‘Dung, Guts and Blood
Swimming against the Stream: a wander up the lower reaches of London’s Fleet River
Disorder, Repression and Radicalism in the lower Fleet valley
The following consists of a walk up London’s river Fleet, upstream, from where it emerges into the Thames.
Ever since we first walked and talked this route (in 2008), some have grumbled, “Why are you doing it backwards?!”, ie upstream, from the Thames, instead of from the source to the outflow at Blackfriars.
We’ve spent our whole lives going against the flow… In the case of the Fleet it seemed appropriate; chronologically, and it chimed somehow with the spirit of the people, events and communities that once lined the riverbanks.
We have also confined ourselves – for now – to the lower reaches of the river as far as Kings Cross; not tracing the various sources in the ponds of Hampstead. Partly this is to do with space; partly because for many reasons the places we talk about on the lower river together relate to each other, with a number of thematic links. In character, environment and history, above Kings Cross, it’s a different story.
The River Fleet is the largest of London’s subterranean rivers; but today it is almost completely hidden beneath the ground. Until the eighteenth century it flowed on the surface.
The Fleet rises from two springs on Hampstead Heath, flows through the two eighteenth Century reservoirs at Highgate and Hampstead Ponds, and thence four miles underground through Kentish Town, Kings Cross, Holborn and Farringdon, to join the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge.
The higher reaches were of old known as the Holbourne, or Oldbourne, (giving the area Holborn its modern name), from the Anglo-Saxon Holburna, “hollow stream”, referring to its deep valley; while ‘Fleet’ comes from flēot, meaning an inlet or estuary. In Anglo-Saxon times, the Fleet was a wide inlet joining the Thames through a marshy tidal basin over a hundred yards wide, used as a dock by shipping. Higher up, a number of wells were dug along its banks, and some springs (eg. Bagnigge Wells, and the Clerk’s well) were thought to have healing qualities; the Fleet was also nicknamed the ‘River of Wells’ for many years. But as London grew, its lower reaches came to be used as an open sewer. By the thirteenth century, it was already considered polluted, and the area bordering its banks was mainly left to poor-quality housing, and prisons; Newgate, the Fleet and Ludgate and later Coldbath Fields prisons were all built on or close to its banks. The flow of the river was greatly reduced by growing industry and housing on its banks. As the river already had a tendency to flood, this confinement made the Fleet more destructive: in 1331, St Pancras Old Church was flooded by the Fleet and ‘undermined and destroyed’, after which it was left derelict and vandalised. So may all churches end!
The tributaries and routes of the Fleet River
After the 1666 Great Fire of London, Christopher Wren proposed widening the river. Wren had great plans for a rebuilt London; the opportunity existed to create a rationally planned city, laid out on a grid system; but his plans were all rejected, and instead, the Fleet was converted into the New Canal, completed in 1680. Being unpopular and under-used, however, the canal was filled in less than sixty years later in 1737. The river survived slightly longer: the section from Holborn to Fleet Street was re-routed below the surface when the canal was filled, with the section to the Thames covered over by New Bridge Street by 1765. Urban development covered the river in Kings Cross and Camden after 1812. Under Farringdon Road, the Fleet was built over again in the 1860s, (at the same time the river was incorporated into the new city-wide sewerage system designed by Joseph Bazalgette) and now lies beneath the Metropolitan underground line, while the upper stretches of the river were covered when Hampstead expanded in the 1870s.
Partly due to the growing insanitary nature of the river, and the industries which sited themselves along its banks, many poor areas and later rookeries gradually evolved along the Fleet: no-one else was prepared to live there.
Its vicinity became built up with slums, prisons or industry (especially dirty, smelly or polluting industry): defining the river’s surroundings, from the Thames right up to Kings Cross. Partly the industry arose because the river was there, making transport of goods and raw materials easier, providing water and sewage.
But gaols, slums and workshops also thronged the area, because it was outside the City’s western walls, and thus it was ideal to locate working processes that would have offended/invoked restrictions in the City. and was thought a good place to stick prisons that nobody wanted next door, (though in fact Newgate, Ludgate, two of the jails in this area, both developed in City gates, strong places already fortified). Counter to this, the Fleet valley, an area long without defined authority, also became a handy place for crims, rebels, foreigners and others banned from working or living in ‘London’ proper, or keen to avoid the hand of the law.
These slums, or ‘rookeries’, came to be viewed with fear and loathing by the authorities and concerned middle classes, who saw them as sinks of crime and sources of disorder and rebellion. Numerous written tracts dwelt on the threat of disorder, and the ‘moral’ failings of the inhabitants. The image and reputation of an area and its inhabitants loomed in some cases larger than reality, for instance the widespread fears (especially after after the French Revolution of 1848) that slum dwellers could provide the foot soldiers for a prospective English Revolution.
“Our argument is that rookeries are among the seeds of revolution; that, taken in connection with other evils, they poison the minds of the working classes against the powers that be, and thus lead to convulsions” (Thomas Beames, in The Rookeries of London, the most outspoken text about the dangers of the slums.)
These fears led to a concerted attempt, directed through housing, development, religious and policing policy, to control and in end destroy areas seen as dangerous. However, in the piecemeal and repressive way they were imposed, the solutions put up to improve and reform the poor often made things worse.
Having abandoned the Fleet’s environs to the poor for centuries, in the 1800s and early 1900s, the City authorities, gradually evicted the lower classes from pretty much the whole lower Fleet Valley. Mass clearances of the rookeries were also spurred on by demands for land for office building. As the Empire expanded and London became the capital of worldwide commercial enterprise, Capital was also expanding internally in its own (to some extent unconquered) backyard.
The relations of work, slum and prison are crucial to the river’s surroundings: the complex relations between the three underpin the Fleet’s history for centuries. How many of the rookery dwellers of Saffron Hill, Alsatia, Turnmill Street or Whitecross Street enjoyed the hospitality of the Fleet, Bridewell, Newgate or Coldbath Fields prisons? How many were involved in their destruction, in 1381 and 1780, or the riots, escapes and protests that fill these institutions’ histories?
“A mob of metaphors advance” (Alexander Pope, the Dunciad)
At the risk of straying into slightly pretentious territory, the submerged Fleet, the underground stream, could also be seen as a symbolic image of the history of this area. The prisons, slums and most of the industry are gone, the struggles that arose from them are lost under modern office blocks; the river is buried, and the whole length of it redeveloped. In fact the river is two levels down, in some places, buried under the Metropolitan Line; itself several feet below the surface… We have to wade down the Thames foreshore, or kneel with our ears to a Warner Street grate, to find physical evidence of its continuing existence; just so unearthing the history of the Fleet’s subversive and rebellious neighbours, to hear the voice of the dispossessed poor evicted from the Fleet Valley, involves some heavy spadework.
Did the rich and powerful commentators who discussed the immorality and disorderly natures of the poor in the slums of the Fleet Valley see the river as not only a literal source of infection and disease, but also a metaphor, for the moral or political sources of criminality and rebelliousness found along its banks? There’s strong similarity in the language between used by Thomas Beames and his ilk when describing with disgust the inhabitants of Saffron Hill, and Swift or Pope when they’re describing the sewery swirling of the dark river itself.
Start the walk on the North west corner of Blackfriars Bridge
Go down and find the outlet of the Fleet – under the Bridge: “its foul mouth”
Note: At time of publishing you cannot get down under the Bridge, as this section of the Embankment is closed off, appropriately enough (given the Fleet’s history) for the construction of the new Thames Tidal Sewer…
The Fleet emerges from its secret ways here, right under Blackfriars Bridge.
The Fleet as it entered the Thames in the 17th Century
It was here, on 18 June 1982, that the body of Roberto Calvi was found hanging from scaffolding under the Bridge. Known as ‘God’s Banker’, Calvi was chairman of Italy’s second largest private bank, Banco Ambrosiano, which went bankrupt in 1982. The bank was under criminal investigation after Bank of Italy reported that several billion lire had been exported illegally. In 1981, Calvi was tried, given a four-year suspended sentence and fined nearly 20 million dollars for transferring millions out of the country in violation of Italian currency laws. He was released on bail pending appeal and kept his position at the bank. During his short spell in jail, he attempted suicide.
Banco Ambrosiano collapsed in June 1982 with debts of between 700 million and 1.5 billion US dollars. Much of the money had been siphoned off via the Vatican Bank (the Institute for Works of Religion), which owned 10% of Banco Ambrosiano, and was their main shareholder. Two weeks before the collapse, Calvi warned Pope John Paul II, that such a forthcoming event would “provoke a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in which the Church will suffer the gravest damage.”
Calvi fled the country on a false passport; days later he was dead. Because he had been a member of the notorious Masonic Lodge P2, who referred to themselves as frati neri or “black friars”, his death under Blackfriars Bridge has been seen as a murder committed by the masons, the mafia, the Vatican, or all three… A conspiracy theorist’s delight. Cue a web of paranoid ramblings. Maybe he just killed himself because his life was going down the swannee. A not inappropriate place to end it all, given the reputation of the Fleet River in later years…
Back up to street level on west side…
Blackfriars Bridge was the site of a couple of outbreaks of violent class warfare; but class cleansing may have also been a factor in the Bridge’s origins. One of the reasons cited in support of the bridge’s original construction in the 1760s (apart from the transport and commercial advantages of new river crossings), was to help clear the lawless slums around the mouths of the river Fleet (especially Alsatia, see below) – it was thought opening up and redeveloping the area to the south would help.
A toll was imposed to pay for the cost of building the bridge, and tollhouses were built on the Bridge itself. They were widely resented, especially by the poor Londoners who had to cross the bridge, and hated the tuppenny toll. On 7th June 1780, during the cataclysm of class uprising known as the Gordon Riots, the tollgates were robbed and burned. According to Horace Walpole, friends of his saw “the populace break open the toll-houses on Blackfriars Bridge, and carry off bushels of halfpence, which fell about the streets, and then they set fire to the tollhouses.”
The tollgate’s money chest, containing about £268, was stolen. Troops arrived and shot a number of rioters here: some were said to have been thrown off the bridge into the Thames, or at Queen Hithe Dock and Dowgate Wharf.
Nearly seventy years later, on 10 April 1848, Chartists trying to march to parliament battled police on the bridge.
The first great british working class political movement, Chartism had been in eclipse for some years in the mid-1840s, but was reviving. For the upper classes, the prospect of the great Chartist meeting on Kennington Common generated probably the greatest fear of the lower classes since the Gordon Riots.
The Chartists process over Blackfriars Bridge, 1848
The Chartists were meeting to present the Third Petition for the Charter to Parliament. The Chartist Convention had seen intense debate between those advocating moral force and those believing armed uprisings might be necessary, especially as an attack by police or soldiers was anticipated. The wave of Revolutions and uprisings across Europe made the usual violent rhetoric from some of the Chartist leaders seem more threatening: the government made elaborate preparations to resist any attempted insurrection. Thousands of troops were moved into London, and hundreds of middle class volunteers and special constables were signed up. The royal family were even moved out of the capital. Bridges and important and strategic buildings were barricaded. “The bridges were the chief points of defence, of which Blackfriars-bridge appeared to be a sort of centre, as it had the strongest force..” “About 300 gentlemen of the Stock Exchange were sworn in special constables, 100 of whom attended under their respective leaders in the Royal Exchange, from whence they were marched to Blackfriars-bridge…”
“The proceedings in its neighbourhood were nearly as follows:- By ten o’clock a considerable crowd had collected in Farringdon-street and New Bridge-street, and at the point where Fleet-street and Ludgate-hill join this line of street. The stable-yard of the Rose Inn, in Farringdon-street, had previously been occupied by a body of cavalry. Special constables were also mustered in great force by the authorities of the ward, but kept out of sight. Soon after ten the crowd assumed a “processional” shape, and by half-past ten began to pass over the bridge. Men who had been talking together in groups joined arm-in-arm, and the march commenced. From half-past ten till half-past eleven one continuous stream of people crossed the bridge – the pavement on the east side being occupied by the more systematic procession, and the roadway being thronged by a closely-packed body. At the latter hour vans, decorated with flags, and containing some of the leaders of the “demonstration,” made their appearance, and passed on without any appearance of confusion. With the exception of a few closed shops, there were, in this locality, no signs of alarm, and no symptoms of disorder.”
But at the mass rally on Kennington Common, Chartist leaders (spooked by the government’s war footing, and not really up to the violence of some of their verbal posturing) abandoned their attempt to process to Westminster to hand in the petition. However thousands of demonstrators did try to cross the river, and were blocked off at the bridges, leading to clashes with police. Blackfriars Bridge saw the most vicious fighting –
“After the meeting on Kennington-common had dispersed, an immense crowd on their return straggled irregularly along Blackfriars-road. Upon arriving at Stamford-street, they of course came face to face with the mounted police, who refused them passage, and ranged themselves across the road. Together with these were the police and special constables. Many strenuous attempts were made by the Chartists to get across the bridge. As fresh numbers arrived from Kennington-common, those in advance were pushed forward, but were immediately driven back by the horse-patrol without drawing their sabres. The metropolitan police made use of their staves, and, from time to time, repulsed the crowd, which grew thicker and thicker every minute. In about an hour and a half, however, the mob, which, by this time, reached as far down as Rowland Hill’s Chapel, made many vigorous attempts to force their way through; and, notwithstanding the cool steady courage of the police, the latter were, at intervals, separated. The special constables at these times were very roughly handled, a great many of them having their hats broken and being deprived of their staves. Showers of large stones were every few minutes thrown on the bridge, and the police received many severe blows, but gave more than equivalent in return with their batons. A great number of men who were seized by the police for throwing stones were rescued, and the yells and shouts were deafening. At half-past three o’clock the pressure of the concourse was so great that the line of police was forced, and a great many of them carried with the throng over the bridge, holding their staves up as they were borne along. On the City side of the bridge a great many arrests were made, and the mob, which seemed inclined for a minute to make a stand, were uniformly repulsed by the horse patrol, the sight of whose drawn sabres, wielded over the heads of the mob, soon put the more noisy and impudent to flight. Both on that and the other side of the bridge there were numbers of men with their heads bleeding, who were led away by their friends.” (Illustrated London News)
Preventing the demonstrators from reaching parliament defused some of the ‘pre-revolutionary tension’ the ruling class was suffering from… though there was localised fighting around different working class areas of London all summer, and small numbers of physical force Chartists were busted in August planning an armed uprising (see Bride Lane and Saffron Hill, below).
1848 represented Chartism’s last big push; although the movement survived several years longer it increasingly fell into factions, and withered in a more prosperous economic climate in the 1850s.
Apparently when Queen Victoria opened the rebuilt Blackfriars Bridge (on 6th November 1869) she had to do a runner, after a republican crowd people booed and pelted her with rubbish…
Blackfriars Stairs, which descended to the river just to the east of where the bridge now stands, as one of the points where you could take a boat, to travel upon the Thames. The stairs were also were once a place of great fear and loathing: from here eighteenth century convicts sentenced to be transported to America, and later Australia, were forcibly embarked. Brought here from Newgate or other prisons, they would be carried in a closed lighter to a ship at Blackwall or Woolwich, and from there a ship would take them to bonded labour in the colonies.
However, not all cons left here with darkened hearts: in June 1768, during a time of mass strikes, class struggles and also political reform agitation, ninety convicts in a ‘close lighter’, bound for transportation, held a party, with ‘Wilkes & Liberty cockades’ in their hats (celebrating the populist journalist and demagogue John Wilkes, whose battle with the establishment was causing rioting in London at the time. Four months later, another group bound for the prison hulks “declared they were going to a Place where they might soon regain their lost Liberty.”
