleman, a form of burlesque which is the most common form of Cockney humour. Chimney-sweeps were dressed up as clergymen; shoe-blacks, “with their footstools on their heads,” were driven around the “ring” of Hyde Park at the precise moment when the fashionable were about to parade. They were levelling distinctions, and parodying wealth or rank. William Hazlitt divined in The Plain Speaker of 1826 that “Your true Cockney is your only true leveller.” He concluded that “Everything is vulgarised in his mind. Nothing dwells long enough on it to produce an interest; nothing is contemplated sufficiently at a distance to excite curiosity or wonder … He has no respect for himself, and still less (if possible) for you. He cares little about his own advantage, if he can only make a jest out of yours. Every feeling comes to him through a medium of levity and impertinence.” This may represent too jaundiced an attitude, however, since the levelling humour is also related to the spirit of “fair play” which was said to be prevalent among the London crowd; one of the great Cockney expressions was “Fair play’s a jewel.” In this spirit the street urchins of the nineteenth century might innocently ask a gentleman, “Is the missus quite well?” Swift remembered a child declaring, “Go and teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

When street scavengers were confronted by the new “street-sweeping machines,” “a brisk interchange of street wit took place, the populace often enough encouraging both sides.” In similar fashion street fights, however spontaneous, took place according to rules well known to the London crowd. The same equalising spirit of London burlesque may also lie behind the permanent affection for cross-dressing among Cockneys. Theatrical transvestism has been prominent in London entertainments for centuries-from Mrs. Noah of the medieval pageants to the latest act in a London “drag” club. When in 1782 the actor Bannister played the character of Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera-itself a great emblem of London-one member of the audience “was thrown into hysterics which continued without intermission until Friday morning when she expired.”

<p>CHAPTER 15. Theatrical City</p>

Evidence for a Roman theatre, south-west of St. Paul’s, is now very clear; it was located little more than 150 feet east of the Mermaid Theatre, which is situated by Puddle Dock. Further evidence can be found for a theatre at Whitechapel in 1567; it was just beyond Aldgate, with a stage some five feet high and a series of galleries.

This was in turn followed by the erection of the Theatre in the fields of Shoreditch. It was constructed of wood and thatch, well enough designed to merit the description of this “gorgeous playing-place erected in the Fields.” Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were performed here. Certainly it must have proved popular because, a year later, another theatre was built two hundred yards away; it was known as “The Curtain” or, latterly, “The Green Curtain” in deference to the colourful sign painted on its exterior. Theatres, like taverns and shops, were well illustrated to catch the attention of the citizens.

These two early theatres set the standard for those more famous playhouses which play so large a part in Elizabethan cultural history. These playhouses were always outside the walls of the city (unlike the “private” theatre of Blackfriars), and the two theatres in the northern fields were constructed upon land once belonging to Holywell Priory; as the name suggests, there was a “holy well” in the immediate vicinity. It may be that they were deliberately sited close to the location where sacred plays had once been staged. This might also account for the presence of a theatre in the old priory of the Blackfriars. Londoners have always been aware of the topography of their city and its environs, so that on many occasions and in many contexts the same activity can be observed taking place in the same location. The situation of the twelfth-century “theatrum” is not known, but it is at least reasonable to suggest that it lay where the Rose, the Swan and the Globe eventually emerged in the 1580s and 1590s.

There has been speculation about the origins of early theatre architecture, and some have supposed that it was established upon the pattern of the yards of galleried inns where itinerant groups of minstrels or actors would perform. They were known as “inn-playhouses”; there were two in Gracechurch Street, the Bell and the Cross Keys, while another stood on Ludgate Hill. The latter was known as the Belle Sauvage or the Bell Savage and, like the others, soon acquired a distinctly unsavoury reputation. In 1580 an edict from the Privy Council commanded the officers of London “to thrust out the Players from the City” and to “pull down the playing and dicing houses within the Liberties” where the presence of actors encouraged “immorality, gambling, intemperance … Apprentices and Factions.” The theatre, then, may provoke that unrest which seems always to have been present beneath the surface of the city’s life. It also provided occasion for the spread of those terrors of London, fire and disease.

Other theatrical historians have concluded that the true model of the Elizabethan theatre was not the inn-yard but the bear-baiting ring or the cockpit. Certainly these activities were not incompatible with serious drama. Some theatres became bear-rings or boxing rings, while some cockpits and bull-rings became theatres. There was no necessary distinction between these activities, and historians have suggested that acrobats, fencers and rope-dancers could also perform at the Globe or the Swan. Edward Alleyn, the great actor-manager of the early seventeenth century, was also Master of the King’s Bears. The public arena was truly heterogeneous.

The popularity of Elizabethan drama characterises Londoners who attended it, both in their affection for colourful ritual and in their admiration of magniloquence. The taste of the crowd for intermittent violence was amply satisfied by the plays themselves, while the Londoners’ natural pride in the history of their city was recognised in those dramatic historical pageants which were part of the diet of the playhouses. When Shakespeare places Falstaff and his company in East Cheap, he is invoking the life of the city which existed two centuries before. Spectacle and violence, civic pride and national honour, all found their natural home in the theatres of London.

There were, of course, familiar complaints. When Burbage attempted to reopen the theatre of Blackfriars in 1596, the “noblemen and gentlemen” who lodged in the old monastery buildings complained about the “vagrant and lewd persons” who would congregate there; they also declared that “the noise of the drums and trumpets” would hinder church services in the vicinity. When the Blackfriars was eventually reopened, visitors attending plays by Shakespeare or by Chapman were obliged to leave their coaches by the west end of St. Paul’s or by the Fleet conduit, and proceed the rest of the way on foot; this was designed to prevent further tumult.

The Fortune Theatre in Golding Lane, now Golden Lane, was famous for its “inflamations” with “squibs … thunder … artificial lightning.” The costs were a penny for standing room only, twopence for a chair and threepence for “the most comfortable seats which are cushioned.” During the performance, according to Thomas Platter’s Travels in England, “food and drink are carried around the audience.”

During the Puritan Commonwealth the theatres were closed; it was said that the people had seen enough public tragedy and no longer required any dramatic version; instead theatrical entertainments were performed clandestinely or under cover of some other activity. The Red Bull Playhouse in Clerkenwell-only a few hundred yards to the north of Smithfield-remained open for rope-acts and the like, but also managed to make room for “drolleries” and “pieces of plays.” So great was the appetite for these spectacles among ordinary Londoners that one contemporary wrote: “I have seen the Red Bull playhouse, which was a large one, so full, that as many went back for want of room as had entered.” There were continual complaints about plays and actors, even after various inhibitory proclamations of 1642 and 1648, so we may assume that the more spirited Londoners continued to find at least “pieces” of drama.

It might be thought then that the citizens would agree with one of their number, Samuel Pepys, who declared after the Restoration that the theatre was “a thousand times better and more glorious than ever before.” He was referring to the newly licensed theatres of Dorset Gardens and Drury Lane, but the new theatres were nothing like the old; as Pepys went on to remark, “now all things civil, no rudeness anywhere.” The drama had been refined, in other words, in order that it would appeal to the king, the court and those Londoners who shared the same values. Just as the “Cockney” dialect was now being denigrated, so the popular theatre of previous decades was dissolved.

And yet the more “Cockney” Londoners did also manage to attend the new plays; they were not necessarily welcomed in the boxes or the pit with the more prosperous citizens, but they took over the gallery from where they could shout insults or pelt fruit upon both stage and respectable audience. Cockney theatre-goers were only one aspect, however, of the generally partisan and inflammatory aspect of the urban audience. “Claques” would attend in order to cry up, or drown out, the latest production; fights would break out among the gentlemen “of quality,” while there were often riots which effectively concluded all theatrical proceedings. Indeed the riots themselves were somewhat theatrical in appearance. When in the mid-eighteenth century David Garrick proposed to abolish “half-price” seats, for those who entered after the third of five acts (the whole performance beginning at six o’clock in the evening), the day appointed for that innovation found the Drury Lane Playhouse filled with a silent crowd. P.J. Grosley composed A Tour of London in 1772, and set the scene. As soon as the play commenced there was a “general outcry” with “fisty-cuffs and cudgels,” which led to further violence when the audience “tore up the benches of the pit and galleries” and “demolished the boxes.” The lion, which had decorated the king’s box, was thrown upon the stage among the actors, and the unicorn fell into the orchestra “where it broke the great harpsichord to pieces.” In his London Journal of 19 January 1763, Boswell remarks that “we sallied into the house, planted ourselves in the middle of the pit, and with oaken cudgels in our hands and shrill-sounding cat calls in our pockets, sat ready prepared.”

Such behaviour in the capital’s theatres continued well into the nineteenth century. A German traveller of 1827, Prince Pückler Muskau, later caricatured by Charles Dickens as Count Smorltork in The Pickwick Papers, reported that “The most striking thing to a foreigner in English theatres is the unheard-of coarseness and brutality of the audiences.” The “Old Price” riots of 1807 lasted for seventy nights, and the private life of Edmund Kean-accused of being both a drunk and an adulterer-led to four nights of violent rioting in the playhouse of Drury Lane. What was termed “party spirit” did on more than one occasion prompt fights both among the spectators and the players. The presence of foreigners upon the stage was another cause of uproar; when the “Theatre Historique” arrived at Drury Lane from Paris, there was a general rush for the stage. Mobs surrounded the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, in 1805, when a comedy entitled The Tailors caused offence among the fraternity. Professional boxers were brought into the auditorium by rival groups, as early as 1743, in order to slug it out. This was city drama, in every sense. And yet, in the city itself, the real drama was still performed upon the streets.

<p>CHAPTER 16. Violent Delights</p>

As long as the city has existed there have been entertainers and entertainments, from the street ventriloquists who cast their voices into their hands to the “man with the telescope” who for twopence would allow you to look at the heavens on a summer’s night. Performers balanced on the weathercock of St. Paul’s steeple; there were midnight dog-shows and duels of rats; there were street jugglers and street conjurors, complete with pipes and drum; there were performing bears and performing monkeys dragged through the streets of London upon long ropes. In the late eighteenth century a pedlar exhibited a hare dancing upon a tambourine, while another entertainer displayed “a curious mask of bees on his head and face.” In the early nineteenth century a crowd gathered around a booth labelled “Fantasina,” while children examined a “Kelidascope.” On Tower Hill there was set up an “ingenious contrivance” of many mechanical figures, with the legend “Please To Encourage the Inventor,” while in Parliament Street a donkey pulled along a peep-show entitled “The Battle of Waterloo.” There are now amusement arcades where there were once the windows of print-shops, and instead of the London Zoo there was once a “Menagerie” in Exeter Change along the Strand where the roaring of the beasts reverberated down the thoroughfare and frightened the horses.

There have always been wonders and curiosities. John Stow recorded the minute skills of a blacksmith who exhibited a padlock, key and chain which could be fastened around the neck of a performing flea; John Evelyn reported seeing “the Hairy Woman” whose eyebrows covered her forehead, as well as a Dutch boy who displayed the words “Deus Meus” and “Elohim” on each iris. In the reign of George II, it was announced that “from eight in the morning till nine at night, at the end of the great booth on Blackheath, a West of England woman 38 years of age, alive, with two heads, one above the other … She has had the honour to be seen by Sir Hans Sloane, and several of the Royal Society. Gentlemen and ladies may see her at their own houses as they please.” The advertisement has been taken from a pamphlet entitled Merrie England in the Olden Time. So the unfortunate creature was taken to the London houses of the rich, to be inspected at closer hand. In the early nineteenth century “Siamese twins” were often exhibited, although such “monstrous couplings” had already been shown under other names in other centuries, and in the same period was displayed the “Anatomic Vivante” or “Living Skeleton” who at the height of five feet seven and a half inches weighed less than six stone. At another London exhibition, “the heaviest man that ever lived,” weighing eighty-seven stone, also entertained the curious public. As Trinculo says upon first confronting Caliban, on that enchanted island strangely recalling London, “when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Fleet Street was once the home of London marvels other than those of newspaper “stories.” The playwright Ben Jonson noticed “a new motion of the city of Nineveh, with Jonah and the whale, at Fleet Bridge.” In 1611 “the Fleet Street mandrakes” were on show for a penny. A fourteen-year-old boy, only eighteen inches high, was to be seen in 1702 at a grocer’s shop called the Eagle and Child by Shoe Lane; a Lincolnshire ox, nineteen hands high and four yards long, could be viewed at the White Horse nearby. There was the usual diet of giants and dwarfs; anything out of its due size and proportion was welcome in “disproportion’d London.” There was also much interest excited by “automata” and other mechanical devices, as if they somehow imitated the motions of the city itself. It is curious to learn from the Daily Advertiser of 1742 that at the Mitre Tavern there was exhibited “a most curious Chaise that travels without Horses. This beautiful convenient Machine is so simply contriv’d, and easily manag’d as to travel upwards of forty Miles a Day.”

In Fleet Street, too, were the waxworks. They were first exhibited by Mrs. Salmon, the direct predecessor of Madame Tussaud, at the sign of the Golden Salmon near Aldersgate; as the Spectator pointed out on 2 April 1711, “it would have been ridiculous for the ingenious Mrs. Salmon to have lived at the sign of the Trout.” But she removed to Fleet Street, where her collection of 140 figures was the object of public admiration. On the ground floor of her establishment was a toyshop, selling Punch dolls and cricket bats and chessboards, while on the two upper floors stood replicas of John Wilkes, Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Siddons and other London notables; the sign emblazoned across the house-front read, simply enough, “The Wax Work.” Outside was the pale yellow wax image of Mother Shipton who, on the release of a lever, would kick the unsuspecting pedestrian.

These figures, mobile or immobile, also served an apparently more serious purpose. For many centuries the wax effigies of dead monarchs and statesmen, coloured and “made up,” were exhibited in Westminster Abbey. Where once the effigy of the dead Elizabeth I, carried in procession at her funeral, elicited “general sighing, groaning and weeping,” its decrepit condition in the mid-eighteenth century made her seem “half witch and half ghoul.” Yet the phrase “man of wax” was still in general circulation; it had no disagreeable connotations then but, rather, meant a personage who one day might be granted the honour of display in the Abbey.

Mrs. Salmon herself has long since sunk from view, but the waxworks of Madame Tussaud survive in glory. Curiously enough, wax-workers have always been women, and Madame Tussaud herself can be credited with the invention of what Punch dubbed “the Chamber of Horrors.” The present establishment lies by the equally spectacular Planetarium.


Mayfair is named after the annual fair which took place on the north side of Piccadilly; now only the prostitutes of Shepherd’s Market bring an echo of its past. But Haymarket has retained its old associations. Since the eighteenth century it has been a street of entertainment, from the Cats’ Opera of 1758 to The Phantom of the Opera of the last decade of the twentieth century. In 1747 Samuel Foote, a famous actor and mimic, gave a series of comic lectures at the Haymarket Theatre; in the theatre built upon the same site, in 1992, the comic actor John Sessions gave a very similar performance. The persistent energy of the city has its own momentum which defies rational explication.

It is a city always known for its vivacity and its restlessness. We learn from Thomas Burke’s The Streets of London that the citizens’ “progress through the streets is marked by impetuosity and a constant exertion of strength.” We learn further from Pierre Jean Grosley’s A Tour of London in 1772 that “the English walk very fast; their thoughts being entirely engrossed by business, they are very punctual to their appointments, and those, who happen to be in their way, are sure to be sufferers by it; constantly darting forward, they justle them with a force proportioned to the bulk and velocity of their motion.”

A century later a Parisian traveller noted that throughout London “there surges a bustling thrusting crowd such as our busiest boulevard gives no idea of … the cabs move twice as fast, watermen and ‘bus conductors run a whole sentence to a single word … the last atom of value is extracted from every action and every minute.” Even the entertainments were energetic, and at Greenwich “the rabble of London assemble on Easter Monday and roll down its green side, men and women promiscuously.” Sexual licence and commercial energy are all mixed, to send the citizens whirling forward. A twentieth-century French traveller believed that in London “English legs move with greater velocity than ours. And this whirl carries even the ancient with it.” The “whirl” is part flux and disorder, but it is also an aspect of the ceaseless movement of people, goods and vehicles. Tobias Smollett, in Humphry Clinker, noted only “rambling, riding, rolling, rushing, justling, mixing, bouncing, cracking, and crashing … All is tumult and hurry; one would imagine they were impelled by some disorder of the brain, that will not suffer them to be at rest.” It does indeed on occasions appear to be a kind of fever. Maurice Ash, the author of A Guide to the Structure of London in 1972, when confronted with the continuous “hurrying to and fro,” was tempted to conclude that there is no real business other “than the business of traffic itself”; the city, in other words, represents movement for its own sake. It is reminiscent of the scene of “shooting the bridge” out of George Borrow’s Lavengro when a London boatman fearlessly navigated the rush of water through the middle arch of London Bridge “elevating one of his sculls in triumph, the man hallooing and the woman … waving her shawl.” It is a picture of the intense vitality of London life.

When Southey asked a pastry-cook why she kept her shop open in harsh weather she replied that she would lose much custom, “so many were the persons who took up buns or biscuits as they passed by and threw their pence in, not allowing themselves time to enter.” That pace has hardly slowed in a century, and one of the latest social surveys of London, Focus on London 97, reveals that “the economic activity rates for London have consistently been between 1 and 2 percentage points higher than those for the United Kingdom as a whole.” This infinite motion has continued for more than a thousand years; fresh and ever renewed, it still partakes of antiquity. That is why the “whirl” and business of the streets comprise only an apparent disorder, and some observers have noticed a central rhythm or historical momentum which propels the city forward. This is the mystery-how can the endless rush itself be eternal? It is the riddle of London, which is perpetually new and always old.


There are days of rest, however, even in the turbulent city. It has often been remarked that Sunday is dreariest in London, of all cities, perhaps because restfulness and silence do not come easily or naturally to it. It was not always so. Londoners have characteristically used their holidays or holy days for “violent delights.” From the early medieval period there have been archery and jousting, bowls and football-as well as the “hurling of Stones and Wood and Iron”-but the taste of the London crowd could also be less healthful. There were cock-fights and boar-fights, bull-baiting, bear-baiting and dog-baiting. The bears were given affectionate names, such as “Harry Hunks” or “Sacherson,” but the treatment of them was vicious. One visitor to Bankside, in the early seventeenth century, watched the whipping of a blind bear “which is performed by five or six men, standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy, as he cannot escape from them because of the chain: he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them.” In the late seventeenth century we read of horse-baiting at Bankside where several dogs were set upon a “great horse”; it defeated its persecutors but then “the Mobile [mob] in the house cryed out it was a cheat, and thereupon began to untyle the house, and threatened to pull it quite down, if the Horse were not brought again and baited to death.” This was the sport of the London crowd.

Bulls were baited with dogs, also, but they were sometimes maddened by having peas placed in their ears, or fireworks stuck on their backs. In the eighteenth century there was bullock-hunting in Bethnal Green, badger-baiting in Long Fields by the Tottenham Court Road, and ferocious wrestling matches at Hockley-in-the-Hole. This area, just across the Fleet from Clerkenwell, was one of the most dangerous and unruly in all London where “all sorts of rough games” were provided.

The more respectable seventeenth-century citizens were not necessarily amused by these diversions. Instead there were healthful “walks” in a number of carefully planned and plotted public areas. By the early seventeenth century Moorfields had been drained and laid out, creating “upper walks” and “lower walks,” and a few years later Lincoln’s Inn Fields were also designed for “common walks and disports.” “Grays Inn Walks” were highly favoured and Hyde Park, although still a royal park, was open to the public for horse-racing and boxing. St. James’s Park was designed a little later; here, in the words of Tom Brown, a contemporary journalist, “The green Walk afforded us varieties of discourses from persons of both sexes … disturbed with the noisy milk folks-crying-A Can of Milk, Ladies; A can of Red Cow’s Milk, Sir.”

But the true “nature” of London is not shrubbery or parkland, but human nature. At night beneath the shade of the trees, according to the Earl of Rochester, “Are buggeries, rapes and incests made” while Rosamond’s Pond on the south-west side of St. James’s Park became notorious for suicides.

In Spring Gardens were a bowling green and butts for target practice. In the New Spring Gardens, later Vauxhall Gardens, there were avenues and covered walks. Small green refreshment huts sold wine and punch, snuff and tobacco, sliced ham and quartered chicken, while ladies of doubtful morals sauntered among the trees with gold watches dangling from their necks as a token of their trade. The apprentices and their girls would visit Spa Fields in Clerkenwell or the Grotto Gardens in Rosoman Street, where they were encouraged to consume tea or ices or alcohol, to the accompaniment of song, music and generally “low” entertainment.

Much of that vigour has now vanished. The parks are now characteristically restful places within the noise and uproar of London. They attract those who are unhappy or ill at ease. The idle and the vagrant sleep more easily beneath the trees, together with those who are simply exhausted by the city. London parks have often been called the “lungs” of the city, but the sound is that of sleep. “It being mighty hot and I weary,” Pepys wrote on 15 July 1666, “lay down upon the grass by the canalle [in St. James’s Park], and slept awhile.” It is a world of weariness which Hogarth depicted in an engraving that shows a London dyer and his family return from Sadler’s Wells. The landscape behind them is one of sylvan charm but they are returning on the dusty road to the city. The plump and pregnant wife is dressed according to city fashion, and sports a fan with a classical motif upon it; but she is pregnant because she has cuckolded her husband, and the man himself looks tired and dejected as he carries an infant in his arms. Their two other children fight, and their dog looks at the canal which takes water from Islington into the conduits of London. Everything denotes heat and enervation, as an expedition out of London comes to its inevitable end. In more recent days, too, exhausted and fretful citizens still come back to London from their “outings” like prisoners returning to gaol.

<p>CHAPTER 17. Music, Please</p>

By the middle of the nineteenth century the pleasure gardens were outmoded, and their legacy lay in the concert rooms which sprang up within the city. In 1763 it was advertised that in the “great room” of Spring Gardens the seven-year-old Mozart would be seen “playing the Harpsichord in a Perfection it surmounts all … Imagination.” But formal music-making was not the only music of London. London’s arias and laments began with the first street trader and have continued ever since. It has often been noted that the “low” culture of the native Londoner can revitalise and refashion the forces of traditional culture. The spectacle of the infant Mozart playing in a music room is complemented by Handel’s remark that “hints of his very best songs have several of them been owing to the sounds in his ears of cries in the streets.” In the city, “high” and “low” are inextricably mingled.

We hear the merchants of medieval Cheapside, singing out in London Lickpenny with “Strabery ripe” and “Cherryes in the ryse.” “Here is Parys thred, finest in the land … Hot shepe’s feete … Makerell … ryshes grene!” The costermonger sold “Costards!,” which were big apples, but in later centuries the “coster,” with his horse and cart, cried out, “Soles, oh! … Live haddick … Ee-ee-eels alive, oh! … Mackareel! mack-mack-mackareel!” So it continued, down other streets and other centuries. “Pretty Maids Pretty Pins Pretty Women … Buy My Great Eeels … Diddle Diddle Diddle Dumplens Ho … Any Card Matches or Savealls … Buy any Wax or Wafers … Old Shoes for Some Brooms … Buy a Rabbit a Rabbet … Buy a Fork or Fire Shovel … Crab Crab Crab any Crab … Buy my fat Chickens … Old Chairs to mend … Any Kitchen Stuff Have You Maids … 4 Pair For A Shilling Holland Socks … Buy My 4 Ropes of Hard Onyons … Any Work for John Cooper … New River Water.”

Volumes have been written about these London cries, and we also have images of the tradespeople who uttered them. This identification was another way of deciphering the chaos of the city and of creating out of the poor or “lower order” a gallery of characters. The seller of cod, for example, wears an old apron, while the vendor of shoes sports a cape. The seller of dried hake carries the basket of that commodity upon her head, but the vendor of oranges and lemons carries her bounty at her waist. The Irish were known to sell rabbits and milk, the Jews old clothes and hare-skins, the Italians looking-glasses and pictures. The old woman selling fire-shovels dresses herself in an old-fashioned cone-shaped hat as a representation of the wintry months. Countrywomen entering the metropolis to sell their wares characteristically wore red cloaks and straw hats, while the countrymen wove flowers in their hair. Those who sold fish were generally the poorest, while women selling clothes were the most smartly dressed.

Yet the clothing of most street vendors bears the unmistakable mark of destitution, with worn and tattered dresses or coats. Many of these tradespeople were crippled or deformed and, as the editor of Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life, Sean Shesgreen, has noted, “If they give one impression more than any other, it is a care-worn melancholy.” Laroon’s portraits are distinctly individual, unlike “types” or categories, and in his art we can see the lineaments of specific fate and circumstance. The distinctive features he depicted in the 1680s remain the silent token of many generations who have walked crying through the streets of the city.

Even as the poor trader died-or left some scanty stock to another-his or her cry was taken up like an echo. It was certainly true that, as Addison wrote in 1711, “People know the Wares they deal in rather by their Tunes than by their Words.” The words were often indistinct or indistinguishable: the mender of old chairs was recognised by his low and melancholy note, while the retailer of broken glass specialised in a sort of plaintive shriek quite appropriate to his goods. But even the music itself might become confused and confusing. The vendor of shrimps could adopt the same tune as the vendor of watercress, and potatoes were sold with the same cry as that of cherries.

There was also in the passage of years, or centuries, the steady clipping or abbreviation of jargon. “Will you buy any milk today, mistress” became “Milk maids below,” then “Milk below,” then “Milk-o” and, finally, “Mieu” or “Mee-o.” “Old clothes” became “Ogh clo” or “owld clo.” “Salted hake” became “Poor Jake” or “Poor Jack”; then “Poor John” became the recognisable phrase for the vendors of dried cod. The chimney-sweep’s cry became “’we-ep” or “’e-ep” and Pierce Egan, author of Life in London, recalled “one man from whom I could never make out more than happy happy happy now.”

As London grew larger and noisier, the cries became louder-perhaps, even, more desperate and more hysterical. From a distance of half a mile, they were a low, steady and continuous roar much like a fall of water; they became a Niagara of voices. But in the middle of the city, they were a great turmoil of notes. London to foreign observers was “a distracted City” and Samuel Johnson noted that “The attention of a new-comer is generally first struck by the multiplicity of the cries that stun him in the street.” Stun, stunner, stunning-it is a true London word. As the print salesman said of his wares placed in an upturned umbrella-“It’ll show stunnin’, and sell as yer goes.”

The cries of the street-seller were joined by those of the “common criers” who announced such items of public news as “If any man or woman can tell any tydyngs of a grey mare, with a long mane and a short tayle …” There were the shopkeepers of Cheapside, Paternoster Row, East Cheap and a hundred other localities calling out continually “What do you lack … Will you buy …” The cry of the “mercury-women,” “Londons Gazette here,” was eventually superseded by that of the newsboy with his “Pa-a-par! ainy of the mornin’ pipers.” The horn of the sow-gelder plying his trade mingled with the bell of the dustman and the sound of the “Twancking of a brass Kettle or a Frying-pan” together with the myriad and unending sounds of the London traffic.

Today, street markets are still alive with chatter and patter; most of the cries have vanished, although even in the twenty-first century you might still hear the bell of the muffin-man or the horn of the knife-grinder and see the pony-and-trap of the “any-old-iron” or rag-and-bone man. There were also the barrow man with “Shrimps and winkles all alive-o,” the lavender seller, and the “lilywhite” celery and watercress man who cried out, “’Ere’s yer salory and watercreases.”


In the past there were also the ballad-singers and the street patterers and the peripatetic vocalists and the almanac vendors and the “flying stationers” who would take up their pitch on any corner and sell single sheets on juicy murders or fashionable songs.

Perhaps the oldest form was the broadside, a sheet printed on one side which bore the latest news and the newest sensations. From the earliest years of the sixteenth century this was the language of the street-“Sir Walter Raleigh His Lamentations! … Strange News from Sussex … No Natural Mother But a Monster …” Alongside these “headlines,” as they might appropriately be called, were such broadside ballads as “A Maydens Lamentation For A Bedfellow Or I Can Nor Will No Longer Lye Alone … The Mans Comfortable Answer To The Mayden … This Maid Would Give Ten Shillings For A Kiss.” These were the songs which were shouted down the streets and pasted on the walls. Their vendors did not expect to get paid for their voices but, instead, drew a crowd and then sold their wares for a halfpenny a sheet. There was of course an especial delight in “Last Dying Speeches” sold to the crowd at the very moment of execution by “flying patterers” otherwise known as “death hunters.” In a city which lived upon rumour, sensation and sudden alterations of mass feeling, the crying out of news and the singing of popular ballads were the perfect forms of communication. The politic John Dryden was not able to compete with the political ballad, “Lillibullero,” which outsold him in every sense, and another balladeer wrote: “Dryden thy Wit has catterwauld too long,/Now Lero Lero is the only song.” Songs, like slogans and catchphrases, could sweep through the streets for days or weeks before being utterly forgotten.

Then new songs, together with an old ballad for company, would in turn become part of a “long song” which comprised several ballads printed together on a roll of paper. They might also come into the hands of the “pinner up” who fastened many hundreds of ballads on iron railings or an area of “dead wall.” In the 1830s some eight hundred yards of wall on the south side of Oxford Street were used to display these song-sheets, until the arrival of shops and shop-fronts transformed the thoroughfare.

Yet some ballads retained their individual popularity for many years. “Willikins and his Dinah,” “Billy Barlow” and “The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter” remained great favourites with the London crowd-the pretty daughter of the rat-catcher herself having “such a sweet loud voice, sir,/You could hear her all down Parliament Street/And as far as Charing Cross, sir.” She was representative of those itinerant street-performers whose lives were often as pathetic and terrible as the ballads they sang. They performed mainly in the evening, sometimes accompanied by a flute or a cracked guitar, and were to be found upon every corner from the Strand to Whitechapel. Charles Dickens recalled his encounter with one such “itinerant singer” by the Upper Marsh on the south side of the river-“Singing! How few of those who pass such a miserable creature as this, think of the anguish of heart, the sinking of soul and spirit, which the very effort of singing produces!”

The ballad-singer had as a counterpart in the London streets the “running patterer” who cried out the romances and tragedies of the day. Henry Mayhew described their activities in his usual laconic style: “It is … a ‘mob’ or ‘school’ of the running patterers (for both these words are used) and consists of two, three or four men. All these men state that the greater the noise they make, the better the chance of sale.” They would often take up positions in different parts of the street and pretend to vie with each other for attention, thus heightening interest in the latest crime, murder, elopement or execution. Once again, the requisite in the city is sheer volume of noise.

Commotion and rumour are certainly more important than “truth,” if that commodity can ever actually be found in London, and the patterer often supplied his auditors with “cock”-politely described as a “pleasing fiction”-which was then sold as a “catchpenny.” The offender was known as a “cock-crower” and sometimes advertised his false wares with a lurid picture, often incorporating the London motifs of blood and flame mounted upon a pole.

