Mr David Wickham MA ARHist.S.
Archivist of The Clothworkers’ Company
It is the 21st of January and the year is 1755. Let us take a walk, an imaginary walk, through some streets in the City of London familiar to a certain young midshipman, bearing in mind Robert Hughes’ summary of Georgian England in The Fatal Shore, 1987: ‘A passing reference to violence, dirt and gin; a nod in the direction of the scaffold; a highwayman or two, a drunken judge,… for local colour; but the rest is all curricles and fanlights. Modern squalor is squalid but Georgian squalor is “Hogarthian”, an art form in itself.’ Hogarthian – or Swift-ian
In my twin universes, King George II sits on his throne in St James’ Palace, declaring that he will have ‘No boets and no bainters’, and Ambrose Asty is Master of The Clothworkers’ Company. You do not know him. You do not need to know him. He did not die in office or go bankrupt, though he was elected Master in August and complained of by the Court in October for absenteeism and neglect of his duties, whereupon the Clerk was instructed to hand him a warning letter. Naturally, though, where would I start our walk but at Clothworkers’ Hall, near the eastern edge of the City? The month is January so we shall not linger in the famous garden behind the Hall, the open space which stopped the Great Fire of London, not yet ninety years past.
We gather in the paved courtyard at the front of the Hall, built a year or two after the Fire, very much like the Apothecaries’ Hall. You are perhaps admiring the stained glass windows – of the livery hall. On both sides of us are offices and behind you is a small archway between the houses occupied by the Clerk and the Beadle of the Company.
I am just checking if anyone is wearing tartan. It is, remember, only nine years since Prince Charles Edward Stuart led his cut-throat army of terrifying Scots Highlanders as far south as Derby (early December 1745) and they were soundly chastised by the sovereign’s serviceman son far away at the battle of Culloden (mid-April 1746), and eight years since the last Jacobite lord was impeached and beheaded with an axe on Tower Hill (early 1747). Anyone wearing tartan openly in London today is bold or foolhardy, inviting insult from the vulgar and likely to have us dispersed by officialdom as an illegal gathering.
I would also warn you of what lies through the archway – noise, dirt, crowds and traffic congestion. If you feel lost, remember that we are always moving roughly westward, from the eastern edge of the City toward St. Paul’s Cathedral.
So, through the arch and into the narrow lane outside, Mincing Lane, muddy, dirty, cobbled, with a kennel or drain down the middle. Yes, it is a dead dog there, very distressing, but either it will rain tonight or our porter will come out early tomorrow, sluice a bucket of water behind it, and wash it along to our neighbours. Turn north here and then west into Fenchurch Street, unusually wide because the old Fen Church, St. Gabriel’s, has been removed from the middle of the carriage-way. The street is the fairer for that.(1)
The young woman on the corner is a doxy, unclean like a dirty table-cloth.(2) Her late husband, a respectable young sedan-chairman, married her improperly, before he had finished his seven years as an apprentice. He experienced the injury all chairmen suffer from their work, viz. the strains, and died last year of a griping of the guts. His widow has three small children to feed and will not send them to Captain Coram’s home. She has no education and no skill with her needle. How else do you expect her to earn a living? Still, the children are now aged six, seven and eight, and will all be earning their bread in a year or two, working as parish apprentices. Then she may find occupation as a scullery maid.
A row of interesting little shops on my right hand, in front of St Dionis’ church, called St Dionis Backchurch, because it stands behind them.(3)
Here we are at Gracechurch Street. It is very narrow. Mind that horse! A light carriage can be as deadly in a road accident as the iron-shod wheels of a heavy dray.
We have no time to admire St Benet’s Church(4), on my left, so let us cross straight over into Lombard Street. Be careful of the traffic! All vehicles from the north must pass along here if they are to cross the river, straight down Fish Street Hill by St Magnus’ clock and over London Bridge. There is no other bridge in the City and the new one at Westminster is hardly convenient. The annual growth in traffic at this point is so great that the Corporation really must do something about the congestion. Look forward to the end of the millennium, say: can you imagine how many horses there will be?
Immediately on my right is the church of All Hallows, Lombard Street: look between the buildings and you will see it, standing behind its ample churchyard. Twenty years ago John Wesley preached his first extempore sermon there. Just think, he made it up as he went along. He had no considered text from which to read. Probably no quotations, no polished epigrams, nor any Latin tags. That’s religious enthusiasm for you! Conticuere omnes intentique…. I hardly need say more.(5)
Then here, on my right, is the church of St Edmund the King, a little more confined behind buildings fronting Lombard Street.
Don’t miss the signs hanging in Lombard Street. Old, creaking, but rarely falling down and injuring passers-by, will they ever be replaced? Do you have an opinion, I wonder, on this idea of numbering houses and shops? I think that, as soon as the front is repainted or re-fitted, the numbers will be forgotten, but the King’s Head and the Cat and Fiddle and the Grasshopper will hang in Lombard Street centuries hence.