Cross New Bridge Street, and walk down east side to Queen Victoria Street
“The Earthquake Council”
Blackfriars monastery once stood here, between the river and Ludgate Hill. The black-robed Dominican Friars moved in around 1278; commemorated on this spot now by the ‘Black Friar’ pub, itself an old building now in an area where many have been demolished.
In May 1382 religious reformer John Wycliffe, inspirer of the Lollards (of whom more later), was brought to Blackfriars to be tried for his beliefs by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His rejections of doctrine, attacks on corrupt churchmen, and calls for a dissolution of church hierarchies and monastic orders (and a return to a more egalitarian church), had led to some of his writings being declared heretical.
“Eight prelates, fourteen doctors, six bachelors of divinity, fifteen mendicant friars, and four monks were gathered in the great hall of the monastery, and were just about to proceed to Wycliffe’s trial, when an earthquake shook London, to the terror of the assembled divines, who began to take it as an omen of the divine displeasure.”
The Archbishop, “who was in deadly earnest to have Wycliffe condemned” claimed the earthquake was a positive sign from God: “Know you not that the noxious vapours which catch fire in the bosom of the earth and give rise to these phenomena which alarm you, lose all their force when burst forth? In like manner, by rejecting the wicked from our community we shall put an end to the convulsions of the Church.”
John Wycliffe’s bones being dug up, 1428
Wycliffe however took the earthquake as a sign of God’s opposition to the trial! However, after deliberations extending over three days the church council condemned ten of Wyclife’s these as heretical and others as erroneous.
Although Wyclife was not excommunicated as a heretic in his lifetime (he died two years after the Blackfriars Synod), the mainly poor Lollard preachers he inspired were heavily persecuted over the following century. Wyclife’s body was dug up and the remains thrown in a river in 1428, when he was excommunicated long after his death.
The Monastery was closed down during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. But Blackfriars became a centre for dissidents, religious and political, in the seventeenth century, a legacy derived from the right of sanctuary of the old medieval abbey; it claimed to be independent of the municipal authorities. St Anne’s Church, built on the ruins of the monastery, became a centre of Puritanism, and in the 1650s, of the millenarian fifth monarchists, and became a venue for apocalyptic sermons, religious and political debate and invective (later, plotting) against Oliver Cromwell & the Rump Parliament, who they held had betrayed the cause of King Jesus and the approaching Second Coming.
Later, in 1596, the actor Richard Burbage opened a playhouse here, but rich local residents petitioned Parliament to shut it down, on the grounds that it would attract “vagrant and lewd persons… and besides, the same playhouse is so near the church that the noise of the drums and music will greatly disturb…the ministers and parishioners.”
Cross New Bridge Street to the corner of Tudor Street, turn left, down to Bridewell Place:
The sturdy and idle: The Bridewell
The area here between the Thames and Bride Lane was formerly home to the Bridewell. Built in 1515 as a palace for Henry VIII, it stretched all the way from the Thames to Fleet Street, a big sprawling complex, which came to house ambassadors, and visiting monarchs… But it rapidly fell out of favour as a palace, and in the mid-sixteenth century was converted jointly by the City and the king for the relief of the poor. Huge numbers of poor people were arriving in the city, driven from the countryside by growing enclosure and poverty, and the collapse of the traditional welfare system (the dissolved monasteries and abbeys) as religious reform combined with opportunist land-grabbing altered rural life for ever. The initial joint
The Bridewell and the Fleet mouth, c.1750. Note the elegant bridge over the Fleet
charitable project soon, however, became mixed with coercion – the homeless poor, the idle, the ‘workshy’ and alleged drunkards were forced into the institution: “And unto this shall be brought the sturdy and idle: and likewise such prisoners as are quite at the sessions, that they may be set to labour. And for that number will be great the place where they shall be exercised must also be great.”
The way the poor were treated in the Bridewell set a pattern for future workhouse policy, and on a wider scale, for the modern welfare state, at least in its coercive face. Bridewell inmates were forced to spin, sew mailbags, clean the sewers in gangs, tread the wheel; even those who had lost a limb were set to on an ingenious hand and foot mill. Prostitutes and vagrants were whipped on arrival, and any acts of disobedience were punished by flogging. Bridewell became a popular place for locking up rebellious or just idle apprentices, later joined by religious dissidents, Spanish Armada captives, and local petty criminals. There was some dispute as to the legality of locking up those whose only crime was to be homeless and poor, but nothing came of it. Floggings in fact became novelty viewing: sadistic better off voyeurs would visit to get off on the punishment of others – a viewing gallery was built to house them.
The ‘president’ of the Bridewell in the early 17th century was Sir Thomas Middleton. He had the power to halt floggings by knocking on the table; the prisoners’ cry for mercy of ‘Knock, Sir Thomas, Knock’ was taken up by people who used to follow him and hassle him in the street, shouting the words after him…
In the 1610s a wave of prison riots occurred in London. They may have arisen less from a deterioration of conditions, than to the coming together of heretics and thieves, or political and common prisoners, creating new collectives of resistance. Martin Markall, the beadle of the Bridewell, saw the riots as the product of alliances of Irish rebels, Gypsies, and Roberdsmen (marauding vagrants) with mariners and pirates. The prison, like the ship and the factory, organised large numbers of people for the purposes of exploitation, but it simultaneously was unable to prevent the prisoners thus massed together from organising against it.
stolen “Out of theyre beds”
In 1619 the Virginia Company, pioneering the colonising of North America, arranged with the city of London for the transportation of several hundred poor children, between the ages of eight and sixteen, from the Bridewell to Virginia, as part of the mass transportation of the poor and ‘criminals’ of major cities and Ireland to America. Virginia Company apologists like John Donne wanted the whole of the new America to function as a prison, to discipline the rebellious lower classes. London’s Common Council approved the request, authorised constables to round up the children, and shipped off the first young labourers in the early spring of 1619. When a second request was made, the council was again accommodating, but the children themselves had other ideas, organising a revolt in Bridewell and declaring “their unwillingness to go to Virginia.” It was soon discovered that the city lacked the authority to transport the children against their will. The Privy Council jumped into the fray, granting the proper authority and threatening to imprison any child who continued to resist. Of the several hundreds of children shipped to Virginia at this time, the names of 165 were recorded. By 1625 only twelve of those were still alive; the other 153, or 93 percent, had died. The same fate may have met the fourteen to fifteen hundred children said to be on their way to Virginia in 1627, and the four hundred Irish children stolen “Out of theyre bedds” in 1653 and sent off to New England and Virginia.
From Hogarth’s ‘Harlot’s progress: a prostitute’s punishment is beating hemp in the Bridewell.
By 1653 the Bridewell had become a prison holding petty offenders and ‘disorderly women’, particularly prostitutes. Short sentences were the norm here, but floggings were common, including public floggings twice a week; ducking stools and stocks also graced the place. Noted inmates included the Fifth Monarchist prophetess Anna Trapnel in 1654.
Later the Bridewell pioneered the introduction of minor workhouse reforms, such as schooling for apprentices and children, introducing a doctor, providing free bedding (1788) and abolishing flogging for women (1791). It was closed down in 1855, and knocked down in 1863.
Although Bridewell was for a long time not called a prison, it formed part of a chain of penal institutions that loomed over the lower Fleet valley for centuries, with the Bridewell, Fleet, and Coldbath Fields on the river’s banks, and Ludgate, Newgate, the Clerkenwell Bridewell and Clerkenwell House of Detention within a few minutes’ walk.
Walk down Tudor Street to the corner of Bouverie Street.
Alsatia: “a rabble so desperate”
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, 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 Alsace, the no-mans land between France and Germany.
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 the incursion of the law by force.
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 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.
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 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).
The Whitefriars Gate
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. This 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 was tried for murder, and hanged in Fleet Street in 1693.
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.
Its inhabitants no doubt dispersed to other rookeries and slums, maybe to Chick Lane, Turnmill Street or Saffron Hill, which we will encounter later.
Much more on Alsatia at this great blog
Fleet Street, Bouverie Street and Carmelite Street formed the old heartland of newspaper printing. Bouverie Street was once as important in the newspaper business as Fleet Street itself, housing such concerns as The News of the World and The News Chronicle.
The printers were traditionally highly unionised, stroppy and combative… famous for striking at the drop of a hat, in their own interests, and often other workers’ behalf… Into the 1980s Print workers regularly refused to print titles with articles critical of the unions. At that time the press barons were powerless to do anything about it. If they wanted their papers on the streets the next day, they would have to remove or change the offending article.
“The thing about the printers was that they were a conservative group of people. They had relatively high pay and better working conditions than most workers did. They were not about to make a revolution but they knew very well that their position depended completely on their trade union and particularly chapel organisation.” (Jim Brookshaw, of the Fleet Street branch of the AEEU and Chairman of the Times Newspapers engineers chapel, early 1980s.)
Walk back down Tudor Street, to Carmelite Street,
to no 2, (on west side)
The Daily Herald
Labour paper the Daily Herald had its offices here.
The Herald was founded as the daily voice of the strike committee when compositors on London papers were locked out after demanding a 48 hr working week in January 1911.
After the lockout a committee took it over in an attempt to create a permanent socialist daily newspaper and the Daily Herald emerged in April 1912 with a working capital of £200. It saw itself as a forum for the whole range of radical causes, from industrial unionism to the women’s movement, and it attracted to itself support from activists within all these fields. It covered strikes, union issues, the fight for women’s suffrage, the campaign for Irish home rule and much more.
The new paper was run on a shoestring, with money always tight. Bailiffs were fought off at its doors at least once (old Alsatia traditions re-asserting!)
At times this led to a ropy quality; one edition ended up being printed on odds and ends & colours. Despite the constant financial crises its circulation grew by leaps and bounds to a peak of 150,000 just before World War 1.
The Daily Herald was deeply critical of the trade union leaderships and the attitudes of the established Labour leaders. Its launch came as Britain (and other areas of Europe) were experiencing an upsurge of class struggle, strikes, and a ferment of socialist ideas among workers. The Herald, although conceived as a broad church, took a pro-syndicalist stance at first (1912-13).
The paper so irritated the Labour and Trade union leaderships that six months after the launch of the Herald the TUC and the Labour Party started their own paper, the Daily Citizen, in competition. The Citizen lasted three years and then sank without trace, taking £200,000 of trade union money with it.
Early Herald editor Charles Lapworth, a syndicalist, was replaced in December 1913, after attacks on the Labour Party hierarchy. He was replaced by veteran socialist George Lansbury. The resulting toning down of the syndicalist outlook, did encourage more financial support from wealthier backers. The outbreak of World War 1 forced the Herald to become a weekly; it bravely took a pacifist anti-war stance.
After the War, the Daily Herald recommenced as a daily. But papermaking firms wouldn’t supply it paper (under pressure from the government), until the Transport Workers Union threatened mass strikes at paper mills. In 1919, the Herald published leaked War Office instructions to senior army officers to find out how many of troops would break strikes or serve in the embryonic military intervention in Soviet Russia, and also how many soldiers had been influenced by trade union or socialist ideas. The British government was at this point shaken by rising industrial unrest, including strikes and mutinies in the army, and feared revolution was imminent. The outcry resulting from this publication forced plans for army strike breaking to be scaled back, but the War Office ordered officers to try to intercept bundles of Herald at stations and burn them!
From 1919-22, the paper supported strikes and social struggles, but in 1922, as the wave of post-war radicalism began to recede, financial problems at the Herald led Lansbury to give up control to the Labour Party and the TUC, and it became more and more rightwing… In 1930, a majority stake was sold to the Odhams Press. Although the paper continued to have a mass working class readership, its early radical politics were behind it. It survived until 1964, when it morphed into the Sun – to be bought by Rupert Murdoch five years later. The rest we know… Some trajectory eh?
Cross over to the old Daily Mail building, Northcliffe House on the corner of Tallis Street on western side of Carmelite St)
Twas the eve of the General Strike… The General Council of the Trades Union Congress were desperately trying to avoid a mass national walkout in support of a million locked out miners, scared that events would spiral out of their control.
On 2 May 1926, late at night, on the eve of the General Strike, Daily Mail printers refused to print an attack on trade unions on the front page, and downed tools; this formed the excuse the government was looking for to break off negotiations with the TUC General Council and sparked the beginning of the Strike.
The TUC had agreed for the British Worker to be printed here as a daily strike sheet. A crowd of strikers and supporters gathered here every day to await copies. One evening cops emerged from where they’d been hiding in the half-built Daily Mail building opposite (Northcliffe House) and charged the crowd, raided the Herald, and seized copies of the British Worker, stopping the printing machinery. This led to a stand off… but the British Worker was so unsubversive, the regulations to suppress seditious papers didn’t apply to it & they were allowed to carry on printing.
As mentioned above, the newspaper printers were for years well-organised and stroppy. Some of the notable disputes here included:
• in 1955, a month-long strike by 700 maintenance workers (who cleaned and took care of printing presses) in pursuit of a £2 wage increase, took many newspapers off the streets…
- 1972: a mass solidarity strike erupted in support of five dockers jailed in Pentonville Prison for picketing depots in a dock strike: “The dockers decided that the first step in ensuring the release of the jailed pickets was to close down the national newspapers. Scores of dockers “went down Fleet Street marching from paper to paper in a procession of shouting and leafleting, and cheering and arguing,” a docker said. “We had a magnificent leaflet. It had ‘Five Trade Unionists Are Inside-Why Aren’t You Out?'”
The Sunday Mirror was the first to stop work. There was then a domino effect. Only the Sunday Times was printed. From Monday the national daily newspapers, the London evening papers and the evening papers in Liverpool and Manchester were not published until Friday 28 July.”
- 1982: On 11 August 1300 electricians union (ETU) members held up the presses in support of a campaign for a pay rise by NHS workers… Sean Geraghty, secretary of the ETU London Press Branch was prosecuted by the Newspaper Proprietors Association for breaching an injunction against the threatened strike, fined £350 and ordered to pay several thousand in court costs. Hundreds of NHS workers marched from St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London to the High Court in New Fetter Lane on the day of the hearing. The right wing Electricians Union were not happy with this act of solidarity and tried to break up the branch and discipline Geraghty.
- 1986: A strike by News International printers here (& in Grays Inn Rd) triggered the 1986-7 Printers Dispute. Rupert Murdoch sacked 500 printers and moved his operations to Wapping, where his new plant was besieged for a year by printers & their allies. There were 24 hour mass pickets of News International buildings here during the year-long dispute.
Associated with the long history of printing and publishing in Fleet Street and its surrounding streets, was a tradition of radical journalism, freethinking and political dissidence. That in itself would be more than one walk itself: here’s just some of the nearest examples…
Walk back Up to Tudor Street turn, back up to left Bouverie Street, turn right, up the hill to Number 4 ( Hazlitt House)
(located near the corner of Pleydell Street; the building has long since been demolished) was the Clarion office from May 1893 to January 1895. The Clarion was a leading independent socialist journal in the years before WW1, edited by Robert Blatchford until 1910. Founded in December 1891, it quickly became very popular, selling around 40,000 copies every week. Inspired by the paper, small local socialist propaganda groups began to spring up, most famously the Clarion Cycle Groups, which still exist today. Groups would go cycling around the country, spreading socialist ideas and distributing leaflets. The Clarion group’s guiding ideas were set out in Blatchford’s ‘Merrie England’, serialised in the paper and published as a book in 1894. The paper began in Manchester, but the London office in Bouverie Street was established in April 1893, and production was moved to the capital. But the heart of the Clarion movement remained in the North, especially in West Yorkshire and South Lancashire.