It would be unfair to scorn these products of native art. Joshua Reynolds confessed that he borrowed a motif from a woodcut he had found pinned to a dead wall; Walter Scott studied street literature, chapbooks and ballads to stimulate his interest in folk myth and history. It is important to emphasise once again how Cockney taste can enter and animate a more “refined” cultural tradition.


The voices of the running patterers and the itinerant singers were invariably joined by the often discordant airs of the street musicians. Hector Berlioz, visiting London in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote that “no city in the world” was consumed so much by music; despite his profession, he was concerned less with the melodies of the concert hall than with those of the barrel-organ, the barrel-piano, the bagpipes and the drums which filled the streets. As Charles Booth noted in his survey of the East End, “let a barrel organ strike up a valse at any corner and at once the girls who may be walking past, and the children out of the gutter, begin to foot it merrily. Men join in sometimes, two young men together as likely as not,” while an appreciative crowd watched the dancing.

There were German bands, as well as Indian drummers and blacked-up “Abyssians” who played violin, guitar, tambourine and castanets; there were glee singers, and minstrels (generally a couple) who could be heard crooning “Oh where is my boy tonight?” and “Will you meet me at the Fountain?” In the 1840s there was a blind musician who played the violoncello with his feet, and a crippled trumpeter who drove around in a dog-cart.

The cacophony was immense and yet, in one of those gradual but necessary transitions of London life, most of it has passed away leaving only buskers to entertain cinema queues and inventive players of illegal music in the underpasses of London’s transport system.

<p>CHAPTER 18. Signs of the Times</p>

An eighteenth-century traveller remarked that “if towns were to be called after the first words which greeted a traveller on arrival, London would be called Damn it!” At the beginning of the twentieth century it would have been called “Bloody” and today “Fuckin’.”

“Fucking” is one of the longest-serving terms of abuse, having been heard on the London streets since the thirteenth century, and it is perhaps no surprise that the prevalent adjective applied to the language of Londoners is “disgusting.” The “disgust” is a response to that undertow of violence and anger which exemplifies life in the city, while such miseries as sexual abuse may have testified to the distaste which Londoners have had for their own fallen and once dirty condition. Contemporary standards of hygiene and more liberal sexual mores have not, however, materially diminished the “fucking” and “cunts” heard in the street. Perhaps modern Londoners are simply mouthing the words which the city itself has bequeathed to them.

In this context the obscene gesture should not be forgotten. In the sixteenth century a biting of the thumb represented aggression; this in turn led to the hat being cocked backwards and, in the late eighteenth century, “by a jerk of the thumb over the left shoulder.” The thumb then moved to the tip of the nose to represent contempt, and by the twentieth century two fingers were raised in the air as a “V” sign. The arm and elbow were then employed in an upward thrust to suggest derision.

The hand gestures of the street could also be free of sexual innuendo. There was once, everywhere, a pointing hand on the palm of which a destination was offered-“please to go this way,” whether to an eating-house or a toyshop. London was a city of signs. In 1762, according to Jenny Uglow’s Hogarth, the “Society of Sign Painters” announced a “Grand Exhibition” of its products, and in some rooms off Bow Street were exhibited “Keys, Bells, Swords, Poles, Sugar-Loaves, Tobacco Rolls, Candles,” all the “ornamental Furniture, carved in Wood.” It was meant as a reproof to the more tasteful productions of the Society of Arts, but its comic variety was also a testimony to an ancient but still living tradition of street art.

Once a pole draped with red rags was the emblem of the barber-surgeon who was permitted to bleed customers on his premises, the pole itself a token of the wooden rod which the customer held to keep his arm steady. The red rag later turned into a red stripe, until it became the customary barber’s pole of succeeding centuries. Almost every house, and certainly every trade, had its own sign so that the streets of the city were a perpetual forest of painted imagery: “Floure de Lice … Ravyns Head … Corniyshe coughs … The Chalice … The Cardinal’s Hat.” There were images of chained bears and of rising suns, of sailing ships and angels, of red lions and golden bells. There were also simple tokens of residence. Mr. Bell, for example, might hang the sign of a bell outside his house. But there were also well-known, if somewhat surprising, conjunctions in pub signs such as the Dog and Gridiron or the Three Nuns and a Hare. There were unusual attributions, too. As Addison pointed out, “I have seen a Goat set up before the Door of a Perfumer, and the French King’s Head at a Sword-Cutlers’s.” Tom Jones, in Henry Fielding’s novel of that name, takes up the litany: “Here we saw Joseph’s Dream, the Bull and Mouth, the Hen and Razor, the Ax and Bottle, the Whale and Crow, the Shovel and Boot, the Leg and Star, the Bible and Swan, the Frying Pan and Drum.” Adam and Eve represented a fruiterer, while the horn of a unicorn symbolised the shop of an apothecary; a bag of nails denoted an ironmonger, a row of coffins a carpenter. A sign of male and female hands conjoined might sometimes be completed by the message “Marriages performed within.”

It was a question of reading the street, of making the right associations and connections in an environment which needed a thorough decoding to mitigate its chaos and variety. Interpretative tracts, such as the elegantly titled Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, were also published. In 1716 John Gay gave best expression to the situation, however, in “The Art of Walking The Streets in London”-a theme taken up by many writers-with his portrait of a stranger who “dwells on ev’ry Sign, with stupid Gaze/Enters the narrow Alley’s doubtful Maze.”

There were also signs and plaques carved into the stone of London’s buildings. Small tablets marked newly laid-out streets-“This is Johns Street Ano Dom 1685”-while corporate heraldry was employed in the “arms” of a district or company affixed to various buildings; the symbol of St. Marylebone contains lilies and roses, because these were the flowers found in the grave of St. Mary after whom the district is named. At a later date even the lowly coal-hole covers were richly decorated, so that those who preferred to look down upon the ground were still assaulted by symbols of dogs and flowers. A nailed hoop upon a door or wall denoted the presence of fresh paint, while a small bouquet of straw meant that building work was taking place in the vicinity.

The city is indeed a labyrinth of signs, with the occasional but unnerving suspicion that there may exist no other reality than these painted symbols which demand your attention while leading you astray. As one commentator said of the modern and brilliantly illuminated Piccadilly Circus, “it is a wonderful sight-unless you can read.”

The signs of the city were distracting in another sense. They hung out so far from the wall that they touched those on the opposite side of the street, and they were sometimes so large that they blocked out sight of the sky. They could also be dangerous; they were meant to be placed at least nine feet above the level of the pavement, so that a horse and rider could pass beneath, but the regulation was not always obeyed. They were very heavy and there were occasions when the weight of sign and leaden support was too great for the wall to which they were fixed-one “front-fall” of this kind in Fleet Street injured several people and killed “two young ladies, a cobbler, and the king’s jeweller.” On windy days in the capital, the noise was ominous, their “creaking Noise” a sure sign of impending “rainy Floods.” So, in the same years as the exhibition of street signs off Bow Street, the city authorities concluded that they had become an impediment to the ever increasing traffic of the streets and ordered that they be taken down. Ten years later came street numbers.

But all colour was not lost. The passion for street art simply changed its form, with the expansion of advertising. There had always been posters wrapped around the wooden posts of the street to publicise the latest auction or the latest play, but only after the demise of street signs did other forms of public art properly emerge. By the early nineteenth century London had “grown wondrously pictorial” with a variety of papier-mâché ornaments or paintings placed in shop windows to denote the trade of the occupant. An essay in The Little World of London, entitled “Commercial Art,” lingers pleasurably on these objets d’art. Many coffee houses had a symbol of loaf and cheese together with cup; fishmongers painted the walls of their premises with “a group of fish in the grand style” all variously and picturesquely coloured, while grocers specialised in “conversation pieces” which portrayed various benevolent London matrons “assembled round the singing kettle or the simmering urn.” Boots, cigars and sealing wax, in gigantic form, were also suspended over the doors of various premises, while the destruction of Pompeii seemed a fitting advertisement for a patent cockroach exterminator.

One great innovation of the nineteenth century was the advertising hoarding, and in some of the earliest photographs of London they can be seen lining the streets and the new railway stations offering everything from Pear’s Soap to the Daily Telegraph. Advertising was in that sense very much part of the ideal of “progress,” since the hoardings themselves had first been erected to protect the streets from the myriad building sites and railway improvements. Once posters had been enlarged to cover these wooden frames, then advertising images appropriate to the city itself-large, gaudy, colourful- began to emerge. There were certain popular sites, among them the north end of Waterloo Bridge and the dead wall beside the English Opera House in North Wellington Street. Here, according to Charles Knight’s London, could be found “rainbow-hued placards vying in gorgeous extravagance of colour with Turner’s last new picture … pictures of pens, gigantic as the plumes in the casque of the Castle of Otranto … spectacles of enormous size … Irishmen dancing under the influence of Guinness’s Dublin Stout.”

“A London Street Scene,” painted by J.O. Parry in 1833, could serve as an introduction to any street scene over the last two centuries. A small blackened sweep-boy looks up in admiration as a poster for a new performance of Otello is placed over one advertising John Parry in The Sham Prince; there is a bill proclaiming “Mr. Matthews-At Home,” “Tom amp; Jerry-The Christening-!!!!!!” and a narrow strip asking “Have You Seen The Industrious Fleas?” Thus the walls of the city become a palimpsest of forthcoming, recent and old sensations.

On a dead wall today, close to where I am now writing this book, and not far from the site of the 1833 painting, can be seen posters for “Armageddon,” “To Heathrow in Fifteen Minutes,” “Mr. Love Pants Is Coming,” “Meltdown ’98 Festival,” “Drugstore-Sober-New Single Available,” “Apostle” and “The Girl With Brains In Her Feet.” More mysterious advertisements suggest that “There’s A Revolution In Sight,” that “The Magic Is Closer Than You Think,” and that “Nothing Else Moves Me.”

“Peripatetic placards” appeared on the streets in the 1830s. These were such a novel phenomenon that Charles Dickens interviewed one and, by describing him as “a piece of human flesh between two slices of pasteboard,” created the phrase “sandwich man.” George Scharf drew many of them, from a small boy in surtout overcoat holding a barrel inscribed “Malt Whiskey John Howse” to an old woman holding up a sign for “Anatomical Model of the Human Figure.”

Then in characteristic London fashion the single placard-carriers were put together in order to create a kind of pageant or pantomime; a group of them were placed inside paste models of blacking pots, for example, and paraded in line to advertise the efficacy of “Warrens Blacking, 30 Strand,” the very place where Dickens himself began his tortuous London childhood. Then arrived the advertisement as the horse-drawn gig, surmounted by an enormous hat or an Egyptian obelisk. The search for novelty was always intense and the passion for posters blossomed into the “electric advertisements” of the 1890s when “Vinolia Soap” was hailed in illuminated letters above Trafalgar Square.

Advertisements in lights soon began to move; at Piccadilly Circus could be seen a red crystal bottle pouring port into a waiting glass, and a car with turning silver wheels. Soon they were everywhere-above the ground, under the ground, and in the sky. The plethora of advertising in London helped fashion Huxley’s vision of the future city in Brave New World where above Westminster “The electric sky-signs effectively shut off the outer darkness. ‘Calvin Stopes and His Sixteen Sexophonists.’” Buses of the twenty-first century, perhaps beyond the purview of dystopian fiction, are now plastered with gaudy images like the pageant wagons of medieval London.


The pavement artists have had a less glorious career in the city. They commenced their work only when the streets were paved with stone rather than cobbles, and in that sense theirs is a recent London profession. There was a time when beggars scrawled their messages of supplication upon the stones- “Can You Help Me Out” being a favourite expression-but the pavement artist supplied a variant in the 1850s with the chalked words “All My Own Work” or “Every Little Helps. I thank you.” These street artists, or “screevers” as they were once called, had their own particular pitches. The corners of fashionable squares were considered to be ideal territory but Cockspur Street and the site opposite Gatti’s restaurant in the Strand were favoured locales. There was also a line of such street artists along the Embankment, with twenty-five yards between each pitch. Many of these “screevers” were demoralised artists whose orthodox work had not prospered-Simeon Solomon’s career as a Pre-Raphaelite painter had been applauded, for example, but he ended up as a pavement artist in Bayswater. Others were the homeless or unemployed who realised that they had a talent for the job; it required only coloured chalks and a duster, and a scene or portrait could be conjured upon the stone. Some specialised in portraits of contemporary politicians, or of sentimental domestic situations; one artist painted religious scenes along the Finchley Road, while in the Whitechapel Road another specialised in scenes of fire and burning houses. In all cases, however, they satisfied the taste of London by painting in the crudest and most garish tones, although by curious association they are related to the night sky above the city. In The Highways and Byways of London, Mrs. E.T. Cook reported that the sky behind the artists’ lodging houses in Drury Lane or Hatton Garden would often be robed “in intense hues of orange, purple and crimson” as if mimicking their colours. George Orwell, in Down and Out in Paris and London, recalls the conversation of one screever, Bozo, whose pitch was close to Waterloo Bridge. He was walking with Orwell back to his lodgings in Lambeth, but was all the time looking up at the heavens. “Say, will you look at Aldebaran! Look at the colour. Like a-great blood orange … Now and again I go out at night and watch the meteors.” Bozo had even engaged in correspondence with the Astronomer Royal on the subject of the sky above London, so that for a moment the city and the cosmos were intimately connected in the life of one wandering artist of the street.


But no account of London art can be complete without the history of its graffiti. One of the first is a curse by one Londoner upon two others, written in a Roman hand-Publius and Titus were “hereby solemnly cursed.” It is matched by a late twentieth-century graffito recently recorded by the contemporary London novelist Iain Sinclair, “TIKD. FUCK YOU. DHKP,” and suggests a characteristic of London street-writing. “For the stone shall cry out of the wall,” according to Habakkuk 2:11, and in London the cries are frequently those of anger and hostility. Many are entirely personal, with no meaning except to the one who carved or sprayed the words upon a wall, and remain the most enigmatic features of the city; one moment of anger or loss has been inscribed upon its surface, to become part of the chaos of signs and symbols which exist all around. Outside Paddington station can be found “Fume” everywhere together with “Cos,” “Boz” and “Chop.” “Rava” can be seen upon the bridges of the south bank. “Great Redeemer, People’s Liberator” adorned Kentish Town Station in the 1980s. “Thomas Jordan cleaned this window, and damn the job, I say-1815” was written on an ancient window and on a London wall a Thomas Berry scribbled “Oh Lord, cut them with thy sword.” As one exponent of the art of graffiti put it to Iain Sinclair, “If you’re going to be around the city all the time, you’d better put your name up,” which is the reason why people over many centuries have simply written down their names or initials on any tractable surface with the occasional amendment of “was here” or more frequently “woz ’ere.” It is a way of asserting individuality, perhaps, but it becomes immediately part of the anonymous texture of London; in that sense graffiti are a vivid token of human existence in the city. They may be compared to footprints or handprints, laid into cement, which become part of the city’s fabric. Hand impressions have been found in Fleet Road, Hampstead, as mysterious and poignant as symbols carved on ancient stones.

Sometimes graffiti have a relevance to the immediate locality-“James Bone is a bad kisser” or “Rose Maloney Is A Thief”-where they serve as silent messages, the written equivalent of drum-taps in the jungle. But there are also more general admonitions. In one of his prose works Thomas More quotes a fifteenth-century slogan written upon many walls-“D.C. hath no P”-which can perhaps be deciphered with the help of More’s summary that it “toucheth the readiness that woman hath to fleshly filth, if she fall in drunkenness.” One may surmise that D.C. denotes “drunken cunts” but the “P” is mysterious.

Any particular year, over the last thousand, will provide its own litany of curses, execrations and imperatives. In 1792, for example, these were some of the graffiti: “Christ Is God … No Coach Tax! … Murder Jews … Joanna Southcott … Damn the Duke of Richmond! … Damn Pitt!” In 1942 the most prominent graffiti remained “Strike in the West Now!,” and in the later part of the century the two most formidable slogans were “George Davis Is Innocent” and “No Poll Tax.” The city seems almost to be speaking to itself by means of these messages, in a language both vivid and cryptic. Some recent graffiti have been more reflective in tone-“Nothing Lasts” painted upon a brick wall, “Obedience Is Suicide” upon a bridge in Paddington, “The Tigers of Wrath Are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction” inscribed above “Rangers,” “Aggro,” “Boots” and “Rent Revolt” on the corner of Basing Street, Notting Hill Gate-the last being a potent example of the phenomenon of clustering. A wall may remain inviolate for many years but, as soon as one graffito is placed upon it, others ineluctably follow in competitive or aggressive display. Aggression can often be associated with sexuality. Many of these messages have an anonymous sexual intent which suggests isolation as well as desire-“Oh please don’t cane me too hard master … 23/11 I am 30 I have a/place at Victoria SW/I love dressing up I am wearing/pink panties now.”

The proper locale for these harsh and impersonal messages of love is, naturally enough, the public lavatory. It has become the principal source of all urban graffiti; here, in confinement and secrecy, the Londoner speaks to the entire city with words and signs that are as old as the city itself. One attendant told Geoffrey Fletcher, the author of The London Nobody Knows, that “the lavatory in Charing Cross Road was the place to go if you want the writing on the wall … make your blood run cold, it would.” In fact London lavatories have been notorious for centuries, and in 1732 Hurlo Thrumbo printed at Bethlehem Wall, Moorfields, a compilation entitled The Merry Thought or the Glass window and Bog House Miscellany. We may extract from these some of the more salient and, perhaps, immortal epigrams. From the “bog-houses” of Pancras Wells comes

Hither I came in haste to shit


But found such excrements of wit


That to shew my skill in verse


Had scarcely time to wipe my arse.

There then ensues a dialogue or chorus of other costive notes in which “write” is frequently rhymed with “shite” and “London” with “undone.” The anonymous authors’ clothing is “undone,” literally, in the London “bog-house”; but perhaps there is also a more plaintive suggestion that they have themselves been “undone” in London. From the “bog-house” by the Temple comes

No hero looks so fierce in fight


As does the man who strains to shite

and upon a tavern wall in Covent Garden

There’s nothing foul that we commit


But what we write and what we shit.

Sometimes there is a grand riposte to this city scatology. “It is the vanity of degenerates,” one Londoner inscribed, “to write their names here.”

The other principal source of London graffiti has always been the prison house, from the inscription of Thomas Rose upon the wall of the Beauchamp Tower in the Tower of London-“Kept close/By those to whom he did no wrong. May 8th, 1666”-to the cell of a modern prison where one inmate has written “You may be guilty/But what must this/be like for those/who are not.” These men also have been undone in London. Thomas Mehoe writes in 1581: “bi-tertvre-strange-my-trouth-was-tryed-yet-of-my-libertie-denied,” with words painfully but carefully inscribed with an iron nail. They are still preserved within the Tower, and in that ancient prison are many carvings, crosses, skeletons, death-heads and hour-glasses carved as tokens or symbols of suffering. There are words which are supposed to provide comfort-“Hope to the end and have patience … Spero in Deo … patience shall prevail” which can be contrasted with the graffiti found in the modern London prison-“Home by May … This is where I spent most of my life … It was just one/time I never got away by someone who got caught … Treat me carefully/I’m seven years/bad luck.” In many inscriptions the prison itself seems to be treated as an image of the world, or of the city, which will perhaps lend further significance to another graffito found upon a London wall-“I cant breathe.”

<p>CHAPTER 19. All of Them Citizens</p>

There are other kinds of anonymity. Dickens knew of a woman, seen in the streets about the Strand, “who has fallen forward, double, through some affliction of the spine, and whose head has of late taken a turn to one side, so that it now droops over the back of one of her arms at about the wrist. Who does not know her staff, and her shawl, and her basket, as she gropes her way along, capable of seeing nothing but the pavement, never begging, never stopping, for ever going somewhere on no business! How does she live, whence does she come, whither does she go, and why?” Dickens saw her many times; he never knew her name, and she could not have seen the famous novelist as he passed her and, perhaps, looked back.

I used to pass a dwarf, dressed in old clothes and with wizened features, who in a hoarse voice would direct the traffic at the crossroads of Theobalds Road and Grays Inn Road; he was there every day and then suddenly, in the summer of 1978, he was gone. There was, even more recently, a young West Indian who would walk up Kensington Church Street dressed in silver foil and with balloons tied to his wrists. A gentleman, known colloquially as “The King of Poland,” used to walk barefoot along the Strand in red velvet robes and with a wreath upon his head. He, too, vanished without warning.

These London particulars have their own locale and are rarely seen beyond it; they are the sprites or spirits of a specific place, and belong exclusively to the city. There was the “musical small-coal man” of Clerkenwell who, after his daily round was over, organised concerts in his lodgings in Jerusalem Passage; he died when as a practical joke a ventriloquist, known as “Talking Smith,” pretended to be the voice of God proclaiming his doom. There was Lord Queensberry, “Old Q,” who every day sat at the window of his house at 138 Piccadilly; although he had only one eye, he leered and winked at every pretty female who passed in the street. And there was “the afflicted girl-white faced and expressionless” who sat for many years close to the Horse-Shoe of Tottenham Court Road, “oblivious of time and inured to suffering through all the noise and tumult.”

There were always such familiar faces in every locality. Today there are the lollipop men and women, helping children to cross the road, but until the early decades of the twentieth century the best known were the crossing-sweepers. Many crossing-sweepers remained at their posts-or on their particular “property,” as it was called-for thirty or forty years. There was the bearded crossing-sweeper at Cornhill-“Sometimes I get insulted, only in words; sometimes I get chaffed by sober people.” And there, at the corner of Cavendish Square, was Billy who could remember ancient riots-“The mob was carrying a quartern loaf dipped in bullock’s blood, and when I saw it I thought it was a man’s head; so that frightened me, and I run off.” One elderly sweeper “kept” the narrow passage from Berkeley Street into Stratton Street, and wore an old huntsman’s coat and hat. He once came into the police court as a witness, and the following exchange is recorded by Mayhew.

JUDGE: Are you a field-marshal?


WITNESS: No, my lord. I am the sweeper of the Lansdowne Passage.

There was “Sir” Harry Dimsdale of Seven Dials, according to Old and New London, “a poor diminutive creature, deformed and half an idiot” who hawked laces and threads at the turn of the nineteenth century; he followed the same routes, along Holborn or Oxford Street, and suffered the jeers of the children and the watermen who washed down the hackney-coach stands. He had only four or five teeth, but could bend a silver coin with them “when he could induce anybody to trust him with one.” His favourite amusement was to torment children by pinching them or throwing them to the ground, but his chief pleasure was found in drink. He was “helplessly drunk every evening … howling in the frenzy produced by his fiery draughts or uttering the low, dismal plaint caused by hunger or pain.” It is reported that his expression was one of “idiotcy, physical suffering and a propensity to mischief” but the mistress of his wretched lodgings-a back attic laid with straw-reported that at night she heard him praying. “Sir” Harry was known throughout London, and there is an extant engraving of him at the age of thirty-eight; but then he, too, suddenly disappeared. His is a curious story of suffering and isolation, but one with echoes and parallels in the modern city.

Other eccentric tradesmen led more amiable lives in the street. There was the famous character Peter Stokes, the “flying pie-man” of Holborn Hill in the early nineteenth century; as described by “Aleph” in London Scenes and London People, he “always wore a black suit, scrupulously brushed, dress coat and vest, knee breeches, stout black stockings, and shoes with steel buckles.” This tradesman, with an expression “open and agreeable, expressive of intellect and moral excellence,” would dash out of Fetter Lane on the stroke of twelve noon and run through the streets of the neighbourhood for the next four hours, dodging horses and wagons and coaches, incessantly crying “Buy! Buy! Buy!” He too was famous throughout London, and sat to an engraver with the basket of pies balanced neatly on his right arm.

Equally notable, in the streets of London, a little more than a century earlier, was “Colly Molly Puffe,” a short hunch-backed man who also sold pastries. He preferred to balance his basket upon his head rather than his arm and, despite his frail form, he had a stentorian voice with which he sang out his wares. His cry was unmistakable, and he was to be seen at city parades or public hangings, always brandishing a big stick to ward off any thief or urchin who tried to steal his goods.

Tiddy Doll was a vendor of gingerbread in the Haymarket who wore ornate and brightly coloured dress, complete with feathered cap, and had the distinction of being drawn by Hogarth; he was so well known by Londoners that “once being missed from his usual stand … on the occasion of a visit which he paid to a country fair, a ‘catch-penny’ account of his alleged murder was printed and sold in the streets by thousands.” His actual death was almost equally sensationa during a Frost Fair, when a festival was held upon the iced surface of the Thames, Tiddy Doll plunged through a sudden crack and was drowned.

There have been any number of London eccentrics and exhibitionists who achieved fame in the streets. There was a celebrated miser, Thomas Cook of Clerkenwell, who on his death-bed demanded his money back from the surgeon who had not cured him. There was a notorious doctor, Martin Van Butchell, who rode around the West End on a pony upon whose flanks he had painted spots. When at home in Mount Street he sold oranges and gingerbread on his doorstep and kept his first wife embalmed in the parlour. “He dressed his first wife in black, and his second in white,” according to Edward Walford in Old and New London, “never allowing either a change of colour.” He astonished his contemporaries by growing a beard-this at the end of the eighteenth century-and, equally astonishing to his fellow citizens, was “one of the earliest teetotallers.”

Benjamin Coates first came to public notice in 1810 when he hired the Haymarket Theatre so that he might play Romeo for one night; he appeared on stage “in a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, and a wig of the style of Charles II, capped by an opera hat.” Unfortunately he had a “guttural” voice and the laughter which greeted his performance was increased by the fact that “his nether garments, being far too tight burst in seams which could not be concealed.” He was known, ever after, as Romeo Coates and was often seen driving through the streets in a carriage manufactured in the shape of a sea shell. For sheer vigour and energy we may put him beside the engraver William Woolett who, each time he finished a new work, fired a cannon from the roof of his house in Green Street, Leicester Square.

Certain women also made a singular impression. There was the rich and learned Miss Banks who wore a quilted petticoat with “two immense pockets, stuffed with books of all sizes.” When she wandered on her book-hunting expeditions through the streets she was always accompanied by a six-foot manservant “with a cane almost as tall as himself.” In this state she was, again according to Walford, “more than once taken for a member of the ballad-singing confraternity.” Miss Mary Lucrine of Oxford Street kept the shutters of her windows barred and never left her lodgings for some fifty years, one of several London spinsters who closed themselves off from the anxiety and violence of the city.

Some Londoners became notorious through their diet. In the middle years of the seventeenth century Roger Crab of Bethnal Green subsisted on “dock-leaves, mallows or grasse” and plain water, while in the late twentieth century Stanley Green, wearing cap and blazer, paraded in Oxford Street with a banner proclaiming “Less Passion from Less Protein.” For twenty-five years, crowds swirled about him, almost oblivious of his presence, engaged only in their usual uproar.


“Punch and Judy” arrived early in London and could be seen on the streets until recent times. Street entertainers have haunted the city since the thirteenth century, and perhaps before.


CHAPTER 13. Show! Show! Show! Show! Show!

<p>CHAPTER 13. Show! Show! Show! Show! Show!</p>

Show! Show! Show! Show! Show! This was the cry of a seventeenth-century city crowd, as recorded in Ned Ward’s London Spy. There were indeed many shows to be seen on the London streets, but the greatest fair of all was held at Smithfield. It was known as Bartholomew’s Fair.

Smithfield itself began as a simple trading area, for cloth in one place and cattle in another, but its history has always been one of turbulence and spectacle. Great jousts and tournaments were held there in the fourteenth century; it was the ritual place for duels and ordeal by battle; it was the home of the gallows and the stake. That festive nature was also evident in less forbidding ways. Football matches and wrestling contests were commonly staged and the appropriately named Cock Lane, just beyond the open ground, was the haunt of prostitutes. Miracle plays were also part of its entertainment.

The trading market for cloth had become outmoded by the middle of the sixteenth century but “the privileges of the fair” were still retained by the city corporation. So, instead of a three-day market, it was transformed into a fourteen-day festival which resounds through the plays and novels of succeeding centuries with the cry of “What do you lack? What is it you buy?” From the beginning of its fame there were puppet-shows and street performers, human freaks and games of dice and thimble, canvas tents for dancing or for drinking, eating-houses which specialised in roast pork.

This was the fair which Jonson celebrated in his play of the same name. He notes the sound of rattles, drums and fiddles. Here on the wooden stalls were laid out mousetraps and gingerbread, purses and pouches. There were booths and toyshops. Displayed “at the sign of the Shoe and Slap” was “THE WONDER OF NATURE, a girl about sixteen years of age, born in Cheshire, and not above eighteen inches long … Reads very well, whistles, and all very pleasant to hear.” Close by was exhibited “a Man with one Head and two distinct Bodies,” as well as a “Giant Man” and “Little Fairy Woman” performing among the other freak shows and theatrical booths. There were puppies, whistling birds and horses for sale; there were ballads cried out, with bottled ale and tobacco being constantly consumed. Cunning men cast nativities, and prostitutes plied their trade. Jonson himself noted small details, too, and watched as the cores of apples were gathered up for the bears. As one of his characters puts it, “Bless me! deliver me, help, hold me! the Fair!”

It continued, curiously enough, during the Puritan Commonwealth, no doubt with the primary motive of venting the steam of the more unruly citizens, but flourished after the Restoration of 1660 when liberty and licence came back into fashion. One versifier of the period notes masquerades dramatising “The Woman of Babylon, The Devil and The Pope,” as well as shows of dancing bears and acrobats. Some acts came year after year: there was the “Tall Dutchwoman” who made annual appearances for at least seventeen years, together with the “Horse and no Horse, whose tail stands where his head should do.” And there were always rope-walkers, among them the famous Scaramouch “dancing on the rope, with a wheelbarrow before him with two children and a dog in it, and with a duck on his head,” and the notable rope-dancer Jacob Hall “that can jump it, jump it.” Perhaps the most celebrated of all the acts, however, was that of Joseph Clark, “the English Posture Master” or “Posture Clark” as he was known. It seems that he could “put out of joynt almost any Bone or Vertebra of his Body, and to replace it again”; he could so contort himself that he became unrecognisable even to his closest friends.

And so the fair went on, as all fairs do. There was even a Ferris wheel, known then as a “Whirligig” (later an “Up and Down”) where, according to Ned Ward in The London Spy (1709), “Children lock’d up in Flying Coaches who insensibly climb’d upwards … being once Elevated to a certain height come down again according to the Circular Motion of the Sphere they move in.”

The general noise and clamour, together with the inevitable crowd of pickpockets, finally proved too much for the city authorities. In 1708 the fortnight of the fair was reduced to three days at the end of August. But if it became less riotous, it was no less festive. Contemporary accounts dwell upon the drollery of “merry Andrews,” otherwise known as Jack Puddings or Pickled Herrings; they wore a costume with donkey’s ears, and accompanied other performers with their fiddles. One of the more famous fools was a seller of gingerbread nuts in Covent Garden; since he was paid one guinea a day for his work at Bartholomew Fair, “he was at pains never to cheapen himself by laughing, or by noticing a joke, during the other 362 days of the year.”

