Was ever such impudence suffer’d in a Government? Ireland‘s Conquer’d: Wales Subdu’d: Scotland United: But there are some few spots of ground in London, just in the face of the Government, unconquer’d yet, that hold in Rebellion still. Methinks ’tis strange, that places so near the Kings Palace should be no parts of his Dominions: ‘Tis a shame to the Societies of the law to Countenance such Practices: Should any place be shut against the Kings Writ or Posse Comitatus?
(Thomas Shadwell, The Squire of Alsatia, 1688.)
Though now a sterile emptiness of offices, the area around the old Carmelite monastery at Whitefriars (originally located where Northcliffe House is now) was in medieval times a Liberty, an area of old outside the jurisdiction of City authorities. Originally because it was church property, crimes were subject to church law, not civil law. A felon escaping to a Liberty ‘by ancient usage’ could claim sanctuary from the temporal authorities for forty days… After that in the main, they would have to give away their goods and be banished. Some crimes were excluded from right of sanctuary, (eg treason, menacing the safety of the crown, sacrilege… Burglary, highway robbery and some other crimes were later exempted too.)
As a result the area (as with other Liberties) grew to be a to some extent a refuge from prosecution, and later, a ‘rookery’, a no-go area of runaways, criminals, debtors and the rebellious poor, who defended themselves and each other against arrest and interference by the authorities. It was a jumble of winding streets and crowded rooms, becoming known as Alsatia, named after the no-mans land of Alsace, on the French-German border.
Claims were still made for sanctuary here long after the right had been abolished in law. Attempts to build decent houses on the site were frustrated, partly as it was still beyond the Lord Mayor’s and the City’s jurisdiction. Some respectable citizens still lived there, even aristocrats. But most houses gradually became subdivided into tenements and overcrowded garrets.
The authorities would make occasional raids, but even when they did manage to force there way into the rookery, the inhabitants would often flee to other slums in Southwark, or the Mint, and return when the heat had died down; or else resist they would the incursion of the law by force.
Gradually Alsatia became inhabited by debtors, insolvents, criminals, refugees from the law: “a large proportion were knaves and libertines, and were followed to their asylum by women more abandoned than themselves. The civil power was unable to keep order in a district swarming with such inhabitants… Though the immunities legally belonging to the place extended only to cases of debt, cheats, false witnesses, forgers, and highwaymen found their way there. For amidst a rabble so desperate no peace officer’s life was in safety. At the cry of “Rescue” bullies with swords and cudgels and termagant hags with spits and broomsticks, poured forth in hundreds; and the intruder was fortunate if he escaped back to Fleet Street, hustled, stripped and pumped upon. Even the warrant of the Chief Justice of England could not be executed without the help of a company of musketeers.”
A number of neighbouring shops had back doors or cellar gates into Whitefriars, which allowed shelterers to escape into the area, if chased by bailiffs or creditors. In 1581 the widow Pandley was accused of having “a backdoor into the white fryers, and for receiving of lewd persons, both men and women, to eate and drinke in her cellar…” The famous Mitre tavern in Fleet Street (later at the site Hoare’s Bank) had a door which led into Ram Alley, “by means whereof such persons as do frequent the house upon search made after them are conveyed out of the way.” The Inner Temple, immediately adjacent to Whitefriars, was used by rogues to escape; it also had its own right of sanctuary. Sometimes even the lawyers fought off the sherriff’s men or debtors, as they jealously guarded their own rights.
Ram Alley (later Hare Place or Hare Court, parallel to Mitre Court, down from the footway to Serjeants Inn into the temple) had the longest record of infamy. In 1603, the neighbouring Inns of Court were “greatly grieved and exceedingly disquieted by the many beggars, vagabonds and sundry idle and lewd persons who daily pass out of all parts of the City into the Temple garden [through Ram Alley] and there have stayed and kept all the whole day as their place of refuge and sanctuary” making the place “a common and most noisome lestal” (dunghill).
A gateway in the eastern wall, standing in the centre of Kings Bench Walk was the main doorway from one to the other, an ancient wooden gate. This was temporarily closed on occasion, as when there were brawls in the rookery. The Alsatians, when faced with a posse in strength, or a file of musketeers, found other ways of legging it into the Temple, such as a broken wall in the kitchen garden, a door in the wall of the Kings Bench office, which was a frequent point of fighting between Temple lawyers and the slum-dwellers. It was often barred and bolted against the Alsatians, and repeatedly broken down. When the Temple finally ordered the Whitefriars Gate bricked up in July 1691, a desperate battle followed, as workmen paid to brick up door were attacked repeatedly by Alsatia’s inhabitants, who pulled down the bricks. A Sheriff and his posse waded in, but the riotous rookery crew fought them off; managing to grab part of the Sheriff’s chain of office, and killing one of the posse in the fray”
“1st July 1691: The benchers of the Inner Temple, having given orders for bricking up their little gate leading into Whitefryars, and their workmen being at work thereon, the Alsatians came and pull’d it down as they built it up: whereupon the sherifs were desired to keep the peace, and accordingly came, the 4th, with their officers; but the Alsatians fell upon them, and knockt several of them down, and shott many guns amongst them, wounded several, two of which are since dead; a Dutch soldier passing by was shott thro’ the neck, and a woman into the mouth; sir Francis Child himself, one of the sherifs, was knockt down, and part of his gold chain taken away. The fray lasted several hours, but at last the Alsatians were reduced by the help of a body of the kings guards; divers of the Alsatians were seized and sent to prison. (Narcissus Luttrell’s A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September 1678 to April 1714. Vol. 2, pp.259-260.)
The battle led to a mass raid by the authorities; seventy of the inhabitants were rounded up, and the supposed leader of the Alsatia Mob, ‘Captain’ Francis or Winter absconded, only to be captured nearly a couple of years later and tried for murder. He was convicted and hanged in Fleet Street in 1693.
27th April 1693: The sessions is now, where capt. Winter who headed the mob about 2 years since in White Fryars against the sheriffs of London, where 2 or 3 persons were killed, was found guilty of murder, and 2 persons swore at that time he proclaimed king James. (Luttrell, Vol. 3, p.86.)
Other more secret routes to and from Alsatia were blocked up after complaints from respectable neighbours; one example being a shop and house in Falcon Street, off Fleet Street, belonging to one Davies, a tailor: through which came “a disorderly crowd of outlawed persons which dare not show themselves abroad in the streets.”
In 1696, a tailor who tried to seize a debtor who had taken refuge in Alsatia, was grabbed by locals, tarred and feathered, then tied to the Strand maypole. There were more battles with the lawyers in 1697, but shortly after the authorities decided they’d had enough, and the Sheriff’s men cleared the rookery for good. Parliament also passed an act to tighten up the law in relation to chasing down of debtors…
Its inhabitants no doubt dispersed to other rookeries and slums, maybe to Chick Lane, Turnmill Street or Saffron Hill…
Read loads more on Alsatia and other debtors’ sanctuaries