(Not sure where these following buildings were located yet, probably all on the western side of Bouverie St)…
18 Bouverie Street
The International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA, or First International) General Council met in a room here from 9 January 1866 to 25 June 1867. The International was an alliance of political radicals, socialists and trade unions, in various countries, formed to forge international solidarity between working class organisations. At its height it claimed to represent 8 million workers in Europe and beyond. But the range of political ideas of those involved proved too diverse, and the International’s life was plagued by internal divisions. It eventually broke apart in 1872.
While meeting at Bouverie Street, the IWMA was extremely active, holding frequent public meetings, and successfully intervening in strikes. Many groups in Britain and abroad were also continually affiliating to the International at this time.
The room at no. 18 was the office of the Industrial Newspaper Company, founded in 1865, which bought the Workman’s Advocate (later The Commonwealth) to be used as the IWMA’s official journal. This plan failed to properly materialize, and the International and the Industrial Newspaper Company parted company in September 1866. The Board of Directors included Karl Marx, builders trade union leader George Odger, carpenters leader and later MP Robert Applegarth; Johann Eccarius (IWMA General Secretary 1867-71) was the first editor. Though the newspaper moved out, the room in Bouverie Street was kept for Council meetings; the building was also used at the time as the offices of The Nonconformist. No. 18 was rebuilt in the Interwar era as offices of the now defunct News Chronicle.
34 Bouverie Street
Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh’s Free Thought Publishing Company had premises here.
Bradlaugh was a leading secularist, questioning and campaigning against organised religion and attempting to establish greater rights for non-believers (eg. the right of atheists and religious fundamentalists to affirm in court cases which resulted in the Evidence Further Amendment Act 1869). Many radical groups that had survived the disappearance of Chartism became secular societies in the 1860s. In 1866 Bradlaugh founded the National Secular Society, becoming its first president, travelling the country to speak at secularist lectures debates.
He was also involved in radical polities, agitating for parliamentary reform, including proportional representation, a universal franchise and abolition of the House of Lords; the removal of restrictions on activities on Sundays; the disestablishment of the Church, land-law reform and Irish emancipation from English oppression. Bradlaugh’s politics were essentially liberal-radical; he opposed socialism, lecturing against it, and calling it an ‘alien’ creed, likely to lead to violent revolution, tyranny, censorship, lack of enterprise and economic stagnation. Nevertheless many secularists became socialists, including his longtime collaborator Annie Besant.
In 1880, Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton; because he refused to swear an oath by God, there followed a 6-year battle over his right to affirm, instead. In the course of this he was barred from taking his seat in Parliament, arrested, physically thrown out of the Commons; and was even the last person to be imprisoned in a cell in the Clock Tower under Big Ben. Despite this he was re-elected at three by-elections.
In the 1870s Bradlaugh became the figurehead of a briefly strong Republican movement influenced by French and other European republican uprisings, and by the unpopularity of Queen Victoria.
The freethought movement split in the 1870s, as early socialists began to move away from the Liberal radicalism typified by Bradlaugh, his autocratic style, and his support for the Liberal party policy of ‘coercion’ in Ireland. Disputes broke out too over the issue of birth control, after Bradlaugh and Annie Besant republished Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, a contraceptive manual, in 1876. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to six months’ gaol, but appealed and won on a legal technicality.
The Freethought Publishing Company’s office here was also an early editorial address for the anarchist paper Freedom, between October 1886 and 1888; but the Freedom group left as they disagreed with Bradlaugh over the ‘Chicago outrages’. Freedom was printed by the Socialist League in nearby Farringdon Road at this time.
Walk up to Fleet Street, turn right and down to corner of St Bride’s Avenue, turn right here, walk up to St Bride’s Church
The Roaring Girl
Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, also known as the Roaring Girl, is buried here in an unmarked grave. She had lived for some time before at a house in Fleet Street, around the site of the present no 133, dying there aged 78 on 26 July 1659. Robber, adventurer, performer, she was said to have been born in 1589 in Aldersgate Street, the daughter of a shoemaker. Rejecting as a young girl what were seen as women’s occupations, she cut her hair, dressed in men’s clothes & hung out in taverns smoking & drinking… A popular pamphlet recounting her life claimed “She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls… She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels. Her headgear and handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times was for girls to be dressed in) were alike tedious to her…” She was forced to do public penance for this behaviour in 1605. Relatives embarrassed by her tried to ship her off to New England, but she escaped, and became a cutpurse, robbing people’s purses in the street. “she entered herself into the Society of Divers, otherwise called file clyers, cutpurses or pickpockets ; which people are a kind of land pirates, trading altogether in other men’s bottoms for no other merchandise than bullion and ready coin, and they keep most of the great fairs and marts in the world… but having been very often in Old Bridewell, the Compters and Newgate for her irregular practices, and burnt in the hand four times, she left off this petty sort of theft, and went on the high way, committing many great robberies…”
In the meantime, she took a shop in Shoe Lane, and became a fence, receiving and selling stolen goods (mainly jewels, rings and watches). This was a common way for independent women to make a living, largely excluded as they from any skilled, paid work by urban guilds. Early modern working women found work where they could in London’s black economy of unregulated crafts and trades, becoming second-hand clothing dealers, pawnbrokers, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, and so forth. These ‘disorderly’ commercial practices were as common as they were frowned on by the guilds and City authorities: increasing guild restrictions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on female labour only pushed more women into this sector.
In her 60s Moll allegedly robbed Parliamentary Civil War supremo General Fairfax “of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her,” chased to Turnham Green, she was captured and carried her to Newgate.” (from where she is said to have escaped!)
She was buried in St Bride’s Church.
There’s a longer post on Moll Cutpurse coming soon on this blog…
While you’re there outside St Bride’s Church: The local tradition of radicalism is continued to this very day: just to your left at 88 Fleet Street is the Mayday Rooms: social centre, archive, office space for activists and shall trace unions and so much more… worth a visit when you can…
St Bride’s Avenue
Walk down the alley (St Bride’s Ave) to Bride Lane
Somewhere in Bride Lane was the Dispatch Coffee House. In the wake of the failure of the third Chartist petition to parliament to get a hearing, with general frustration at legal campaigning for political reform, amid street battles in London with the police, and revolutions breaking out all over Europe, small groups of ‘of physical force’ Chartists felt they could kick off a British revolution. In August 1848, Chartist plotters met here several times: they were however penetrated by police spies, and were arrested later in the month. Several were sentenced to transportation to Australia, and others jailed.
Walk back down Fleet Street to Ludgate Circus
The Fleet Bridge used to stand here, crossing a river at one time said to be nearly a hundred yards wide.
As early as 1290, the Fleet was described as impure, and hardly fit to drink: the prior of the Carmelite monastery in Whitefriars petitioned for it to be cleaned up, complaining that its noxious exhalations and miasmas had killed many of his monks as well as overpowering the odours of the incense used in their ceremonies. The Black Friars and the Bishop of Salisbury, (whose palace was off Fleet Street) also signed the petition.
If you fancy a diversion here, to the site of was once Ludgate Prison… cross Ludgate Circus, walk up Ludgate Hill to Old Bailey: the original Lud Gate stood here, the main entrance into the old City of London through the London Wall. Rooms above the Gate used to imprison petty offenders. In 1382, the Court of Aldermen decided to use Ludgate to hold those accused of “debts, trespasses, accounts and contempts”. Clergy and Freemen of the City in especial were jailed here. Some inmates were of relatively high standing, and in the main didn’t suffer the worst excesses of medieval incarceration. So much so in fact that the prison was accused of being too comfortable and becoming a centre of subversion (who was subverting what isn’t clear). In 1419, all the inmates were moved to Newgate, but overcrowding at the larger gaol caused many to soon be moved back. Conditions at Ludgate got worse, though, over the next two centuries… which may have led to the riot that took place here, in 1581. The Prison was destroyed in the Great Fire (when prisoners were being moved, some took the chance to leg it off into the night!); it was then rebuilt on same site, but the Gate and surrounding wall were knocked down in 1760 to improve traffic flow. The prisoners at this time were moved to the Bishopsgate Workhouse. Later wings at Giltspur St Compter and Whitecross Street debtors Prison were named after Ludgate.
Cross the bottom of Fleet Street, walk up Farringdon Street
Old Seacoal Lane (now just a short alley off Farringdon Street) recalls the wharves that used to line the New Fleet Canal.
On the East side of Farringdon Street, on the site of 5 Fleet Place, the first purpose-built gaol in London, the Fleet Prison, stood for 700 years. The first Fleet prison was built in Norman times on a tiny island in the River Fleet, just outside the city walls, the river providing a protective moat for a square tower.
Originally a City of London Prison, by the late fourteenth century it held prisoners from Westminster courts such as Common Pleas, the Exchequer and the Kings Council and Chancery, plus people who had pissed off the king or owed him money.
The Prison’s Keepers were royal appointees: a hereditary position, very profitable, with lots of money to be extorted from inmates. Warders below the Keeper also bought their positions (a low-ranking position cost £20, a fortune, in 1558), as they could also make a mint by selling every thing to prisoners. The screws received no wages, so had to extort every penny they could from those they guarded. Inmates with cash could obtain reasonably comfortable quarters, have good food and drink brought in; those convicts who couldn’t pay found themselves in the coldest, dampest cells, supplied with the roughest food etc.
Like all prisons, the Fleet was hated by the London poor. On 13th June 1381 the gaol was burned to the ground by revolting Kent peasants and London rebels, after they’d released all the prisoners. After the rebellion the Fleet had to be rebuilt.
In the era of dissent leading up to and through the English Civil war, the Fleet held inmates locked up for their political beliefs. From 1638 to 1640, radical Puritan activists William Prynne and later Leveller leader John Lilburne, were held here, having been arrested for publishing and distribute puritan books attacking the state-sponsored Anglican Church. At Whitsun 1639, Lilburne sent out an appeal to his fellow apprentices, in the form of a pamphlet thrown among holidaying apprentices in Moorfields, asking them to a campaign for a public trial for him… As a result they marched to riot outside Lambeth Palace in support of him, attacking Archbishop Laud.
The Fleet held Leveller leaders and other political prisoners during the English revolution.
In 1666, like most City prisons it burned down in the Great Fire.
Hogarth’s engraving of Tom Rakehell in the Fleet Prison
Filth, disease, torture and daily extortion here led to a petition to parliament for relief of debtors in the Fleet. In 1691 Moses Pitt published The Cry of the Oppressed during his incarceration here (the authorities tried to suppress the publication). One abuse he complained of was the unique right of creditors to apply to have prisoners transferred to the Fleet from other prisons. Fleet screws would routinely bribe creditors to provide fresh pickings for them in this way.
Pitt’s pleas changed nothing, for thirty years later things were running much the same. One Keeper, Thomas Bambridge in the 1720s, was so blatantly corrupt and sadistic that he was officially accused of extortion, and that he had “arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons and destroyed prisoners for debt”. The authorities may have been more worried that he had taken money to allow escapes and even provided a special door for the purpose; also that a couple of his victims weren’t poor nobodies. Sir William Rich, unable to pay for better conditions in the jail, was threatened with a poker, then shackled and thrown into a freezing hole above an open sewer. Robert Castell, scholarly author of The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated, died after being forced to sleep in a sponging-house where smallpox was rife, even though he begged the Warden for mercy.
The ensuing outcry sparked a parliamentary investigation what was going on in the Fleet, uncovering a catalogue of brutality, incompetence and corruption. It was admitted by Bambridge’s predecessor ‘that so many prisoners had escaped, during the time he was warden, that it was impossible to enumerate them.’ Healthy women had been forced into smallpox wards; casual cruelty was an everyday occurrence. When the Committee moved on to look at the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, they found things to be much the same. Investigating the overall management of London’s prisons, they uncovered a Byzantine web of lets and sublets, transfers of ownership and corrupt charities.
Thomas Bambridge before the Parliamentary Committee, by Hogarth
The Prisons Committee had been painted at the Fleet by a rising young artist called William. Hogarth. Hogarth’s sketch caught the moment when Bambridge was brought face to face with his accusers.
Bambridge was tried but acquitted, leading to such strong anger that parliament framed an act to sack him. But despite the horrific descriptions of torture and brutality they took no action. Not even the Prisons Committee could break the inertia of the House of Commons. The hours of evidence and cross examination, the long reports to Parliament and stories in the press, still didn’t result in any reforms. (Bambridge, incidentally, cut his throat in his Chambers at Paper Buildings on Fleet Street in 1741, so something good came out of it.)
On 6 June 1780, the Fleet was stormed by the Gordon Rioters, who freed all the inmates – bar some who asked politely for time to get their stuff together and find somewhere to go, having been inside for years. The crowd decided not to burn the prison that day, but came back the next day instead! A fire engine that arrived to put out the flames was also set on fire. Prisoner George Sussex, said later that he observed a man in the gallery of the prison pouring a flammable liquid onto the floor and another man in a sailor’s jacket setting it alight; in about two minutes the gallery was aflame from end to end. A company of Light Dragoons arrived and opened fire, (killing up to a hundred rioters according to one source, but only one, according to another?!). Passing rich folk in coaches were stopped and money demanded from them – in the Fleet Market, the Duke of Gloucester, the King’s brother, was held up and robbed as the Prison burned.
Though it was rebuilt after 1780, conditions didn’t substantially improve… Reformer John Howard condemned it as crowded and dirty; he was surprised by the scandalous neglect of all discipline, and the shameful violation of all morality.
The Liberty of the Fleet arose from the late fourteenth century, when prisoners could get the day out if they posted bail or were accompanied by a warder (obviously for a fee…) This grew into a custom that instead of residing in the cells, prisoners could take lodgings in neighbouring houses, so long as they paid the Keeper. This Liberty grew to be a mile and a half across; both in and around the prison, people sheltered from creditors, who were legally barred from pursuing them there; if you had some cash you could live it up, with sports, games, drink etc. In 1820, inmate Robert Mackay became world rackets champion.
For a while the Fleet also gave its name to marriages. People could get married Fleet marriages were cheap, and could be performed at any time, without banns or licenses, and without a clergyman. This was especially useful for women friends of sailors; a wife could receive his wages if he vanished or died, where an unofficial companion couldn’t. Women also married insolvent debtors here, to clear their own debts. The only feasible kind of wedding for much of the London poor, with useful economic advantages, the institution was hated and denounced by the authorities, and was abolished in 1753.
The Fleet Prison was closed in 1842 during prison reforms, including the ending of imprisonment for debt, and the building finally demolished in 1846.
The Congregational Memorial Hall
On the site of the old Fleet prison, the Congregational Memorial Hall was built.
Erected in 1872 by Congregationalists as an administrative centre, to commemorate dissenting churches, and the bicentenery of the Act of Uniformity, which forced many ministers to leave the Anglican Church, the Hall became a venue for the labour movement and left groups (many of whose members came from religious non-conformist backgrounds).
In 1881, the founding conference of the Democratic Federation (later renamed the Social Democratic Federation), was held here. Henry Mayers Hyndman took the chair. The founder members were a disparate body of radicals, former Chartists, Irish MPs and a few socialists. Radicalism dominated the program adopted, which included home rule for Ireland, nationalisation of the land, abolition of the House of Lords (but not, after Hyndman objected, the monarchy), and above all adult suffrage and other parliamentary reforms. Hyndman distributed copies of his book England for All, whose title implied the nationalism which bogged down the SDF for the rest of its existence.