Alongside the merry Andrews leapt the mountebanks who sold miracle cures and patent medicines to those credulous enough to purchase them. In an illustration by Marcellus Laroon one such is dressed as a harlequin from commedia dell’arte with a monkey tied to a rope beside him. His voice, too, might be heard among the general noise and tumult-“a rare cordial to strengthen and cheer the Heart under any Misfortune … a most rare dentifrice … good to fortifie the stomach against all Infections, Unwholesome damps, malignant effluvias.” And so the fair rolled on. It is perhaps appropriate, amid the noise and excitement, that in 1688 John Bunyan collapsed and died at the corner of Snow Hill and Cock Lane.

If there was one central character, however, it was that of Punch, the uncrowned monarch of “puppet-plays, hobby-horses, tabors, crowds, and bagpipes.” He had emerged upon the little stage by the end of the seventeenth century, announced by a jester and accompanied by fiddle, trumpet or drum. He is not a uniquely London phenomenon, but he became a permanent entertainer at the fairs and streets of the city; with his violence, his vulgarity and his sexual innuendo he was a recognisable urban character. “Often turning towards a tightly packed bend of girls, he sits himself down near to them: My beautiful ones, he says, winking roguishly, here’s a girl friend come to join you!” With his great belly, big nose and long stick he is the very essence of a gross sexual joke which, unfortunately, in later centuries became smaller, squeakier, and somehow transformed into entertainment for children. There is a watercolour by Rowlandson, dated 1785, which shows a puppet-play with Punch in action. George III and Queen Charlotte are driving to Deptford, but the attention of the citizens is drawn more towards the wooden booth where Punch is beating the bare buttocks of his wife. He was often conceived as a “hen-pecked” husband but, here, the worm has turned. Rowlandson’s work is of course partly conceived as a satire against the royal family, but it is filled with a greater and all-encompassing urban energy.

Within Bartholomew Fair itself there was a complete erasure of ordinary social distinctions. One of the complaints against it lay in the fact that apprentice and lord might be enjoying the same entertainments, or betting at the same gaming tables. This is entirely characteristic of London itself, heterogeneous and instinctively egalitarian. It is no coincidence, for example, that at the time of the Fair an annual supper was held in Smithfield for young chimney-sweeps. Charles Lamb has immortalised the occasion in one of his essays, “The Praise of Chimney Sweepers,” where he reports that “hundreds of grinning teeth startled the night with their brightness” while in the background could be heard the “agreeable hubbub” of the Fair itself. It might be argued that there is no true egalitarianism in the gesture, and that such solemn festivities merely accustom the little “’weeps” to their dismal fate. This might then be considered one of the paradoxes of London, which consoles those whom it is about to consume.


Punch is also advertised in Hogarth’s print of Southwark Fair. Known as “the Lady Fair,” it was held in the streets around the Borough in the month after Bartholomew Fair. But since Hogarth announced his engraving as “The Fair” and “the Humours of a Fair” we may safely assume that he is portraying a characteristic and familiar London entertainment. Here Punch is mounted upon a stage horse which picks the pocket of a clown; above him, there is a poster announcing “Punches Opera” which depicts the large-nosed figure wheeling his wife in a barrow towards the open mouth of a dragon.

Elsewhere in this fair a motley group of performers stands upon a wooden balcony where a painted cloth announces “The Siege of Troy is here”; the entertainers have been identified as part of Hannah Lee’s theatrical company, and one of their advertisements has in fact survived. “To which will be added, a New Pantomime Opera … intermixed with Comic scenes between Punch, Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot and Columbine. N.B. We shall begin at Ten in the Morning, and continue Playing till Ten at Night.” It was a long day at the fair.

On each side of the players there are various feats of acrobatics; a tightrope-walker spans two wooden buildings, while a rope-flyer descends precipitously from the tower of St. George the Martyr. In another corner of the fair a wooden stage has collapsed, and the actors fall upon stalls selling china and upset a table where two gamblers are playing at dice. There are dwarves, conjurors and waxworks, performing dogs and monkeys; a girl beats a drum while a mountebank sells his medicine; a pickpocket plies his trade while another kind of performer swallows fire. One customer can be seen gazing into the aperture of a wooden peep-show and does not notice that, by his side, a man is being arrested by a bailiff.


Bartholomew Fair itself became the arena for fictional characters whose authors used it as the setting of their adventures, but perhaps the most famous account is autobiographical in nature. In the seventh book of his Prelude Wordsworth memorialised his youthful residence in London in the 1790s, and chose Bartholomew Fair as one of its emblems with its “anarchy and din Barbarian and informal”-a word which we might better translate as formless. It was

Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound

filled with

chattering monkeys dangling from their poles,


… And children whirling in their roundabouts …


The Stone-eater, the Man that swallows fire

It is clear that the entertainments had not changed throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but Wordsworth’s particular response to its barbaric “din” and shapelessness is an example of his general attitude towards the city itself. The fair becomes, in fact, a simulacrum of London. The first lines of Pope’s Dunciad make a similar point by extolling:

The Mighty Mother, and her Son who brings


The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings

It is a symbol of disorder and anarchy, threatening to overwhelm the values of a humanised and civilised London with all its vulgar paraphernalia of “shews, machines, and dramatical entertainments, formerly agreeable only to the taste of the Rabble.” The egalitarian energies of the city, therefore, are treated with the gravest mistrust by those who wrote for smaller London circles.

At the time of Wordsworth’s visit the Fair was gradually being extended until, by 1815, it had spread up along one side of St. John’s Street and, in the other direction, had almost reached the Old Bailey. It had also become a place of danger and lawlessness with gangs of thieves, known as “Lady Holland’s mob,” who “robbed visitors, beat inoffensive passers-by with bludgeons, and pelted harmless persons.” These were no longer the festivities of the eighteenth century, and were certainly not to be endured in the more respectable climate of the mid-nineteenth. Bartholomew Fair could never have lasted long into the Victorian era, and in 1855 it passed away without much sign of public mourning.

Yet Wordsworth had divined, in the spectacle of the Fair, a permanent aspect of London life. He recognised and recoiled from an innate and exuberant theatricality, which was content to manifest sheer contrast and display with no interior or residual meaning. In this book of The Prelude, “Residence in London,” he remarks:

On Strangers of all ages, the quick dance


Of colours, lights and forms, the Babel din

It is the play of difference, characterised by mobility and indeterminacy, which disturbs him. Within a few lines he notes “Shop after Shop, with Symbols, blazon’d Names … fronts of houses, like a title page” as if the city harboured endless forms of representation, not one of which is superior to any other. He records the ballads hanging upon the walls, the huge advertisements, the “London Cries” and the stock urban characters of the “Cripple … the Bachelor … the military Idler,” as if they were all part of some great and endless theatre.

Yet it is at least possible that he did not fully understand the very reality which he so vividly describes-these “shifting pantomimic scenes,” these “dramas of living Men,” this “great Stage” and “public Shows,” the spectacles and the showmen, may indeed represent the true nature of London. Its theatricality therefore leads to “Extravagance in gesture, mien, and dress,” just as in all the streets and lanes the citizens were “living shapes”; even the roadside beggar wears “a written paper” announcing his story. Thus all may be, or seem, unreal. Wordsworth believed that he saw only “parts,” in every sense, and could derive no “feeling of the whole.” He may have been mistaken.


Wordsworth was correct about the essential theatricality of the city, but it may also be considered from another vantage. It may become a cause for celebration. Charles Lamb, that great Londoner, extolled his city as “a pantomime and masquerade … The wonder of these sights, impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life.” Macaulay wondered at the “dazzling brilliancy of London spectacles,” while James Boswell believed it to comprise “the whole of human life in all its variety”; for Dickens it was the “magic lantern” which filled his imagination with the glimpse of strange dramas and sudden spectacles. For each of these Londoners, whether by birth or adoption, the theatricality of London is its single most important characteristic.

The crowd that gathered to see the inauguration of the first underground railway, in 1863, was compared in newspaper accounts “to the crush at the doors of a theatre on the night of a pantomime,” and Donald J. Olsen, the author of The Growth of Victorian London, has compared the speed and scale of city transport in that period to the “magical transformation of the pantomime continually being translated into life.” That is why London has always been considered to be the home of stock theatrical characters-the “shabby genteel,” the “city slicker,” the “wide boy.” In print-shop windows of the mid-eighteenth century there were caricatures of London “types,” while the more fashionable citizens of the same period dressed up in costume for masques and disguisings.

The most famous pictorial series displaying London characters, Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life, published in 1687, reveals many professions and trades where the actual principle was that of acting. Many beggars put on a masquerade for the benefit of their passing audience, but Laroon himself chose a particular female vagrant to exemplify what he called “The London Beggar.” He did not give her name, but in fact she was known as Nan Mills who, according to the most recent editors of his work, was “not only a good physiognomist but an excellent mimic … and could adapt her countenance to every circumstance of distress.” There is no reason to doubt that she was also poor, and conscious of her degradation. Here, too, is part of the mystery of London where suffering and mimicry, penury and drama, are aligned with each other to a degree where they become indistinguishable.

The rituals of crime have, in London, also taken on a theatrical guise. Jonathan Wild, the master criminal of mid-eighteenth-century London, declared that “The mask is the summum bonum of our age” while the marshalmen, or city police of a slightly later date, were costumed in cocked hats and spangled buttons. There were more subtle disguises available to the detective of the city. One is reminded of Sherlock Holmes, a character who could have existed only in the heart of London. According to his amanuensis, Holmes “had at least five small refuges in different parts of London, in which he was able to change his personality.” The mysteries of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, too, could be conducted only through “the swirling wreaths” of London fog where character and identity may suddenly and dramatically be obscured.

If crime and detection rely upon disguise, so London punishment had its own theatre of judgement and of pain. The Old Bailey itself was designed as a dramatic spectacle, and was indeed compared with “a giant Punch and Judy show” where the judges sat within the open portico of a Sessions House which resembled a theatrical backdrop.

Yet since Punch, who in the end manages to hang the hangman Jack Ketch, is the epitome of disorder it is likely that his spirit would also be found in noisome circumstances. The cellar floor of the Fleet Prison was known as “Bartholomew Fair,” while in the chapel of Newgate there were galleries where spectators were invited to watch the antics of those condemned to die who deliberately entertained their audience with acts of outrageousness or defiance. We read, for example, of one John Riggleton who “made a practice of sneaking up to the Ordinary [prison clergyman] when his eyes were fast shut in prayer and shouting out loud in his ear.” This of course is the role of the pantaloon in pantomime.

The theatre did not end in the prison chapel, but continued upon the little stage where the execution took place. “The upturned faces of the eager spectators,” wrote one contributor to The Chronicles of Newgate, “resembled those of the ‘gods’ at Drury Lane on Boxing Night.” Another witness remarked upon the fact that, just before the execution, there was a roar of “‘Hats off!’ and ‘Down in front!’ as at a theatre.” There was one peculiarly theatrical episode at the execution in 1820 of Thistlewood and his “Cato Street” companions for treason; according to the traditional sentence, they were to be hanged and then beheaded. “When the executioner had come to the last of the heads, he lifted it up, but, by some clumsiness, allowed it to drop. At this the crowd yelled out, ‘Ah, Butter-fingers!’” This small episode manifests the peculiar temperament of the London crowd, combining humour and savagery in equal measure.


The witnesses at executions were not the only inhabitants of London to appreciate the virtues of urban theatre. Inigo Jones’s construction of the Banqueting House in 1622 was, in the words of John Summerson’s Georgian London, “really an extension of his stage work”; the same might be said of his other great urban projects. In a similar spirit, two hundred years later, John Nash disguised a concerted effort at town planning, dividing the poor of the east from the wealthy of the west, by creating streets and squares which represented the principles of “picturesque beauty” by means of scenic effects. George Moore commented that the “circular line” of Regent Street was very much like that of an amphitheatre, and it has been noted that the time of Nash’s “Improvements” was also the period of the great panoramas and dioramas of London. Buckingham Palace, as viewed from the end of the Mall, seems nothing more than an elaborate stage-set while the House of Commons is an exercise in wistful neo-Gothic not unlike the elaborate dramas to be seen in the patent theatres of the period. The latest Pevsner guide notes that the clearing banks of the City of London “were built to impress inside and out,” while much of the architecture of the 1960s “took the expressive potential of concrete to a theatrical extreme.”

That central spirit of London has been divined by artists as well as architects. In the work of Hogarth the streets are delineated in terms of scenic perspective. In many of his prints, perhaps most notably in his delineation of the Fair, the division between performers and spectators is for all practical purposes invisible; the citizens fulfil their roles with even more animation than the stage actors, and there are more genuinely dramatic episodes among the crowd than upon the boards.

Some of the more famous portraits of London also borrow their effects from the theatre of the period. It has been remarked, for example, how Edward Penny’s painting of A City Shower is taken from a scene from David Garrick’s The Suspicious Husband. One of the greatest painters of mid-nineteenth-century cityscapes, John O’Connor, was also an accomplished painter of theatrical scenery. The editors of the most comprehensive volume upon the subject, London in Paint, go so far as to suggest that “further research will be carried out into this vital link between the two professions” of urban painter and theatrical designer. They may not be two professions, however, but one.

· · ·

It would seem that everyone in London wore a costume. From the earliest period the city records reveal the vivid displays of rank and hierarchy, noting garments of coloured stripes and gowns of rainbow hues. When the dignitaries of the city attended the first day of Bartholomew Fair, for example, they were expected to wear “violet gowns, lined,” but the emphasis on colour and effect was shared by all manner of London citizens. In fact in such a crowded city people could be recognised only by their costume, the butcher by his “Blue-Sleeves and Woollen Apron” or the prostitute by “Hood, Scarf and Top-Knot.” That is why at the Fair, when costumes change, all social hierarchy is undermined.

A shopkeeper of the mid-eighteenth century would advertise the traditional worth of his wares “with his hair full-powdered, his silver knee and shoe buckles, and his hands surrounded with the nicely-plaited ruffle.” In the early twentieth century it was noted that the bank messengers and fishboys, waiters and city policemen, still wore mid-Victorian costume as if to display their antique deference or respectability. In any one period of London’s history, in fact, it is possible to detect the presence of several decades in the dress and deportment of those in the streets.

Yet disguise can also be a form of deception; one notorious highwayman escaped Newgate “dressed up as an oyster-girl,” while a character in Humphry Clinker, Matthew Bramble, noticed how mere journeymen in London went around “disguised like their betters.” In turn Boswell delighted in “low” impersonation, dressing up and taking on the role of a “blackguard” or soldier in order to pick up prostitutes and generally to entertain himself in the streets and taverns of the city. Boswell was entranced by London precisely because it allowed him to assume a number of disguises and thus escape from his own identity. There was, as Matthew Bramble had written, “no distinction or subordination left,” which accounts precisely for the combination of egalitarianism and theatricality that is so characteristic of London.


London is truly the home of the spectacle, whether of the living or of the dead. When in 1509 the cadaver of Henry VII was carried along Cheapside, a wax effigy of his royal person, dressed in the robes of state, was placed upon the hearse. The wagon was surrounded by priests and bishops, weeping, while the king’s household of six hundred persons followed in procession with lighted candles. It was the kind of funeral parade at which London has always excelled. The funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852 was no less ornate and sumptuous, and a contemporary account describes the event in highly theatrical terms-“the effect is novel and striking” with the mass of shade relieved by colour, particularly that of “a Grenadier Guardsman, his scarlet uniform strongly contrasting with the sable decorations around him.”

On the arrival of foreign monarchs, or upon the birth of princes, or after news of success in wars, the city decked itself out in colourful pageants. When Catherine of Aragon entered London in 1501 she was greeted by painted wooden castles built upon stone foundations, columns and statues, fountains and artificial mountains, mechanical zodiacs and battlements. It is impossible to overestimate the thirst for spectacle among Londoners through many centuries. When Henry V returned from Agincourt in 1415 he saw two gigantic figures placed upon the entrance to London Bridge; on the bridge itself “were innumerable boys representing the angelic host, arrayed in white, with glittering wings, and their hair set with sprigs of laurel”; the conduit on Cornhill was covered by a pavilion of crimson cloth and, on the king’s approach, “a great quantity of sparrows and other small birds” were set free. At the conduit in Cheapside there were virgins, dressed entirely in white, “who from cups in their hands blew forth golden leaves on the king.” An image of the sun, “which glittered above all things,” was placed upon a throne and “round it were angels singing and playing all kinds of musical instruments.” In succeeding reigns the conduits of Cornhill and Cheapside were arrayed with trees and caves, artificial hills and elaborate streams of wine or milk; the streets themselves were draped with tapestries and cloth of gold. As Agnes Strickland, an early biographer of Elizabeth I, remarked upon these manifestations, “The city of London might, at that time, have been termed a stage.” A German traveller similarly observed that, at the coronation of George IV, the king “was obliged to present himself, as chief actor in a pantomime” while the royal costume “reminded me strikingly of one of those historical plays which are here got up so well.”

There is another kind of drama which seems close to the life of the city. The streets provided a permanent arena, for example, in which any “patterer” or chanting trader could attract an inquisitive audience. The stages of sixteenth-century theatres were built to face the south, so that more light might fall upon the players, but we may imagine the actions and deportment of less professional actors to be similarly lit upon the crowded thoroughfares of London. Historical scenes were dramatised by street performers. There are extant photographs of actors in nineteenth-century street theatre; they seem poor, and perhaps grimy, but they wear spangling tights and elaborate costumes against garishly painted backdrops. In the early twentieth century, too, scenes from the novels of Dickens were played out on open carts on the very sites where those scenes were set.

Dickens may have appreciated such a gesture, since he turned London itself into a vast symbolic theatre; much of his dramatic imagination was formed by visiting the playhouses which abounded in his youth, particularly the penny gaffs and the small theatrical “houses” around the Drury Lane Theatre. In one of them he saw a pantomime and “noticed that the people who kept the shops, and who represented the passengers in the thoroughfares, and so forth, had no conventionality in them, but were unusually like the real thing.” He is adverting to the fact that ordinary Londoners, mainly of the younger generation, paid to be allowed to act in that season’s latest urban drama or pantomime. In Vanity Fair his contemporary, Thackeray, noted two London boys as having “a taste for painting theatrical characters.” In a similar spirit almost every street of London was once the object of dramatic curiosity, from A Chaste Maid of Cheapside to The Cripple of Fenchurch Street, from the Boss of Billingsgate to The Lovers of Ludgate, from The Devil of Dowgate to The Black Boy of Newgate. The audience found in them what they also found in Bartholomew Fair, a theatre which reflected the nature of their lives as well as the nature of the city itself. These plays were generally violent and melodramatic in theme, but that is precisely why they offered a true image of teeming city life.

London life itself could in turn become street theatre, even if it were sometimes of a tragic and inadvertent kind. The poor, and the outcast in particular, can claim no privacy and, as Gissing noted in his novel The Nether World (1889), “their scenes alike of tenderness and of anger must for the more part be enacted on peopled ways” where their shouts and muttered words could plainly be heard.


CHAPTER 14. He Shuld Neuer Trobell the Parish No More

<p>CHAPTER 14. He Shuld Neuer Trobell the Parish No More</p>

Out you rogue, you hedge-bird, you pimp … Does’t so, snotty nose? Good lord, are you snivelling? You were engendered on a she-beggar in a barn.” These lines from Bartholomew Fair evoke something of the flavour of London speech, even if they do not catch its particular accent and intonation.

London speech has been variously described both as harsh and as soft, but the predominant characteristic is that of slackness. W. Matthews, author of Cockneys Past and Present, suggests that “Cockneys avoid movement of the lips and jaw as far as possible”; M. MacBride, author of London’s Dialect, makes the same point, after examining microsegments and terminal contour peaks, nuclei and junctures, by declaring that “the Cockneys avoid, as far as possible, any unnecessary movements of the articulating organs.” In other words, they are lazy speakers. One more obvious point might also be made. If the Cockney voice is indeed “harsh,” it is perhaps because Cockneys have always inhabited a harsh and noisy city where the need to be heard above the roar of “unresting London” is paramount.

There are many famous examples of what became known as Cockney- a “piper” rather than a “paper,” “Eye O pen” rather than “High Holborn,” “wot” not “what.” There are also very familiar constructions-“so I goes … and he goes” is now more common than “so I says … and he says,” but the immediacy is still there. “Innit?” or “Ennit?” are now more favoured than “Ain’t it?,” and memorable phrases such as “’E didn’t ’alf ’it ’er, ’e did” or “You ain’t seen nuffin” or “nuffink” can still be heard in certain regions of the East End. Other Cockneyisms, however, have not survived the middle decades of the twentieth century. “For why?” is uncommon, as is “summut.” Even “blimey” is fading out of discourse. Certain Cockneyisms-familiar perhaps from the novels of Dickens-are now of distant vintage. “Wery” instead of “very,” “wulgar” rather than “vulgar,” are quite out of use, although the device was always more popular in fiction than upon the streets; the same might be said of “Hexcuse” rather than “excuse.” In the early decades of the twentieth century you might hear a stall-keeper shouting out: “Plees to reck-leck [please recollect] that at this ’ere stall you gets …”; but no longer. It would once have been possible to hear the following sentence from a Cockney waiter-“There are a leg of mutton, and there is chops”-but that particular construction appears to have gone out of favour. Some words have simply shifted allegiance; in the mid-nineteenth century Cockneys would tend to employ “Ax” rather than “Ask,” but that ellipsis is now in use predominantly among black Londoners. One construction is still current- “paralysed, like” or “fresh, like”-even though it has been part of the London tongue for at least two centuries. A more substantial point can be made in this context, too, since there is clear evidence that Cockney English has not changed in its essentials for over five hundred years.

Its history is significant, therefore, if only to demonstrate once more the essential continuities of London life. Cockney has always represented an oral rather than a written culture, sustained by an unbroken succession of native speakers, but for many centuries there was no standard London speech. The legacy of the Old English tongue left a variety of identifiable dialects among the citizens of early medieval London; we can trace south-eastern speech, south-western speech and East Midland speech. West Saxon was the language of Westminster, because of the historical connection between the reigning sovereign’s household and Winchester, while the predominant language of the city itself was East Saxon; hence the connections throughout the centuries between the London dialect and the Essex dialect. “Strate” in London was “strete” at Westminster. There was no standard or uniform pronunciation, in other words; it would have differed even from parish to parish.

There were other forms of speech, too, which rendered the language of the city more heterogeneous and polyglot. One linguistic survey of the registers of London English, from the last decade of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fifteenth, reveals a vast range of sources and borrowings. In the previously unstudied archives of London Bridge, generally dealing with the employment of Thames fishermen, there are elements of Old English, Anglo-Norman and medieval Latin as well as Middle Dutch and Middle Low German; this might be considered merely the work of educated clerks transcribing the rough tongue into a more polished and formal style, but in fact all the evidence suggests that there was a truly “mixed” or “macaronic” style caused by “the interaction between different registers of London English.” The author of Sources of London English, Laura Wright, has also pointed out that Londoners “who used French and Latin habitually in their work would in all probability retain the terminology of these languages even when discussing or thinking about their work in English.” We do not need to imagine Thames fishermen, however, speaking classical Latin. Their Latin would have been some form of argot or patois which included terms inherited from the time of the Romans. The addition of French is predictable enough, after the Conquest, when all these tongues became part of the fabric of living speech.

There were, however, broad patterns of change. During the fourteenth century the dominant East Saxon voice of London was displaced by that from the Central and East Midlands; there is no single reason for this shift, although it is likely that over several generations the more wealthy or educated merchant families had emigrated from that region into the city. There was in the same period another essential linguistic change, when this different and apparently more “educated” language inaugurated a slow process of standardisation. By the end of the fourteenth century there had emerged a single dialect, known as “London English,” which in turn became what the editor of the Cambridge History of the English Language calls “modern literary Standard English.” Writing standards were progressively set by the scribes of Chancery, too, with their emphasis upon correctness, uniformity and propriety.

So the East and Central Midland dialect became the language spoken by educated Londoners and increasingly the language of the English generally. What happened, then, to the East Saxon dialect which had previously been the native tongue of the native Londoner? To a certain extent it was displaced but, more importantly, it was demoted. One of the central prejudices against its use lay in the fact that it had always been spoken and rarely, if ever, written down. Thus these “vocal cries” were filled with “Incongruities and Barbarism.” By the sixteenth century this difference between “standard” and what had become “Cockney” English was well enough understood to be the subject of critical attention, but the salient fact was its survival.

The vestry records of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries show that Cockney was not only well established but already exhibited certain permanent features. Thus “the abbot of Westmynster and the monks reprevyed … Mr. Phipp who was chosen constable in which complaint he made appear his imbecility … yt was erecktyde by most voysses … without the least predyges of the paryshe … he wold nott church a woman owt-sept she wold com at vi in the mornyng.” Then there were the double negatives: “he shuld neuer trobell the parish no more … not otherwysse to be ussyd at noo tyme”; in a seventeenth-century stage play this is parodied as “Were you never none of Mister Moncaster’s scholars?” Here again we can hear them talking: “Att this vestry it was ffurder menshoned whether the parishe would be pleased to Accept of Mr. Gardener for to bee a Lecterrer … greytt necklygence of our pyssheners.” In diaries of the sixteenth century, particularly that of Henry Machyn, there are phonetic spellings that catch the very accent and intonation of these early Cockneys: “anodur” for “another” and “alff” for “half.” Vestmynster, Smytfeld, Hondyche and Powlles Cross are mentioned together with Honsley heth and Bednoll Grene. One of Machyn’s entries concerns a sudden bolt of lightning, when “on of servand was so freyd that ys here stod up, and yt wyll never come down synes.” A diligent investigator has also found many devices, used by Cockneys of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which are still familiar; among them are “Stren” instead of “Strand,” “sattisfectory” instead of “satisfactory,” “texes” instead of “taxes,” “towled” instead of “told,” “owlde” instead of “old,” “chynes” not “chains,” “rile” instead of “rail,” “suthe” instead of “south,” “hoathe” instead of “oath,” “orfunt” instead of “orphan,” “cloues” instead of “clothes,” “sawgars” instead of “soldiers,” “notamy” instead of “anatomy,” “vill” instead of “will,” “usse” instead of “house,” “’im” instead of “him.” Certain key words and phrases have also survived the centuries, among them “sav’d ’is bacon,” bouze (drink), poppet (girl), elbow-grease (energy), paw (hand), swop (exchange) and tick (credit). The central point is clear: the Cockney speech of the twenty-first century is in many respects identical to that of the sixteenth century. As an oral tradition, it has never died.

Cockney of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was also reproduced on stage, as well as in written reports, but at this early date it was parodied rather than mocked. Mistress Quickly, the garrulous hostess of the Boar’s Head in East Cheap in the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, might stand as an emblem for the more strident Cockney females. “I was before Master Tisick, the debuty, t’other day; and, as he said to me, ‘twas no longer than Wednesday last, ‘I’ good faith, neighbour Quickly,’ says he; Master Dumbe, our minister, was by then; ‘neighbour Quickly,’ says he, ‘receive those that are civil; for’ said he, ‘you are in an ill name.’” It might be the voice of Mrs. Gamp, almost three centuries later. Shakespeare must have heard these elisions, repetitions and asides whenever he walked through the streets of the city.

Fielding was another wonderful observer of London life in the first decades of the eighteenth century; he heard the voices, too, and reproduced them with great precision. “It would be the hiest preasumption to imagine you eggnorant of my loave. No, madam, I sollemly purtest,” writes Jonathan Wild to an assumed admirer, “… I have not slept a wink since I had the hapness of seing you last; therefore hop you will, out of Kumpassion …”

It is the same accent identified by Smollett at a slightly later date. “Coind sur, Heaving the playsure of meating with you at the ospital of anvilheads [invalids], I take this lubbertea of latin you know …” There is more than humour here; there is also a sense of farce and singularity which in no way condemns the Cockney speakers for their mannerisms. In the same spirit the dramatic vitality and sympathy, to be found in Shakespeare, emerge in these other urban writers. Smollett practised for a while as a surgeon in Downing Street, and Fielding as a judge in Bow Street; they knew all the voices. Their connection with London speech also throws a suggestive light upon the observations of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, writing in his journal of 1826, that for “a man of letters who endeavours to cultivate, however modestly, the medium of Shakespeare and Milton … London must ever have a great illustrative and suggestive value, and indeed a kind of sanctity.”

Writers of a later generation were more concerned with polite taste and the maintenance of “good” English as the medium of enlightenment. In that context the Cockney accent becomes absurd, and deplorable. So, in dramas of the mid-eighteenth century, it is lampooned. “I have heard, good Sir, that every Body has a more betterer and more worserer Side of the Face than the other … It is the onliest way to rise in the world … all them kind of things.” Soon enough there were treatises and educational manuals which condemned the vulgarity and incorrectness of Cockney speech; their prejudice was strengthened with the proliferation of board schools and religious schools where, in the context of national education, the Cockney speaker was considered “uneducated” and illiterate. Since “London English” had become the standard of “proper” English, so in turn the native dialect of London was all the more strongly condemned. It became the mark of error and vulgarity.

The figure of the Cockney, however, never disappeared. The term itself has been considered one of derision. “Cockney” is generally supposed to derive from the medieval term “cokenay” or cock’s egg; in other words an unnatural object or freak of nature. There is another, equally derisory, explanation. A Londoner, on his first visit to the country, is supposed innocently to have asked, “Does a cock neigh too?” But there is also the possibility of more agreeable origins. One historian has suggested that it comes from the Latin term coquina, or “cookery,” and derives from the time when London was considered the great centre of cook-shops. It may also come from the Celtic myth of London as “Cockaigne,” a place of milk and honey, of whom the Cockneys are the true inhabitants. Yet even this origin has been held against them. By the fifteenth century the term was synonymous with “a milksop … an effeminate fellow” and in the sixteenth century was “a derisive appellation for a townsman as a type of effeminacy, in contrast to the hardier inhabitants of the country.” Sometimes he or she seems to be an image of pity, then, as in Dickens’s reproduction of the crossing-sweeper’s conversation-“a sov’ring as waw give me by a lady in a wale as sed she was a servant and as come to my crossin’ one night as asked to be showd this ’ere ouse.” But there are many Cockney characters in Dickens who retain their exuberance and vitality. There is Ikey in “A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle,” from Sketches by Boz, who has the very model of a Cockney manner: “He seed her several times, and then he up and said he’d keep company with her … the young lady’s father he behaved even worser and more unnatural … So then he turns round to me and says … and wasn’t he a trembling, neither.” Dickens was a master of the spoken word and throughout his fiction he evinces his command of the London dialect. It might even be said that the nineteenth century was the one in which Cockneys and Cockneyisms really flourished. They were no longer the city merchants or innkeepers of the seventeenth-century drama or the aspiring (if vulgar) neighbours of the eighteenth-century novel; they were considered to be members of a distinctive and extensive group.

The rise of rhyming slang, for example, can be dated to the first decades of the nineteenth century, when there emerged phrases such as “apples and pears” for “stairs” and “trouble and strife” for “wife.” Back-slang, or the reversal of words, also appeared at this time. Thus is “yob,” for example, slang for “boy.”