It is muddy and slippery but, if any street in London is paved with gold, this is the one. Here, on my right, are all those alleys where money talks: Change Alley and Castle Court and Bengal Court. Somewhere over there is Mr Lloyd’s coffee house where merchants meet to discuss shipping and foreign trade. Over there is the Post Office, on that site since 1678.
If you hear a sash-window going up, hurry into a shop doorway and try to avoid the contents of a chamber-pot cascading on your head. Before the vessel is overturned into the street a warning cry of ‘gardee-loo’ will be shouted by any well-trained servant.
Where can well-trained servants be found? indeed, sir. So many young people, who would be better employed as plough-boys and dairy-maids, are lured from distant counties to the supposed glitter, excitement and novelty of the Metropolis. Imagination inflames their little heads and the supposed probability of easily finding employment cannot be held solely accountable. Indeed I have heard it said that ‘The number of masters and mistresses who are in want of a good servant in every capacity is infinitely superior to the number of good servants out of place.’(6) On the other hand, a gentleman who advertised for a cook received more than one hundred applications.
Young people who are not overwhelmed by roistering and profligacy seek work by attending at servants’ register offices which are often no more than warehouses of iniquity. There are so many of these agencies, where employment is soon offered, ‘that they laugh at any threats of dismission for misbehaviour’.(7) ‘If they cannot get such employment as they expected… many of them will not go home again to be laughed at… but… probably commence thieves and pickpockets’.(8)
By all means, give a coin to that man sitting on the pavement. As you can tell from his faded red coat, he was a soldier. He lost a leg eleven years ago, at Dettingen, where His Majesty led our brave lads in person, and a grateful sovereign allows him to avoid starvation by begging in the street. I do not know if he is eligible for the soldiers’ hospital at Chelsea. What, madam, a pension? Ah, madam, your heart rules your head.
Here, at last, is one of the busiest and most congested crossings in the City. Down there on my right, in Cornhill, is the Royal Exchange, but I doubt that you will see it behind all those houses. Round the corner on my left, is the Lord Mayor’s new Mansion House. You can still smell the paint inside, they say. The old Stocks Market is much missed from the site: it is difficult to buy decent cheap vegetables in the City nowadays.
The Bank of England? Over there, opposite: that small building along Threadneedle Street, to the right of St. Christopher’s church. Until twenty years ago the Bank was established just down there, in the livery hall of The Grocers’ Company, a brave building and a fine hospitable body.
Now, a quick dash along Poultry and we are in Cheapside. Some years ago I stood here to gape at the Lord Mayor’s Show for, though his Lordship went by water, it was here that his Triumphs were likely to be most visible.(9) ‘I equipped my carcass in order to bear, with little damage, the hustles and affronts or the unmannerly Mob-ility, of whose wild pastimes and unlucky attacks, I had no little apprehension… the balconies were hung with old tapestry and Turkey-work table-cloths, for the cleanly leaning of ladies… which the Mob had soon pelted into so dirty a condition with their kennel ammunition … (that all the ladies soon looked as angry as) a Dutch housewife when an Englishman has blowed his nose in her parlour’.
There was such a crush that every man, whether Citizen or Foreigner, strove very hard for his Freedom. I was almost squeezed as flat as a napkin in a press but I can only express astonishment bordering on admiration at our British youth. What they did with the dead cat is, perhaps, too nasty for ears polite, particularly those gathered in a church.
Indeed, here we are, at the Church of St Mary-le-Bow. The high spirits and imagination of British youth were exercised right outside here. During an interval in the Lord Mayor’s procession, the ingenious rabble ‘had got a piece of cloth of a yard or more square, this they dipped in the kennel (the gutter), till they had made it fit for their purpose, then tossed it about, it expanding itself in the air and falling on the heads of two or three at once, made ‘em look like so many bearers under a pall, every one lugging a several way to get it off his head, oftentimes falling together by the ears.’
But enough of high spirits! I want to say a few words about two of the greatest vices of our time, to be seen in all our streets, the use of tobacco – and drinking.
Do you appreciate that, as to the use of tobacco, ‘the custom is become so prevalent and notorious, especially among the females, that in advertisements for servant-maids, we see it particularly mentioned very often that no (tobacco-users) will be accepted?’(10)
As to the evils of drinking, increased importation and the introduction of inferior grades of product have reduced the price. Now even the lower classes are addicted. ‘It is the curse of this nation… to what a height of folly must a nation be arrived at, when the common people are not satisfied with wholesome food at home, but must go to the remotest regions to please a vicious palate! There is a certain lane… where beggars are often seen in summer season, drinking their tea. You may see labourers who are mending the roads drinking their tea; it is even drank (sic) in cinder-carts; and what is not less absurd, sold out in cups (to take away)… The suppression of this dangerous custom depends entirely on the example of ladies of rank in this country. Tea will certainly be acknowledged a bad thing as soon as (they) leave off drinking it’.(11)
We have almost reached our destination. The street I seek is here, just beyond Bow Church. Do you see the dome of Paul’s in the distance, rising over the house-tops at the end of Cheapside?