Independent Labour Party Annual Conferences were held here in the early 1900s (the ILP in particular was formed by non-conformists).
The Labour Representation Committee, later renamed the Labour Party, was founded here on 27 February 1900, at a TUC congress, to bring together all left-wing organisations into a single body that would sponsor Parliamentary candidates. The meeting was attended by a broad spectrum of working-class and left-wing organisations — trades unions represented about one third of the membership of the TUC delegates
After a debate, the 129 delegates passed Hardie’s motion to establish “a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour.” This created an association called the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), meant to coordinate attempts to support MPs sponsored by trade unions and represent the working-class population. It had no single leader, and in the absence of one, the Independent Labour Party nominee Ramsay MacDonald was elected as Secretary.
Labour had a mixed heritage right from the start: dominated by the trade unions that founded it, with all their confused heritage.
It was always a broad church, half opportunist leadership, half a working class membership; basically reformist, yes, but involvement in local councils, education, etc, did make a huge contribution to an evolution of people’s working lives.
On the other hand… much of this was pressure from below, or hashed up half-baked reforms to stave off revolt. And the constant betrayals, compromises, nationalist rubbish, introducing of immigration controls, supporting wars and promoting imperialism, disempowering people’s self-activity, succumbing to corruption, graft, paternalistic contempt… From signing up to the slaughter of World War 1, calling in the troops on strikers from their very first spell in government (not to mention any number of times during their most radical period in power, after WW2), to New Labour adopting Thatcherism with a yuppie face and dancing off to dismember the Middle east (again)… On the other hand there’s little doubt that much of the welfare state, social housing, the NHS which made such a massive difference to us all, reformist or not, owed a great deal to the impetus from grassroots support from Labour activists.
The party tends to spasm from left to right. Now, of course, we are experiencing a rightist rebound from a leftward surge. Without wishing to engage in posturing, we desire much more than we will ever get from Labour. What is sad in many ways is the eternal renewals of faith in the party’s somewhat bankrupt structures, given new shots of life in every generation. Since Labour always disappoints, the big question is what forms the disillusion of the thousands currently flocking to sing Corbyn’s praises takes, now that brief dream has turned sour.
In 1920, the Hands Off Russia Committee was also founded here. The syndicalist London Workers’ Committee, the British Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party and Industrial Workers of the World united to oppose Britain’s military intervention in revolutionary Russia. 350 delegates were present, calling for a general strike. The Movement achieved some success, with dockers blocking ships destined for the Russian campaign in 1920, which helped to force the British government to pull troops out of the attack on the young Soviet Union.
Just prior to the May 1926 General Strike, a meeting of 800 delegates from trade unions assembled on 29th April to prepare for what now seemed like an inevitable strike… However they failed to do any real preparations at all, unlike the government, who had been getting ready for a year. This lack of preparation signalled the reluctance of the TUC to launch the Strike, which was to be called off after nine days in total capitulation.
Congregational Memorial Hall was demolished in the 1960s.
Carrying on Up Farringdon Street
On 1 November 1932, fighting between unemployed and cops spread to Farringdon Street; workers armed themselves with ammo from a local building site. This was part of a long running war in the streets between cops and unemployed, especially members of the National Unemployed Workers Movement: November ’32 saw particularly vicious battles all over the country.
Walk up to the “spectacularly ugly office block” on the east side of the road, right next to the Holborn Viaduct.
27 Farringdon Street used to stand here. This was the Socialist League head office, December 1884 to June 1885. The Socialist League was initially a broad-ranging socialist organisation, formed from a sizable minority who split from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in December 1884, including William Morris, Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, her partner Edward Aveling, and others, disillusioned with HM Hyndman’s domination of the SDF, his opportunism, jingoism and dogmatic rigidity. The League commenced a campaign of ‘making socialists’ through public meetings, open air speaking and its paper ‘Commonweal’. But although united in their opposition to Hyndman, the organisation bound together proto-anarchists and independent anti-parliamentary socialists and communists like the influential William Morris, with some pro-parliamentary socialists, including Eleanor Marx, Aveling, and Belfort Bax, mainly in the Bloomsbury branch. This inbuilt contradiction led to three years of infighting…
The League rented their premises here in a small building next to the viaduct, on 29th December 1884, the Monday after the splitters had walked out of a SDF executive committee meeting. From here the Socialist League’s journal, The Commonweal, was first issued in February 1885.
Somewhere here was no 41 Farringdon Street, which once housed The Agnostic Journal, edited by ‘Saladin’ – self-styled master of the rapier of words – the pen-name of William Stewart Ross. Ross went to Glasgow University when he was twenty-one to study for the Church. He soon found this was not his vocation. He did not find the subject agreeable, and the professors found him rather disagreeable. He was quick with his tongue, which got him into much trouble, and fluent with his pen, which got him a living. He became a freelance writer, and freethinker. Guy Aldred, who grew up locally, and later became a famed communist-anarchist as well as atheist speaker and writer, was later influenced by’Saladin’ around 1905. ‘Saladin’ died in 1906.
Carry on up to 83a Farringdon Street, In the 1860s, Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Press moved here from Great Corum Street, Bloomsbury, where it was founded in 1860.They were a women’s printers and publishers: all the staff were women, including printers and compositors, unique at the time when women were largely excluded from these jobs. They published the Victoria Magazine, and were part of the group that produced the English Women’s Journal, the first English feminist journal, and linked to the Langham Place feminist group… Also involved in the Society for Promoting Women’s Employment, a campaigning group designed to encourage women’s employment. However it was mainly concerned with middle class women, as the groups were all from fairly well-off backgrounds – their concern for working class women, expressed in the Journal, was largely philanthropic. 19th century liberal politics dominated their outlook socially and economically.
Emily Faithfull had to distance herself from the Victoria Press in 1867, after she was cited in a divorce case and suspected of being a lesbian (horror!). She continued to be active in women’s publishing and printing, and in trade unionism.
Old Holborn Bridge
Stop under the Viaduct
Up the Heavy Hill
”Oh I went up Holborn Hill, in a cart, in a cart,
Oh I went up Holborn Hill, in a cart.
Oh I went up Holborn Hill,
And was there I made my will,
For the best of friends must part,
So must I, so must I,
For the best of friends must part,
So must I…”
(from the song Sam Hall, about a thief going off to be hanged)
Before the building of the Viaduct in 1869 the steep sides of the Fleet valley descending to the ‘Holborn bridge’ here, were sometimes called “the Heavy Hill”.
The ritual processions from Newgate to Tyburn, of those being taken to be hanged, passed this way; thus “riding in a cart up the Heavy Hill” became one of numerous slang terms for being hanged.
“Filth of all hues and odours”
The Fleet was navigable by ships up to here and beyond, at least until the sixteenth century, though by 1603 it had become blocked up.
Some historians believe the Fleet was navigable even further north than Kings Cross. Reputedly an anchor was pulled from the river at the Elephant & Castle pub, where Pancras Road meets Royal College Street and St Pancras Way.
The Fleet Ditch
As mentioned earlier, by the thirteenth century the river had become extremely polluted. In 1307 it was reported that “in times past the course of the water… had beene of such breadth and depth that 10 or 12 ships… were wont to come to the foresaid bridge of Fleete and some of them to Oldbourne Bridge: now the same course by filth of tanners and such others was sore decaied.” Holborn or Oldbourne bridge spanned the river roughly where the modern viaduct stands.
On the petition of the earl of Lincoln, the constable of the Tower, with the mayor and sheriffs of London, were directed by writ to take with them certain ‘honest and discreet men to inquire into the former state of the river, to leave nothing that might hurt or stop it,’ and restore it to its original condition.
Bathing in the Flee. Not a massively good idea…
Mills and wharfs had been built which had narrowed the course and diverted some of the water. The stream was repeatedly dredged and cleansed, and the mills removed, but the Fleet was soon clogged and filthy again: every thirty to forty years it had to be scoured again, at great expense to the City of London.
It gradually became a foul stinking mess, an open sewer known as the Fleet Ditch, famous for its large quantities of dead dogs; and filled with all kinds of human waste, the regular discharge of the local privies and household washing; chemicals from artisan workshops like tanneries, including faeces (a key ingredient of the tanning process was dog turds) and dyers’ vats; gunge from mills on the Turnmill Brook; the offal from the local butchers of Saffron Hill and the discarded remains of the slaughterhouses of Smithfield’s meat market – all combining to become a black putrefying sludge with a stench to take the breath away.
Jonathan Swift described the Fleet in the 1700s in his City Showers:
“Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What streets they sailed from by their sight and smell
Seepings from Butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood;
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all dressed in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the food.”
In the late sixteenth century a plan to use the Fleet to bring clean water to the City (in sore need of fresh water supplies at this time…) fell through as the pollution was too great. (Hence the digging of the New River in 1609.)
Many slums and rookeries grew up along the river’s banks; hundreds of poor people crowded in garrets, sub-divided rooms in densely built up alleys, some so narrow a horse couldn’t turn round.
The Fleet became a popular literary image of decay and filth, and its neighbours were pictured as the lowest of the low.
In the “Dunciad,” Alexander Pope, ‘lashing the poorer of his enemies’, drives them headlong past Bridewell to the mud-pools of the Fleet—
“To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
‘Here strip, my children! here at once leap in,
Here prove who best can dash through thick and thin,
And who the most in love of dirt excel,
Or dark dexterity of groping well.
Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around
The stream, be his the weekly journals bound;
A pig of lead to him who dives the best;
A peck of coals a-piece shall glad the rest.’”
(Whether or not ‘social reformers’ ever used Fleet as metaphor for the mob, Pope certainly here uses it, as one for the crap writers, booksellers and gutter-journalists and he was attacking in verse).
However John Gay, in his “Trivia; or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London,” makes the Fleet sounds much more pleasant:
“If where Fleet Ditch with muddy current flows
You chance to roam; where oyster-tubs in rows
Are ranged beside the posts; there stay thy haste,
And with the savoury fish indulge thy taste:
The damsel’s knife the gaping shell commands,
While the salt liquor streams between her hands.”
Up to the corner of West Smithfield and Snow Hill
Farringdon Hall, Kings Arms Yard, Snow Hill: Previously a shirt factory, this seems to have been the offices of the Cooperative League, a communist organisation active in the late 1840s.
A ‘Communist conference’ was held here in 1848, very likely of Utopian Communists, followers of Robert Owen, advocates of communes and workers’ cooperation. This area of London was a stronghold of the followers of Robert Owen, and of co-ops in the early to mid-19th Century. In the early 1820s, houses at the corner of Bagnigge Wells Road (now Kings Cross Road) and Guildford Street East (now Attneave Street), just up the hill from here, were home to the ‘Spa Fields Congregational Families’. From 1821-24, 21 families lived in a community, pooling their resources and wages, Mainly artisans, such as haberdashers and cobblers, the residents, members of Scotsman George Mudie’s ‘Cooperative and Economical Society’, shared communal domestic arrangements, with a hall for eating and socialising together, they also set up their own health care system, a school, co-operative store, and a printing press. The commune ended after only three years when when Mudie was forced to leave or lose his outside editorial job.
Ten years later the nearby Grays Inn Road Institute, behind 277 Grays Inn Road was home to the Owenite Institution of the Industrious Classes, the first Owenite organisation of the era, from 1831 to 1833. The Institute set up a ‘National Equitable Labour Exchange’, where workers’ goods could be exchanged at their ‘real’ labour value via ‘labour notes’.
“Smithfield: A rude vast place”
Originally a wide grassy ‘Smooth field’ just outside the City wall, Smithfield proved an ideal open space for dealing in livestock – horses, and especially cattle. As this market, and the accompanying slaughterhouses and butchers’ stalls, grew up, so the surrounding area became famous for unruly, drunken behaviour. As early as the eleventh century, the area was famed for its rowdiness: West Smithfield was nicknamed ‘Ruffians Hall’. The open space was also handy for hosting sporting gatherings and fairs – as well as executions; where “cows might be sold for slaughter and men slaughtered for religion”. As well as the inevitable disorder that came with the holding of tournaments, fairs, markets and the like, the constant meeting and intermingling of people helped radical social, religious and political ideas to spread: subversive religious and political ideas bubbled under here for centuries.
Later the great market square of Smithfield enclosed the area between St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the ancient church of St Bartholomew the Great, and industry, trading, abattoirs dominated; mingled with slums, as poor people with little choice as to where to live crowded the local rookeries.
Smithfield has had a long association with both radicalism and rebellion, and with public execution and punishment.
On 15th June 1381, the Peasants Revolt climaxed here. At a second meeting between the king and the peasant rebels, Wat Tyler argued for equality for all, a land with no lords, no clergy, no serfs, but equality under God and the king, with the church’s wealth to be distributed among the poor, and an end to men being outlawed… As the king prevaricated, there was a scuffle & Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor, William Walworth. To prevent the rebels massacring them for this, the king promised them all their demands if they would go home. Tyler meanwhile, carried wounded to Bart’s Hospital, was seized by Walworth’s followers & beheaded in Smithfield. The next day the remaining rebels were surrounded in Clerkenwell, and over the following months a number were executed and most of the king’s promises broken.
Smithfield was a haunt of radical religious reformers the Lollards. Initially inspired by theologian John Wycliffe (see Blackfriars, above), the Lollards called for reform of the church, questioned its immense wealth, and challenged orthodox doctrine, such as transubstantiation (the Catholic idea that the host used in Mass actually became the body of Jesus during the service) and the use of the Cross as a symbol. Lollards also promoted the equality of the sexes including women preachers. Lollard lay preachers spread these ideas, wandering the English countryside, preaching a new reformed Christian doctrine, based on the reading of the Holy Scripture in English as the means for knowing the true Word of God, on each individual’s personal faith rather than the hierarchical word of the priest.
Early support from the wealthy classes (who had wanted to reduce the power and the wealth of the Church in England for their own reasons) waned as the Church increased its campaign against the Lollards, their supporters, and their policies. Many prominent Lollards, especially former Oxford students, were arrested and sent to prison. Lollards became subject to the new statute De Haeretico Comburendo (1401) which introduced the burning of heretics in England. The Lollard Bible was banned in 1407. Many Lollard congregations met in secret, especially in rural areas.
The Wrestler-in-the-Hoop Tavern, Smithfield was identified by the authorities as a hangout of Lollards; it stood somewhere near St Sepulchre’s Church (the junction of Snow Hill and Holborn Viaduct). In October 1413, having escaped from the Tower of London, after being condemned to death for heresy, Lollard leader Sir John Oldcastle, an aristocratic dissident, hid out at the home of William Fisher (See Turnmill Street, below). (He also may have hidden at the Wrestler-in-the-Hoop in January 1414). He made plans for a desperate uprising of Lollards against persecution, sending out word to Lollards all over the land, to march to London & meet him at Temple Bar on January 9/10th; meanwhile he & some London heretics planned to kidnap the king & his brothers. A few days later, though, the tiny Lollard ‘army’ was routed at St Giles Fields: Oldcastle and several others were captured, and executed.
“to heaven in a chariot of fire”
Smithfield’s large open space outside the City, and fame as a gathering space, made it ideal for use as a public execution ground, mainly for criminals, rebels, and especially religious heretics and dissenters.
It may have been chosen not simply because it was a convenient large open space. Those in power had complex psychological reasons for designating where executions and public punishments should take place. Streets or junctions with great symbolic resonance, centres of public discussion and meeting places, were useful; the memory (and thus the public example, to teach others a lesson) could then have a greater impact. Criminals were also often put to death or punished at, or near, the site of their crime. But an additional incentive to use Smithfield may well have been its proximity to troublesome slums and liberties, areas where many heretics, rebels, and criminals were identified as inhabiting – partly to overawe the poor, and deter people from following the bad examples of the executed.