In the same century, too, the Cockney fully emerged as an identifiable if not always lovable character. Writers including Pierce Egan, Henry Mayhew and G.A.H. Sala-whose careers span the entire century-copied a recognisable idiom in such phrases as “She’s a bloody rum customer when she gets lushy” or “They doesn’t care nothink for nobody” or “She tipp’d him a volloper right across the snout.”

The literature of Cockney in the nineteenth century is for all practical purposes endless, but it found one specific focus in the language of the music hall. Performers such as Albert Chevalier, Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and Gus Elan gave Cockney idiom artistic form and direction; it allowed the genuine outflow of communal feeling with songs such as “My Shadow is My Only Friend” and “I Wonder What It Feels like to be Poor.” They are the true songs of London. The routines of the “halls” encouraged much elaboration and ingenuity, also, so that it can fairly be said that the standard of Cockney was set by the 1880s. Certainly this was the period that witnessed the emergence of what may still be called modern Cockney.

Its most fastidious exponent was, perhaps, Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle: “There’s menners f’yer. Te-oo banches o’ voylet trod into the mad … Ow eez yee-ooa san, is ’e?” The last sentence-“Oh he’s your son, is he?”- is indicative of Shaw’s skill at phonetic reproduction, but it is not always easy upon the ear or eye. Other examples of twentieth-century Cockney may be more amenable. “The other dye I ‘appened ter pick up a extry ’alf-thick-un throo puttin’ money on my opinyun of the Gran’ Neshnal. Well, nar, the fancy tikin’ me, I drops in on a plice as were a cut above whart I patterinizes as a yooshal thing.” This dates from 1901, and then twenty-one years later we have the following: “Vere was a bloke goin’ dahn Tah’r Bridge Road, an’ ve Decima Stree’ click se’ abaht ’im. Vey dropped ’im one …”

Pronunciations like “relytions” (relations), “toime” (time), “owm” (home), “flahs” (flowers), “inselt” (insult), “arst” (asked), “gorn” (gone), “I done it” (I did it), have become standard. Certain words and phrases have changed. “Smashin’,” for example, has become “blindin’” or “brilliant.” Other words have been retrieved. “Mate” or “mite” went quite out of fashion, but then returned through the intermediary of Australian television soap opera. But in general terms construction and intonation have remained the same. A speaker from the 1960s-“He did not say nothing … so he come in and just as he come in … Right in the corner it was … Of course they was cursing … So-any way-I give one look … I seen them … Them days”-does not differ radically from any Cockney speaker of the early twenty-first century.

One proviso ought to be entered, however. There are still speakers of modern or standard Cockney but among younger Londoners it has become milder or at least more subdued; this may be the result of better formal education, but is perhaps more closely related to the general diminution of local or native dialects as a result of mass “media” communications.

Yet it is still a remarkable record of continuity; native London speech has survived all the incursions of intellectual fashion, educational practice or social disapproval and has managed to retain its vitality after many centuries of growth. Its success reflects, and indeed may even be said to embody, the success of the city itself. Cockney grew, like London, by assimilation; it borrowed other forms of speech, and made them its own. It has taken words from Dutch and Spanish, Arabic and Italian, French and German; it has borrowed the cant of thieves and the argot of prison. Since the city itself has on many occasions been described as a prison, it is fitting that the language of the Cockney should in part be the language of the convict, from “nark” to “copper.” Given the general and persistent violence of London life, also, it is not altogether surprising that the London dialect has taken many words and phrases from the boxing ring including “kisser,” “conk,” “scrap” and “hammer.” Other terms have come from the army and navy, where Cockneys served, and in recent decades Americanisms have also been assimilated. Thus the language thrives.

Cockney has other characteristics which also serve to define the life of the city. It benefits from an extraordinary theatricality; it is filled with a magniloquence and intensity not unconnected to braggadocio. In Machyn’s diaries of the sixteenth century we encounter the same bravura which, with some modifications, can still be heard on the streets of London: “the goodlyest scollers as ever you saw … the greth pykkepus as ever was … ther was syche a cry and showtt as has not byne.” This is also related to the Cockney tendency to mix up, or misunderstand, apparently impressive words in an effort to convince the hearer. A bathroom wall may be “covered in condescension” or an elderly person may suffer from “Alka-seltzer disease.” Other observers have noted such phrases as “Yer a septic … collector of internal residue … jumbo sale … give ’im a momentum when he retires.” The list is endless.

There is a certain cheerfulness and perkiness, too, which is as much a characteristic of the city as of the language. Londoners are fond of proverbs and of catchphrases, and of very harsh oaths which are a combination of comedy, aggression and cynicism. Their tongue has therefore been described as generally “crude and materialistic” but with precisely those characteristics it resembles and reflects the city in which it was fashioned.

Slang and catchphrases are as old as the language itself. The streets of London have always been filled with slogans and catcalls. We can date some as far back as the fifteenth century. “Who put a turd in the boy’s mouth?,” “As bare as a bird’s arse” and “God save you from the rain” are typical examples of street language. There were other expressions which had a specific urban origin. A famous performing horse, Morocco, for example, when asked by its owner to pick out the biggest fool in the audience, chose the comedian and jester Richard Tarleton, whose response, “God a mercy, horse,” ran through London at the end of the sixteenth century. It could be used as a token of any kind of annoyance, but it had a comic touch because of its associations. “Oh good, Sir Robert, knock!” became in the seventeenth century a general cry of reproach among Londoners at some naughty deed; its derivation was the knock of a hammer to stop flagellation in Bridewell.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, too, street slang appears and disappears for no particular reason. The word “quoz” was a great favourite, for example, and was capable of almost any meaning. According to Charles Mackay, in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, it was a mark of incredulity, or hilarity, or condescension. “When a mischievous urchin wished to annoy a passenger, and create mirth for his chums, he looked him in the face and cried out ‘Quoz!’ … Every alehouse resounded with Quoz; every street corner was noisy with it, and every wall for miles around was chalked with it.” It was followed by another favourite phrase of street life, “What a shocking bad hat!,” which was directed at almost anyone of distinctive appearance. This in turn was followed by the single word “Walker!,” which was designed to cause maximum offence and “was uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last.” It was used by young women to deter an admirer, by young boys mocking a drunk, or to anyone impeding the way. It lasted three or four months only, and was replaced by another piece of London slang which lasted an equally short period, “There he goes with his eye out.” This was rivalled in its unfathomability by another popular phrase, “Has your mother sold her mangle?,” which became a customary term of abuse among the Cockney population. Brevity and incomprehensibility are the two marks of popular favour. In the 1830s another phrase, “flare up,” became literally the talk of the town. “It answered all questions and settled all disputes,” Charles Mackay wrote, “… and suddenly became the most comprehensive phrase in the English language.” A man who had spoken out of turn, or who had drunk too much, or had been involved in a quarrel, had consequently “flared up.” Its popularity lasted, again, for a short time, to be followed by “Does your mother know you’re out?,” addressed to anyone who looked a little too pompous or self-satisfied-as in the retort by the cab driver to the peer who resisted the attempt to be charged double.

There are other examples of this continual invention of new words or phrases which seem mysteriously to resound in the streets of London immediately after they have been coined by-who knows whom? It is almost as if they were invented by the city itself, and sent echoing down the alleys and thoroughfares in the litany of London generations: “I can come it slap … Would you be surprised to hear? … Go it! … Immensikoff! … It’s naughty but it’s nice … Whatcher me old brown son … Chase me … Whoa, Emma! … Have a banana … Twiggey-voo! … Archibald, certainly not … There’s a lot of it about it … He’s a splendid performer, I don’t think … Can I do you now, sir … It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going … See you later alligator … Shut that door.” The most recent examples come respectively from music hall, radio and television-television, together with cinema and popular music, now being the most fruitful source of street slang.


The tradition continues, principally because it is an aspect of Cockney humour once known as “chaff.” We hear in the eighteenth century of Londoners being sent into “convulsions” of laughter by prints of a couple yawning after sexual intercourse. The humour could also be of a more personal kind. Steele, in the Spectator of 11 August 1712, tells the story of an eighteenth-century gentleman who was approached by a beggar and politely asked for sixpence so that he might visit a tavern. “He urged, with a melancholy Face, that all his Family had died of Thirst. All the Mob have Humour, and two or three began to take the Jest.” The “Humour” of “the Mob” here consists in the beggar implicitly mocking the gentleman, a form of burlesque which is the most common form of Cockney humour. Chimney-sweeps were dressed up as clergymen; shoe-blacks, “with their footstools on their heads,” were driven around the “ring” of Hyde Park at the precise moment when the fashionable were about to parade. They were levelling distinctions, and parodying wealth or rank. William Hazlitt divined in The Plain Speaker of 1826 that “Your true Cockney is your only true leveller.” He concluded that “Everything is vulgarised in his mind. Nothing dwells long enough on it to produce an interest; nothing is contemplated sufficiently at a distance to excite curiosity or wonder … He has no respect for himself, and still less (if possible) for you. He cares little about his own advantage, if he can only make a jest out of yours. Every feeling comes to him through a medium of levity and impertinence.” This may represent too jaundiced an attitude, however, since the levelling humour is also related to the spirit of “fair play” which was said to be prevalent among the London crowd; one of the great Cockney expressions was “Fair play’s a jewel.” In this spirit the street urchins of the nineteenth century might innocently ask a gentleman, “Is the missus quite well?” Swift remembered a child declaring, “Go and teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

When street scavengers were confronted by the new “street-sweeping machines,” “a brisk interchange of street wit took place, the populace often enough encouraging both sides.” In similar fashion street fights, however spontaneous, took place according to rules well known to the London crowd. The same equalising spirit of London burlesque may also lie behind the permanent affection for cross-dressing among Cockneys. Theatrical transvestism has been prominent in London entertainments for centuries-from Mrs. Noah of the medieval pageants to the latest act in a London “drag” club. When in 1782 the actor Bannister played the character of Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera-itself a great emblem of London-one member of the audience “was thrown into hysterics which continued without intermission until Friday morning when she expired.”


CHAPTER 15. Theatrical City

<p>CHAPTER 15. Theatrical City</p>

Evidence for a Roman theatre, south-west of St. Paul’s, is now very clear; it was located little more than 150 feet east of the Mermaid Theatre, which is situated by Puddle Dock. Further evidence can be found for a theatre at Whitechapel in 1567; it was just beyond Aldgate, with a stage some five feet high and a series of galleries.

This was in turn followed by the erection of the Theatre in the fields of Shoreditch. It was constructed of wood and thatch, well enough designed to merit the description of this “gorgeous playing-place erected in the Fields.” Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were performed here. Certainly it must have proved popular because, a year later, another theatre was built two hundred yards away; it was known as “The Curtain” or, latterly, “The Green Curtain” in deference to the colourful sign painted on its exterior. Theatres, like taverns and shops, were well illustrated to catch the attention of the citizens.

These two early theatres set the standard for those more famous playhouses which play so large a part in Elizabethan cultural history. These playhouses were always outside the walls of the city (unlike the “private” theatre of Blackfriars), and the two theatres in the northern fields were constructed upon land once belonging to Holywell Priory; as the name suggests, there was a “holy well” in the immediate vicinity. It may be that they were deliberately sited close to the location where sacred plays had once been staged. This might also account for the presence of a theatre in the old priory of the Blackfriars. Londoners have always been aware of the topography of their city and its environs, so that on many occasions and in many contexts the same activity can be observed taking place in the same location. The situation of the twelfth-century “theatrum” is not known, but it is at least reasonable to suggest that it lay where the Rose, the Swan and the Globe eventually emerged in the 1580s and 1590s.

There has been speculation about the origins of early theatre architecture, and some have supposed that it was established upon the pattern of the yards of galleried inns where itinerant groups of minstrels or actors would perform. They were known as “inn-playhouses”; there were two in Gracechurch Street, the Bell and the Cross Keys, while another stood on Ludgate Hill. The latter was known as the Belle Sauvage or the Bell Savage and, like the others, soon acquired a distinctly unsavoury reputation. In 1580 an edict from the Privy Council commanded the officers of London “to thrust out the Players from the City” and to “pull down the playing and dicing houses within the Liberties” where the presence of actors encouraged “immorality, gambling, intemperance … Apprentices and Factions.” The theatre, then, may provoke that unrest which seems always to have been present beneath the surface of the city’s life. It also provided occasion for the spread of those terrors of London, fire and disease.

Other theatrical historians have concluded that the true model of the Elizabethan theatre was not the inn-yard but the bear-baiting ring or the cockpit. Certainly these activities were not incompatible with serious drama. Some theatres became bear-rings or boxing rings, while some cockpits and bull-rings became theatres. There was no necessary distinction between these activities, and historians have suggested that acrobats, fencers and rope-dancers could also perform at the Globe or the Swan. Edward Alleyn, the great actor-manager of the early seventeenth century, was also Master of the King’s Bears. The public arena was truly heterogeneous.

The popularity of Elizabethan drama characterises Londoners who attended it, both in their affection for colourful ritual and in their admiration of magniloquence. The taste of the crowd for intermittent violence was amply satisfied by the plays themselves, while the Londoners’ natural pride in the history of their city was recognised in those dramatic historical pageants which were part of the diet of the playhouses. When Shakespeare places Falstaff and his company in East Cheap, he is invoking the life of the city which existed two centuries before. Spectacle and violence, civic pride and national honour, all found their natural home in the theatres of London.

There were, of course, familiar complaints. When Burbage attempted to reopen the theatre of Blackfriars in 1596, the “noblemen and gentlemen” who lodged in the old monastery buildings complained about the “vagrant and lewd persons” who would congregate there; they also declared that “the noise of the drums and trumpets” would hinder church services in the vicinity. When the Blackfriars was eventually reopened, visitors attending plays by Shakespeare or by Chapman were obliged to leave their coaches by the west end of St. Paul’s or by the Fleet conduit, and proceed the rest of the way on foot; this was designed to prevent further tumult.

The Fortune Theatre in Golding Lane, now Golden Lane, was famous for its “inflamations” with “squibs … thunder … artificial lightning.” The costs were a penny for standing room only, twopence for a chair and threepence for “the most comfortable seats which are cushioned.” During the performance, according to Thomas Platter’s Travels in England, “food and drink are carried around the audience.”

During the Puritan Commonwealth the theatres were closed; it was said that the people had seen enough public tragedy and no longer required any dramatic version; instead theatrical entertainments were performed clandestinely or under cover of some other activity. The Red Bull Playhouse in Clerkenwell-only a few hundred yards to the north of Smithfield-remained open for rope-acts and the like, but also managed to make room for “drolleries” and “pieces of plays.” So great was the appetite for these spectacles among ordinary Londoners that one contemporary wrote: “I have seen the Red Bull playhouse, which was a large one, so full, that as many went back for want of room as had entered.” There were continual complaints about plays and actors, even after various inhibitory proclamations of 1642 and 1648, so we may assume that the more spirited Londoners continued to find at least “pieces” of drama.

It might be thought then that the citizens would agree with one of their number, Samuel Pepys, who declared after the Restoration that the theatre was “a thousand times better and more glorious than ever before.” He was referring to the newly licensed theatres of Dorset Gardens and Drury Lane, but the new theatres were nothing like the old; as Pepys went on to remark, “now all things civil, no rudeness anywhere.” The drama had been refined, in other words, in order that it would appeal to the king, the court and those Londoners who shared the same values. Just as the “Cockney” dialect was now being denigrated, so the popular theatre of previous decades was dissolved.

And yet the more “Cockney” Londoners did also manage to attend the new plays; they were not necessarily welcomed in the boxes or the pit with the more prosperous citizens, but they took over the gallery from where they could shout insults or pelt fruit upon both stage and respectable audience. Cockney theatre-goers were only one aspect, however, of the generally partisan and inflammatory aspect of the urban audience. “Claques” would attend in order to cry up, or drown out, the latest production; fights would break out among the gentlemen “of quality,” while there were often riots which effectively concluded all theatrical proceedings. Indeed the riots themselves were somewhat theatrical in appearance. When in the mid-eighteenth century David Garrick proposed to abolish “half-price” seats, for those who entered after the third of five acts (the whole performance beginning at six o’clock in the evening), the day appointed for that innovation found the Drury Lane Playhouse filled with a silent crowd. P.J. Grosley composed A Tour of London in 1772, and set the scene. As soon as the play commenced there was a “general outcry” with “fisty-cuffs and cudgels,” which led to further violence when the audience “tore up the benches of the pit and galleries” and “demolished the boxes.” The lion, which had decorated the king’s box, was thrown upon the stage among the actors, and the unicorn fell into the orchestra “where it broke the great harpsichord to pieces.” In his London Journal of 19 January 1763, Boswell remarks that “we sallied into the house, planted ourselves in the middle of the pit, and with oaken cudgels in our hands and shrill-sounding cat calls in our pockets, sat ready prepared.”

Such behaviour in the capital’s theatres continued well into the nineteenth century. A German traveller of 1827, Prince Pückler Muskau, later caricatured by Charles Dickens as Count Smorltork in The Pickwick Papers, reported that “The most striking thing to a foreigner in English theatres is the unheard-of coarseness and brutality of the audiences.” The “Old Price” riots of 1807 lasted for seventy nights, and the private life of Edmund Kean-accused of being both a drunk and an adulterer-led to four nights of violent rioting in the playhouse of Drury Lane. What was termed “party spirit” did on more than one occasion prompt fights both among the spectators and the players. The presence of foreigners upon the stage was another cause of uproar; when the “Theatre Historique” arrived at Drury Lane from Paris, there was a general rush for the stage. Mobs surrounded the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, in 1805, when a comedy entitled The Tailors caused offence among the fraternity. Professional boxers were brought into the auditorium by rival groups, as early as 1743, in order to slug it out. This was city drama, in every sense. And yet, in the city itself, the real drama was still performed upon the streets.


CHAPTER 16. Violent Delights

<p>CHAPTER 16. Violent Delights</p>

As long as the city has existed there have been entertainers and entertainments, from the street ventriloquists who cast their voices into their hands to the “man with the telescope” who for twopence would allow you to look at the heavens on a summer’s night. Performers balanced on the weathercock of St. Paul’s steeple; there were midnight dog-shows and duels of rats; there were street jugglers and street conjurors, complete with pipes and drum; there were performing bears and performing monkeys dragged through the streets of London upon long ropes. In the late eighteenth century a pedlar exhibited a hare dancing upon a tambourine, while another entertainer displayed “a curious mask of bees on his head and face.” In the early nineteenth century a crowd gathered around a booth labelled “Fantasina,” while children examined a “Kelidascope.” On Tower Hill there was set up an “ingenious contrivance” of many mechanical figures, with the legend “Please To Encourage the Inventor,” while in Parliament Street a donkey pulled along a peep-show entitled “The Battle of Waterloo.” There are now amusement arcades where there were once the windows of print-shops, and instead of the London Zoo there was once a “Menagerie” in Exeter Change along the Strand where the roaring of the beasts reverberated down the thoroughfare and frightened the horses.

There have always been wonders and curiosities. John Stow recorded the minute skills of a blacksmith who exhibited a padlock, key and chain which could be fastened around the neck of a performing flea; John Evelyn reported seeing “the Hairy Woman” whose eyebrows covered her forehead, as well as a Dutch boy who displayed the words “Deus Meus” and “Elohim” on each iris. In the reign of George II, it was announced that “from eight in the morning till nine at night, at the end of the great booth on Blackheath, a West of England woman 38 years of age, alive, with two heads, one above the other … She has had the honour to be seen by Sir Hans Sloane, and several of the Royal Society. Gentlemen and ladies may see her at their own houses as they please.” The advertisement has been taken from a pamphlet entitled Merrie England in the Olden Time. So the unfortunate creature was taken to the London houses of the rich, to be inspected at closer hand. In the early nineteenth century “Siamese twins” were often exhibited, although such “monstrous couplings” had already been shown under other names in other centuries, and in the same period was displayed the “Anatomic Vivante” or “Living Skeleton” who at the height of five feet seven and a half inches weighed less than six stone. At another London exhibition, “the heaviest man that ever lived,” weighing eighty-seven stone, also entertained the curious public. As Trinculo says upon first confronting Caliban, on that enchanted island strangely recalling London, “when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Fleet Street was once the home of London marvels other than those of newspaper “stories.” The playwright Ben Jonson noticed “a new motion of the city of Nineveh, with Jonah and the whale, at Fleet Bridge.” In 1611 “the Fleet Street mandrakes” were on show for a penny. A fourteen-year-old boy, only eighteen inches high, was to be seen in 1702 at a grocer’s shop called the Eagle and Child by Shoe Lane; a Lincolnshire ox, nineteen hands high and four yards long, could be viewed at the White Horse nearby. There was the usual diet of giants and dwarfs; anything out of its due size and proportion was welcome in “disproportion’d London.” There was also much interest excited by “automata” and other mechanical devices, as if they somehow imitated the motions of the city itself. It is curious to learn from the Daily Advertiser of 1742 that at the Mitre Tavern there was exhibited “a most curious Chaise that travels without Horses. This beautiful convenient Machine is so simply contriv’d, and easily manag’d as to travel upwards of forty Miles a Day.”

In Fleet Street, too, were the waxworks. They were first exhibited by Mrs. Salmon, the direct predecessor of Madame Tussaud, at the sign of the Golden Salmon near Aldersgate; as the Spectator pointed out on 2 April 1711, “it would have been ridiculous for the ingenious Mrs. Salmon to have lived at the sign of the Trout.” But she removed to Fleet Street, where her collection of 140 figures was the object of public admiration. On the ground floor of her establishment was a toyshop, selling Punch dolls and cricket bats and chessboards, while on the two upper floors stood replicas of John Wilkes, Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Siddons and other London notables; the sign emblazoned across the house-front read, simply enough, “The Wax Work.” Outside was the pale yellow wax image of Mother Shipton who, on the release of a lever, would kick the unsuspecting pedestrian.

These figures, mobile or immobile, also served an apparently more serious purpose. For many centuries the wax effigies of dead monarchs and statesmen, coloured and “made up,” were exhibited in Westminster Abbey. Where once the effigy of the dead Elizabeth I, carried in procession at her funeral, elicited “general sighing, groaning and weeping,” its decrepit condition in the mid-eighteenth century made her seem “half witch and half ghoul.” Yet the phrase “man of wax” was still in general circulation; it had no disagreeable connotations then but, rather, meant a personage who one day might be granted the honour of display in the Abbey.

Mrs. Salmon herself has long since sunk from view, but the waxworks of Madame Tussaud survive in glory. Curiously enough, wax-workers have always been women, and Madame Tussaud herself can be credited with the invention of what Punch dubbed “the Chamber of Horrors.” The present establishment lies by the equally spectacular Planetarium.


Mayfair is named after the annual fair which took place on the north side of Piccadilly; now only the prostitutes of Shepherd’s Market bring an echo of its past. But Haymarket has retained its old associations. Since the eighteenth century it has been a street of entertainment, from the Cats’ Opera of 1758 to The Phantom of the Opera of the last decade of the twentieth century. In 1747 Samuel Foote, a famous actor and mimic, gave a series of comic lectures at the Haymarket Theatre; in the theatre built upon the same site, in 1992, the comic actor John Sessions gave a very similar performance. The persistent energy of the city has its own momentum which defies rational explication.

It is a city always known for its vivacity and its restlessness. We learn from Thomas Burke’s The Streets of London that the citizens’ “progress through the streets is marked by impetuosity and a constant exertion of strength.” We learn further from Pierre Jean Grosley’s A Tour of London in 1772 that “the English walk very fast; their thoughts being entirely engrossed by business, they are very punctual to their appointments, and those, who happen to be in their way, are sure to be sufferers by it; constantly darting forward, they justle them with a force proportioned to the bulk and velocity of their motion.”

A century later a Parisian traveller noted that throughout London “there surges a bustling thrusting crowd such as our busiest boulevard gives no idea of … the cabs move twice as fast, watermen and ‘bus conductors run a whole sentence to a single word … the last atom of value is extracted from every action and every minute.” Even the entertainments were energetic, and at Greenwich “the rabble of London assemble on Easter Monday and roll down its green side, men and women promiscuously.” Sexual licence and commercial energy are all mixed, to send the citizens whirling forward. A twentieth-century French traveller believed that in London “English legs move with greater velocity than ours. And this whirl carries even the ancient with it.” The “whirl” is part flux and disorder, but it is also an aspect of the ceaseless movement of people, goods and vehicles. Tobias Smollett, in Humphry Clinker, noted only “rambling, riding, rolling, rushing, justling, mixing, bouncing, cracking, and crashing … All is tumult and hurry; one would imagine they were impelled by some disorder of the brain, that will not suffer them to be at rest.” It does indeed on occasions appear to be a kind of fever. Maurice Ash, the author of A Guide to the Structure of London in 1972, when confronted with the continuous “hurrying to and fro,” was tempted to conclude that there is no real business other “than the business of traffic itself”; the city, in other words, represents movement for its own sake. It is reminiscent of the scene of “shooting the bridge” out of George Borrow’s Lavengro when a London boatman fearlessly navigated the rush of water through the middle arch of London Bridge “elevating one of his sculls in triumph, the man hallooing and the woman … waving her shawl.” It is a picture of the intense vitality of London life.

When Southey asked a pastry-cook why she kept her shop open in harsh weather she replied that she would lose much custom, “so many were the persons who took up buns or biscuits as they passed by and threw their pence in, not allowing themselves time to enter.” That pace has hardly slowed in a century, and one of the latest social surveys of London, Focus on London 97, reveals that “the economic activity rates for London have consistently been between 1 and 2 percentage points higher than those for the United Kingdom as a whole.” This infinite motion has continued for more than a thousand years; fresh and ever renewed, it still partakes of antiquity. That is why the “whirl” and business of the streets comprise only an apparent disorder, and some observers have noticed a central rhythm or historical momentum which propels the city forward. This is the mystery-how can the endless rush itself be eternal? It is the riddle of London, which is perpetually new and always old.


There are days of rest, however, even in the turbulent city. It has often been remarked that Sunday is dreariest in London, of all cities, perhaps because restfulness and silence do not come easily or naturally to it. It was not always so. Londoners have characteristically used their holidays or holy days for “violent delights.” From the early medieval period there have been archery and jousting, bowls and football-as well as the “hurling of Stones and Wood and Iron”-but the taste of the London crowd could also be less healthful. There were cock-fights and boar-fights, bull-baiting, bear-baiting and dog-baiting. The bears were given affectionate names, such as “Harry Hunks” or “Sacherson,” but the treatment of them was vicious. One visitor to Bankside, in the early seventeenth century, watched the whipping of a blind bear “which is performed by five or six men, standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy, as he cannot escape from them because of the chain: he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them.” In the late seventeenth century we read of horse-baiting at Bankside where several dogs were set upon a “great horse”; it defeated its persecutors but then “the Mobile [mob] in the house cryed out it was a cheat, and thereupon began to untyle the house, and threatened to pull it quite down, if the Horse were not brought again and baited to death.” This was the sport of the London crowd.

Bulls were baited with dogs, also, but they were sometimes maddened by having peas placed in their ears, or fireworks stuck on their backs. In the eighteenth century there was bullock-hunting in Bethnal Green, badger-baiting in Long Fields by the Tottenham Court Road, and ferocious wrestling matches at Hockley-in-the-Hole. This area, just across the Fleet from Clerkenwell, was one of the most dangerous and unruly in all London where “all sorts of rough games” were provided.

The more respectable seventeenth-century citizens were not necessarily amused by these diversions. Instead there were healthful “walks” in a number of carefully planned and plotted public areas. By the early seventeenth century Moorfields had been drained and laid out, creating “upper walks” and “lower walks,” and a few years later Lincoln’s Inn Fields were also designed for “common walks and disports.” “Grays Inn Walks” were highly favoured and Hyde Park, although still a royal park, was open to the public for horse-racing and boxing. St. James’s Park was designed a little later; here, in the words of Tom Brown, a contemporary journalist, “The green Walk afforded us varieties of discourses from persons of both sexes … disturbed with the noisy milk folks-crying-A Can of Milk, Ladies; A can of Red Cow’s Milk, Sir.”

But the true “nature” of London is not shrubbery or parkland, but human nature. At night beneath the shade of the trees, according to the Earl of Rochester, “Are buggeries, rapes and incests made” while Rosamond’s Pond on the south-west side of St. James’s Park became notorious for suicides.

In Spring Gardens were a bowling green and butts for target practice. In the New Spring Gardens, later Vauxhall Gardens, there were avenues and covered walks. Small green refreshment huts sold wine and punch, snuff and tobacco, sliced ham and quartered chicken, while ladies of doubtful morals sauntered among the trees with gold watches dangling from their necks as a token of their trade. The apprentices and their girls would visit Spa Fields in Clerkenwell or the Grotto Gardens in Rosoman Street, where they were encouraged to consume tea or ices or alcohol, to the accompaniment of song, music and generally “low” entertainment.

Much of that vigour has now vanished. The parks are now characteristically restful places within the noise and uproar of London. They attract those who are unhappy or ill at ease. The idle and the vagrant sleep more easily beneath the trees, together with those who are simply exhausted by the city. London parks have often been called the “lungs” of the city, but the sound is that of sleep. “It being mighty hot and I weary,” Pepys wrote on 15 July 1666, “lay down upon the grass by the canalle [in St. James’s Park], and slept awhile.” It is a world of weariness which Hogarth depicted in an engraving that shows a London dyer and his family return from Sadler’s Wells. The landscape behind them is one of sylvan charm but they are returning on the dusty road to the city. The plump and pregnant wife is dressed according to city fashion, and sports a fan with a classical motif upon it; but she is pregnant because she has cuckolded her husband, and the man himself looks tired and dejected as he carries an infant in his arms. Their two other children fight, and their dog looks at the canal which takes water from Islington into the conduits of London. Everything denotes heat and enervation, as an expedition out of London comes to its inevitable end. In more recent days, too, exhausted and fretful citizens still come back to London from their “outings” like prisoners returning to gaol.


CHAPTER 17. Music, Please

<p>CHAPTER 17. Music, Please</p>

By the middle of the nineteenth century the pleasure gardens were outmoded, and their legacy lay in the concert rooms which sprang up within the city. In 1763 it was advertised that in the “great room” of Spring Gardens the seven-year-old Mozart would be seen “playing the Harpsichord in a Perfection it surmounts all … Imagination.” But formal music-making was not the only music of London. London’s arias and laments began with the first street trader and have continued ever since. It has often been noted that the “low” culture of the native Londoner can revitalise and refashion the forces of traditional culture. The spectacle of the infant Mozart playing in a music room is complemented by Handel’s remark that “hints of his very best songs have several of them been owing to the sounds in his ears of cries in the streets.” In the city, “high” and “low” are inextricably mingled.