Blow Bladder Street will be too far and take us off to Newgate. Here we are, to your right, going down Bread Street towards All Hallows Church, on the left-hand corner.(12) There is the shop sign and here is the name on the side-door: Jakob Phillip, teacher of languages, up one pair of stairs beside the shop of Mr Fitch the cheesemonger.(13) But see that fine-looking youth in the shop. Let us go in and buy half-a-pound of Cheddar.
Yes, young fellow, are you the cheesemonger’s apprentice? Oh, a naval man, eh? What name? Phillip? Artie Phillip? Between ships, are you? A midshipman, well, well. The Buckingham. Then you hope to serve with…? Who? Byng? Do we know Byng? Ah, ah – my friend says that he’s a good man and will probably be shot for it. And what is your big ambition? To see the Great Southern Continent? Pshaw! You believe it exists, then? Ah well, it does a young man no harm to have a preposterous ambition, you might as well say that one day Primrose Hill will stand in the centre of London(14) or that a man will walk on the moon. Do you sell green cheese?
My friend has just nudged me. He says that he is worn out with walking and that I have spoken long enough. So I stop.
* * * * *
For those who like things to be explained… The date is 21st January 1755 and every fact, opinion or usage follows from that.
Captain Coram opened his Foundling Hospital in 1742 but there were numerous rules about admission. Westminster Bridge was opened in 1750. The numbering of London’s streets began in 1712 but is described as still only ‘fairly general’ by 1768, about the time many signs were taken down. A notable proportion of London’s houses and shops were not numbered as late as 1818. The present signs
hanging in Lombard Street date from George V’s coronation in 1911 and include those mentioned. As to signs outlasting numbers, modern Cheapside, for example, is not at all bad, though it is sometimes easier to say that a shop is opposite the end of Wood Street or two doors along from Thomas Cook. Modern Oxford Street seems almost numberless. Post Office Court and a post office still join Lombard Street to King William Street. The Mansion House was first occupied by the Lord Mayor in 1752, but its internal decoration was not complete. Arthur Phillip was sixteen. James Cook, a mate on a merchant ship out of Whitby, joined the Royal Navy as a common seaman on 17 June 1755. He did not go into the South Seas until 1768, then sought the Great Southern Continent, and, after circum-navigating New Zealand, reached New Holland (Australia) in 1770.
(1) Strype’s 1720 edition of Stow’s London, I.ii.151. Lovat Lane, EC3, between the Monument and the Custom House,
preserves such a kennel.
(2) James Boswell’s London Journal, 2 December 1762.
(3) St Dionis Backchurch, rebuilt by Wren, was demolished in 1878.
(4) St Benet’s was rebuilt by Wren and demolished in 1867.
(5) All Hallows, Lombard Street, was rebuilt by Wren in 1694. It was so hemmed in by surrounding buildings that it was called ‘The Church Invisible’ and was demolished in 1938. ‘Religious enthusiasm’ was considered to be a term of insult and generally something to be avoided as bad form in Wesley’s time. The complete Latin quotation Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenbant is from Virgil’s Aeneid.II.i and may be translated ‘Every tongue was still, every face turned rapt upon him’.
(6) Quoted in the London Chronicle, 1757, II 574b. The man wanting a cook was Jonas Hanway, the philanthropist, who founded the Marine Society (1756) and the Magdalen charity (1758) for repentant fallen women, reformed Captain Coram’s Foundling Hospital, and pioneered the use of the umbrella in London, persisting for thirty years despite the jeers of sedan chairmen and hackney coachmen. Many of the details and phrases in these paragraphs are from the early pages of J. Jean Hecht’s The Domestic Servant in Eighteenth-Century England, 1956 and 1980.
(7) London Packet, 18-21 September 1772, No. 454, page 4a.
(8) Joseph Massie, A Plan for the Establishment of Charity Houses, 1758, page 16.
(9) All this section is from Ned Ward’s The London Spy, Part 12, pages 300-1, 1700, re-published in an unexpurgated version by The Casanova Society in 1924.
(10) Thomas Alcock, Defects of the Poor Laws, 1752, page 46. He naturally wrote of tobacco-users as snuff-takers.
(11) An Act of Parliament of 1751 reduced the excessive drinking of cheap gin, whereupon tea became a formidable rival to alcohol with all classes. The comments are by Jonas Hanway, An Essay on Tea, 1757, pages 272 and 275.
(12) All Hallows, Bread Street, was demolished in 1876-77 and the parish united with that of St Mary-Le-Bow.
(13) There was indeed a celebrated City family of cheesemongers named Fitch, though not necessarily in Bread Street.
(14) This was a standard ‘impossibility’ in its time.