Scots independence leader William Wallace, fighting to overthrow the English king Edward I’s brutal rule of Scotland, was one of the earliest to be publicly executed here, in 1305. Having masterminded a stubborn and ingenious guerilla war, Wallace was captured in 1305. On 23rd August he was dragged here, from his trial for treason in Westminster, strapped to a wooden hurdle, then hanged from a gallows, ‘drawn’ (ie cut down), and disemboweled and beheaded. His body was cut in to pieces and displayed on spikes – the head on London Bridge and body parts at four castles in Scotland and Northern England.
Heresy, religious and political dissidence was however the main ‘crime’ likely to lead you to an early death here. From the fifteenth century, the penalty for holding unorthodox religious views was being burned alive.
Many Lollards suffered execution at Smithfield; probably partly due to the area’s known reputation for Lollard sympathies.
In 1401, William Sawtrey, a Norfolk priest, became the first Lollard martyr. He had developed doubts about church practices and dogma, and was arrested in Norfolk in 1399, but recanted and was released. Shortly after this, though, he moved to London, and got into trouble again for preaching his unorthodox views. Arrested, questioned and condemned for eight counts of heresy, he was burnt at the stake in Smithfield in March 1401. His death caused many of the early Lollards to recant their views (at least publicly.)
Lollard tailor or blacksmith John Badby was burned here in 1410; condemned for denying transubstantiation. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs “when he felt the fire, he cryed, mercy (calling belike vpon the Lorde” ) and the prince of Wales (later king Henry V, a fanatical persecutor of the Lollards), who was present, ordered the fire put out, and offered him his life and a pension if he would recant. But Badby, “neglectyng the princes fayre wordes, as also contempnyng all mennes deuises, refused the offer of worldly promises, no doubt, but beyng more vehemently inflamed with the spirite of God then with any earthly desire.” So they relit the fire and burnt him.
John Claydon was put to death here in 1415, for possessing seditious Lollard books, texts which the Mayor of London called “the worst and most perverse he ever did read or see’”. Executed with Claydon was his friend George Gurmeyn; the two had often discussed matters of faith together.
William Taylor, a priest, was also burned here in 1422. Having escaped death four years earlier by publicly recanting his views, he was arrested again in 1419, kept imprisoned for three years, then ‘martyred’.
Thomas Bagley, Vicar of Manuden in Essex, described as “a valiant disciple and adherent of Wicliffe”, was burned for heresy in 1431.
After two attempted uprisings in 1414 and 1431, Lollardy gradually dwindled to small fugitive conclaves in the countryside. The Church continued for a hundred years to try to root it out.
Joan Broughton became the first female martyr in medieval England when she was burned here on the 28th April 1494, after being convicted of holding Lollard views.
October 1511 Smithfield saw two more Lollards, William Succling and John Bannister, burned; seven years later, in September 1518, they were followed by John Schlincen (who had previously recanted his views but backslid) and James Brewster from Colchester.
When religious dissent and division was renewed in the sixteenth century, Smithfield was revived as a punishment ground. Henry VIII burnt early Lutheran protestants and other dissenters here, such as Richard Bayfield, one of those who helped William Tyndale translate the Bible into English (considered heretical at the time) and helped to circulate it clandestinely. He was tortured, then burned in December 1531. John Frith, another associate of Tyndale, who had advocated religious toleration and rejected persecution, transubstantiation and purgatory, was executed here together with an associate, Andrew Hewitt, in July 1533.
John Tewkesbury was burned here around the same time for either distributing or merely reading Tyndale’s bible, after being tortured until he was nearly dead.
John Forest was burned here around 1533, for rejecting ‘Ennery’s break with the pope and refusing to recognize him as head of the church. But protestants also continued to be burned – Henry himself mainly held to catholic dogma, although he had imposed a new structure with himself as figurehead instead of the pope.
In 1532 Richard Rose was roasted to death in an iron cauldron over a slow fire (taking two hours to die) for allegedly poisoning gruel intended for the household of he Bishop of Rochester (though whether he meant to knock off the Bish himself is unclear).
In 1538 one Collins was “burned to ashes, amidst a vast crowd”, for satirizing church service, having lifted his dog above his head, in mockery of a priest lifting up the sacrament during the mass. No, really. It doesn’t seem to have been fully determined whether Collins was enraged at Catholic ritual, or mad (as he was thought to be) or perhaps maybe pissed, but it was decided to murder him horribly anyway.
And the psychopathic spasms of religious ecstasy continue:
In 1540 the authorities excelled themselves by having three catholics (Thomas Abell, Richard Fetherston and Edward Powell) AND three protestants (Cuthbert Barnes, Thomas Garret and William Jerome) killed here, even saving on time and expense by having one of each bound together, dragged through the streets on hurdles and roasted. Possibly they were hoping for some fine theological debate between the two differing sectarians as their heads bounced off the cobbles. Who knows.
Anne Askew was an English poet and Protestant burned here in 1546. From a noble family, unhappily married against her will, she had preached in London against transubstantiation and distributed banned Protestant books, for which she was arrested, released, arrested again, and tortured on the rack in an attempt to force her to name other Protestants. Though crippled by torture she named no-one else. It’s thought there were a number of protestant groups operating clandestinely in the capital at this time, an underground network of which Anne was a part. Some of the supporters of these groups may have been London apprentices, who had a history of involvement with religious and political dissidents, and some of whom expressed solidarity with Anne.
Anne was carried to her execution on 16th July 1546 in a chair, being unable to walk after being racked; burned, or as one commentator put it “she went to heaven in a chariot of fire.”
The Burning of John Rogers, 1555
Joan Bocher (aka Joan Boucher or Butcher, Joan Knell or Joan of Kent) was an English Anabaptist burned here for heresy. Associated with Baptists and Anabaptists in Kent, some of them immigrants who had fled persecution in the Netherlands, in the 1530s and 1540s she was “much in favour in reforming circles” in Canterbury, and preached against the sacrament of the altar, for which she was briefly imprisoned. Later said to have been friends with Anne Askew and involved in smuggling Tyndale’s New Testament into England, Joan was arrested as a heretic in 1548 and convicted in April 1549. After refusing to recant she was burned at the stake here on 2 May 1550.
Fifty-six of the 280-odd protestants put to death in the reign of Catholic queen Mary ended their lives here, including the first, John Rogers, minister, Bible translator and commentator, burned in February 1555.
Seven protestants (John Tydson, Thomas Whittle, John Went, Thomas Brown, Isabel Foster, Joan Lushford and Bartlet Green) were burned here on one day in January 1556.
There seem to have been some protests at some 1550s executions, with large crowds of sympathizers attending many burnings (a bit of direct action might have been somewhat more pro-active though, eh; although I suppose these martyr-types sometimes prefer to die than be rescued).
Unsurprisingly since protestants could expect to be burned if caught, small congregations resorted to meeting in secret. Several were raided though, and participants ended up on the Smithfield pyres, in 1556-58; for instance, John Rough and Margaret Mearing, burned on 22nd December 1557, and Cuthbert Simpson, burned 28th March 1558 (after being racked), had been arrested at a clandestine meeting in the Saracen’s Head inn in Islington. In April 1558, forty men and women were seized at a nighttime protestant meeting in an Islington field. Half of them were sent to Newgate Prison, of whom thirteen, refusing to attend catholic mass, seven of these were burned at Smithfield in June. Despite a proclamation read by the Sheriff of London, threatening arrest and punishment for anyone showing support, a large and sympathetic crowd assembled, shouting and protesting at the executions.
Where support for reforming and fringe religious sects was to be found, can also be glimpsed in the professions given for some of those burned – for instance, 19-year old apprentice John Leaf, burned in July 1555. Apprentices, as mentioned above, were notable for their support of early Protestantism; as were weavers, and two weavers at least, Thomas Tomkins of Shoreditch (put to death at Smithfield in May 1555) and John Cavel (burned in April the following year). Other trades represented include two fullers, Thomas Spurge and George Ambrose, and a shearman, Richard Spurge, all burned April 1556.
“that detestable sect”
One of the main groups to suffer execution here were Anabaptists.
Anabaptist is used as a general terms to describe some 40 independent sects, holding widely varied views, at the beginning of the Radical Reformation (1520-1580). It was not a centralised or homogeneous sect; and many dissenters were lumped together and persecuted under the Anabaptist label, accurately or not. Even the name (meaning “rebaptiser”) was generally one used by their enemies as a term of abuse: some groups used the term Brethren to describe themselves. By 1525, Anabaptist congregations had spread across most of German speaking Europe. Rejecting both the corrupt practices of the Roman Church, and the new reformed Protestant Churches, they sought instead to re-establish communities based on their conception of early Christian congregations. They often disregarded both religious ceremonies or complex theological questions, preferring to emphasise ‘the inspired Word of God, and a love for their fellow man’. They radically opposed established churches: rejecting the traditional practice of baptising babies into the church, instead practising adult baptism, as a conscious pledge of faith.
Many preached the separation of the Church and State, the abolishment of any State religion, or rejected the State completely and opposed wars; members were fined or imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes, take up arms or for acts of civil disobedience.
Many also preached free will, complete religious freedom based on a literal Bible, and the total independent control of their own congregations and electing of their own clergy, often shunning contact with the corrupted ‘worldly society’ outside their own communities.
A few Anabaptist leaders preached that a Millennium of the Saints, a golden time when Jesus would return, was at hand, and more militant congregations started to prepare to overthrow the current ungodly and corrupted society. Some militant Anabaptist groups developed into quasi-communistic communities. Anabaptist uprisings took place in Europe, notably in the German town of Münster in 1532-35. Both Catholic and Protestant Europe raised armies to oust these militant Anabaptists, capturing Münster in 1535. A general persecution followed throughout Europe against all Anabaptists. By 1540, most of the early Anabaptist leaders were imprisoned or executed, but persecutions against Anabaptists continued across Europe into the 1580s.
Anabaptists were active in London, many followers of Melchior Hoffman, who came to England in the 1530s from the Netherlands. Both English and foreign Anabaptists in England were persecuted under Henry VIII. In May 1535, twenty-five Dutch Anabaptists were examined at St. Paul’s for ‘heretical’ views fourteen were condemned. Two were burned at Smithfield on 8th June 1535. On 24 November four Dutch Anabaptists recanted publicly, but five days later three were burned at Smithfield: Jan Mathijsz van Middelburg, a well-known Anabaptist leader in the Low Countries, and Peter Franke and his wife, a young couple from Bruges in Flanders.
Under Queen Elizabeth I Anabaptist activity openly revived; as did Church and Crown presecution. The Crown was busy trying to keep control of all religious dissidents, perceived as potential problems to the State and to the Crown. In 1575, twenty-seven German and Flemish Anabaptists were arrested in London. Accused of heresy, eleven were convicted and condemned to be burned at the stake. Queen Elizabeth then commuted the sentences of nine of those condemned, banishing them instead of executing them. But the last two, John Wielmacker (also known as Jan Pieters) and Hendrick Ter Woort, were burned at the stake at Smithfield on July 22nd, 1575.
Under James I similar policies were continued, but Anabaptist influences continued. Bartholomew Legate or Legatt, dealer in cloth, and his two brothers, Walter and Thomas, from Essex, were active in and around London ca. 1590-1612, and were cited as having Anabaptist beliefs, rejecting the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and their rituals. The brothers’ views probably influenced the emergence of the sect known as the Seekers. In 1611, Bartholomew and Thomas were imprisoned for heresy: Thomas died in Newgate Prison, Bartholomew was tried in February 1612, was found guilty of heresy, and refusing to retract his opinions, burnt at the stake at Smithfield on 18 March 1612. He was the last person burned in London for his religious opinions, (Edward Wightman, burned at Lichfield a month later, was the last to suffer in this way in England.) After 1612 most heretics were simply sent to prison and there left to rot.
Catholics also fuelled the Smithfield fires. Nicholas Horner was burned here in March 1590 for harbouring a fugitive catholic priest.
Although we might think all religious belief is basically medieval, and killing people for minor doctrinal differences in alien, even laughable (if it wasn’t so tragic) obviously the desire to impose faith on others by force is hardly a dead issue in modern times… Some of the burned might have burned others in their turn, if they had the upper hand. But probably the majority of people executed here were trying to work out some control over their own lives through the language and framework they knew, ie faith, and in many cases religious dissent either contained within it or masked social and political rebelliousness, or was itself directly challenging to the state. Many others were just (usually poor) people who were either wrong-footed by the rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors, who simply continued to believe in what they had always been told to think (on penalty of everlasting fire), or merely expressed their own mind to the wrong person/made an ‘inappropriate’ joke. Either way really Smithfield represents a site of abomination. The Christian whingers and tabloid godblatherers who today bleat about ‘aggressive secularism’ might want to reflect that there is a huge deficit on the account, which remains unpaid, though there’s never a wrong time to burn a church or two.
Heretics weren’t the only people to suffer burning here – at least one woman (whose name isn’t given) was burned here as late as 1674 for clipping coins.
Smithfield also contained a pillory, where lesser ‘offenders’ were locked and exposed to physical and verbal abuse from passers-by. In at least one case, the pilloried person was subjected to a kind of popular execution. James Egan, Stephen McDaniel, James Berry and James Salmon had made a dubious living as ‘thief-takers’, effectively self-employed informers, by conspiring to frame innocent people for various crimes, (often by luring them into some plot they themselves had concocted) and claiming reward money. They sent at last four people they sent to the gallows, but they were finally exposed and arrested themselves, in 1756, and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, after a spell in the pillory. McDaniel and Berry were pilloried at Hatton Garden and beaten nearly to death. Egan and Salmon were exhibited at Smithfield on March 5th 1756; very quickly an angry crowd gathered and beat and stoned them, threw dead dogs and cats at them (!), fighting off some constables who tried to intervene. Egan died from his injuries. Few local people would have objected to such community justice
Executions and pillorying ended at Smithfield at the end of the eighteenth century.
“In March, 1849, during excavations necessary for a new sewer, and at a depth of three feet below the surface, immediately opposite the entrance to the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great, the workmen laid open a mass of unhewn stones, blackened as if by fire, and covered with ashes and human bones, charred and partially consumed. This was believed to have been the spot generally used for the Smithfield burnings, the face of the victim being turned to the east and to the great gate of St. Bartholomew, the prior of which was generally present on such occasions. Many bones were carried away as relics. Some strong oak posts were also dug up; they had evidently been charred by fire, and in one of them was a staple with a ring attached to it. The place and its former history were too significant for any doubt to exist as to how they had been once used.”
Wander up West Smithfield, to the end of Long Lane and Lindsey Street
“a dangerous sink for all the vices of London: Bartholomew Fair”
Bartholomew Fair used to be held here: the fairground lay along the south side of Long Lane. Begun in 1133, and lasting until 1855, this was the most prominent and infamous London fair for centuries; a riotous outpouring of popular culture, feared and despised by those in power. It was held mid-late August, the traditional time for rowdy fairs (marking of old the end of the working year, when labourers could leave one employer and hire on with another).