We hear the merchants of medieval Cheapside, singing out in London Lickpenny with “Strabery ripe” and “Cherryes in the ryse.” “Here is Parys thred, finest in the land … Hot shepe’s feete … Makerell … ryshes grene!” The costermonger sold “Costards!,” which were big apples, but in later centuries the “coster,” with his horse and cart, cried out, “Soles, oh! … Live haddick … Ee-ee-eels alive, oh! … Mackareel! mack-mack-mackareel!” So it continued, down other streets and other centuries. “Pretty Maids Pretty Pins Pretty Women … Buy My Great Eeels … Diddle Diddle Diddle Dumplens Ho … Any Card Matches or Savealls … Buy any Wax or Wafers … Old Shoes for Some Brooms … Buy a Rabbit a Rabbet … Buy a Fork or Fire Shovel … Crab Crab Crab any Crab … Buy my fat Chickens … Old Chairs to mend … Any Kitchen Stuff Have You Maids … 4 Pair For A Shilling Holland Socks … Buy My 4 Ropes of Hard Onyons … Any Work for John Cooper … New River Water.”

Volumes have been written about these London cries, and we also have images of the tradespeople who uttered them. This identification was another way of deciphering the chaos of the city and of creating out of the poor or “lower order” a gallery of characters. The seller of cod, for example, wears an old apron, while the vendor of shoes sports a cape. The seller of dried hake carries the basket of that commodity upon her head, but the vendor of oranges and lemons carries her bounty at her waist. The Irish were known to sell rabbits and milk, the Jews old clothes and hare-skins, the Italians looking-glasses and pictures. The old woman selling fire-shovels dresses herself in an old-fashioned cone-shaped hat as a representation of the wintry months. Countrywomen entering the metropolis to sell their wares characteristically wore red cloaks and straw hats, while the countrymen wove flowers in their hair. Those who sold fish were generally the poorest, while women selling clothes were the most smartly dressed.

Yet the clothing of most street vendors bears the unmistakable mark of destitution, with worn and tattered dresses or coats. Many of these tradespeople were crippled or deformed and, as the editor of Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life, Sean Shesgreen, has noted, “If they give one impression more than any other, it is a care-worn melancholy.” Laroon’s portraits are distinctly individual, unlike “types” or categories, and in his art we can see the lineaments of specific fate and circumstance. The distinctive features he depicted in the 1680s remain the silent token of many generations who have walked crying through the streets of the city.

Even as the poor trader died-or left some scanty stock to another-his or her cry was taken up like an echo. It was certainly true that, as Addison wrote in 1711, “People know the Wares they deal in rather by their Tunes than by their Words.” The words were often indistinct or indistinguishable: the mender of old chairs was recognised by his low and melancholy note, while the retailer of broken glass specialised in a sort of plaintive shriek quite appropriate to his goods. But even the music itself might become confused and confusing. The vendor of shrimps could adopt the same tune as the vendor of watercress, and potatoes were sold with the same cry as that of cherries.

There was also in the passage of years, or centuries, the steady clipping or abbreviation of jargon. “Will you buy any milk today, mistress” became “Milk maids below,” then “Milk below,” then “Milk-o” and, finally, “Mieu” or “Mee-o.” “Old clothes” became “Ogh clo” or “owld clo.” “Salted hake” became “Poor Jake” or “Poor Jack”; then “Poor John” became the recognisable phrase for the vendors of dried cod. The chimney-sweep’s cry became “’we-ep” or “’e-ep” and Pierce Egan, author of Life in London, recalled “one man from whom I could never make out more than happy happy happy now.”

As London grew larger and noisier, the cries became louder-perhaps, even, more desperate and more hysterical. From a distance of half a mile, they were a low, steady and continuous roar much like a fall of water; they became a Niagara of voices. But in the middle of the city, they were a great turmoil of notes. London to foreign observers was “a distracted City” and Samuel Johnson noted that “The attention of a new-comer is generally first struck by the multiplicity of the cries that stun him in the street.” Stun, stunner, stunning-it is a true London word. As the print salesman said of his wares placed in an upturned umbrella-“It’ll show stunnin’, and sell as yer goes.”

The cries of the street-seller were joined by those of the “common criers” who announced such items of public news as “If any man or woman can tell any tydyngs of a grey mare, with a long mane and a short tayle …” There were the shopkeepers of Cheapside, Paternoster Row, East Cheap and a hundred other localities calling out continually “What do you lack … Will you buy …” The cry of the “mercury-women,” “Londons Gazette here,” was eventually superseded by that of the newsboy with his “Pa-a-par! ainy of the mornin’ pipers.” The horn of the sow-gelder plying his trade mingled with the bell of the dustman and the sound of the “Twancking of a brass Kettle or a Frying-pan” together with the myriad and unending sounds of the London traffic.

Today, street markets are still alive with chatter and patter; most of the cries have vanished, although even in the twenty-first century you might still hear the bell of the muffin-man or the horn of the knife-grinder and see the pony-and-trap of the “any-old-iron” or rag-and-bone man. There were also the barrow man with “Shrimps and winkles all alive-o,” the lavender seller, and the “lilywhite” celery and watercress man who cried out, “’Ere’s yer salory and watercreases.”


In the past there were also the ballad-singers and the street patterers and the peripatetic vocalists and the almanac vendors and the “flying stationers” who would take up their pitch on any corner and sell single sheets on juicy murders or fashionable songs.

Perhaps the oldest form was the broadside, a sheet printed on one side which bore the latest news and the newest sensations. From the earliest years of the sixteenth century this was the language of the street-“Sir Walter Raleigh His Lamentations! … Strange News from Sussex … No Natural Mother But a Monster …” Alongside these “headlines,” as they might appropriately be called, were such broadside ballads as “A Maydens Lamentation For A Bedfellow Or I Can Nor Will No Longer Lye Alone … The Mans Comfortable Answer To The Mayden … This Maid Would Give Ten Shillings For A Kiss.” These were the songs which were shouted down the streets and pasted on the walls. Their vendors did not expect to get paid for their voices but, instead, drew a crowd and then sold their wares for a halfpenny a sheet. There was of course an especial delight in “Last Dying Speeches” sold to the crowd at the very moment of execution by “flying patterers” otherwise known as “death hunters.” In a city which lived upon rumour, sensation and sudden alterations of mass feeling, the crying out of news and the singing of popular ballads were the perfect forms of communication. The politic John Dryden was not able to compete with the political ballad, “Lillibullero,” which outsold him in every sense, and another balladeer wrote: “Dryden thy Wit has catterwauld too long,/Now Lero Lero is the only song.” Songs, like slogans and catchphrases, could sweep through the streets for days or weeks before being utterly forgotten.

Then new songs, together with an old ballad for company, would in turn become part of a “long song” which comprised several ballads printed together on a roll of paper. They might also come into the hands of the “pinner up” who fastened many hundreds of ballads on iron railings or an area of “dead wall.” In the 1830s some eight hundred yards of wall on the south side of Oxford Street were used to display these song-sheets, until the arrival of shops and shop-fronts transformed the thoroughfare.

Yet some ballads retained their individual popularity for many years. “Willikins and his Dinah,” “Billy Barlow” and “The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter” remained great favourites with the London crowd-the pretty daughter of the rat-catcher herself having “such a sweet loud voice, sir,/You could hear her all down Parliament Street/And as far as Charing Cross, sir.” She was representative of those itinerant street-performers whose lives were often as pathetic and terrible as the ballads they sang. They performed mainly in the evening, sometimes accompanied by a flute or a cracked guitar, and were to be found upon every corner from the Strand to Whitechapel. Charles Dickens recalled his encounter with one such “itinerant singer” by the Upper Marsh on the south side of the river-“Singing! How few of those who pass such a miserable creature as this, think of the anguish of heart, the sinking of soul and spirit, which the very effort of singing produces!”

The ballad-singer had as a counterpart in the London streets the “running patterer” who cried out the romances and tragedies of the day. Henry Mayhew described their activities in his usual laconic style: “It is … a ‘mob’ or ‘school’ of the running patterers (for both these words are used) and consists of two, three or four men. All these men state that the greater the noise they make, the better the chance of sale.” They would often take up positions in different parts of the street and pretend to vie with each other for attention, thus heightening interest in the latest crime, murder, elopement or execution. Once again, the requisite in the city is sheer volume of noise.

Commotion and rumour are certainly more important than “truth,” if that commodity can ever actually be found in London, and the patterer often supplied his auditors with “cock”-politely described as a “pleasing fiction”-which was then sold as a “catchpenny.” The offender was known as a “cock-crower” and sometimes advertised his false wares with a lurid picture, often incorporating the London motifs of blood and flame mounted upon a pole.

It would be unfair to scorn these products of native art. Joshua Reynolds confessed that he borrowed a motif from a woodcut he had found pinned to a dead wall; Walter Scott studied street literature, chapbooks and ballads to stimulate his interest in folk myth and history. It is important to emphasise once again how Cockney taste can enter and animate a more “refined” cultural tradition.


The voices of the running patterers and the itinerant singers were invariably joined by the often discordant airs of the street musicians. Hector Berlioz, visiting London in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote that “no city in the world” was consumed so much by music; despite his profession, he was concerned less with the melodies of the concert hall than with those of the barrel-organ, the barrel-piano, the bagpipes and the drums which filled the streets. As Charles Booth noted in his survey of the East End, “let a barrel organ strike up a valse at any corner and at once the girls who may be walking past, and the children out of the gutter, begin to foot it merrily. Men join in sometimes, two young men together as likely as not,” while an appreciative crowd watched the dancing.

There were German bands, as well as Indian drummers and blacked-up “Abyssians” who played violin, guitar, tambourine and castanets; there were glee singers, and minstrels (generally a couple) who could be heard crooning “Oh where is my boy tonight?” and “Will you meet me at the Fountain?” In the 1840s there was a blind musician who played the violoncello with his feet, and a crippled trumpeter who drove around in a dog-cart.

The cacophony was immense and yet, in one of those gradual but necessary transitions of London life, most of it has passed away leaving only buskers to entertain cinema queues and inventive players of illegal music in the underpasses of London’s transport system.


CHAPTER 18. Signs of the Times

<p>CHAPTER 18. Signs of the Times</p>

An eighteenth-century traveller remarked that “if towns were to be called after the first words which greeted a traveller on arrival, London would be called Damn it!” At the beginning of the twentieth century it would have been called “Bloody” and today “Fuckin’.”

“Fucking” is one of the longest-serving terms of abuse, having been heard on the London streets since the thirteenth century, and it is perhaps no surprise that the prevalent adjective applied to the language of Londoners is “disgusting.” The “disgust” is a response to that undertow of violence and anger which exemplifies life in the city, while such miseries as sexual abuse may have testified to the distaste which Londoners have had for their own fallen and once dirty condition. Contemporary standards of hygiene and more liberal sexual mores have not, however, materially diminished the “fucking” and “cunts” heard in the street. Perhaps modern Londoners are simply mouthing the words which the city itself has bequeathed to them.

In this context the obscene gesture should not be forgotten. In the sixteenth century a biting of the thumb represented aggression; this in turn led to the hat being cocked backwards and, in the late eighteenth century, “by a jerk of the thumb over the left shoulder.” The thumb then moved to the tip of the nose to represent contempt, and by the twentieth century two fingers were raised in the air as a “V” sign. The arm and elbow were then employed in an upward thrust to suggest derision.

The hand gestures of the street could also be free of sexual innuendo. There was once, everywhere, a pointing hand on the palm of which a destination was offered-“please to go this way,” whether to an eating-house or a toyshop. London was a city of signs. In 1762, according to Jenny Uglow’s Hogarth, the “Society of Sign Painters” announced a “Grand Exhibition” of its products, and in some rooms off Bow Street were exhibited “Keys, Bells, Swords, Poles, Sugar-Loaves, Tobacco Rolls, Candles,” all the “ornamental Furniture, carved in Wood.” It was meant as a reproof to the more tasteful productions of the Society of Arts, but its comic variety was also a testimony to an ancient but still living tradition of street art.

Once a pole draped with red rags was the emblem of the barber-surgeon who was permitted to bleed customers on his premises, the pole itself a token of the wooden rod which the customer held to keep his arm steady. The red rag later turned into a red stripe, until it became the customary barber’s pole of succeeding centuries. Almost every house, and certainly every trade, had its own sign so that the streets of the city were a perpetual forest of painted imagery: “Floure de Lice … Ravyns Head … Corniyshe coughs … The Chalice … The Cardinal’s Hat.” There were images of chained bears and of rising suns, of sailing ships and angels, of red lions and golden bells. There were also simple tokens of residence. Mr. Bell, for example, might hang the sign of a bell outside his house. But there were also well-known, if somewhat surprising, conjunctions in pub signs such as the Dog and Gridiron or the Three Nuns and a Hare. There were unusual attributions, too. As Addison pointed out, “I have seen a Goat set up before the Door of a Perfumer, and the French King’s Head at a Sword-Cutlers’s.” Tom Jones, in Henry Fielding’s novel of that name, takes up the litany: “Here we saw Joseph’s Dream, the Bull and Mouth, the Hen and Razor, the Ax and Bottle, the Whale and Crow, the Shovel and Boot, the Leg and Star, the Bible and Swan, the Frying Pan and Drum.” Adam and Eve represented a fruiterer, while the horn of a unicorn symbolised the shop of an apothecary; a bag of nails denoted an ironmonger, a row of coffins a carpenter. A sign of male and female hands conjoined might sometimes be completed by the message “Marriages performed within.”

It was a question of reading the street, of making the right associations and connections in an environment which needed a thorough decoding to mitigate its chaos and variety. Interpretative tracts, such as the elegantly titled Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, were also published. In 1716 John Gay gave best expression to the situation, however, in “The Art of Walking The Streets in London”-a theme taken up by many writers-with his portrait of a stranger who “dwells on ev’ry Sign, with stupid Gaze/Enters the narrow Alley’s doubtful Maze.”

There were also signs and plaques carved into the stone of London’s buildings. Small tablets marked newly laid-out streets-“This is Johns Street Ano Dom 1685”-while corporate heraldry was employed in the “arms” of a district or company affixed to various buildings; the symbol of St. Marylebone contains lilies and roses, because these were the flowers found in the grave of St. Mary after whom the district is named. At a later date even the lowly coal-hole covers were richly decorated, so that those who preferred to look down upon the ground were still assaulted by symbols of dogs and flowers. A nailed hoop upon a door or wall denoted the presence of fresh paint, while a small bouquet of straw meant that building work was taking place in the vicinity.

The city is indeed a labyrinth of signs, with the occasional but unnerving suspicion that there may exist no other reality than these painted symbols which demand your attention while leading you astray. As one commentator said of the modern and brilliantly illuminated Piccadilly Circus, “it is a wonderful sight-unless you can read.”

The signs of the city were distracting in another sense. They hung out so far from the wall that they touched those on the opposite side of the street, and they were sometimes so large that they blocked out sight of the sky. They could also be dangerous; they were meant to be placed at least nine feet above the level of the pavement, so that a horse and rider could pass beneath, but the regulation was not always obeyed. They were very heavy and there were occasions when the weight of sign and leaden support was too great for the wall to which they were fixed-one “front-fall” of this kind in Fleet Street injured several people and killed “two young ladies, a cobbler, and the king’s jeweller.” On windy days in the capital, the noise was ominous, their “creaking Noise” a sure sign of impending “rainy Floods.” So, in the same years as the exhibition of street signs off Bow Street, the city authorities concluded that they had become an impediment to the ever increasing traffic of the streets and ordered that they be taken down. Ten years later came street numbers.

But all colour was not lost. The passion for street art simply changed its form, with the expansion of advertising. There had always been posters wrapped around the wooden posts of the street to publicise the latest auction or the latest play, but only after the demise of street signs did other forms of public art properly emerge. By the early nineteenth century London had “grown wondrously pictorial” with a variety of papier-mâché ornaments or paintings placed in shop windows to denote the trade of the occupant. An essay in The Little World of London, entitled “Commercial Art,” lingers pleasurably on these objets d’art. Many coffee houses had a symbol of loaf and cheese together with cup; fishmongers painted the walls of their premises with “a group of fish in the grand style” all variously and picturesquely coloured, while grocers specialised in “conversation pieces” which portrayed various benevolent London matrons “assembled round the singing kettle or the simmering urn.” Boots, cigars and sealing wax, in gigantic form, were also suspended over the doors of various premises, while the destruction of Pompeii seemed a fitting advertisement for a patent cockroach exterminator.

One great innovation of the nineteenth century was the advertising hoarding, and in some of the earliest photographs of London they can be seen lining the streets and the new railway stations offering everything from Pear’s Soap to the Daily Telegraph. Advertising was in that sense very much part of the ideal of “progress,” since the hoardings themselves had first been erected to protect the streets from the myriad building sites and railway improvements. Once posters had been enlarged to cover these wooden frames, then advertising images appropriate to the city itself-large, gaudy, colourful- began to emerge. There were certain popular sites, among them the north end of Waterloo Bridge and the dead wall beside the English Opera House in North Wellington Street. Here, according to Charles Knight’s London, could be found “rainbow-hued placards vying in gorgeous extravagance of colour with Turner’s last new picture … pictures of pens, gigantic as the plumes in the casque of the Castle of Otranto … spectacles of enormous size … Irishmen dancing under the influence of Guinness’s Dublin Stout.”

“A London Street Scene,” painted by J.O. Parry in 1833, could serve as an introduction to any street scene over the last two centuries. A small blackened sweep-boy looks up in admiration as a poster for a new performance of Otello is placed over one advertising John Parry in The Sham Prince; there is a bill proclaiming “Mr. Matthews-At Home,” “Tom amp; Jerry-The Christening-!!!!!!” and a narrow strip asking “Have You Seen The Industrious Fleas?” Thus the walls of the city become a palimpsest of forthcoming, recent and old sensations.

On a dead wall today, close to where I am now writing this book, and not far from the site of the 1833 painting, can be seen posters for “Armageddon,” “To Heathrow in Fifteen Minutes,” “Mr. Love Pants Is Coming,” “Meltdown ’98 Festival,” “Drugstore-Sober-New Single Available,” “Apostle” and “The Girl With Brains In Her Feet.” More mysterious advertisements suggest that “There’s A Revolution In Sight,” that “The Magic Is Closer Than You Think,” and that “Nothing Else Moves Me.”

“Peripatetic placards” appeared on the streets in the 1830s. These were such a novel phenomenon that Charles Dickens interviewed one and, by describing him as “a piece of human flesh between two slices of pasteboard,” created the phrase “sandwich man.” George Scharf drew many of them, from a small boy in surtout overcoat holding a barrel inscribed “Malt Whiskey John Howse” to an old woman holding up a sign for “Anatomical Model of the Human Figure.”

Then in characteristic London fashion the single placard-carriers were put together in order to create a kind of pageant or pantomime; a group of them were placed inside paste models of blacking pots, for example, and paraded in line to advertise the efficacy of “Warrens Blacking, 30 Strand,” the very place where Dickens himself began his tortuous London childhood. Then arrived the advertisement as the horse-drawn gig, surmounted by an enormous hat or an Egyptian obelisk. The search for novelty was always intense and the passion for posters blossomed into the “electric advertisements” of the 1890s when “Vinolia Soap” was hailed in illuminated letters above Trafalgar Square.

Advertisements in lights soon began to move; at Piccadilly Circus could be seen a red crystal bottle pouring port into a waiting glass, and a car with turning silver wheels. Soon they were everywhere-above the ground, under the ground, and in the sky. The plethora of advertising in London helped fashion Huxley’s vision of the future city in Brave New World where above Westminster “The electric sky-signs effectively shut off the outer darkness. ‘Calvin Stopes and His Sixteen Sexophonists.’” Buses of the twenty-first century, perhaps beyond the purview of dystopian fiction, are now plastered with gaudy images like the pageant wagons of medieval London.


The pavement artists have had a less glorious career in the city. They commenced their work only when the streets were paved with stone rather than cobbles, and in that sense theirs is a recent London profession. There was a time when beggars scrawled their messages of supplication upon the stones- “Can You Help Me Out” being a favourite expression-but the pavement artist supplied a variant in the 1850s with the chalked words “All My Own Work” or “Every Little Helps. I thank you.” These street artists, or “screevers” as they were once called, had their own particular pitches. The corners of fashionable squares were considered to be ideal territory but Cockspur Street and the site opposite Gatti’s restaurant in the Strand were favoured locales. There was also a line of such street artists along the Embankment, with twenty-five yards between each pitch. Many of these “screevers” were demoralised artists whose orthodox work had not prospered-Simeon Solomon’s career as a Pre-Raphaelite painter had been applauded, for example, but he ended up as a pavement artist in Bayswater. Others were the homeless or unemployed who realised that they had a talent for the job; it required only coloured chalks and a duster, and a scene or portrait could be conjured upon the stone. Some specialised in portraits of contemporary politicians, or of sentimental domestic situations; one artist painted religious scenes along the Finchley Road, while in the Whitechapel Road another specialised in scenes of fire and burning houses. In all cases, however, they satisfied the taste of London by painting in the crudest and most garish tones, although by curious association they are related to the night sky above the city. In The Highways and Byways of London, Mrs. E.T. Cook reported that the sky behind the artists’ lodging houses in Drury Lane or Hatton Garden would often be robed “in intense hues of orange, purple and crimson” as if mimicking their colours. George Orwell, in Down and Out in Paris and London, recalls the conversation of one screever, Bozo, whose pitch was close to Waterloo Bridge. He was walking with Orwell back to his lodgings in Lambeth, but was all the time looking up at the heavens. “Say, will you look at Aldebaran! Look at the colour. Like a-great blood orange … Now and again I go out at night and watch the meteors.” Bozo had even engaged in correspondence with the Astronomer Royal on the subject of the sky above London, so that for a moment the city and the cosmos were intimately connected in the life of one wandering artist of the street.


But no account of London art can be complete without the history of its graffiti. One of the first is a curse by one Londoner upon two others, written in a Roman hand-Publius and Titus were “hereby solemnly cursed.” It is matched by a late twentieth-century graffito recently recorded by the contemporary London novelist Iain Sinclair, “TIKD. FUCK YOU. DHKP,” and suggests a characteristic of London street-writing. “For the stone shall cry out of the wall,” according to Habakkuk 2:11, and in London the cries are frequently those of anger and hostility. Many are entirely personal, with no meaning except to the one who carved or sprayed the words upon a wall, and remain the most enigmatic features of the city; one moment of anger or loss has been inscribed upon its surface, to become part of the chaos of signs and symbols which exist all around. Outside Paddington station can be found “Fume” everywhere together with “Cos,” “Boz” and “Chop.” “Rava” can be seen upon the bridges of the south bank. “Great Redeemer, People’s Liberator” adorned Kentish Town Station in the 1980s. “Thomas Jordan cleaned this window, and damn the job, I say-1815” was written on an ancient window and on a London wall a Thomas Berry scribbled “Oh Lord, cut them with thy sword.” As one exponent of the art of graffiti put it to Iain Sinclair, “If you’re going to be around the city all the time, you’d better put your name up,” which is the reason why people over many centuries have simply written down their names or initials on any tractable surface with the occasional amendment of “was here” or more frequently “woz ’ere.” It is a way of asserting individuality, perhaps, but it becomes immediately part of the anonymous texture of London; in that sense graffiti are a vivid token of human existence in the city. They may be compared to footprints or handprints, laid into cement, which become part of the city’s fabric. Hand impressions have been found in Fleet Road, Hampstead, as mysterious and poignant as symbols carved on ancient stones.

Sometimes graffiti have a relevance to the immediate locality-“James Bone is a bad kisser” or “Rose Maloney Is A Thief”-where they serve as silent messages, the written equivalent of drum-taps in the jungle. But there are also more general admonitions. In one of his prose works Thomas More quotes a fifteenth-century slogan written upon many walls-“D.C. hath no P”-which can perhaps be deciphered with the help of More’s summary that it “toucheth the readiness that woman hath to fleshly filth, if she fall in drunkenness.” One may surmise that D.C. denotes “drunken cunts” but the “P” is mysterious.

Any particular year, over the last thousand, will provide its own litany of curses, execrations and imperatives. In 1792, for example, these were some of the graffiti: “Christ Is God … No Coach Tax! … Murder Jews … Joanna Southcott … Damn the Duke of Richmond! … Damn Pitt!” In 1942 the most prominent graffiti remained “Strike in the West Now!,” and in the later part of the century the two most formidable slogans were “George Davis Is Innocent” and “No Poll Tax.” The city seems almost to be speaking to itself by means of these messages, in a language both vivid and cryptic. Some recent graffiti have been more reflective in tone-“Nothing Lasts” painted upon a brick wall, “Obedience Is Suicide” upon a bridge in Paddington, “The Tigers of Wrath Are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction” inscribed above “Rangers,” “Aggro,” “Boots” and “Rent Revolt” on the corner of Basing Street, Notting Hill Gate-the last being a potent example of the phenomenon of clustering. A wall may remain inviolate for many years but, as soon as one graffito is placed upon it, others ineluctably follow in competitive or aggressive display. Aggression can often be associated with sexuality. Many of these messages have an anonymous sexual intent which suggests isolation as well as desire-“Oh please don’t cane me too hard master … 23/11 I am 30 I have a/place at Victoria SW/I love dressing up I am wearing/pink panties now.”

The proper locale for these harsh and impersonal messages of love is, naturally enough, the public lavatory. It has become the principal source of all urban graffiti; here, in confinement and secrecy, the Londoner speaks to the entire city with words and signs that are as old as the city itself. One attendant told Geoffrey Fletcher, the author of The London Nobody Knows, that “the lavatory in Charing Cross Road was the place to go if you want the writing on the wall … make your blood run cold, it would.” In fact London lavatories have been notorious for centuries, and in 1732 Hurlo Thrumbo printed at Bethlehem Wall, Moorfields, a compilation entitled The Merry Thought or the Glass window and Bog House Miscellany. We may extract from these some of the more salient and, perhaps, immortal epigrams. From the “bog-houses” of Pancras Wells comes

Hither I came in haste to shit


But found such excrements of wit


That to shew my skill in verse


Had scarcely time to wipe my arse.

There then ensues a dialogue or chorus of other costive notes in which “write” is frequently rhymed with “shite” and “London” with “undone.” The anonymous authors’ clothing is “undone,” literally, in the London “bog-house”; but perhaps there is also a more plaintive suggestion that they have themselves been “undone” in London. From the “bog-house” by the Temple comes

No hero looks so fierce in fight


As does the man who strains to shite

and upon a tavern wall in Covent Garden

There’s nothing foul that we commit


But what we write and what we shit.

Sometimes there is a grand riposte to this city scatology. “It is the vanity of degenerates,” one Londoner inscribed, “to write their names here.”

The other principal source of London graffiti has always been the prison house, from the inscription of Thomas Rose upon the wall of the Beauchamp Tower in the Tower of London-“Kept close/By those to whom he did no wrong. May 8th, 1666”-to the cell of a modern prison where one inmate has written “You may be guilty/But what must this/be like for those/who are not.” These men also have been undone in London. Thomas Mehoe writes in 1581: “bi-tertvre-strange-my-trouth-was-tryed-yet-of-my-libertie-denied,” with words painfully but carefully inscribed with an iron nail. They are still preserved within the Tower, and in that ancient prison are many carvings, crosses, skeletons, death-heads and hour-glasses carved as tokens or symbols of suffering. There are words which are supposed to provide comfort-“Hope to the end and have patience … Spero in Deo … patience shall prevail” which can be contrasted with the graffiti found in the modern London prison-“Home by May … This is where I spent most of my life … It was just one/time I never got away by someone who got caught … Treat me carefully/I’m seven years/bad luck.” In many inscriptions the prison itself seems to be treated as an image of the world, or of the city, which will perhaps lend further significance to another graffito found upon a London wall-“I cant breathe.”


CHAPTER 19. All of Them Citizens

<p>CHAPTER 19. All of Them Citizens</p>

There are other kinds of anonymity. Dickens knew of a woman, seen in the streets about the Strand, “who has fallen forward, double, through some affliction of the spine, and whose head has of late taken a turn to one side, so that it now droops over the back of one of her arms at about the wrist. Who does not know her staff, and her shawl, and her basket, as she gropes her way along, capable of seeing nothing but the pavement, never begging, never stopping, for ever going somewhere on no business! How does she live, whence does she come, whither does she go, and why?” Dickens saw her many times; he never knew her name, and she could not have seen the famous novelist as he passed her and, perhaps, looked back.

I used to pass a dwarf, dressed in old clothes and with wizened features, who in a hoarse voice would direct the traffic at the crossroads of Theobalds Road and Grays Inn Road; he was there every day and then suddenly, in the summer of 1978, he was gone. There was, even more recently, a young West Indian who would walk up Kensington Church Street dressed in silver foil and with balloons tied to his wrists. A gentleman, known colloquially as “The King of Poland,” used to walk barefoot along the Strand in red velvet robes and with a wreath upon his head. He, too, vanished without warning.

These London particulars have their own locale and are rarely seen beyond it; they are the sprites or spirits of a specific place, and belong exclusively to the city. There was the “musical small-coal man” of Clerkenwell who, after his daily round was over, organised concerts in his lodgings in Jerusalem Passage; he died when as a practical joke a ventriloquist, known as “Talking Smith,” pretended to be the voice of God proclaiming his doom. There was Lord Queensberry, “Old Q,” who every day sat at the window of his house at 138 Piccadilly; although he had only one eye, he leered and winked at every pretty female who passed in the street. And there was “the afflicted girl-white faced and expressionless” who sat for many years close to the Horse-Shoe of Tottenham Court Road, “oblivious of time and inured to suffering through all the noise and tumult.”

There were always such familiar faces in every locality. Today there are the lollipop men and women, helping children to cross the road, but until the early decades of the twentieth century the best known were the crossing-sweepers. Many crossing-sweepers remained at their posts-or on their particular “property,” as it was called-for thirty or forty years. There was the bearded crossing-sweeper at Cornhill-“Sometimes I get insulted, only in words; sometimes I get chaffed by sober people.” And there, at the corner of Cavendish Square, was Billy who could remember ancient riots-“The mob was carrying a quartern loaf dipped in bullock’s blood, and when I saw it I thought it was a man’s head; so that frightened me, and I run off.” One elderly sweeper “kept” the narrow passage from Berkeley Street into Stratton Street, and wore an old huntsman’s coat and hat. He once came into the police court as a witness, and the following exchange is recorded by Mayhew.

JUDGE: Are you a field-marshal?


WITNESS: No, my lord. I am the sweeper of the Lansdowne Passage.

There was “Sir” Harry Dimsdale of Seven Dials, according to Old and New London, “a poor diminutive creature, deformed and half an idiot” who hawked laces and threads at the turn of the nineteenth century; he followed the same routes, along Holborn or Oxford Street, and suffered the jeers of the children and the watermen who washed down the hackney-coach stands. He had only four or five teeth, but could bend a silver coin with them “when he could induce anybody to trust him with one.” His favourite amusement was to torment children by pinching them or throwing them to the ground, but his chief pleasure was found in drink. He was “helplessly drunk every evening … howling in the frenzy produced by his fiery draughts or uttering the low, dismal plaint caused by hunger or pain.” It is reported that his expression was one of “idiotcy, physical suffering and a propensity to mischief” but the mistress of his wretched lodgings-a back attic laid with straw-reported that at night she heard him praying. “Sir” Harry was known throughout London, and there is an extant engraving of him at the age of thirty-eight; but then he, too, suddenly disappeared. His is a curious story of suffering and isolation, but one with echoes and parallels in the modern city.