Originally it opened on the 24 August – St Bartholomew’s Day, generally celebrated with carnivalesque riotousness throughout Europe in the middle ages, being the 25th. – for three days. Later it was gradually extended till it spanned two weeks. Its main economic function for centuries was for the trading of cloth – it became the leading venue for the cloth trade; however as London drapers found wider markets and transport improved, this gradually declined in importance. From the sixteenth century, it was known for pleasure and entertainment. Like the medieval carnivals, ritual became an important element: for instance, it was customary for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair on St Bartholomew’s Eve, after he had called at Newgate Prison, where the prison governor would supply him with a ritual cup of sack (fortified white wine
By 1641, the fair had overflowed its former location along Cloth Fair, and around the Priory graveyard, and now spread over four parishes: Christ Church, Great and Little St Bartholomew’s and St Sepulchre’s. The fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and wild animals.
In 1691, the Fair was shortened to only four days; after the change in the calendar from 1753, the fair commenced on 3 September.
In the 18th century, the fair was the venue for subversive plays, puppetry, anti-government satire & attacks on the Lord Mayor & all established authorities: in 1697 William Philips was whipped for his anti-government satires at the fair.
In September 1817, according to Sherwin’s Political Register, the authorities panicked at the rumour that a radical insurrection was planned to coincide with Bartholomew Fair. Four regiments of horse were called out, and the Lord Mayor searched for weapons among the ‘oyster-tubs, sausage-stalls, and gingerbread baskets’.
The fair was partially suppressed in the 1760s, the opening salvo of a concerted campaign against London fairs & popular gatherings.
The annual disorder generated at this carnival, “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”, gradually became intolerable, as its economic functions declined, and pressures for reform of the morals and rebelliousness of London’s poor increased. Gradually magistrates restricted the festivities, which killed the Fair off piece by piece. The shows, which were now forced to close at ten, were moved to the New North Road, Islington. In 1839 theatrical shows were banned. Rents were raised, and in 1840 only wild beast shows were allowed. “The great fair at last sank down to a few gilt gingerbread booths” by 1849. The ceremony of opening the Fair had been much simplified since 1840, and in 1850 Lord Mayor Musgrove, turned up to read the traditional proclamation at the appointed spot, was faced with a shadow of the former revels. The fair was finally suppressed for good in 1855 by the City authorities.
The repression of Bartholomew Fair suffered was part of a widespread campaign, conducted through the first half of the eighteenth century, to put a stop to debauchery and public disorder, and especially gathering places where working class people could behave badly en masse. Not just because their morals needed totally upgrading, but because they might get together, riot, or overthrow the proper order of society, as had happened in France too many times since 1789. Open space needed to be controlled and orderly, and events that encouraged immorality, riot and expense on the rates should be done away with!
Walk down Lindsey Street, turn left down Charterhouse Street, walk down to St John Street
Long after executions of heretics and rebels ended here, disorder and subversion remained endemic in the area. Like other local space, open or not, there were official attempts to landscape the Smooth Field, to transform it into a more suitable space for commerce and push out the unruly elements.
In 1615 “the City of London reduced the rude, vast place of Smithfield into a faire and comely order, which formerly was never held possible to be done, and paved it all over, and made divers sewers to convey the water from the new channels which were made by reason of the new pavement; they also made strong rayles round about Smithfield, and sequestered the middle part of the said Smithfield into a very faire and civill walk, and rayled it round about with strong rayles, to defend the place from annoyance and danger, as well from carts as all manner of cattell, because it was intended hereafter that in time it might prove a faire and peaceable market-place, by reason that Newgate Market, Moorgate, Cheapside, Leadenhall, and Gracechurche Street were unmeasurably pestred with the unimaginable increase and multiplicity of market folks. And this field, commonly called West Smithfield, was for many years called ‘Ruffians’ Hall,’ by reason it was the usual place of frayes and common fighting during the time that sword and bucklers were in use. But the ensuing deadly fight of rapier and dagger suddenly suppressed the fighting with sword and buckler.”
Smithfield Market, 1811
In June 1647 there was rioting at Smithfield market, over high food prices; food production and delivery was badly disrupted during the Civil War, affecting the poor most of all. A worried Parliament exempted meat & salt from the excise, in an attempt to make food cheaper and head off further rebellion.
On 12th January 1723, a mass spontaneous football match broke out in Smithfield, putting an end to work for the day.
In 1819, Thomas Davidson opened a bookshop here. An ex-shopman for the radical Fleet Street publisher Richard Carlile, he was jailed for two years in October 1820 with Carlile’s wife Jane, for republishing the Republican newspaper, Carlile’s Life of Paine, and the Deist’s Magazine. His shop at 10 Duke Street, (now the northwest end of Little Britain, which used to run through to West Smithfield) sold radical and freethought periodicals, and published the Medusa or Penny Politician, 1819 -1826. He died in 1826.
In 1848 police occupied Smithfield Market, during Chartist disturbances (there was fighting in nearby Clerkenwell between Chartists and police that spread to the rooves of local houses).
1857: A mass meeting in Smithfield of London building workers, at a time of high unemployment, launched a campaign for a 9 (instead of 10) hour working day. This led to widespread London builders’ strikes through 1859-61.
In the late 1940s there were a number of strikes of Smithfield Porters. As with other disputes at this time, the Labour government used soldiers (of whom, post-war, there were still a huge surplus) to break several of these strikes.
On April 8th, 1946, six hundred provision workers at Smithfield Market came out on strike, after a pay award by the Joint Industrial Council they considered too low. On April 15, the Labour government sent troops into the market, as blacklegs: as a result 3000 meat porters struck work in sympathy. This was to establish a pattern that recurred again and again over the next few years.
Not all the troops were prepared to scab though. According to one paratrooper: “When the Smithfield porters were out on strike we were detailed to go and work in Smithfield market. We were supposed to blackleg. We had three ton Bedfords, down at Shorncliffe, I was driving them at the time. They said “Right, make your way to Smithfield.” I was in the second lorry and my mate was driving the first one. There was about 20 to 30 blokes in each lorry and there were four lorries. I said to my mate, “Do you know your way to Smithfield?” “I haven’t a fucking clue” he said. “Follow me” I said, “I’ll take you to Smithfield.”
Know where we finished up? Hastings. We had a great time, mucking about on the beach. I wasn’t going to lead those lorries to Smithfield. All the drivers were put on a charge. They couldn’t say nothing to the soldiers. I took the responsibility. I said “Look, I thought I knew the way to London, but I must have took the wrong turning. They couldn’t do nothing about it, but we was confined to camp for five days. I wasn’t going to go up there and do that – break the strike. All the lads were in agreement. We all had a day out, down by the seaside.”
On January 8th, 1947, over 20,000 drivers, including 400 at Smithfield, were involved in a road haulage strike. On January 13, the Labour Government sent troops into Smithfield Market. Again.
Following the pattern of the previous year, all meat and provision workers came out in sympathy. The blackleg labour made a right old mess of the market.
On June 24th 1950, twelve hundred meat drivers based on Smithfield Market came out on strike in protest against delays in settling their claims for a wage increase. On June 28, the Labour Government AGAIN used troops to carry corned beef from meat storage depots to butchers (we’d have thought the troops would have been sick of the sight of the stuff, having been forced to eat copious amounts of it through the war). Later the troops were moved into the market itself. Nine hundred porters and market men immediately walked out, followed by provision porters, shopmen and poultry pitchers. Workers at several cold stores refused to work alongside the troops. By July 5th, 3,400 men were out. Two days later 200 drivers employed by British Road Services at Brentford joined the strike.
A meeting of the unofficial rank-and-file body – the London Road Haulage Stewards Association – decided to call out all general road haulage drivers within 48 hours. The usual screams went up about ‘communists’ and ‘agitators’. On July 10, having obtained certain promises, the stewards recommended a return to work. On August 21, several leaders of the Smithfield strike were suspended from union membership by the Executive of the TGWU. On August 28, the Industrial Court awarded a wage increase of 8 shillings a week to all the workers concerned.
In 1958, there was a nine-week strike at Smithfield markets, which involved 58,000 workers.
For several decades after WW1, most commentators observed that the unions pretty much ‘ran’ Smithfield.
The porters had a tradition of both militant autonomous strike action, but this went hand in hand with a tendency towards racism and xenophobia, a somewhat contradictory heritage, but widespread, also notably seen amongst some London dockers.
On Saturday April 20 1968, Conservative minister Enoch Powell made a controversial speech in Birmingham, in which he warned his audience of what he believed would be the consequences of continued unchecked immigration from the Commonwealth to Britain. Because of its allusion to Virgil, saying that the Tiber would “foam with blood”, this was known as the “rivers of Blood’ speech. On 23 April, meat porters at Smithfield market struck in sympathy with Powell, (who had been sacked from the tory government after the speech). 400 meat porters from Smithfield market handed in a ninety-two page petition in support of Powell.
Walk Up to North end of Lindsey Street, turn left, then back down Charterhouse Street to Farringdon Street, cross over and up to Shoe Lane
The most northerly end of Shoe Lane was formerly known as Field Lane, a notorious street, on the borders of the Saffron Hill rookery, and famous for the fencing of stolen goods. It was said at one time you could have your handkerchief (supposing you were rich enough to own one) stolen at one end of Field Lane, then buy it back from a fence, by the time you had walked to the other end.
Mother Clap’s Molly House
Field Lane was also the home of Mother Clap’s Molly House, an eighteenth century gay club of sorts, where gay men (then known as mollies) could meet, drink, socialise, and have sex.
‘Molly houses’ were constantly threatened by raids from the magistrates, since ‘sodomy’ was illegal – in fact a capital offence. Despite this a thriving gay subculture flourished in 1700s London. Some Mollyhouses were effectively brothels, where both young gay prostitutes and their clients could be ruthlessly exploited and blackmailed; but Margaret Clap seems to have opened up her own house as a coffee house-cum-club more for her own amusement than profit. On at least one occasion she went to court to give evidence that led to one man being acquitted of sodomy. It was said “she had provided beds in every room of the house’, and with such an attraction it is not surprising that ‘she had commonly 30 or 40 of such kind of Chaps every Night, but more especially on Sunday Nights”. The house was filled with music, dancing, courting; spirits flowed freely.
‘Mollys’ attacked in the pillory
But public opinion was very much against homosexuality; this twilight culture offended the religious, moral and gender codes. Molly houses were raided by the constables, on the orders of magistrates; sometimes spurred on by ‘reforming societies’, such as the Society for the Reformation of Manners. These vicious religious busybodies, often led by well-to-do windbags, made it their business to persecute sex-workers, outsiders such as the mollies, and the ‘irreligious’ or immoral poor generally. They investigated houses and persons of ill-repute, often sending in spies and informers, the sponsoring prosecutions or pressurising the authorities to act.
In February 1726, Mother Clap’s house was raided by the constables, and forty od men arrested. On the evidence of three informers, (two hustlers, and one molly with a grudge), several were tried for sodomy; three – Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin and Thomas Wright – were sentenced to death, and were hung at Tyburn on 9th May 1726. Two other men were sentenced to stand in the pillory as well as to terms in prison, as was Margaret Clap, who got the pillory and two years.
Sodomy remained a capital offence for another century.
The Crimp House Riots
In August 1794, during the war against revolutionary France, a crowd attempted to destroy an army recruiting office (‘Crimp House’) in Shoe Lane. ‘Crimpers’ were widely suspected of stooping to kidnapping, buying up debts to ensnare debtors and other shady practices, supported by London magistrates. At this time, two years in to the war with revolutionary France, the army and navy were suffering a severe shortage of manpower; as a result the military offered bounties to the ‘crimpers’ of up to £30 per recruit. Unrest began on 15th August when rumours spread that a young man named George Howe had leapt to his death from a window of a crimp house. These ‘Crimp House Riots’ saw the most alarming (for the authorities) mob violence since 1780: crowds of hundreds of people, gathered, chanting ‘No War No Soldiers’, and proceeded to pull down five or six crimping Houses: (besides here, in Mutton Lane, at the foot of Clerkenwell Green; Hatton Garden; Kings Cross; and Charing Cross). The Riot Act was read in Shoe lane “to the groans and hisses of the mob”, and the Horse Soldiers called to quell the rioters. But mobs collected together two or three days running, having to be dispersed by the same means. Twenty-three people were nicked for the riots, and four executed.
The radical reformers of the London Corresponding Society (who had opposed the war with France) were accused by some of instigating the riots.
In the 1830/40s, John Cleave ran a radical bookshop here. He was an ex-sailor, who published the Police Gazette, a radical paper mixed with true crime reports. Cleave was prominent in the battle of the unstamped press. The unstamped Gazette was once seized by excisemen while being smuggled from the press in coffins by supportive undertakers! Cleave’s bookshop also became a centre for local radicals, and was frequented by starving boys, who Cleave used to feed.
Back up to Charterhouse St: Over the road to Saffron Hill
This area was dominated, until the mid-nineteenth Century, by the slum, or rookery, of Saffron Hill. The rookery, derived from the medieval Liberty here, had a reputation for thievery and prostitution. The area was ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of
Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. The London rookeries were also generally sited close to sources of wealth; either the City, the West End or the docks, ideal for thieves as they could quickly leg it with their loot into the almost impenetrable maze of the slums. The authorities only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes hundreds of the slumdwellers came on to the street to confront police invasion. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times residents of Saffron Hill. As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.
The rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade: “Against the incursions of the law…there were remarkable defences. Over the years the whole mass of yards and tenements had become threaded by an elaborate complex of runways, traps and bolt-holes. In places cellar had been connected with cellar so that a fugitive could pass under a series of houses and emerge in another part of the rookery. In others, long-established escape routes ran up from the maze of inner courts and over the huddled roofs: high on a wall was a double row of iron spikes, ‘one row to hold by, and another for the feet to rest on,’ connecting the windows of adjacent buildings. … To chase a wanted man through the escape ways could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police. According to a senior police officer… a pursuer would find himself ‘creeping on his hands and knees through a hole two feet square entirely in the power of dangerous characters’ who might be waiting on the other side: while at one point a ‘large cesspool, covered in such a way that a stranger would likely step into it’ was ready to swallow him up.” (Chesney)
Planks could carry fugitives across the Fleet, now an open drain, flowing through the middle of the rookery, and evidence could be easily disposed in “its dark and rapid stream… concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it.”
The area’s most notorious low lodging house was No 3 West Street, on the north-west side of the Fleet Ditch, roughly where Farringdon Road now crosses Charteris Street. Once known as the ‘Red Lion Tavern’, it became a lodging-house, a notorious haunt of thieves, coiners, illegal distillers, and prostitutes. It was sometimes called Jonathan Wild’s House, or ‘the Old House in West street’, and was said to have hidden prison escaper Jack Sheppard and highwayman Jerry Abershaw. The house was adapted to hide refugees from the law, being filled with dark closets, trapdoors, sliding panels, and secret recesses, including walled off dens in the cellar. Even when police surrounded the place, their prey would often escape. During one raid a constable went into one of the rooms to arrest a thief, and saw the man getting under the bed. From where he vanished: there “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” In the same house, there were other, almost surreal means of escape, clearly designed by a criminal genius: “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)
In one of the garrets was a secret door, which led to the roof of the next house from which any offender could be in Saffron Hill in a few minutes. The house was pulled down in 1844.
Mobs from Saffron Hill were also involved in the Gordon Riots, especially the burning of the nearby Langdale’s Distillery. (And, it’s very likely, in the Crimp House Riots, and many other riotous gatherings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries too…)
Saffron Hill’s Hopkinson’s Coffee House was also the scene of at least three meetings, in July and August 1848, of physical force Chartists plotting an uprising. (See Bride Lane, above).
Chick Lane, later West Street, ran east from Saffron Hill; about where the west end of Charterhouse Street lies now. It was a notorious slum and haunt of thieves.