Other eccentric tradesmen led more amiable lives in the street. There was the famous character Peter Stokes, the “flying pie-man” of Holborn Hill in the early nineteenth century; as described by “Aleph” in London Scenes and London People, he “always wore a black suit, scrupulously brushed, dress coat and vest, knee breeches, stout black stockings, and shoes with steel buckles.” This tradesman, with an expression “open and agreeable, expressive of intellect and moral excellence,” would dash out of Fetter Lane on the stroke of twelve noon and run through the streets of the neighbourhood for the next four hours, dodging horses and wagons and coaches, incessantly crying “Buy! Buy! Buy!” He too was famous throughout London, and sat to an engraver with the basket of pies balanced neatly on his right arm.

Equally notable, in the streets of London, a little more than a century earlier, was “Colly Molly Puffe,” a short hunch-backed man who also sold pastries. He preferred to balance his basket upon his head rather than his arm and, despite his frail form, he had a stentorian voice with which he sang out his wares. His cry was unmistakable, and he was to be seen at city parades or public hangings, always brandishing a big stick to ward off any thief or urchin who tried to steal his goods.

Tiddy Doll was a vendor of gingerbread in the Haymarket who wore ornate and brightly coloured dress, complete with feathered cap, and had the distinction of being drawn by Hogarth; he was so well known by Londoners that “once being missed from his usual stand … on the occasion of a visit which he paid to a country fair, a ‘catch-penny’ account of his alleged murder was printed and sold in the streets by thousands.” His actual death was almost equally sensationa during a Frost Fair, when a festival was held upon the iced surface of the Thames, Tiddy Doll plunged through a sudden crack and was drowned.

There have been any number of London eccentrics and exhibitionists who achieved fame in the streets. There was a celebrated miser, Thomas Cook of Clerkenwell, who on his death-bed demanded his money back from the surgeon who had not cured him. There was a notorious doctor, Martin Van Butchell, who rode around the West End on a pony upon whose flanks he had painted spots. When at home in Mount Street he sold oranges and gingerbread on his doorstep and kept his first wife embalmed in the parlour. “He dressed his first wife in black, and his second in white,” according to Edward Walford in Old and New London, “never allowing either a change of colour.” He astonished his contemporaries by growing a beard-this at the end of the eighteenth century-and, equally astonishing to his fellow citizens, was “one of the earliest teetotallers.”

Benjamin Coates first came to public notice in 1810 when he hired the Haymarket Theatre so that he might play Romeo for one night; he appeared on stage “in a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, and a wig of the style of Charles II, capped by an opera hat.” Unfortunately he had a “guttural” voice and the laughter which greeted his performance was increased by the fact that “his nether garments, being far too tight burst in seams which could not be concealed.” He was known, ever after, as Romeo Coates and was often seen driving through the streets in a carriage manufactured in the shape of a sea shell. For sheer vigour and energy we may put him beside the engraver William Woolett who, each time he finished a new work, fired a cannon from the roof of his house in Green Street, Leicester Square.

Certain women also made a singular impression. There was the rich and learned Miss Banks who wore a quilted petticoat with “two immense pockets, stuffed with books of all sizes.” When she wandered on her book-hunting expeditions through the streets she was always accompanied by a six-foot manservant “with a cane almost as tall as himself.” In this state she was, again according to Walford, “more than once taken for a member of the ballad-singing confraternity.” Miss Mary Lucrine of Oxford Street kept the shutters of her windows barred and never left her lodgings for some fifty years, one of several London spinsters who closed themselves off from the anxiety and violence of the city.

Some Londoners became notorious through their diet. In the middle years of the seventeenth century Roger Crab of Bethnal Green subsisted on “dock-leaves, mallows or grasse” and plain water, while in the late twentieth century Stanley Green, wearing cap and blazer, paraded in Oxford Street with a banner proclaiming “Less Passion from Less Protein.” For twenty-five years, crowds swirled about him, almost oblivious of his presence, engaged only in their usual uproar.


Pestilence and Flame

CHAPTER 20. A Plague Upon You

CHAPTER 21. Painting the Town Red

<p>Pestilence and Flame</p>

The causes and consequences of the Great Plague of 1665 were endlessly described, but most considered it to be God’s punishment upon a heathen city.

<p>CHAPTER 20. A Plague Upon You</p>

London is a city perpetually doomed. It has always been considered the Jerusalem about which the prophets were so clamant, and the words of Ezekiel have often been applied to curb its mighty spirit-“Say unto them which daub it with untempered mortar, that it shall fall … and a stormy wind shall rend it” (Ezekiel XIII: 11). In the fourteenth century John Gower lamented its approaching destruction, and in 1600 Thomas Nashe wrote that “London doth mourn, Lambeth is quite forlorn; Trades cry, woe worth that ever they were born … From winter, plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us!” In 1849 the Earl of Shaftesbury described London as the “City of the Plague,” and one of the characters in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying talks of “a city of the dead.”

Much has been written about the nature of fear in London. James Boswell arrived in the city in 1762. “I began to be apprehensive that I was taking a nervous fever, a supposition not improbable, as I had one after such an illness when I was last in London. I was quite sunk.” The editor’s commentary upon Laroon’s depiction of street traders emphasises the traces of anxiety upon their faces, in particular “hollow, frightened eyes.” In the poem “London” William Blake’s narrator wanders through the streets by the river, “And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe” together with the “Infants cry of fear … Soldiers sigh … Harlots curse … new-born Infants tear.” In the illustration with which he has adorned the right-hand side of the poem, a child is warming itself beside a great fire which may itself be a token of calamity. In his account of the plague of 1664 and 1665, Daniel Defoe depicted the city itself torn by fever and nervous fear. It was said of Thackeray that “it seemed as if London were his disease, and he could not help telling all the symptoms” to which is appended the remark, “that is another sign of a true Londoner.” In a poem by Thomas Hood, the stones of London cry out against a woman careering through the streets upon a horse-“Batter her! shatter her! Kick her brains out! Let her blood spatter her!”

There has always been so much to create anxiety in the city-the noise, the endless rush, the violence of the mob. London has been compared to a prison and to a grave. To the German poet, Heinrich Heine, “this overdriven London oppresses the fancy and tears the heart.” Heckethorn’s London Memories records that when in 1750 one soldier prophesied an earthquake “vast multitudes left London for the country, and the fields around were crowded with fugitives from the threatened catastrophe.” The unfortunate seer was later confined to a madhouse. But the symptoms of fear have never materially diminished. In times of pestilence many citizens simply died of fright, and it has been remarked that in nineteenth-century discourse the word “gloom” emerges frequently. It is related to the fogs or “London particulars” of that century, but it seems also to have possessed an intimate and more unnerving significance. November was the month for London suicides and, when the fog was at its thickest, “people who experienced this phenomenon said it seemed as if the world was coming to an end.” These last words were exactly those used by the inhabitants of Whitechapel Road, when a firework manufactory exploded. The phrase came readily and easily to the lips-as if, perhaps, there was some unconscious wish for this mighty cessation. Dostoevsky noted, after visiting the Great Exhibition in London, “And you feel nervous … a feeling of fear somehow creeps over you. Can this, you think, in fact be the final accomplishment of an ideal state of things? Is this the end, by any chance?”

Death has always been one of London’s devices. “The Dance of Death” was painted on the wall of St. Paul’s Churchyard, so that the people who thronged that church for business or amusement were always aware of their mortality. In June of 1557 the registrar of a parish records the following causes of death within that one month-“a swellynge … ague … consumption … thought [cough] … blody fluxe … poches [pox] … postum which brake … browce [bruise?] … famyne … consumed away.” The bills of mortality in London, published every Thursday, include those who were “planet struck,” or who suffered from “horseshoe head” or “rising of the lights,” the latter now quite uninterpretable; there are entries on those “killed in the pillory” or who “died from want in Newgate.” Even before the plague of 1665 and the Fire of 1666 memento mori motifs were “one speciality of the seventeenth century City churchyards.” “Nobody is healthy in London,” Mr. Woodhouse complains in Emma, “nobody could be.” A character in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, Matthew Bramble, suffered certain symptoms in London “which warn me to be gone from this centre of infection.” A century later London was described as the “Great Wen” or fleshy excrescence indicative of poor health.


There have always been epidemics and waves of death within the metropolis. The “Black Death” of 1348 killed approximately 40 per cent of London’s population. Many were buried outside the walls in no-man’s-land, otherwise known as Pardon Churchyard or Wilderness Row, now part of the Clerkenwell Road behind the Charterhouse. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries epidemics of the “sweating sickness” fell upon the capital on at least six occasions; that of 1528 “visited London with such violence that it carried off thousands in the space of five or six hours.” The quagmires and open sewers of the city turned it into “a paradise for mosquitoes,” thus causing the “ague” which is now known as malaria.

The plague came early to London; the first recorded instance is from the seventh century. Between the years 1563 and 1603 there were five severe attacks, in the latter year killing some 30,000 Londoners when “Feare and Trembling (the two Catch-polles of Death) arrest every one … no voyce heard but Tue Tue, Kill, Kill” and Watling Street was “like an empty Cloyster.” No one was ever safe. No one was ever entirely well in a city “full of pits and sloughs, very perilous and noyous,” dirty and filled with “corrupt savours.” London itself had become a sink of disease. Yet nothing in its history could have prepared its citizens for the events which unfolded between the fated and fateful years of 1664 and 1666.

There had been intimations of catastrophe. In 1658 Walter Costello wrote that “if fire make not ashes of the city, and thy bones also, conclude me a liar for ever. Oh London! London!” In the following year a Quaker tract entitled A Vision concerning London contained the prophecy that “And as for the city herself, and her suburbs, and all that belonged to her, a fire was kindled therein; but she knew not how, even in all her goodly places, and the kindling of it was in the foundation of all her buildings and there was none could quench it.” In his Monarchy Or No Monarchy, published in 1651, the London astrologer William Lilly inserted an hieroglyphical plate “representing on one side persons in winding streets digging graves; and on the other a large city in flames.” Wenceslaus Hollar had noticed the vigour and energy of the citizens in 1647 but, on his return in 1652, “he found the countenances of the people all changed, melancholy, spight full, as if bewitched.” Mother Shipton predicted a general conflagration, and a Quaker walked naked through Bartholomew Fair with a pan of fire and brimstone on his head as a prophecy. A man in a narrow passage by Bishopsgate convinced all those around him that a ghost there was making “signs to the houses, and to the ground” suggesting plainly that “abundance of people should come to be buried in that churchyard.”


There is an area adjacent to Goswell Road known as Mount Mills. It is now an open space, used as a car park. It is unusual in this part of London to find what is essentially a patch of waste ground. The answer lies in its history. Here, according to Daniel Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year, on “a piece of ground beyond Goswell Street, near Mount Mill … abundance were buried promiscuously from the parishes of Aldersgate, Clerkenwell, and even out of the city.” It was a plague pit, in other words, where, during the Great Plague of 1664 and 1665, thousands were taken in “dead carts” and dumped in the loose soil.

It was comparable to the burial pit in Houndsditch, about forty feet in length, sixteen feet broad and twenty feet in depth, containing more than a thousand corpses. Some of the bodies “were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart.” It was reported that the living, out of despair, sometimes flung themselves among the dead. The Pye tavern was very close to the Houndsditch pit itself and when, at night, the drunken heard the rumble of the dead cart and the noise of the iron bell they came to the window and jeered at anyone who mourned for the newly dead. They also uttered “blasphemous expressions” such as There is no God or God is a devil. There was one driver who “When he had any children in his dead cart could cry ‘Faggots, faggots, five for sixpence’ and take up a child by the leg.”

The area of Mount Mills is waste ground still.

· · ·

These reports are all taken from Defoe’s chronicle. He was only six years old at the time of the visitation, and much of his evidence is anecdotal, but there are also contemporary accounts which furnish additional material for contemplation. Any observer willing to enter the city during the plague would first have noticed the silence; there was no traffic except for the dead carts, and all the shops and markets were closed. Those who had not fled had locked themselves within their houses, and the river was deserted. Any citizens who did venture upon the streets walked in the middle, down the kennel, away from the buildings; they also avoided chance meetings. It was so quiet that the rush of the water beneath the bridge could distinctly be heard throughout the old City. Great bonfires were placed at intersections and in the middle of main thoroughfares, so that the streets were filled with smoke as well as the miasma of the dead and dying. The life of London seemed to be over.

The plague had begun, in the parish of St. Giles, at the close of 1664. It is understood now that the infection was carried by the black rat, known also as rattus rattus, otherwise called the ship rat, or the house rat. These rats are old inhabitants of London, their bones being discovered in excavations of fourth-century Fenchurch Street. It is likely that they arrived from South Asia in Roman ships, and they have remained ever since. The severe cold of the early months of 1665 prevented any spread in the infection for a while, but from the beginning of spring the bills of mortality began to rise. By July the plague had entered the city from the western suburbs. It was a dry, hot summer without any wind. Grass grew in the abandoned streets.

John Allin, a clergyman, stayed in the city and sent many letters to those at a safe distance; they are reprinted in W.G. Bell’s Unknown London. On 11 August he wrote: “I am troubled at the approach of the sicknesse neerer every weeke, and at a new burying place which they have made neer us.” “They,” indicating some indeterminate authority all the more pressing for being so vague, has always been part of the London vocabulary. Thirteen days later: “I am, through mercy, yet well in middest of death and that, too, approaching neerer and neerer: not many doores off, and the pitt open dayly within view of my chamber window.” In the following week, at the beginning of September, he described “the dolefull and almost universall and continuall ringing and tolling of bells.” So this was the noise that broke the silence. In the same letter he mentioned that his brother had left the house one morning and, on his return from the streets, had found “a stiffness under his eare, where he had a swelling that could not be brought to rise and breake, but choacked him; he dyed Thursday night last.” Five days later Allin wrote of the distemper: “it is at the next doore on both hands of mee, and under the same roofe … These 3 dayes hath bene sea cole fyres made in the streets about every 12th doore, but that will not do the worke of stopping God’s hand.” His anxiety is palpable. It was not until the middle of September that some rain mitigated the appalling heat, but after that modest abatement the plague raged again.

John Allin told the story of six physicians who, believing that they had found a remedy, opened up an infected body-“it is said that they are all dead since, the most of them distractedly madd.” Six days later there came report of “that word spoken by a child here concerning the increase of the Plague, until 18,317 dye in a weeke.” The child died. Yet the rates began to fall. In the last week of February 1666, there were only forty-two deaths reported, whereas more than eight thousand died each week of September 1665.

Within the texture of Defoe’s prose London becomes a living and suffering being, not the “abstract civic space” of W.H. Auden’s poem. London is itself racked with “fever” and is “all in tears.” Its “face” is “strangely altered,” and its streets circulate “steams and fumes” like the blood of those infected. It is not clear whether the whole sick body of London is an emanation of its citizens, or whether the inhabitants are an emanation or projection of the city. Certainly its conditions were responsible for much death. In the great centre of trade and commerce, the process of buying and selling itself destroyed the citizens-“this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city.” The people “dropped dead in the very markets” in the act of trading. They would “just sit down and die” with the tainted coins still in their pockets.

There is another melancholy image which issues from the pages of Defoe. It is of a city where there “were so many prisons in the town as there were houses shut up.” Metaphors of incarceration are persistent throughout London writing, but during the Great Plague there emerged vivid and literal examples of urban imprisonment. The symbolism of the red cross and the words “Lord have mercy on us” has not been wasted on mythographers of the city, but the measure of societal control has perhaps not been fully recognised. Of course many people escaped, often by the expedient of going over a garden wall or travelling along the roofs-even with some “watchmen” murdered to ensure liberty-but, in theory, each street and each house became a gaol.

One ordinance has remained in force for three centuries with the proclamation that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.” All beggars were expelled. Public assemblies were banned. In a city which had shown its manic propensities in a thousand different ways, order and authority had to be imposed directly and harshly. Hence the turning of houses into prisons by “shutting up,” a measure which even at the time was considered by many to be both arbitrary and pointless. But in a city of prisons it was the natural and instinctive response of the civic authorities.

By means of anecdote and circumstantial detail, Defoe provides a Londoner’s vision of a city “quite abandoned to despair.” It is clear from his report that the citizens very quickly reverted to superstition and apparently primitive belief. A genuine madness was in the streets, with prophets and interpreters of dreams and fortune-tellers and astrologers all terrifying “the people to the last degree.” Many, fearful of sudden death, ran out into the streets to confess that “I have been a murderer” and “I have been a thief.” At the height of the plague it was fully believed that “God was resolved to make a full end of the people of this miserable city,” and as a result the citizens became “raving and distracted.” Daniel Defoe knew London very well-perhaps better than any man living in his period-and he declared that “the strange temper of the people of London at that time contributed extremely to their destruction.”

There were “conjurors and witches … quacks and mountebanks” who placed posters all over the city advertising their services and who dispensed pills and cordials and treacles and “plague waters” to the desperate. A list of cures was published at the “Sign of the Angell, neare the Greate Conduit in Cheapside,” and it was possible for “An Excellent Electuary against the plague, to be drunk at the Green Dragon Cheape-side at Sixpence a pint.”


London has always been a centre for healers and doctors, surgeons and magnetisers, of all descriptions. Perhaps its nervous fear has in turn promoted symptoms to be cured by “physic.” In fourteenth-century London, calendars of saints, as well as various charts of astrology, were used to determine the efficacy of particular herbs. Ecclesiastics were the first surgeons. In the thirteenth century the papal authorities banned them for shedding blood. After that date, lay surgeons and physicians were ubiquitous. Not all of them had undergone the usual apprenticeship of ten years, however, and in the early sixteenth century it was proclaimed that “the science and cunning of physick and surgery” were being exercised by “smiths, weavers and women” who used “sorcery and witchcraft” to effect their cures. It was believed, for example, that water drunk from the skull of a hanged man or the very touch of a dead man’s hand were efficacious.

Earlier Londoners admiring “London Stone,” which has been considered alternately as a milestone or a symbol of civic power. It now lies almost unseen in Cannon Street.

John Stow: the great sixteenth-century antiquary whose Survey is the first complete and authentic description of London. His bust still survives in the church of St. Andrew Undershaft.

William I’s charter: this small document marked the king’s authority over London and its citizens, and was one of the first salvoes in the continual struggle between the monarchy and the city.

“Buy my fat chickens,” “Fair lemons and oranges,” “Knives, combs and inkhorns”: images of street sellers, drawn by Marcellus Laroon, c. 1687. They are the ragged emblems of London life, confident or careworn, animated or depressed, as the eternal crowd melts around them.

London, 1560. Note the Bankside bear-baiting arenas in the foreground.

A panorama of London Bridge and the northern areas of London in the sixteenth century. The bridge was then a great thoroughfare, complete with shops, houses and public lavatories. Note the number of churches which Wyngaerde has depicted.

Hollar’s panorama of London is one of the most striking and evocative images of the seventeenth-century city before the Fire. The endless activity on the river is a testimony to London’s commerce, while the streets and buildings are an emblem of its magnificence.

A view of old St. Paul’s, completed by Hollar in the mid-seventeenth century. This was the magnificent church quite destroyed in the Great Fire, a reminder of all that London lost in that conflagration.

The Royal Exchange, forerunner of the Stock Exchange, as depicted by Hollar, is packed with merchants and brokers; they are part of a commercial life which was established as early as the Roman period and has continued ever since.

A detail of a map showing the devastation wreaked by the Great Fire of 1666. Even churches did not survive.

Rowlandson’s depiction of a public hanging outside Newgate Prison. The rituals of executions provided unrivalled entertainment for the London crowd, and fresh anatomical specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons.

Seventeenth-century firemen at their trade; they were indispensable in a city notorious for fires, and their call of “Hi! Hi! Hi!” was as ubiquitous as the modern siren.

Rowlandson’s depiction of a public hanging outside Newgate Prison. The rituals of executions provided unrivalled entertainment for the London crowd, and fresh anatomical specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons.

Moll Cut-Purse: an engraving of the most notorious of the “roaring girls,” those women who wore masculine costume in order to confront a male-dominated city on its own terms. The animals and birds depicted were part of her own private menagerie.

Newgate Prison showing the windmill which supposedly helped provide air for the inmates. The gaol was the most notorious within the city, commemorated in songs, pamphlets and plays. London writers of all periods have compared the city to a prison, in implicit homage to the pervasive power and presence of that “hell on earth.”

“The Modern Plague of London.” A temperance map: each dot represents a public house. London is so large, and so diverse, that a thousand different maps or topographies have been drawn up in order to describe it. Here is a map of drunkenness in the city always notorious for its drunkards.

A photograph of the Café Monico, on Piccadilly Circus, in a period where horse-drawn vehicles competed with motor cars in the busy streets. Note that the age of advertising is in full swing.

In seventeenth-century London, too, “quacks” or “healers” were in the ascendant and have been duly catalogued in Charles Mackay’s volume of popular delusions and superstitions. When Valentine Greatraks, a “healer,” moved to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the early 1660s, “Nothing was spoken of in London but his prodigies; and these prodigies were supported by such great authorities, that the bewildered multitude believed them almost without examination.” Thus did another showman succeed in “magnetising the people of London.” “Scurvy quacks” used spoonwart which grew by the banks of the Thames, while more noxious treatments such as “Spirit of Pearl” or “Essence of Gold” were also dispensed. There were “wise-women” and “wise-men” who examined urine (known as practitioners of “piss-pot science”) or pored upon moles to discover the source of illness. The seventh child of a seventh child invariably entered the business, although many claimed that distinction without having attained it.

One William Salmon practised at the very gates of Bartholomew Hospital and claimed to have cured “Ambrose Webb at the Three Compasses in Westbury-street of a great bleeding at Nose; a youth, a son of William Ogben, a Taylor, near the Black Boy in Barnaby-street, of a long and tedious ague and madness … Nicholas Earl at the Cup in Long alley, of dropsy; Joan Ingram near the Bear in Moor Fields of the Gout, and Anthony Geasture at the Cock in Wapping of a consumption.” The circumstantial detail is compelling. The advertisement also serves to elucidate the manner in which Londoners identified each other by citing location in terms of the nearest tavern.

There seems little doubt that William Salmon did indeed effect cures; like a modern psychiatrist, he was particularly effective at dispelling or exorcising that “melancholy” which was a recurring London condition. He was himself a London original, part showman, part sorcerer and part physician. He was born in the summer of 1644 and began life as “an assistant to a mountebank” before establishing his own career as the seller of “Elixir Vitae.” He was also a popular educator, and in 1671 published Synopsis Medicinae, or a Compendium of Astrological, Galenical and Chymical Physick which passed through at least four editions. He wrote several other popular books, upon mathematics and drawing as well as medicine, but his most successful work was his London Almanack in which he prophesied in a manner to be later adopted or stolen by Old Moore. His practice across London can be traced with some accuracy-from Smithfield to Salisbury Court off Fleet Street, from there to the Blue Balcony by the ditch near Holborn Bridge and then on to Mitre Court beside Fleet Street. Like many Londoners he became a radical Dissenter; he joined a sect called the “New Religious Fraternity of Freethinkers” which assembled near the Leather-sellers’ Hall. Then, at a somewhat late age, he began to practise anatomy. On his death in 1714 he left two microscopes and a library of over three thousand volumes.

Of course there were more genteel, if not more learned, practitioners of healing who came under the aegis of the Company of Barber Surgeons (they were later to split in two, becoming barbers or surgeons) or the College of Physicians. The latter institution, with a roof described as “the distant sight of a gilded pill,” was in Warwick Lane, near Newgate Prison from which many of its anatomical subjects came. Anatomy lessons were its principal and compelling feature. They were conducted in a central chamber, used as the setting for Hogarth’s The Reward For Cruelty in which the corpse of a wretched murderer, Tom Nero, is thoroughly anatomised and degraded. It was known as a “theatre,” and indeed it became an intrinsic part of London spectacle. The taking of the corpses of the hanged for dissection and dispersal was an old custom-we read of the necessity of “a wax candle to look into the body”-but in later years the corpses were also used to test the properties of electricity. One recently deceased killer was “galvanised” in 1803, with the result that one of his eyes opened and he raised his right hand. It is reported by Charles Knight that the instructor “died that very afternoon of the shock.” At an earlier date, in 1740, a specimen was about to be anatomised when “he threw his Hand in the Surgeon’s face, and accidentally cut his Lips with the Lancet.” After this escape from the knife he sat in a chair, groaning, and “in great Agitation”; eventually he recovered and “heartily” asked for his mother.

Hogarth’s engraving is a swirling composition, in which the round complementarity of all parts evokes the circles of Tom Nero’s life within the inferno of London; it also seems to demonstrate the connection between Nero’s own cruelty and that of the physicians who are presently disembowelling him. The violence of the streets fashions Nero’s character so that he becomes an emblem of the worst London “type.” Yet he is not so different from the surgeon delightedly plunging a scalpel into his eye-socket. Hogarth based his portrait upon a surgeon named Dr. John Freke. In this city everything connects.

The skeletons of two famous malefactors, which once hung in the alcoves of the anatomical theatre, can still be seen in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Jonathan Wild, the most notorious villain of eighteenth-century London, and William Corder, the killer of Maria Martin in the Old Red Barn murder, now hang together as part of a truly old-fashioned London spectacle. In the same gallery can be seen the Irish giant Charles Byrne, whose skeleton of seven feet ten inches has been placed beside the diminutive remains of Caroline Crachami who was only one foot ten and a half inches in height. They were London “freaks” and, in death, they still satisfy the taste for urban theatre.

The apothecaries of London, like the anatomists, were accustomed to stage management. They customarily wore black and it was almost mandatory that their shops, however humble, would contain a skull as well as a folio written in some ancient tongue. Here were sold herbs and powders, pills and electuaries, drugs and dentifrices, pomades and love-charms. In Camomile Street and Bucklersbury, in particular, all herbal remedies were to be found. In Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) there is a summary of the trading arts-“Oyster-shells he could convert into crab’s eyes; common oil into oil of sweet almonds … Thames water into aqua cinnamoni … when any common thing was ordered for a patient, he always took care to disguise it in colour or taste, or both, in such a manner as that it could not possibly be known.”

The drugs themselves came and went according to the fashion of the age. In the seventeenth century, these included moss, smoked horses’ testicles, may dew and henbane. In the eighteenth century, we find nutmeg and spiders wrapped in their own silk. In the nineteenth century, we read of “Turkey rhubarb and sulphuric acid.” In the early twentieth century, in the East End, there are reports of “Iron Jelloids, Zam Buk ointment, Eno’s Fruit Salt, Owbridge’s Lung Tonic, Clarke’s Blood Mixture.” Anderson’s Scots Pills, first given to the world in 1635, “were still being sold in 1876.”


In his account of the Great Plague Defoe emphasises the credulity of ordinary Londoners, who wore “charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets” in order to ward off the encroaching disease. Some kept signs of the zodiac, or the written phrase “Abracadabra,” in pockets and seals. They had reverted to the paganism that had dominated the city ever since the first wooden idol was carved in Dagenham (2200 BC).

There is a museum south of the river, off the Walworth Road, which contains the “Lovett Collection” of London charms, amulets and relics. It is the true home of urban superstition, with a range of artefacts which suggests that the city has absorbed all the traditions of magic and ritual from both native and immigrant populations. From the East End came, in 1916, “five uneven shaped stones on a string”; these were, according to the museum’s catalogue, “hung on the corner of the bed to keep nightmares away.” In the same year was deposited a “greyish white tubular bottle sealed at each end with thread. Mercury inside.” This was used as a cure for rheumatism. A grey cat’s skin was employed as a remedy for whooping cough, and a “leather slipper painted gold” was a symbol of good luck. From Clapham arrived a pincushion in the form of a domino piece, marked with seven dots. From east London came a key attached to a rope, as a talisman to safeguard the wearer against witches, as well as a necklace of amber and other gems worn in 1917 “to bring good health.” Barking was the area in which to search for mandrake roots, which scream like a child when taken out of the ground. There are coins to bring wealth, iron pyrite acorns to prevent lightning strikes (the acorn from the tree of the thunder god), cows’ hearts and rams’ horns and donkeys’ shoes to act as charms. The museum also contains the head of a London magician’s wand or staff, engraved with Solomon’s seal; it was carved in the fourteenth century, and then lost in the depths of the river. As recently as 1915, it was common practice, in the East End, to cut off some of the hair of a sick child. The hair was placed in a sandwich, and given to the first dog that was encountered; the illness then left the child and entered the body of the unfortunate animal. In the East End, too, it was customary for women and female children to wear blue glass beads around the neck “as a preventive charm against bronchitis”; these necklaces were sold in hundreds of small shops, “usually presided over by an aged woman,” at the price of one halfpenny. It became a custom that the beads were eventually buried with the woman who had worn them. In the early twentieth century, too, young women all over London were visiting herbalists in order to purchase “tormentil root” or “dragon’s blood”-gum from a Sumatran tree-as love philtres.

In a suggestive book written by Edward Lovett, Magic in Modern London, published in 1925, it is reported that sharks’ teeth taken from the London clay were said to cure cramp. In Camberwell it was customary to cover a horseshoe with red cloth in order to ward off nightmares, while Mile End was known as the place where children could be “charmed” and healed. When market business was bad in the East End the trader would exclaim: “Ah! I expect I forgot to bow to the new moon!” It is appropriate, in a city of commerce, that it was customary to call out “money” at the sight of a falling star. Strangely shaped stones were placed on London mantelpieces as a “votive offering,” in the same manner that silver representations of limbs were hung in medieval city churches. A woman in Whitechapel told an investigator that, when moving house, it was customary to swing the cat around one room in order to induce it to stay. There are also interesting records of “cat sacrifice” in the walls of certain houses. Cauls in which children had been born were on sale for eighteen pence each as a safeguard against drowning but, at the time of the First World War, when the danger of death was very close, the price rose to £2. In London markets it was possible, until recent times, to buy neolithic stone axes or flint arrowheads as another precaution against thunderbolts.


London resembles a prison, and it is perhaps not surprising to discover that keys have always been an object of taboo. They were associated with magic and the presence of demons; thus “The art of lock-picking was known as the ‘Black Art,’” according to Peter Linebaugh in The London Hanged, and “the most common lock-picking tool was called a ‘charm.’” Keys were used to investigate suspected persons; the name was placed in the stem of a key and guilt was established if the key then moved or shook. The lodgings of prostitutes were often symbolised by “the drawing of a large key,” and many ladies of the night wore keys around their neck as a symbol of their trade.

There is a suggestive eighteenth-century passage, connected with the storming of Newgate Prison. One rioter came back to his lodging house and announced: “I have got the keys of Newgate.” At his subsequent trial, a fellow lodger was questioned by the magistrate about these keys. “You would not touch them for fear that they would contaminate you?” “I would not come near them.”

Patients at Bedlam who refused to swallow their drugs had their mouths opened by a specially designed metal key.


At the time of the plague, spectres were seen in the thoroughfares of the city; indeed London has always been troubled by ghosts. A fine brick house on the south side of the churchyard in Clerkenwell was “seldom tenanted” because of its reputation. Number 7 Parker Street, off Drury Lane, had a name for “ill luck” and was eventually torn down. Another house in the same street, No. 23, was haunted by “fearful noises” in a corner where death had occurred. There was a haunted house in Berkeley Square which was “empty for a long time,” and another in Queen’s Gate.

P.J. Grosley, visiting the city in the eighteenth century, remarked upon “the great practical fear” of ghosts there, even while Londoners “make a jest of them in theory.” Another stranger in the same period visited the theatres and noticed that the ghosts of Shakespearean drama provoked “surprise, fear, even horror … to such a degree, as if the scenes which they saw were real.” It has often been remarked that, in a city of spectacle, Londoners find it difficult to distinguish theatre from reality but, more significantly, such reports suggest a surprising credulity. In the middle of the sixteenth century a young girl was found to have counterfeited a supernatural voice in a house near Aldersgate, “through which the people of the whole city were wonderfully molested.” We must imagine flying rumour, and reports, and fear.

The London writer “Aleph” has another story. In the early months of 1762 it was firmly believed that, within a house in Cock Lane, that once “dingy, narrow, half-lighted street,” there dwelled a ghost known as “Scratching Fanny” responsible for certain knockings and bangings. A young girl was believed to be possessed by this spirit, and “was constantly attended by mysterious noises, though bound and muffled hand and foot.” Thousands of Londoners visited Cock Lane and the more genteel were permitted to visit the girl’s bedroom, fifty at a time, “almost suffocating her from the stench.” A committee of eminent Londoners was set up to investigate the claims-one of their number was the superstitious Samuel Johnson-and concluded that the girl “had some art of counterfeiting noises.” Her father was put in the pillory at the end of Cock Lane, where “the populace treated him with compassion.” And so the affair ended, after London had once again been “wonderfully molested.” It is almost as if it were itself a spectral city, so filled with intimations of its past that it haunts its own inhabitants.

The “Islington Ghost” visited a patch of ground beside Trinity Church in Cloudesley Square causing “a wondrous commotion in various parts, the earth swelling and turning up every side”; Michael Faraday is supposed to haunt a telephone exchange in Bride Street which was once the chapel of his Sandemanian congregation. Lord Holland and Dan Leno, Dick Turpin and Annie Chapman, have variously been seen. Old hospitals and the city churches have proved fruitful ground for phantoms, and the stretch of Swains Lane in Highgate beside the cemetery has been the home of many “sightings.” There is apparently a ghost in the Oriental Department of the British Museum, and a phantom blackbird haunted a house in Dean Street for many generations. The daughter of the Earl of Holland, walking in Kensington Gardens, “met with her own apparition, habit and everything, as in a looking glass”; she died a month later. The rector of St. Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, saw in his pulpit the ghost of a divine “in the black gown of Geneva … exhorting the unseen audience with the greatest fervour, gesticulating vehemently, bending first to the right and then to the left over the pulpit, thumping the cushions in front of him, and all the while his lips moving as though speech was pouring from him.”

The Tower of London has of course been the natural haven of many spirits. Familiar figures have glided by, among them Walter Raleigh and Anne Boleyn. The latter was “seen” by three witnesses as a “white figure,” and a soldier on duty at the door of the Lieutenant’s Lodgings “fell in a dead faint.” He was court-martialled but later acquitted. The ghost of a bear “issued from beneath the door” of the Jewel House, and the sentry who saw it died two days later. It might be recalled that there was indeed a menagerie, or a zoo, within the Tower itself. One of the most ambiguous apparitions was that vouchsafed to the Keeper and his wife; they were at table in the sitting room of the notorious Jewel House when “a glass tube, something about the thickness of my arm” hovered in the air. It contained some “dense fluid, white and pale azure … incessantly rolling and mingling within the cylinder.” It approached the Keeper’s wife who exclaimed “Oh Christ! it has seized me!” before it crossed the room and disappeared.

Other places have remained objects of London fear. It is believed the cries of drowned Jews, murdered in the great expulsion of 1290, can still be heard at low tide near Gravesend. The “Field of Forty Footsteps,” which now lies beneath Gordon Square, was considered to be “charmed” or “blasted,” according to taste. Here were once picked plantain leaves which were supposed to influence dreams but, more importantly, on the same spot two brothers killed each other in a duel. The imprint of their fatal footsteps was thought to have lingered, while the area of the killings could produce no grass. Southey did indeed decipher the outlines of seventy-six footsteps “the size of a large human foot about three inches deep” and in the summer of 1800, just before the area was built upon, Moser “counted more than forty.”


Washington Irving observed the inhabitants of Little Britain, behind Smithfield and beside Aldersgate, in the 1830s. “They are apt to be rendered uncomfortable by comets and eclipses,” he wrote in the guise of “Geoffrey Crayon, gent,” “and if a dog howls dolefully at night, it is looked upon as a sure sign of death.” He also listed the “games and customs” of the people. We may include here the ancient ceremony of beating the bounds, an act of parish assertiveness which derives from the importance of beating the devil out of the locality; once charity children were whipped at each boundary with white willow wands, but in more recent years the particular walls are simply beaten with sticks. There are altogether some fifty-six annual customs and ceremonies in the city, ranging from the “Swearing on the Horns” in Highgate to “The Verdict of The Trial of the Pyx” in Goldsmiths’ Hall, but the rituals of May-day are the most enduring if not necessarily the most endearing.

In the first recorded ceremonies the “merry Milk Maids” of London would carry upon their heads a “Pyramid” of “Silver plate” instead of their usual pails; this may sound quaint, but the connotations of the practice were more ritualistic and barbaric. The maids were hardly “merry”-they were some of the most poorly paid and heavily worked of all city trades-and this parade of silver plate, borrowed for the occasion from pawn-brokers, can be seen as a token of their financial enslavement during the rest of the year. The first of May was also a day of sexual licence and, in recognition of this lubricious fact, young chimney-sweeps joined the maids in a later version of the spectacle. Grosley reports that their black faces “are whitened with meal, their heads covered with periwigs powdered as white snow, and their clothes bedaubed with paper-lace; and yet, tho’ dressed in this droll manner, their air is nearly as serious as that of undertakers at a funeral.” Chimney-sweeps, like miners, have always been associated with the dark and promiscuous forces of the world; hence their appearance on “May-day.” But the young sweeps, with their “serious” air, were also the most harshly treated of all London children. Many were killed, burned or deformed in the exercise of the trade, which was literally to climb up the flues of the chimneys and dislodge any soot or cinders. So their labour, and suffering, were paraded for one day of levity.

There is a painting of great interest, dated around 1730 and entitled The Curd and Whey Seller, Cheapside; it depicts a blind girl sitting at the foot of the conduit in that street, holding out her hand to three young sweeps. This conduit was their usual haunt, and their expressions are of startling vivacity. The faces of two of them are so blackened that only their eyes and mouths are visible. They are all very small, and one of them seems to have a deformed back. They do indeed seem like the grotesques of the city, with a suggestion of threat or menace directed against the blind and very pale street-seller. It can be suggested, therefore, that the procession of sweeps on May-day was a re-enactment of their threat which was to be symbolically alleviated by laughter. Like all London rites, however, the ceremony gradually became more fanciful, with the introduction in the late eighteenth century of a “Green Man” covered in twigs and leaves. He was known as “Jack-in-the-Green” or simply “Green” and, accompanied by milkmaids and sweeps, was paraded in various parishes as some garish token of spring. May-day ceremonies were eventually taken over by street performers, before disappearing altogether.

Yet the superstitions of London have not wholly departed. The city itself remains magical; it is a mysterious, chaotic and irrational place which can be organised and controlled only by means of private ritual or public superstition. That great adopted Londoner, Samuel Johnson, felt obliged to touch every post in Fleet Street when he walked down that thoroughfare. In similar spirit, many London streets have refused to countenance a No. 13-among them Fleet Street, Park Lane, Oxford Street, Praed Street, St. James’s Street, Haymarket and Grosvenor Street.

But the very line of a thoroughfare has, for some, a more numinous function. There have been many attempts to plot the trajectory of the city by means of “ley-lines” or “leys” which connect certain sites in straight alignment. One such line connects Highgate Hill in the north with Pollard’s Hill in Norbury to the south, on the way touching a surprising number of churches and chapels. Efforts have been made to connect the various churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, or to align St. Pancras Old Church, the British Museum or the Greenwich Observatory within a significant topography. In one sense it marks a revival of the earth magic once practised by the Celtic tribes of this region, yet it also gives due recognition to the power of place.

This is the power that William Blake celebrated in his vision of Los treading through London “Till he came to old Stratford, amp; thence to Stepney amp; the Isle/of Leutha’s Dogs, thence thro’ the narrows of the River’s side/And saw every minute particular.” In those particulars, like the mournful days of the Great Plague, the life and history of the city can be revived.

<p>CHAPTER 21. Painting the Town Red</p>

Red is London’s colour. The cabs of the early nineteenth century were red. The pillar boxes are red. The telephone boxes were, until recently, red. The buses are characteristically still red. The Underground trains were once generally of that colour. The tiles of Roman London were red. The original wall of London was built from red sandstone. London Bridge itself was reputed to be imbued with red, “bespattered with the blood of little children” as part of the ancient rituals of building. Red is also the colour of violence.

The great capitalists of London, the guild of the mercers, wore red livery. The Chronicles of London for 1399 describe “the Mair, Recourdour, and Aldermen off London in oon suyt, also in Skarlett,” while a poem commemorating Henry VI’s triumphal entry into London, in 1432, depicts “The noble Meir cladde in Reede velvette.” The pensioners of the Chelsea Hospital still wear red uniforms.

Red was the colour used to mark street improvements on the maps of London, and to indicate the areas of the “well-to-do” or wealthy. “Red” was also the Cockney slang for gold itself. The London river-workers, who supported the mobs that poured through the streets in the spring of 1768, invented the red flag as a token of radical discontent.

Novelists have also identified the colour of red with the nature of the city. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Chesterton’s vision of a future London, a protagonist asks: “I was wondering whether any of you had any red about you” and then stabs his left palm so that “The blood fell with so full a stream that it struck the stones without dripping.” This is a prelude to the success of “the red Notting Hillers” in that novel.

Red crosses were placed upon the doors of households shut up with the plague, thus confirming the symbolic association of the colour with that London disease which was once considered “always smouldering” like covered embers. The fire-fighters of London wore red jackets or “Crimson Livery Cloth.” Their commander, dying in a great fire in 1861, performed one telling act-“pausing only for a moment to unwind the red silk Paisley kerchief from his neck.” The colour is everywhere, even in the ground of the city itself: the bright red layers of oxidised iron in the London clay identify conflagrations which took place almost two thousand years ago. Yet there is one fire which has always remained in the memory of Londoners-a fire which, as John Locke noted, created “Sunbeams of a strange red dim light” which covered the whole of the city and could be seen even from his library in Oxford.


“The Great Fire of London”of 1666 was considered to be the greatest of fires, but in truth it was only one of a series of devastations. The fires of AD 60 and AD 125 destroyed most of the city, for example, creating what is described by archaeologists as a “fire destruction horizon.” This is the horizon of the city itself. London burned in 764, 798, 852, 893, 961, 982, 1077, 1087, 1093, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220 and 1227. R.S. Fitter, writing London’s Natural History after the Second World War, noted that “The constant laying waste of large areas of the city must have made the aspect of medieval London often a good deal more like the blitzed London of 1945 than most people realise.” James Pope-Hennessy, compiling a book on that wartime destruction, found in the ruins of London churches “a kind of continuity.” He recalled that “The city fire of December 1940 did at one moment look like Pepys’ famous description of the fire of 1666. The night sky, lit by a wavering orange glare, seemed to display an aura not at all unlike his ‘bow of flame.’”

London seems to invite fire and destruction, from the attacks of Boudicca to those of the IRA. In the literature of the subject, there are references to particularly incandescent areas. Arthur Hardwick’s Memorable Fires in London revealed Watling Street to be “the region in the heart of the City [that] has always been a ‘fiery’ one.” Aldersgate and Silver Street have “the reputation of the ‘danger zone,’” while areas such as Cheapside and Bread Street have been repeatedly subject to flame. Wood Street, too, “has proved a notoriously fiery street”-perhaps because of its name-and mysterious fires have broken out in Paternoster Square. The area of St. Mary Axe was destroyed in 1811, 1883, 1940 and then again in 1993. It is significant, too, that, in the city of spectacle, theatres continually go up in flame; thirty-seven were destroyed in 130 years, from 1789 to 1919, providing an appropriately theatrical scene for those who flocked to watch them. The nature of London fires has also been conceived in theatrical terms. During one conflagration in Paternoster Square, in 1883, “the flames burst through the roof and brilliantly illuminated the City”; a fire two years later in the Charterhouse sent out a fiery glow “as though the sun shone over everything.”

London Bridge has been destroyed by fire, as have the Royal Exchange, the Guildhall and the Houses of Parliament. In the nine years from 1833 to 1841 there were 5,000 fires in the city “yielding an average of 556 per annum, or about three in two days.” In the city of 1833 there were some 750 fires; in the “Great London region” of 1993 occurred 46,000 “primary” and “secondary” fires. In 1833 there were approximately 180 chimney fires; in 1993 215 such events. More fires spring up in December, and fewer in April, than in any other months; Friday is the worst day of the week for conflagrations, and Saturday the best. The most hazardous time is ten in the evening, and the most benign seven in the morning. Some fires begin with arson, but most by accident-a great conflagration of 1748, consuming more than a hundred houses in the streets and passages by Exchange Alley and killing a dozen people, began “through the servant leaving a candle burning in the shed whilst she was listening to a band performing at the Swan Tavern.” An engraving of the fiery ruins was promptly issued by a printer in Scalding Alley.

Yet fire can also reveal the forgotten or neglected history of the city. The site of Winchester Palace, on the south bank of the Thames, was first uncovered after a fire at Bankside Mustard Mills. The remains of a thirteenth-century barbican, or watch-tower, were revealed in 1794 after a fire in St. Martin’s Court, Ludgate. Flame can recreate, therefore, as well as destroy. It is perhaps significant that, in London folklore, a dream of fire denotes “health and happiness” or “marriage with the object of the affections.”


A nineteenth-century correspondent of Le Temps noticed that in comparison with Parisians, Londoners showed “astonishing promptitude” in their reaction to the call of “Fire! Fire!” It was the war cry of the city. In first-century London vigiles or “bucket boys” patrolled the city by night; already there was some fascination or mystery concerned with fire, since they were known for “their liveliness and devilry.” Their organised system of watching decayed in succeeding centuries, but it can be inferred that the early medieval wards assumed responsibility for locating and putting out fires in their vicinity. The next attempt at precaution was the simple curfew or “couvre-feu”; on the ringing of the evening bell, resounding all over the eleventh-century city, all fires were supposed to be covered and the ashes raked. If a fire did rage, then the bells of the churches rang backwards to spread the alarm; it was as if the devil had suddenly re-emerged in the roar of the flames. Barrels of water were kept outside the larger houses and, by the twelfth century, there were elaborate regulations for the quenching of the flames and the pulling down of burning thatch.

In the fifteenth century it was decreed that each new sheriff and alderman, within a month of taking up office, “shall cause 12 new buckets to be made of leather for the quenching of fire.” The successor of the humble bucket was “a kind of syringe or squirt,” which was in turn followed by an early pumping device; this was pulled by the firemen, calling out their familiar cry of “Hi! Hi! Hi!,” and has been termed “the first ‘fire engine’ to reach the streets of London.” It was succeeded in the early seventeenth century by “an Engine or Instrument” which “with the help of tenne men to labor” could pump more water “than five hundred men with the helpe of Bucketts and laydels.” This was the engine celebrated by Dryden, in Annus Mirabilis; he described the spectacle of the flames, and how “streets grow throng’d, and busy as by day.” The impression, again, is of fire as some alternative sun flooding the streets with light. One of the earliest fire insurance companies named itself “The Sun,” and its mark can still be seen on many houses. Fire by a sudden leap of metaphor then becomes the source of energy and power, as if it represented the sporadic and violent irruption of the city’s own heated life. One of the greatest maps of London, “Horwood’s Plan” of 1799, was dedicated to the Phoenix Fire office in Lombard Street which had risen soon after the fire of 1666; again it is a mark of the importance of those who deal with fire in the capital. Curiously enough, the first chief executive of the Phoenix was a Mr. Stonestreet.

Over the centuries the shouts of the firemen were replaced by handbells, then by mechanical and electric bells. Then came the siren, replaced in turn by a complex system of sound including the “two-tone,” the “wail” and the “yelp.” The first firemen themselves were placed in colourful regalia. One company, for example, was arrayed in “blue jackets with elaborate gold cuffs, and gold braiding” with “black knee-breeches, white stockings and gold garters”; on days of ceremony they marched with silver staffs and badges. They were themselves fired by duty-“hearts aglow,” as Hilaire Belloc appropriately put it. Such was their prestige that the headquarters of many fire offices were described as “resembling in design highly-enriched palaces.”

Two children pass the Phoenix Fire office in a novel by Edith Nesbit. “Fire?” one says. “For altars, I suppose?” Yes, for the great sacrificial altar of London.

Fire became one of the principal characteristics of the city. It was even known as “the Fire King.” Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the fires “grew in size and frequency” and, perhaps as a consequence, the crowds became larger. A conflagration at Tooley Street took more than a month to die away; the House of Commons was destroyed by fire in 1834, which provoked some of the most picturesque London paintings. The Westminster burning became, according to the authors of London In Paint, “the single most depicted event in nineteenth century London … attracting to the scene a host of engravers, water-colourists and painters,” among them Constable and Turner. These artists recognised that in the heart of the flame they might also evoke the spirit and presence of the city itself. There are reports of great crowds assembling to view the destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936, as well as of many dock fires and warehouse fires where “the ghost of Victorian” conflagrations was said to walk.

The consuming appetite for fire among the citizens did not diminish until the “blitz” of 1940. On the night of 29 December, the raid timed when the water of the Thames was at its lowest, some 1,500 fires were burning at the same time in the city. It was said then that the “Great Fire” had truly come again.


That Great Fire, one of the most formative events of the city’s history, may be dated from 1 September 1666, when Pepys and his wife were “horribly frightened to see Young Killigrew come in [to a place of public resort] with a great many more young sparks.” These “young sparks” represented the fiery youth of the city. Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys returned to their house in Seething Lane where, at three on the following morning, they were roused by a maid with news of a fire in the City. Pepys saw some flames at the lower end of a neighbouring street, and then went back to sleep. The fire had started one hour before at the house of the king’s baker, Mr. Farryner, in Pudding Lane. At the later enquiry Farryner insisted that before retiring to bed he had “gone through every room, and found no fire but in one chimney, where the room was paved with bricks, which fire he diligently raked up in embers.” The cause of the Great Fire was never discovered. It just happened.

The month of August had been unusually hot, “characterised by an extraordinary drought,” so that the thatch and timber of the neighbouring buildings in the narrow streets and alleys were already “half-burned.” The fire found friendly territory, in other words, and was further aided by a strong south-east wind; it was carried onward from Pudding Lane towards Fish Street and London Bridge, then down through Thames Street into Old Swan Lane, St. Lawrence Lane, and Dowgate. Everyone in a position to do so took to the water with boats, lighters and skiffs carrying the goods of their houses threatened by the flames. Pepys also took to the river, where with his face in the wind he was “almost burned with a shower of fire drops.” He observed that most households took with them a pair of virginals. He also noticed that the “poor pigeons were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they burned their wings and fell down.”

The fire was now out of control, burning steadily to the north and to the west; Pepys eventually took refuge from the incendiary river in an alehouse on the other bank, and there “saw the fire grow … in corners, and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid, malicious bloody flame, not like the fire flame of an ordinary fire.” It was then that he noticed the arch or bow of flame, about a mile in width (which Pope-Hennessy was to observe during the fire-raids of 1940).

That night the fire spread from Cheapside down to the Thames, along Cornhill, Tower Street, Fenchurch Street, Gracechurch Street and to Baynard’s Castle. It had gone so far down Cheapside that it took hold of St. Paul’s which, by chance, was surrounded by wooden scaffolding. John Evelyn, who walked among the streets even at this hour, noted that “the noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it.”

The unprepared citizens were left bewildered; they made no attempt to put out the fires, and simply fled. Those who remained, of the “lower” sort, stole whatever they could take from the burning dwellings. Those who did not take refuge upon the river, itself now choked with smoke and deluged by “fire drops,” went into the surrounding fields of Islington, Finsbury and Highgate, watched and wept.

By the following day, Monday, the fire had spread down Ludgate into Fleet Street and had burned down the Old Bailey; Newgate and Billingsgate were gone, while the molten lead from the roof of St. Paul’s ran through the streets “glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse or man was able to tread on them.” By now the smoke stretched for fifty miles, so that those leaving the city could travel for hours in its shadow.

That night several fires met together. One came down Cornhill, and one down Threadneedle Street; which, uniting together, in turn met two separate fires coming from Walbrook and Bucklersbury. John Evelyn remarked that “all these four, journeying together, break into one great flame at the corner of Cheapside, with such a dazzling light and burning heat, and roaring noise by the fall of so many houses together, that was very amazing.” It was as if some ancient spirit of fire had reared its head in the very middle of the city.

By Tuesday the wind had abated, and the fire stopped at the top of Fetter Lane in Holborn. The deeds of the Mitre Tavern, at the other end of Fetter Lane, described a boundary by “the tree where the Fire of London divides.” The fire was still raging in the north at Cripplegate and in the east by the Tower but the authorities, advised by Charles II, who had always evinced a strong interest in fire-prevention, were able to stop its growth by blowing up with gunpowder houses in its path.

On Thursday John Evelyn once more walked the streets of his city, now a ruin, “through the late Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill, by St. Pauls, Cheapside, Exchange, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate”-all gone. He found himself “clambering over heaps of yet smoking rubbish, and frequently mistaking where I was.” This was also the experience of Londoners after the bombing raids of 1940; their city was suddenly unknown and unrecognisable. It had become an alien place, as if they had woken from some dream to encounter a quite different reality. “Nor could anyone have possibly known where he was,” wrote Evelyn, “but by the ruins of some church or hall that had some remarkable tower or pinnacle remaining.” The ground under his feet was so hot that he could hardly walk; the iron gates and bars of the prisons had all melted; the stones of the buildings were all calcined and rendered a brilliant white; the water left in fountains was still boiling while “subterranean cellars, wells and dungeons” were belching forth “dark clouds of smoke.” Five-sixths of the city were thus consumed, the area of devastation encompassing a mile and a half in length and half a mile in breadth. Fifteen of the city’s twenty-six wards were thoroughly destroyed and, in total, 460 streets containing 13,200 houses were razed. Eighty-nine churches had gone, and four of the seven city gates were reduced to ashes and powder. It was officially reported that only six people were killed, one a watch-maker in Shoe Lane where on excavation “his bones, with his keys, were found.”

Perhaps the most notable image of this extraordinary fire was that from a clergyman, the Revd. T. Vincent, in a book entitled God’s Terrible Advice to the City by Plague and Fire. He too had seen “the dreadful bow” of light across the city. He had witnessed the burning of the Guildhall “which stood the whole body of it together in view for several hours together after the fire had taken it, without flames, (I suppose because the timber was such solid oak), in a bright shining coal, as if it had been a palace of gold, or a great building of burnished brass.”

In the aftermath of the Great Fire emerged a yellow-flowering plant known as London Rocket and, in 1667 and 1668, “it grew very abundantly on the ruins around St. Paul’s”; it was seen again, in 1945, “just outside the City boundary.” It is the true flower of fire. The Monument, erected on the site of the Fire’s first emergence, is also a form of rocket or vehicle of fire; it was first proposed that a statue of the king, or a great phoenix, should be placed upon its summit. But it was eventually agreed that an urn of flames, known as “the Blaze,” should furnish the column. Daniel Defoe deciphered the object as a great candle, with the urn as “handsome gilt flame!”


There were many representations of the events of those five days of fire, not least a series of long poems which can be found in an anthology entitled London in Flames, London in Glory. The burning city is severally compared to Rome, to Carthage, to Sodom and to Troy; the classical gods are depicted as wandering through the burning streets, together with Virgil and Jezebel, as the spectacle of flaming London conjures up images of dead or dying civilisations in past ages of the world. The painted images of the Fire were equally ostentatious, although some of them seem literally to have been sketched at the very time of the blaze itself. There are sober studies, including those of Hollar showing “A True and Exact Prospect of the Famous Citty of London” before the autumn of 1666 together with the same “As It Appeareth Now After the Sad Calamitie And Destruction by Fire”; it was sketched from the south bank of the river, and it is possible to see through the ruins right into Cheapside itself. But most works were in the style of “conflagration painting,” according to London in Paint, which found their inspiration in “biblical or mythic city fires.” Two of the most famous paintings, “after Jan Groffier the Elder,” depict the towers and portcullis of Ludgate in flames as if it were the entrance to Hell itself; there may be another explanation for the appearance of Ludgate, however, since the area beside it was considered an “artists’ quarter” in the middle of the seventeenth century. There are many small scenes and episodes reflected in these paintings: the woman running with wild face and arms outstretched from the encroaching fire, the man carrying a bundle of silver plate upon his head, the carts and horses being driven in a great crowd towards the open fields. But the most striking image is that of a man carrying a child on his shoulders against a backdrop of flame; it was re-employed by Blake, Doré, and other artists as a true representation of the mysteries and sufferings of London.

The Great Fire was not simply the inspiration, therefore, of contemporary artists. For over two hundred years it remained the most arresting image of the seventeenth century. Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, a great scenic designer in the London theatres, painted his own version at the end of the eighteenth century and in the following century the Great Fire was recreated every night at the Surrey Gardens.

But the conflation of the city and fire goes deeper than theatre or spectacle. To Panizzi, in the mid-nineteenth century, London had the appearance of a city that had somehow already been burned. In Night and Day Virginia Woolf describes it as “eternally burnt”; it seemed that “no darkness would ever settle upon those lamps, as no darkness had settled upon them for hundreds of years. It seemed dreadful that the town should blaze for ever in the same spot.” In 1880 a Frenchman believed the entire capital to be “a temple of fire-worshippers”; his companion on this urban pilgrimage, Arthur Machen, went on to describe “all the fires of London reflected dimly in the sky, as if far away awful furnace doors were opened.” Mirbeau talked of London in terms “of mystery, of the conflagration, of the furnace” while Monet, at the end of the nineteenth century, wished to depict the sun “setting in an enormous ball of fire behind Parliament.” In some of that artist’s paintings, in fact, London seems to breathe and live within an atmosphere of fire surrounding all streets and buildings with the same unearthly glow.

By the mid-nineteenth century the sky above London was notable for “the glowing atmosphere that hangs over the capital for miles”; the brick kilns on the perimeter of the city in that period created a ring as if of stage fire, while the great dust mountains inside the capital had the appearance of volcanoes. It was a city “where fires can scarcely be kept under” while, in twentieth-century terms, it is characterised as an “urban heat island.” London was popularly known as the “Great Oven” and, in the 1920s, V.S. Pritchett confessed to the sensation of being “smoked and kippered” in the depths of the city. When the fire does eventually go out the city is forbidding, blackened and relentless, some charred monument of eternity filled with what Keats called “the Burden of Mystery.”


It became clear, after the Great Fire, that fire itself must be controlled. The twin visitations of flame and plague had been interpreted by moralists as the handiwork of a God enraged by the sinfulness and dissipation of London. But there were others, including Christopher Wren and Edmond Halley, who began to question the wisdom of placing all responsibility for its disasters on fate or divine displeasure. The Royal Society had been established in London in 1660, and the two visitations prompted its members to find “scientific” or “objective” causes for such violent events. In the name of “Reason”-what is “simple, solid, sensible”-it was hoped that London consciousness might be changed so that, in future ages, such pestilences and conflagrations might be averted. The greatest effect of the Fire, paradoxically, was to promote the advancement of science. Even before the end of September 1666, according to a quotation in London in Flames, London in Glory, “Men begin now everywhere to recover their spirits again, and think of repairing the old and rebuilding a new City.” Specifically it seemed an opportunity to exorcise “the rebellious Humours, the horrid Sacriledges … and gingling Extravagances” of the previous age. This refers to the civil war, and to the execution of Charles I, but it also suggests that extravagant piety and superstitious practice-precisely the citizens’ responses to the plague, as documented by Defoe-were no longer permitted. It was to be a new city in every sense.


The causes and consequences of the Great Plague of 1665 were endlessly described, but most considered it to be God’s punishment upon a heathen city.


CHAPTER 20. A Plague Upon You

<p>CHAPTER 20. A Plague Upon You</p>

London is a city perpetually doomed. It has always been considered the Jerusalem about which the prophets were so clamant, and the words of Ezekiel have often been applied to curb its mighty spirit-“Say unto them which daub it with untempered mortar, that it shall fall … and a stormy wind shall rend it” (Ezekiel XIII: 11). In the fourteenth century John Gower lamented its approaching destruction, and in 1600 Thomas Nashe wrote that “London doth mourn, Lambeth is quite forlorn; Trades cry, woe worth that ever they were born … From winter, plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us!” In 1849 the Earl of Shaftesbury described London as the “City of the Plague,” and one of the characters in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying talks of “a city of the dead.”

Much has been written about the nature of fear in London. James Boswell arrived in the city in 1762. “I began to be apprehensive that I was taking a nervous fever, a supposition not improbable, as I had one after such an illness when I was last in London. I was quite sunk.” The editor’s commentary upon Laroon’s depiction of street traders emphasises the traces of anxiety upon their faces, in particular “hollow, frightened eyes.” In the poem “London” William Blake’s narrator wanders through the streets by the river, “And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe” together with the “Infants cry of fear … Soldiers sigh … Harlots curse … new-born Infants tear.” In the illustration with which he has adorned the right-hand side of the poem, a child is warming itself beside a great fire which may itself be a token of calamity. In his account of the plague of 1664 and 1665, Daniel Defoe depicted the city itself torn by fever and nervous fear. It was said of Thackeray that “it seemed as if London were his disease, and he could not help telling all the symptoms” to which is appended the remark, “that is another sign of a true Londoner.” In a poem by Thomas Hood, the stones of London cry out against a woman careering through the streets upon a horse-“Batter her! shatter her! Kick her brains out! Let her blood spatter her!”