Chick Lane was full of ‘Hell Fire Clubs’. Hugh Morris, hanged at the age of 17 with two other Irish lads in November 1730, confessed to eight robberies and told the Ordinary of Newgate that “his total ruin was owing to some places about Chick-Lane, where numbers of the vilest miscreants, street robbers, thieves, pick-pockets, house-breakers, shop-lifters, and other monsters of wickedness, meet in great companies, and there they drink and carouse in a most intemperate manner; then (having got musicians of their own kidney), they fall a dancing, and crying out like so many pigs and geese, and often, as drink comes in, wit goes out, they fall a fighting, beating, and tearing one another.”
‘Music-houses stood as thick one by another as bawdy-houses in Chick Lane’. If someone’s clothes were stolen, the first thing they would do was go to the shops that sold old clothes in Chick Lane, where they were sure to find them.
The Black Boy Alley Gang operated from this area; a criminal gang that carried on a struggle against the law. Black Boy Alley ran north from Chick Lane, just to the east of the Fleet, roughly where West Poultry Avenue runs through the Smithfield market. In 1744 several constables & magistrates were targeted for assassination from here: several people were hanged in the law’s counter-attack.
The poor and criminal classes of these slums not only built ingenious methods of concealment and escape: they sometimes organised their own welfare systems. The ‘Hempen Widows Club’, run from near Black Boy Alley, operated as a self help society of the poor, one of many, which had articles including: everyone had to be prepared to swear anything to save each other from being hanged, everyone was to be prepared to swear to be a substantial housekeeper in order to bail one another from custody and members in prison were allowed seven shillings a week out of the kitty.
The Clearing of the Rookery
The Saffron Hill area was particularly targeted by campaigners against the moral and social ills of the rookeries. Lord Shaftesbury, a leading busybody, made special studies of overcrowding and conditions here to report to the House of Commons, stating: “It is impossible to imagine the physical and moral evil which resulted from these circumstances.” Imagine it they did though, and their fears led to concrete actions against the slums.
Something approaching 20,000 people were displaced in this area between the 1830s and the 1870s by demolitions, undertaken by the City authorities, determined to shovel the poor out from the Fleet Valley, while at the same time creating new quick transit routes to improve trade and movement of goods through the City (eg from the Docks to the West End). In fact the poor had been originally concentrated in the Fleet Valley in the first place having been gradually forced out of the City itself. These ‘improvements’ were long in germination, and development occurred in stages from 1820 to the 1880s, but the continuous road from Blackfriars Bridge to Kings Cross, although built in fits and starts, also represents a consistent thread of town planning as social engineering. (And as John Gwynn wrote in London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans, 1766, also allowing at the same time for ‘a noble, free and useful communication’ between Surrey and Middlesex, and of ‘amazingly improved’ property along the way. Reducing the numbers of local poor and the resulting cost on the parish poor rate was also a major motive for the worthy middle class ratepayers.
The slum clearances for the building of Farringdon Road, (legislated for in the 1840s, though not finished until 1856), the laying of this section of the Metropolitan Line, for the construction of Holborn Viaduct in 1861 (this development alone displaced 2000 people – a heavy hill indeed!), for the enlarging of Smithfield market, the laying of Charterhouse Street (1869-75), of Clerkenwell Road (finished 1878), and finally Rosebery Avenue (1889-92), all formed a continuous plan to destroy the poorest and most ‘infamous’ areas; these developments involved the moving out as many people as possible.
Some of the more supposedly ‘deserving’ were rehoused. The City was managed to build dwellings for 200 individuals and 40 families when the Viaduct was erected, but not even skilled artisans, never mind the very poor, were eventually placed there: “they are occupied by clerks, who keep pianos in their rooms…”). Model Dwellings built by Model Dwelling Companies and Housing Associations rehoused some 1160 people from the Clerkenwell Road area in the 1870s. But as with clearances in other areas of London, the relatively high rents and strict social control imposed by the improving landlords excluded many casual labourers and their families. Effectively throughout the century thousands of poor working class and ‘lumpen’ elements, especially unskilled and casually employed, were shifted from one slum to another as inner London was partially socially cleansed.
Some of the cleared land remained unused for years; part of the demolished Saffron Hill, Farringdon Waste, lay unbuilt on for several decades. The vicar of Cripplegate complained that “within the City of London there are sites amply sufficient to prevent the poor from being overcrowded – sites which for years have remained unproductive, which will long remain so, because the Corporation of the City of London has shovelled out the poor, in order mainly to lower the poor rates of the City parishes…” Ironically as several areas of empty land remained undeveloped, they themselves became the focus for ‘unruly behaviour’ – Early on, congregations of boys and other idlers became a nuisance. By the 1860s the ‘Farringdon Street Wastes’, or ‘The Ruins’, as the sites were known (now occupied by Nos 29–43 Farringdon Road), had become a well-known gathering place for betting men, and steps had to be taken by the City to remove them
The destruction and redevelopment of poor areas, especially rebellious or uncontrollable poor areas, did not begin in the mid-nineteenth century, but it became very useful in that era for social control. Many notorious streets, alleys and courts were demolished, and new wide roads built; not just in Saffron Hill but in other famous areas, for instance the St Giles and Spitalfields slums…
The clearing of lower Fleet Valley rookeries was an important part of a social processes that cleared most of the resident working class, and especially the rowdy, uncontrollable element, the threat of mob violence from inner London, from the rich and the centres of power. The demolition of slum housing for the building of new main roads was deliberately used to socially cleanse populations considered troublesome and unprovocative.
Apart from removing the immediate daily dangers of crime and riot from these areas, cheek by jowl with the City, the effective headquarters of capitalism at the time, this clearing also created space for internal expansion for capital itself, on its own doorstep so to speak. How much of this was planned social engineering, how much ad hoc, and how much happy coincidence for the powers that be, is open to question. Certainly some of it was deliberate; and such processes were at work elsewhere. Much of Paris in the 1850s-60s was redesigned, by Baron Hausmann, wide boulevards driven through the centre, to help move troops/police around to deal with rebellious crowds, made both administration of the city/social control more effective and speedier, and contributed to demolition of narrow, uncontrollable alleys and led to mass removal of the poor from central areas to the outskirts. (In Paris this was even more of a priority, since working class crowds had overthrown three regimes in sixty years). Breaking up the potential rebellious unity of local areas, where people knew each other, shared customs, loyalties, and knew the narrow winding streets better than the authorities, was a specific aim. Like Hausmann, London social reformers also used the pretext of bad sanitation as an excuse to destroy slums and move thousands of people to outlying areas of the city, “for their own good”, but happily also making them less threatening to authority and the seats of power.
A hundred years later in the in the USA, this process, when specifically and deliberately designed to rid inner cities of ‘riotous’, ‘troublesome’ and ‘unproductive’ poor (usually Black) populations, was euphemistically labelled ‘Spatial Deconcentration’.
But the destruction of the rookeries was also a crucial element of the imposition of discipline on working class, the internalisation of the work ethic, of splitting and separating the ‘respectable’ and unrespectable lower orders. The first step in this was identification, “such that ‘criminal subculture’ and ‘criminal economy’ could be identified as fairly distinct activities and bodies of people though the boundaries always remained blurred.”
Many elements made up this disciplining – including “regularisation of labour markets and economic activity , the moving of social and economic life off the streets by regularised employment in offices shops and factories, the organisation of social activities in youth clubs, boys organisations and the concentration of public street life into particular times and situations – public events. ‘Saturday night’ (during which police could be more lenient than at mid week), the regularisation of family life with men at work, women in the home, children at school etc…
In the wake of demolitions of notorious streets, housing was also used as a view of control. Model dwellings, the earliest form of social housing, was built, often in or near to the evicted slums. But only the respectable and hard-working were admitted, and codes of behaviour and morality in the new flats were strictly controlled, and rents kept relatively high, to exclude any of the ‘undeserving poor’. Part of the separation of the marginal from the conforming discussed above.
The early pioneers of Model Dwellings and other social housing reform believed that the architecture even, the physical environment people lived in could either sap their moral will, keep them held in poverty, or be adapted and changed to mould them into better more hardworking citizens. The layout of Model dwellings was specifically designed to have what was thought to be a beneficial moral and social effect. One of the main aspects of slum life they aimed to change was overcrowding – families having to share a room, where they slept, ate and did everything together; often even more than one family might live together in one room. Housing reformers were keen to give these poor families more space; however their pressing reason was not privacy, but that this way of life was in itself immoral. Not only did it encourage immodesty and improper sexual relations (a subject of pathological obsession and innuendo for the Victorian middle class), but in a more complex and nebulous way, they thought that it formed part of a collective, communal life that should be done away with. Life publicly shared, in housing, the street, the pub, and other places of amusement, was itself somehow unconducive to respectability and self-reliance; the Model Dwellings were designed to separate people as much as possible – children from parents, one family from another. Physical space was designed to keep people apart – stairwells and other physical barriers between flats and doorways – in fact separate sanitary arrangements were built in at extra cost to reduce ‘immodest’ contact. Part of the plan was definitely a reinforcing of the patriarchal family unit, split off from a shifting wider communal society or even extended family.
Model Dwellings were built in Clerkenwell as part of the widespread slum clearance program – see Corporation Buildings, below.
These patterns of social control can be seen again in the late twentieth century, notably in 1980s Britain, post the 1981 riots. For instance, Brixton, South London, with its street culture, the refusal of the work ethic by large sections of the population, the proliferation of squatting and counter-cultural and marginal ways of life and earning of money… Attitudes from police and authorities identified all these elements as needing to be either repressed or bought off with social programs, to defuse the chances of further riots as in ’81… So along with schemes to ‘tackle unemployment’ there was an attack on the squatting cultures, targeted harassment of those hanging out on the street. And altering urban landscapes to suit the purposes of authority: the most notorious squatted houses in Dexter Road (off Railton Road) were bulldozed (Dexter Road has now vanished); walkways in Stockwell Park Estate that allowed rioters to pelt police from above and move around the estate during the fighting were afterwards partly removed, and the Railton Road/Mayall Road triangle, the centre of the fighting, was also redesigned, closing off ways crowds could move around, evade the police and gather again. Areas merely associated with crime, or having a ‘bad name’, or even being working class are also routinely altered and renamed, to shimmy the bad karma, without necessarily dealing with the causes of poverty and ‘criminal behaviour’. More on gentrification in Brixton
Central London has gone further along this route than other areas of the City, or even other capital cities (Paris excepted?). Pretty much the whole of the old City of London, was cleared of residents in the century after 1840 (although some luxury accommodation has grown up in the last couple of decades). Undoubtedly this was partly because of pressures for office land, but also partly to push any possible threat from unruly plebs further away from the centres of power. In the case of the lower Fleet Valley, the conglomeration of crime and punishment, slum and slaughterhouse, the “dung, guts and blood”, have been wiped from the map. (Although even in living memory, some streets of ‘criminal’ character remained in the Clerkenwell area).
Processes refined here continued elsewhere. The many prisons built in the Feet valley were erected on the then City’s edge, and gradually closed down as the metropolis expanded, and public methods of punishment vanished, from being conducted in open space, replaced by those inflicted inside and out of sight. The jails that replaced the Fleet, Newgate, the Bridewell, in the nineteenth century were themselves constructed on the then edges of town (Brixton, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs). With motorisation our modern Newgates are often found out in the countryside far from public view… ?
And the ‘shoveling out of the poor’ continues in London; working class communities are still being broken up, in some decades more slowly and more subtly these days, but again in 2016 with a vicious urgency to rid the city of anyone who can’t pay their way.
Back down to Farringdon Road, turn left, and walk up to Cowcross Street, turn right here, and walk up to no 67-69 (now ‘The Fence’)
This building used to be London Lesbian & Gay Centre, from late 1984 to 1991. Set up with a £750,000 grant from the Greater London Council in 1985 (in fact the GLC had sponsored the working group that had worked to establish the centre), the Centre took over this former meat warehouse, and gradually the place came to be busily used, as a meeting place, bar, club/performance space, cooking and dining space, a bookshop, a daycare, a lounge and meeting room, a media resource centre, offices and other meeting spaces. and facilities for printing and photography on the first floor run by the Technical Resources Collective… There were many social nights, advice and counseling and help for people coming out.
The second floor was designated as women only space… Various campaigning groups also used the space to meet/as office space, including the Organisation for Lesbian & Gay Action, OutRage!…
It being the 1980s, some of the dominant political divisions that split the lesbian and gay scenes at the time were, however, carried over into the Centre’s internal battles from the start. Most notably, there was the question of whether bisexuals or SM dykes should be allowed to use the space. Although these days the ‘B’ in LGBT(Q/A/?) stamps bisexuality with alt-sex approval, thirty years ago your ‘bi’ was considered a fence-sitter who should darn well make their mind up by many gay folk, and some lesbian Centre users also maintained the space should be free from the possibility of bi-sexual men harassing gay women. SM was also divisive, with many lesbians opposing the symbolism of SM clothing and the violence they saw in its practice. Initially both pro-SM and bisexual groups were barred, though this was soon overturned.
The Centre also fell foul of Clause 28, the tory imposed legal ban on local authorities promoting homosexuality: some adverts for paid posts at the Centre were barred from appearing in some council literature. Perhaps Clause 28 gave Vladimir Putin some helpful pointers for recent Russian legislation, who knows?
But the Centre had deeper problems – there was a lot of infighting, accusations from many women that it was mostly a boys club, and that lesbian feminists (who had mainly been the force behind the attempt to exclude SM) were pushed out. Eventually, though, the Centre succumbed to financial troubles (funding being harder to come by in the post-GLC lean years of the late eighties), and closed in December 1992 (though I think OutRage continued to use the space for a few months till the following March until they were evicted).
The Centre was a hugely important space at the time, but it fell foul of some the inherent divisions within what was never a homogenous gay ‘community’. Also, its life coincided with an increasing acceptability of a commercial gay lifestyle which was largely outmoding the 1970s/80s style gay activist thang. Today, what was a once a wide political lesbian & gay scene has been replaced in many ways by a vapid acceptable gay scene , albeit with more fragmented queer/transgender minority scenes, much more political… It is however true that this dynamic always existed to some extent (even in the 70s).
Back down to Farringdon Road; turn right, and walk up towards Clerkenwell Road
Looking down on the Metropolitan Line at Farringdon 1863.
Between Cowcross Street and Clerkenwell Road, Farringdon Road used to be home to numerous bookstalls, which formerly lined the east side of the road. The first of the Farringdon Road stalls is said to have been set up in 1869, just north of Holborn Viaduct, by James Dabbs, an iron-worker who had recently come to London from Shropshire during a prolonged strike, and who mostly sold theological works. Soon other stall-holders, mostly booksellers, joined him. In 1879, the stalls were cleared, but it gradually re-established itself in the late 1880s, “causing much congestion and attracting loafers and other undesirables, including thieves and pickpockets.” A few years later, booksellers’ and costermongers’ stalls were extending north almost to Clerkenwell Road. Eventually however it declined, until was limited to a few stalls run by George Jeffery, the third generation of his family to trade there, who is said to have had a turnover of 2,000 to 2,500 volumes a week. The market came to an end with Jeffery’s retirement in 1992.
Continue up Farringdon Road
Somewhere here was No 13: The Socialist League Hall, the organisation’s HQ and debating hall, stood here, June 1885 to November 1889 moving here from 27 Farringdon Street (see above).