There has always been so much to create anxiety in the city-the noise, the endless rush, the violence of the mob. London has been compared to a prison and to a grave. To the German poet, Heinrich Heine, “this overdriven London oppresses the fancy and tears the heart.” Heckethorn’s London Memories records that when in 1750 one soldier prophesied an earthquake “vast multitudes left London for the country, and the fields around were crowded with fugitives from the threatened catastrophe.” The unfortunate seer was later confined to a madhouse. But the symptoms of fear have never materially diminished. In times of pestilence many citizens simply died of fright, and it has been remarked that in nineteenth-century discourse the word “gloom” emerges frequently. It is related to the fogs or “London particulars” of that century, but it seems also to have possessed an intimate and more unnerving significance. November was the month for London suicides and, when the fog was at its thickest, “people who experienced this phenomenon said it seemed as if the world was coming to an end.” These last words were exactly those used by the inhabitants of Whitechapel Road, when a firework manufactory exploded. The phrase came readily and easily to the lips-as if, perhaps, there was some unconscious wish for this mighty cessation. Dostoevsky noted, after visiting the Great Exhibition in London, “And you feel nervous … a feeling of fear somehow creeps over you. Can this, you think, in fact be the final accomplishment of an ideal state of things? Is this the end, by any chance?”

Death has always been one of London’s devices. “The Dance of Death” was painted on the wall of St. Paul’s Churchyard, so that the people who thronged that church for business or amusement were always aware of their mortality. In June of 1557 the registrar of a parish records the following causes of death within that one month-“a swellynge … ague … consumption … thought [cough] … blody fluxe … poches [pox] … postum which brake … browce [bruise?] … famyne … consumed away.” The bills of mortality in London, published every Thursday, include those who were “planet struck,” or who suffered from “horseshoe head” or “rising of the lights,” the latter now quite uninterpretable; there are entries on those “killed in the pillory” or who “died from want in Newgate.” Even before the plague of 1665 and the Fire of 1666 memento mori motifs were “one speciality of the seventeenth century City churchyards.” “Nobody is healthy in London,” Mr. Woodhouse complains in Emma, “nobody could be.” A character in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, Matthew Bramble, suffered certain symptoms in London “which warn me to be gone from this centre of infection.” A century later London was described as the “Great Wen” or fleshy excrescence indicative of poor health.


There have always been epidemics and waves of death within the metropolis. The “Black Death” of 1348 killed approximately 40 per cent of London’s population. Many were buried outside the walls in no-man’s-land, otherwise known as Pardon Churchyard or Wilderness Row, now part of the Clerkenwell Road behind the Charterhouse. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries epidemics of the “sweating sickness” fell upon the capital on at least six occasions; that of 1528 “visited London with such violence that it carried off thousands in the space of five or six hours.” The quagmires and open sewers of the city turned it into “a paradise for mosquitoes,” thus causing the “ague” which is now known as malaria.

The plague came early to London; the first recorded instance is from the seventh century. Between the years 1563 and 1603 there were five severe attacks, in the latter year killing some 30,000 Londoners when “Feare and Trembling (the two Catch-polles of Death) arrest every one … no voyce heard but Tue Tue, Kill, Kill” and Watling Street was “like an empty Cloyster.” No one was ever safe. No one was ever entirely well in a city “full of pits and sloughs, very perilous and noyous,” dirty and filled with “corrupt savours.” London itself had become a sink of disease. Yet nothing in its history could have prepared its citizens for the events which unfolded between the fated and fateful years of 1664 and 1666.

There had been intimations of catastrophe. In 1658 Walter Costello wrote that “if fire make not ashes of the city, and thy bones also, conclude me a liar for ever. Oh London! London!” In the following year a Quaker tract entitled A Vision concerning London contained the prophecy that “And as for the city herself, and her suburbs, and all that belonged to her, a fire was kindled therein; but she knew not how, even in all her goodly places, and the kindling of it was in the foundation of all her buildings and there was none could quench it.” In his Monarchy Or No Monarchy, published in 1651, the London astrologer William Lilly inserted an hieroglyphical plate “representing on one side persons in winding streets digging graves; and on the other a large city in flames.” Wenceslaus Hollar had noticed the vigour and energy of the citizens in 1647 but, on his return in 1652, “he found the countenances of the people all changed, melancholy, spight full, as if bewitched.” Mother Shipton predicted a general conflagration, and a Quaker walked naked through Bartholomew Fair with a pan of fire and brimstone on his head as a prophecy. A man in a narrow passage by Bishopsgate convinced all those around him that a ghost there was making “signs to the houses, and to the ground” suggesting plainly that “abundance of people should come to be buried in that churchyard.”


There is an area adjacent to Goswell Road known as Mount Mills. It is now an open space, used as a car park. It is unusual in this part of London to find what is essentially a patch of waste ground. The answer lies in its history. Here, according to Daniel Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year, on “a piece of ground beyond Goswell Street, near Mount Mill … abundance were buried promiscuously from the parishes of Aldersgate, Clerkenwell, and even out of the city.” It was a plague pit, in other words, where, during the Great Plague of 1664 and 1665, thousands were taken in “dead carts” and dumped in the loose soil.

It was comparable to the burial pit in Houndsditch, about forty feet in length, sixteen feet broad and twenty feet in depth, containing more than a thousand corpses. Some of the bodies “were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart.” It was reported that the living, out of despair, sometimes flung themselves among the dead. The Pye tavern was very close to the Houndsditch pit itself and when, at night, the drunken heard the rumble of the dead cart and the noise of the iron bell they came to the window and jeered at anyone who mourned for the newly dead. They also uttered “blasphemous expressions” such as There is no God or God is a devil. There was one driver who “When he had any children in his dead cart could cry ‘Faggots, faggots, five for sixpence’ and take up a child by the leg.”

The area of Mount Mills is waste ground still.

· · ·

These reports are all taken from Defoe’s chronicle. He was only six years old at the time of the visitation, and much of his evidence is anecdotal, but there are also contemporary accounts which furnish additional material for contemplation. Any observer willing to enter the city during the plague would first have noticed the silence; there was no traffic except for the dead carts, and all the shops and markets were closed. Those who had not fled had locked themselves within their houses, and the river was deserted. Any citizens who did venture upon the streets walked in the middle, down the kennel, away from the buildings; they also avoided chance meetings. It was so quiet that the rush of the water beneath the bridge could distinctly be heard throughout the old City. Great bonfires were placed at intersections and in the middle of main thoroughfares, so that the streets were filled with smoke as well as the miasma of the dead and dying. The life of London seemed to be over.

The plague had begun, in the parish of St. Giles, at the close of 1664. It is understood now that the infection was carried by the black rat, known also as rattus rattus, otherwise called the ship rat, or the house rat. These rats are old inhabitants of London, their bones being discovered in excavations of fourth-century Fenchurch Street. It is likely that they arrived from South Asia in Roman ships, and they have remained ever since. The severe cold of the early months of 1665 prevented any spread in the infection for a while, but from the beginning of spring the bills of mortality began to rise. By July the plague had entered the city from the western suburbs. It was a dry, hot summer without any wind. Grass grew in the abandoned streets.

John Allin, a clergyman, stayed in the city and sent many letters to those at a safe distance; they are reprinted in W.G. Bell’s Unknown London. On 11 August he wrote: “I am troubled at the approach of the sicknesse neerer every weeke, and at a new burying place which they have made neer us.” “They,” indicating some indeterminate authority all the more pressing for being so vague, has always been part of the London vocabulary. Thirteen days later: “I am, through mercy, yet well in middest of death and that, too, approaching neerer and neerer: not many doores off, and the pitt open dayly within view of my chamber window.” In the following week, at the beginning of September, he described “the dolefull and almost universall and continuall ringing and tolling of bells.” So this was the noise that broke the silence. In the same letter he mentioned that his brother had left the house one morning and, on his return from the streets, had found “a stiffness under his eare, where he had a swelling that could not be brought to rise and breake, but choacked him; he dyed Thursday night last.” Five days later Allin wrote of the distemper: “it is at the next doore on both hands of mee, and under the same roofe … These 3 dayes hath bene sea cole fyres made in the streets about every 12th doore, but that will not do the worke of stopping God’s hand.” His anxiety is palpable. It was not until the middle of September that some rain mitigated the appalling heat, but after that modest abatement the plague raged again.

John Allin told the story of six physicians who, believing that they had found a remedy, opened up an infected body-“it is said that they are all dead since, the most of them distractedly madd.” Six days later there came report of “that word spoken by a child here concerning the increase of the Plague, until 18,317 dye in a weeke.” The child died. Yet the rates began to fall. In the last week of February 1666, there were only forty-two deaths reported, whereas more than eight thousand died each week of September 1665.

Within the texture of Defoe’s prose London becomes a living and suffering being, not the “abstract civic space” of W.H. Auden’s poem. London is itself racked with “fever” and is “all in tears.” Its “face” is “strangely altered,” and its streets circulate “steams and fumes” like the blood of those infected. It is not clear whether the whole sick body of London is an emanation of its citizens, or whether the inhabitants are an emanation or projection of the city. Certainly its conditions were responsible for much death. In the great centre of trade and commerce, the process of buying and selling itself destroyed the citizens-“this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city.” The people “dropped dead in the very markets” in the act of trading. They would “just sit down and die” with the tainted coins still in their pockets.

There is another melancholy image which issues from the pages of Defoe. It is of a city where there “were so many prisons in the town as there were houses shut up.” Metaphors of incarceration are persistent throughout London writing, but during the Great Plague there emerged vivid and literal examples of urban imprisonment. The symbolism of the red cross and the words “Lord have mercy on us” has not been wasted on mythographers of the city, but the measure of societal control has perhaps not been fully recognised. Of course many people escaped, often by the expedient of going over a garden wall or travelling along the roofs-even with some “watchmen” murdered to ensure liberty-but, in theory, each street and each house became a gaol.

One ordinance has remained in force for three centuries with the proclamation that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.” All beggars were expelled. Public assemblies were banned. In a city which had shown its manic propensities in a thousand different ways, order and authority had to be imposed directly and harshly. Hence the turning of houses into prisons by “shutting up,” a measure which even at the time was considered by many to be both arbitrary and pointless. But in a city of prisons it was the natural and instinctive response of the civic authorities.

By means of anecdote and circumstantial detail, Defoe provides a Londoner’s vision of a city “quite abandoned to despair.” It is clear from his report that the citizens very quickly reverted to superstition and apparently primitive belief. A genuine madness was in the streets, with prophets and interpreters of dreams and fortune-tellers and astrologers all terrifying “the people to the last degree.” Many, fearful of sudden death, ran out into the streets to confess that “I have been a murderer” and “I have been a thief.” At the height of the plague it was fully believed that “God was resolved to make a full end of the people of this miserable city,” and as a result the citizens became “raving and distracted.” Daniel Defoe knew London very well-perhaps better than any man living in his period-and he declared that “the strange temper of the people of London at that time contributed extremely to their destruction.”

There were “conjurors and witches … quacks and mountebanks” who placed posters all over the city advertising their services and who dispensed pills and cordials and treacles and “plague waters” to the desperate. A list of cures was published at the “Sign of the Angell, neare the Greate Conduit in Cheapside,” and it was possible for “An Excellent Electuary against the plague, to be drunk at the Green Dragon Cheape-side at Sixpence a pint.”


London has always been a centre for healers and doctors, surgeons and magnetisers, of all descriptions. Perhaps its nervous fear has in turn promoted symptoms to be cured by “physic.” In fourteenth-century London, calendars of saints, as well as various charts of astrology, were used to determine the efficacy of particular herbs. Ecclesiastics were the first surgeons. In the thirteenth century the papal authorities banned them for shedding blood. After that date, lay surgeons and physicians were ubiquitous. Not all of them had undergone the usual apprenticeship of ten years, however, and in the early sixteenth century it was proclaimed that “the science and cunning of physick and surgery” were being exercised by “smiths, weavers and women” who used “sorcery and witchcraft” to effect their cures. It was believed, for example, that water drunk from the skull of a hanged man or the very touch of a dead man’s hand were efficacious.

Earlier Londoners admiring “London Stone,” which has been considered alternately as a milestone or a symbol of civic power. It now lies almost unseen in Cannon Street.

John Stow: the great sixteenth-century antiquary whose Survey is the first complete and authentic description of London. His bust still survives in the church of St. Andrew Undershaft.

William I’s charter: this small document marked the king’s authority over London and its citizens, and was one of the first salvoes in the continual struggle between the monarchy and the city.

“Buy my fat chickens,” “Fair lemons and oranges,” “Knives, combs and inkhorns”: images of street sellers, drawn by Marcellus Laroon, c. 1687. They are the ragged emblems of London life, confident or careworn, animated or depressed, as the eternal crowd melts around them.

London, 1560. Note the Bankside bear-baiting arenas in the foreground.

A panorama of London Bridge and the northern areas of London in the sixteenth century. The bridge was then a great thoroughfare, complete with shops, houses and public lavatories. Note the number of churches which Wyngaerde has depicted.

Hollar’s panorama of London is one of the most striking and evocative images of the seventeenth-century city before the Fire. The endless activity on the river is a testimony to London’s commerce, while the streets and buildings are an emblem of its magnificence.

A view of old St. Paul’s, completed by Hollar in the mid-seventeenth century. This was the magnificent church quite destroyed in the Great Fire, a reminder of all that London lost in that conflagration.

The Royal Exchange, forerunner of the Stock Exchange, as depicted by Hollar, is packed with merchants and brokers; they are part of a commercial life which was established as early as the Roman period and has continued ever since.

A detail of a map showing the devastation wreaked by the Great Fire of 1666. Even churches did not survive.

Rowlandson’s depiction of a public hanging outside Newgate Prison. The rituals of executions provided unrivalled entertainment for the London crowd, and fresh anatomical specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons.

Seventeenth-century firemen at their trade; they were indispensable in a city notorious for fires, and their call of “Hi! Hi! Hi!” was as ubiquitous as the modern siren.

Rowlandson’s depiction of a public hanging outside Newgate Prison. The rituals of executions provided unrivalled entertainment for the London crowd, and fresh anatomical specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons.

Moll Cut-Purse: an engraving of the most notorious of the “roaring girls,” those women who wore masculine costume in order to confront a male-dominated city on its own terms. The animals and birds depicted were part of her own private menagerie.

Newgate Prison showing the windmill which supposedly helped provide air for the inmates. The gaol was the most notorious within the city, commemorated in songs, pamphlets and plays. London writers of all periods have compared the city to a prison, in implicit homage to the pervasive power and presence of that “hell on earth.”

“The Modern Plague of London.” A temperance map: each dot represents a public house. London is so large, and so diverse, that a thousand different maps or topographies have been drawn up in order to describe it. Here is a map of drunkenness in the city always notorious for its drunkards.

A photograph of the Café Monico, on Piccadilly Circus, in a period where horse-drawn vehicles competed with motor cars in the busy streets. Note that the age of advertising is in full swing.

In seventeenth-century London, too, “quacks” or “healers” were in the ascendant and have been duly catalogued in Charles Mackay’s volume of popular delusions and superstitions. When Valentine Greatraks, a “healer,” moved to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the early 1660s, “Nothing was spoken of in London but his prodigies; and these prodigies were supported by such great authorities, that the bewildered multitude believed them almost without examination.” Thus did another showman succeed in “magnetising the people of London.” “Scurvy quacks” used spoonwart which grew by the banks of the Thames, while more noxious treatments such as “Spirit of Pearl” or “Essence of Gold” were also dispensed. There were “wise-women” and “wise-men” who examined urine (known as practitioners of “piss-pot science”) or pored upon moles to discover the source of illness. The seventh child of a seventh child invariably entered the business, although many claimed that distinction without having attained it.

One William Salmon practised at the very gates of Bartholomew Hospital and claimed to have cured “Ambrose Webb at the Three Compasses in Westbury-street of a great bleeding at Nose; a youth, a son of William Ogben, a Taylor, near the Black Boy in Barnaby-street, of a long and tedious ague and madness … Nicholas Earl at the Cup in Long alley, of dropsy; Joan Ingram near the Bear in Moor Fields of the Gout, and Anthony Geasture at the Cock in Wapping of a consumption.” The circumstantial detail is compelling. The advertisement also serves to elucidate the manner in which Londoners identified each other by citing location in terms of the nearest tavern.

There seems little doubt that William Salmon did indeed effect cures; like a modern psychiatrist, he was particularly effective at dispelling or exorcising that “melancholy” which was a recurring London condition. He was himself a London original, part showman, part sorcerer and part physician. He was born in the summer of 1644 and began life as “an assistant to a mountebank” before establishing his own career as the seller of “Elixir Vitae.” He was also a popular educator, and in 1671 published Synopsis Medicinae, or a Compendium of Astrological, Galenical and Chymical Physick which passed through at least four editions. He wrote several other popular books, upon mathematics and drawing as well as medicine, but his most successful work was his London Almanack in which he prophesied in a manner to be later adopted or stolen by Old Moore. His practice across London can be traced with some accuracy-from Smithfield to Salisbury Court off Fleet Street, from there to the Blue Balcony by the ditch near Holborn Bridge and then on to Mitre Court beside Fleet Street. Like many Londoners he became a radical Dissenter; he joined a sect called the “New Religious Fraternity of Freethinkers” which assembled near the Leather-sellers’ Hall. Then, at a somewhat late age, he began to practise anatomy. On his death in 1714 he left two microscopes and a library of over three thousand volumes.

Of course there were more genteel, if not more learned, practitioners of healing who came under the aegis of the Company of Barber Surgeons (they were later to split in two, becoming barbers or surgeons) or the College of Physicians. The latter institution, with a roof described as “the distant sight of a gilded pill,” was in Warwick Lane, near Newgate Prison from which many of its anatomical subjects came. Anatomy lessons were its principal and compelling feature. They were conducted in a central chamber, used as the setting for Hogarth’s The Reward For Cruelty in which the corpse of a wretched murderer, Tom Nero, is thoroughly anatomised and degraded. It was known as a “theatre,” and indeed it became an intrinsic part of London spectacle. The taking of the corpses of the hanged for dissection and dispersal was an old custom-we read of the necessity of “a wax candle to look into the body”-but in later years the corpses were also used to test the properties of electricity. One recently deceased killer was “galvanised” in 1803, with the result that one of his eyes opened and he raised his right hand. It is reported by Charles Knight that the instructor “died that very afternoon of the shock.” At an earlier date, in 1740, a specimen was about to be anatomised when “he threw his Hand in the Surgeon’s face, and accidentally cut his Lips with the Lancet.” After this escape from the knife he sat in a chair, groaning, and “in great Agitation”; eventually he recovered and “heartily” asked for his mother.

Hogarth’s engraving is a swirling composition, in which the round complementarity of all parts evokes the circles of Tom Nero’s life within the inferno of London; it also seems to demonstrate the connection between Nero’s own cruelty and that of the physicians who are presently disembowelling him. The violence of the streets fashions Nero’s character so that he becomes an emblem of the worst London “type.” Yet he is not so different from the surgeon delightedly plunging a scalpel into his eye-socket. Hogarth based his portrait upon a surgeon named Dr. John Freke. In this city everything connects.

The skeletons of two famous malefactors, which once hung in the alcoves of the anatomical theatre, can still be seen in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Jonathan Wild, the most notorious villain of eighteenth-century London, and William Corder, the killer of Maria Martin in the Old Red Barn murder, now hang together as part of a truly old-fashioned London spectacle. In the same gallery can be seen the Irish giant Charles Byrne, whose skeleton of seven feet ten inches has been placed beside the diminutive remains of Caroline Crachami who was only one foot ten and a half inches in height. They were London “freaks” and, in death, they still satisfy the taste for urban theatre.

The apothecaries of London, like the anatomists, were accustomed to stage management. They customarily wore black and it was almost mandatory that their shops, however humble, would contain a skull as well as a folio written in some ancient tongue. Here were sold herbs and powders, pills and electuaries, drugs and dentifrices, pomades and love-charms. In Camomile Street and Bucklersbury, in particular, all herbal remedies were to be found. In Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) there is a summary of the trading arts-“Oyster-shells he could convert into crab’s eyes; common oil into oil of sweet almonds … Thames water into aqua cinnamoni … when any common thing was ordered for a patient, he always took care to disguise it in colour or taste, or both, in such a manner as that it could not possibly be known.”

The drugs themselves came and went according to the fashion of the age. In the seventeenth century, these included moss, smoked horses’ testicles, may dew and henbane. In the eighteenth century, we find nutmeg and spiders wrapped in their own silk. In the nineteenth century, we read of “Turkey rhubarb and sulphuric acid.” In the early twentieth century, in the East End, there are reports of “Iron Jelloids, Zam Buk ointment, Eno’s Fruit Salt, Owbridge’s Lung Tonic, Clarke’s Blood Mixture.” Anderson’s Scots Pills, first given to the world in 1635, “were still being sold in 1876.”


In his account of the Great Plague Defoe emphasises the credulity of ordinary Londoners, who wore “charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets” in order to ward off the encroaching disease. Some kept signs of the zodiac, or the written phrase “Abracadabra,” in pockets and seals. They had reverted to the paganism that had dominated the city ever since the first wooden idol was carved in Dagenham (2200 BC).

There is a museum south of the river, off the Walworth Road, which contains the “Lovett Collection” of London charms, amulets and relics. It is the true home of urban superstition, with a range of artefacts which suggests that the city has absorbed all the traditions of magic and ritual from both native and immigrant populations. From the East End came, in 1916, “five uneven shaped stones on a string”; these were, according to the museum’s catalogue, “hung on the corner of the bed to keep nightmares away.” In the same year was deposited a “greyish white tubular bottle sealed at each end with thread. Mercury inside.” This was used as a cure for rheumatism. A grey cat’s skin was employed as a remedy for whooping cough, and a “leather slipper painted gold” was a symbol of good luck. From Clapham arrived a pincushion in the form of a domino piece, marked with seven dots. From east London came a key attached to a rope, as a talisman to safeguard the wearer against witches, as well as a necklace of amber and other gems worn in 1917 “to bring good health.” Barking was the area in which to search for mandrake roots, which scream like a child when taken out of the ground. There are coins to bring wealth, iron pyrite acorns to prevent lightning strikes (the acorn from the tree of the thunder god), cows’ hearts and rams’ horns and donkeys’ shoes to act as charms. The museum also contains the head of a London magician’s wand or staff, engraved with Solomon’s seal; it was carved in the fourteenth century, and then lost in the depths of the river. As recently as 1915, it was common practice, in the East End, to cut off some of the hair of a sick child. The hair was placed in a sandwich, and given to the first dog that was encountered; the illness then left the child and entered the body of the unfortunate animal. In the East End, too, it was customary for women and female children to wear blue glass beads around the neck “as a preventive charm against bronchitis”; these necklaces were sold in hundreds of small shops, “usually presided over by an aged woman,” at the price of one halfpenny. It became a custom that the beads were eventually buried with the woman who had worn them. In the early twentieth century, too, young women all over London were visiting herbalists in order to purchase “tormentil root” or “dragon’s blood”-gum from a Sumatran tree-as love philtres.

In a suggestive book written by Edward Lovett, Magic in Modern London, published in 1925, it is reported that sharks’ teeth taken from the London clay were said to cure cramp. In Camberwell it was customary to cover a horseshoe with red cloth in order to ward off nightmares, while Mile End was known as the place where children could be “charmed” and healed. When market business was bad in the East End the trader would exclaim: “Ah! I expect I forgot to bow to the new moon!” It is appropriate, in a city of commerce, that it was customary to call out “money” at the sight of a falling star. Strangely shaped stones were placed on London mantelpieces as a “votive offering,” in the same manner that silver representations of limbs were hung in medieval city churches. A woman in Whitechapel told an investigator that, when moving house, it was customary to swing the cat around one room in order to induce it to stay. There are also interesting records of “cat sacrifice” in the walls of certain houses. Cauls in which children had been born were on sale for eighteen pence each as a safeguard against drowning but, at the time of the First World War, when the danger of death was very close, the price rose to £2. In London markets it was possible, until recent times, to buy neolithic stone axes or flint arrowheads as another precaution against thunderbolts.


London resembles a prison, and it is perhaps not surprising to discover that keys have always been an object of taboo. They were associated with magic and the presence of demons; thus “The art of lock-picking was known as the ‘Black Art,’” according to Peter Linebaugh in The London Hanged, and “the most common lock-picking tool was called a ‘charm.’” Keys were used to investigate suspected persons; the name was placed in the stem of a key and guilt was established if the key then moved or shook. The lodgings of prostitutes were often symbolised by “the drawing of a large key,” and many ladies of the night wore keys around their neck as a symbol of their trade.

There is a suggestive eighteenth-century passage, connected with the storming of Newgate Prison. One rioter came back to his lodging house and announced: “I have got the keys of Newgate.” At his subsequent trial, a fellow lodger was questioned by the magistrate about these keys. “You would not touch them for fear that they would contaminate you?” “I would not come near them.”

Patients at Bedlam who refused to swallow their drugs had their mouths opened by a specially designed metal key.


At the time of the plague, spectres were seen in the thoroughfares of the city; indeed London has always been troubled by ghosts. A fine brick house on the south side of the churchyard in Clerkenwell was “seldom tenanted” because of its reputation. Number 7 Parker Street, off Drury Lane, had a name for “ill luck” and was eventually torn down. Another house in the same street, No. 23, was haunted by “fearful noises” in a corner where death had occurred. There was a haunted house in Berkeley Square which was “empty for a long time,” and another in Queen’s Gate.

P.J. Grosley, visiting the city in the eighteenth century, remarked upon “the great practical fear” of ghosts there, even while Londoners “make a jest of them in theory.” Another stranger in the same period visited the theatres and noticed that the ghosts of Shakespearean drama provoked “surprise, fear, even horror … to such a degree, as if the scenes which they saw were real.” It has often been remarked that, in a city of spectacle, Londoners find it difficult to distinguish theatre from reality but, more significantly, such reports suggest a surprising credulity. In the middle of the sixteenth century a young girl was found to have counterfeited a supernatural voice in a house near Aldersgate, “through which the people of the whole city were wonderfully molested.” We must imagine flying rumour, and reports, and fear.

The London writer “Aleph” has another story. In the early months of 1762 it was firmly believed that, within a house in Cock Lane, that once “dingy, narrow, half-lighted street,” there dwelled a ghost known as “Scratching Fanny” responsible for certain knockings and bangings. A young girl was believed to be possessed by this spirit, and “was constantly attended by mysterious noises, though bound and muffled hand and foot.” Thousands of Londoners visited Cock Lane and the more genteel were permitted to visit the girl’s bedroom, fifty at a time, “almost suffocating her from the stench.” A committee of eminent Londoners was set up to investigate the claims-one of their number was the superstitious Samuel Johnson-and concluded that the girl “had some art of counterfeiting noises.” Her father was put in the pillory at the end of Cock Lane, where “the populace treated him with compassion.” And so the affair ended, after London had once again been “wonderfully molested.” It is almost as if it were itself a spectral city, so filled with intimations of its past that it haunts its own inhabitants.

The “Islington Ghost” visited a patch of ground beside Trinity Church in Cloudesley Square causing “a wondrous commotion in various parts, the earth swelling and turning up every side”; Michael Faraday is supposed to haunt a telephone exchange in Bride Street which was once the chapel of his Sandemanian congregation. Lord Holland and Dan Leno, Dick Turpin and Annie Chapman, have variously been seen. Old hospitals and the city churches have proved fruitful ground for phantoms, and the stretch of Swains Lane in Highgate beside the cemetery has been the home of many “sightings.” There is apparently a ghost in the Oriental Department of the British Museum, and a phantom blackbird haunted a house in Dean Street for many generations. The daughter of the Earl of Holland, walking in Kensington Gardens, “met with her own apparition, habit and everything, as in a looking glass”; she died a month later. The rector of St. Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, saw in his pulpit the ghost of a divine “in the black gown of Geneva … exhorting the unseen audience with the greatest fervour, gesticulating vehemently, bending first to the right and then to the left over the pulpit, thumping the cushions in front of him, and all the while his lips moving as though speech was pouring from him.”

The Tower of London has of course been the natural haven of many spirits. Familiar figures have glided by, among them Walter Raleigh and Anne Boleyn. The latter was “seen” by three witnesses as a “white figure,” and a soldier on duty at the door of the Lieutenant’s Lodgings “fell in a dead faint.” He was court-martialled but later acquitted. The ghost of a bear “issued from beneath the door” of the Jewel House, and the sentry who saw it died two days later. It might be recalled that there was indeed a menagerie, or a zoo, within the Tower itself. One of the most ambiguous apparitions was that vouchsafed to the Keeper and his wife; they were at table in the sitting room of the notorious Jewel House when “a glass tube, something about the thickness of my arm” hovered in the air. It contained some “dense fluid, white and pale azure … incessantly rolling and mingling within the cylinder.” It approached the Keeper’s wife who exclaimed “Oh Christ! it has seized me!” before it crossed the room and disappeared.

Other places have remained objects of London fear. It is believed the cries of drowned Jews, murdered in the great expulsion of 1290, can still be heard at low tide near Gravesend. The “Field of Forty Footsteps,” which now lies beneath Gordon Square, was considered to be “charmed” or “blasted,” according to taste. Here were once picked plantain leaves which were supposed to influence dreams but, more importantly, on the same spot two brothers killed each other in a duel. The imprint of their fatal footsteps was thought to have lingered, while the area of the killings could produce no grass. Southey did indeed decipher the outlines of seventy-six footsteps “the size of a large human foot about three inches deep” and in the summer of 1800, just before the area was built upon, Moser “counted more than forty.”


Washington Irving observed the inhabitants of Little Britain, behind Smithfield and beside Aldersgate, in the 1830s. “They are apt to be rendered uncomfortable by comets and eclipses,” he wrote in the guise of “Geoffrey Crayon, gent,” “and if a dog howls dolefully at night, it is looked upon as a sure sign of death.” He also listed the “games and customs” of the people. We may include here the ancient ceremony of beating the bounds, an act of parish assertiveness which derives from the importance of beating the devil out of the locality; once charity children were whipped at each boundary with white willow wands, but in more recent years the particular walls are simply beaten with sticks. There are altogether some fifty-six annual customs and ceremonies in the city, ranging from the “Swearing on the Horns” in Highgate to “The Verdict of The Trial of the Pyx” in Goldsmiths’ Hall, but the rituals of May-day are the most enduring if not necessarily the most endearing.

In the first recorded ceremonies the “merry Milk Maids” of London would carry upon their heads a “Pyramid” of “Silver plate” instead of their usual pails; this may sound quaint, but the connotations of the practice were more ritualistic and barbaric. The maids were hardly “merry”-they were some of the most poorly paid and heavily worked of all city trades-and this parade of silver plate, borrowed for the occasion from pawn-brokers, can be seen as a token of their financial enslavement during the rest of the year. The first of May was also a day of sexual licence and, in recognition of this lubricious fact, young chimney-sweeps joined the maids in a later version of the spectacle. Grosley reports that their black faces “are whitened with meal, their heads covered with periwigs powdered as white snow, and their clothes bedaubed with paper-lace; and yet, tho’ dressed in this droll manner, their air is nearly as serious as that of undertakers at a funeral.” Chimney-sweeps, like miners, have always been associated with the dark and promiscuous forces of the world; hence their appearance on “May-day.”