The premises consisted of a large lecture room, plus a reading-room and space for printing and so forth. Like the previous building this could be afforded due to William Morris’s financial support. It was also used for the League’s Annual Conference during these years. No. 13 was built in the late 1870s and hence was quite new when the League moved in.
This was the main phase of the League’s existence. Initially the organisation thrived, building up a substantial following, with its journal going weekly in early 1886. Increasingly however the organisation was divided into an activist, later anarchist, section (mainly working class, especially associated with Frank Kitz) and a more Marxist brigade led by Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx and Belfort Bax and centred on the Bloomsbury branch. William Morris, trying to keep the peace, headed a third division of propagandists by the word, devoted to ‘making socialists’, based at Hammersmith.
The first Socialist League General conference was held here; there was a lovely description of it from Commonweal: “The first General Conference of the Socialist League will be remembered with pleasurable feelings by all that took part in it. It was a day of heartiness and good feeling; of realisation of hopes and the planning for future work. Whether the organisation founded in December last, and having its second birth, as it were, on Sunday, July 5, 1885, is to exist until the principles it works for are understood and accepted of men — whether it will ever be merged in a larger, wider, more international body; whether those gathered together on that Sunday will see in their time anything more than the lessened darkness of the sky before the dawn of the better day that is to come; whether any of them will be able to sing Nunc dimittis ere they depart — these are but secondary questions. The one thing of primary importance is that a veritable Socialist body is in existence, and is at work in England, the home of capitalism.”
The League journal Commonweal was put together and printed here. The anarchist Freedom Group held public meetings here. Meetings were also held over the campaign for free speech for open air socialist meetings.
By its Fourth Annual Conference, held in May 1888, internal squabbling had already begun to reduce the League’s strength. 24 branches had been represented at the previous year’s conference. This was now down to 21. However at this conference differences came to a head. The parliamentary faction’s motions were defeated (as they had been at every previous conference) but this time it was decided to taken disciplinary action to bring them into line: their power base, the Bloomsbury branch, was shortly declared dissolved. Its members formed the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, prior to rejoining the Social Democratic Federation.
No. 13 was destroyed by bombing during the 1940-41 Blitz and a block of modern offices occupies the site.
75 Farringdon Road
this building housed the offices of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s newspaper, the Daily Worker, 1948-66 (renamed the Morning Star, 1966-88). The paper moved in on 31st October 1948. A crowd of 20,000 gathered “with flaring torches” to celebrate the first copies off the new press. “As dusk fell a great floodlit banner bearing the Red Flag and the rising sun came down in front of Marx House overlooking the Green, the very place where Lenin had once produced Iskra.” Rousing speeches were made by CP bigwig Harry Pollitt and others; then great cheers arouse as the first copies came out. The CP and the DW were on a roll at this time and the paper’s readership was at a highpoint of around 250,000.
In 1945 a Victorian warehouse on Farringdon Road had been acquired to supplant the existing premises. During conversion however it was found that this was structurally unsound and a modern steel framed building was constructed instead. This was known as William Rust House after the then editor of the Daily Worker. The building was also used as the headquarters of the London District Communist Party.
William Rust House was demolished in 1988…
Clerkenwell was full of stroppy workers and lefties – Chartists, communists, anarchists – for years… but that’s another walk…
The Metropolitan Pub once stood at the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road. The London Workers Group met here, in the early 1980s. Set up in 1977, London Workers Group was an autonomous working class libertarian/anarchist/communist action group.
Much less extremely, but maybe more influentially, just behind is Farringdon Lane, where in 1913 the liberal socialist magazine the New Statesman was founded, its offices being at nos 14-16.
What were the relations of these rookery dwellers to all the much more straight-laced social reformers, who met in Clerkenwell, Fleet Street, in the Socialist League hall etc? Most of the slum-dwellers have not left their words to enlighten us… Though we have the opinions of Marx, who called them lumpens, and dismissed them… Many of the Owenites, Chartists, radicals and socialists of the nineteenth century looked down on the unruly poor. Temperance, Methodism and morality were major drivers in the ideals that fuelled these movements. They would have disputed the statement by Beames that: “rookeries are among the seeds of revolution… they poison the minds of the working classes against the powers that be, and thus lead to convulsions”. In reality this was more paranoia than anything else.
We don’t share Marx’s stale stratifications, or the distaste of the methodistically respectable for the immoral and uproarious; but how much is Beames on the mark – were the rookeries really breeding grounds for revolution?
Riots and rebellion may well have attracted the rookery dwellers more than theorising or ‘organising’… Many may have been sharp enough to be interested in transforming their lives, but seen clearly that transformation for a moment, an hour, a few days even, are as real and maybe more so, than the distant change offered by the Socialist League’s “making socialists.”
It’s tempting to oppose the 19th century middle class’s demonisation of the rookery inhabitants with some form of idealisation, to buy into the rumours of fugitive levellers and ranters hiding out in Alsatia, to make more of some signs of communal solidarity than we can really be sure of, because that’s how we like to think of them, as rebels and radicals… Just as surely as Thomas Beames blackening the residents of Saffron Hill and warning of revolution, such back projection of our own desires would be forcing the people of the rookeries to fulfil roles in someone’s else’s dramas. For someone’s else’s ends.
Beames and his contemporaries were always able to conjure up fears and call up forces that could disperse the unruly poor…
In reality there are many signs of solidarity, some signs of consciousness, of people working together for their own ends… remember the Hempen Widows Club, with their proto-friendly society, the collective resistance to invasions of the law, the escape routes through each others’ houses… On the flipside, there was just as much betrayal, viciousness, spying, people shafting each other…
Walk east up Clerkenwell Road to Turnmill Street
“The very sink of the vice of London”
Turnmill Street, like many old City streets, has traveled a fair old ditance linguistically – over the centuries there are references to it as Trylmyl Streate , it is later corrupted to Turnbull and Trunball Street. The name is now said to arise from the waterwheels turned by the the old ‘River of Wells’ (one of the more optimistic names of the various streams that make up the Fleet). But given the flood of its older names, who knows…
For several centuries one of the most disreputable streets in London, it was notorious in literature, rumour, and gossip, as a red light district. As early as 1585, it is noticed in a letter from Recorder Fleetwood to Burleigh, as a place for thieves’ houses. Held to be the “very sink of the vice of London”, it was frequented by highwaymen and rogues of every description, especially the White Hart Inn, opposite Cock Court, a “noted house of call for footpads and highwaymen.” The street is mentioned as an infamous resort by several Elizabethan dramatists: Shakespeare makes Justice Shallow brag boast of his youthful debauchery in ‘Turnbull Street’ to Falstaff.
In 1416, William Fisher, bookseller and parchment-maker of Turnmill Street was executed for harbouring Sir John Oldcastle, the leader of the insurgent Lollards (see Smithfield, above). His head was spiked upon London Bridge.
The notorious slums that gave Turnmill Street its bad name were mostly demolished during the Clerkenwell ‘improvements’ of 1856–7 (see above).
Back down to Farringdon Road, cross over and walk up to St Peter’s Italian Church
This church stood at the heart of an area once called Little Italy.
Mostly defined by Clerkenwell Road, Rosebery Avenue, Farringdon Road, south around Hatton Garden, Saffron Hill Leather Lane, ‘Little Italy’ consisted of a maze of crowded streets, alleys and courtyards, filled with émigré Italians. Italians called it the Hill, after local street Back Hill.
Skilled Italian craftsmen began to settle in Holborn in the early nineteenth century – mostly from Northern Italy, Piedmont and Lombardy. Many makers of looking glasses, picture frames, precision instruments like thermometers and barometers settled here, some driven to migrate by political turbulence and economic hardships.
Holborn and Clerkenwell attracted them, as these crafts were already established here. Many Italians settled round Hatton Garden and Charles Street (later Greville Street), often living in large houses with workshops integrated into their homes.
Later, many Italian organ grinders lived here; many organs were made by local firm Chiappa and Sons, of Little Bath Street, now Eyre Street Hill).
This first, mainly skilled wave of migrants, were soon joined by a second wave, usually poor and unskilled, driven out by dire economic conditions, especially after the Napoleonic wars. Often from Southern Italy, many moved into the rookery area of Saffron Hill/Leather lane… especially Field Lane. Overcrowding among the Italian community here was endemic; up to 50 people crammed into some houses…
In 1851 a third of the working population of Little Italy were street musicians… By 1871 this had risen to nearly half. Some played harps, fiddles, hurdy-gurdies, but most operated mechanical organs of different varieties, including piano organs, hand organs, ‘opera’ organs and comic ‘jig’ organs. Organ grinders clustered together around Little Summers Street in Saffron Hill, and Fleet Row, Eyre Place and Summers Street.
Most organ grinders earned less than a general labourer. Summer was the lucrative time, some went back to Italy over winter.
Organ grinders were considered a nuisance by the middle class. (Well, who wasn’t?) One charge levelled against them was that many played deliberately out of tune so people would pay them to fuck off. Satirical magazine Punch launched a campaign against them and a law against street music was passed in 1864. Moral panics ain’t what they used to be…
Organ-grinding gradually declined and by end of century, most local Italians were working as ice cream sellers. Some 900 ice cream sellers lived in the area by 1900, all getting up early to mix and freeze their wares then trundle off around the city to sell it… Many were from Calabria in South Italy.
Little Italian women worked in laundries, in pasta making, lace making, (for the rich, altar cloths, priests vestments…), also fortune telling (with the aid of parakeets or love birds), some in singing and dancing (some supposed Italian dancers, though, were accused of being Irish in disguise..!?)
Other jobs Italians took: knife grinding plaster figure making (up to 20 per cent of local workers in 1851) mosaic/terrazo making, asphalters, and chestnut selling…
Street dancing, especially of the tarantella, was very popular here; there were also dancing saloons.
A number of Italian émigrés around Holborn and Clerkenwell were political radicals, exiled due to their ideas and activities. The Free School for Workers, founded in 1841, by Giuseppe Mazzini, Italy’s leading nationalist conspirator and activist, was opened at 5 Hatton Garden, later 5 Greville St. Mazzini, then living in Laystall Street, in exile, with a death sentence over his head in Italy, organised school free for Italian workers’ kids and destitute street Italian child workers… On weekday evenings boys (only, of course?!) were taught reading, writing, maths and elementary science; on Sunday after noon drawing and Italian history. Teachers included Mazzini, poet and scholar Gabriel Rossetti (father of Christina and Dante Gabriel), and Joseph Toynbee…
The school was unpopular with the Catholic hierarchy locally: a local Italian priest organised demos against it; a rival Catholic school in Sardinia Street denounced the liberal and anti-religious education it imagined went on there – in fact a mob from Sardinia Street once marched on the Free School to attack it. Thomas Carlyle called it “a nest of young conspirators”. The school closed in 1861.
Mazzini and fellow nationalist Garibaldi, also set up the Society for the Progress of the Italian Working Classes in London (later informally called the Mazzini-Garibaldi Club), in 1864, as a Working Men’s Club and mutual assistance society for the working men of the area. Mazzini was its first president. Originally located at 106 Farringdon Road, later it moved to 10 Laystall Street, then in 1933 to Red Lion Street in Holborn. In its heyday, it was heart of the local social scene for blokes… In WW2 it was requisitioned as ‘enemy property’ and closed down; it re-opened in 1951 but shut for good in 2008.
St Peters Italian Church, here on Clerkenwell Road, was, as we said, for so much of the Italian community, the centre of their lives. It was also the scene of a still unexplained assassination attempt. In January 1880, an Italian road layer from Saffron Hill called Schloss suddenly starting taking potshots at Polish priest Father Bakanowski, during mass. Schloss pursued Bakanowski around the church shooting, but the fucker got away! The road layer was grabbed by some of congregation, who disarmed him of his gun (and a hatchet!) and marched him to the police court. Schloss later got life for premeditated murder (though how, since he didn’t kill the bastard?). No motive could be established, they said; as if the desire to knock off a priest isn’t reason enough. There is certainly more to this story… but we’ll probably never know it.
Many ‘Little Italians’ were interned during WW2 as ‘enemy aliens’, most unjustly (although local John Sperni, mayor of St Pancras in 1937, was deffo a fascist!). Many Holborn Italians lost relatives when the Arandora star, a ship taking interned Italian men to a prison camp in Canada, was torpedoed by a German u-boat, killing nearly 500. After the war, the area was redeveloped – many streets had been bombed, slum clearance and property development took care of much of the rest of the original housing in the ‘50s. Most of the Italians moved on, many to Soho, the new Little Italy.
Back down to Farringdon Road, turn left up to Ray Street
On the corner on the north side of Ray Street: the site of Corporation Buildings
Corporation Buildings were built in the 1860s and 1870s by the City, to house 846 people, on land cleared through slum clearances, this was an early ‘model dwelling’.
By the standards of the day, the accommodation was good, each tenement having its own scullery, WC, coal store, and access to a dust-shoot. There were fireplaces and ventilators (linked to a shaft running through the chimney stacks) in all rooms. The roofs were flat and intended for recreation and clothes-drying. Iron guards were fitted to prevent children climbing from block to block, following a fatal accident in 1868.
Beyond the means of the very poor, the new dwellings were eagerly sought after and occupied mostly by respectably employed working men, including many in the local printing and brewing trades, railwaymen, and a number of white-collar workers.
In poor condition and considered obsolescent, Corporation Buildings were demolished in 1970.
Guy Aldred, later in life
Guy Aldred grew up in the house of his maternal grandfather, Charles Holdsworth, in Corporation Buildings. Charles was a bookbinder, and a Victorian radical. Aldred became a boy preacher, then a freethinker and finally an anarchist communist, famous for public speaking… He was involved in early syndicalist activity in London, also free love propaganda and printed and published a huge array of freethought anarchist and communist literature. He was interned for much of the First World War as a Conscientious Objectors and carried on struggling within Wandsworth and Brixton Prisons, being involved in prison strikes. Later he moved to Glasgow, becoming a fixture of leftwing political life there for 50 years. A very eccentric individual (he wore plus fours all his life into the 60s!), who fought with many anarchos, fell out with other anti-state communists and aroused much criticism for standing in elections while simultaneously denouncing them…
Walk up Ray Street, to Warner Street
“This mess, tossed up of Hockley Hole”
Once a country path beside the river, by the nineteenth century, Warner Street was very different.
Until the 1800s, the Fleet flowed (where Ray St meets Back Hill) through a low-lying depression called Hockley-in-the-Hole, a natural ampitheatre formed by the river valley. In the 1700s, this was the northern edge of London; to the north lay fields, to the south, slums. Hockley-in-the-Hole became infamous as a venue for working class blood sport, mainly cock-fighting and bear-baiting. (Hockley comes from Anglo-Saxon words meaning ‘dirty or muddy field’.
“At the Bear Garden in Hockley in the Hole, near Clerkenwell Green, this present Monday, there is a great match to be fought by two Dogs of Smith-field Bars against two Dogs of Hampstead, at the Reading Bull, for one guinea to be spent; five lets goes out of hand; which goes fairest and farthest in wins all. The famous Bull of fire-works, which pleased the gentry to admiration. Likewise there are two Bear-Dogs to jump three jumps apiece at the Bear, which jumps highest for ten shillings to be spent. Also variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting; it being a day of general sport by all the old gamesters; and a bull-dog to be drawn up with fire-works. Beginning at three o’clock.” (early 18th century advert)
One of the proprietors, Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit in 1709, and was mauled by the bears; poetic justice. As they say!
In the early 1800s Hockley-in-the-Hole was partially filled in and the slums that surrounded it demolished. But Warner Street remained a slum: on the Booth maps of relative poverty, it is mostly marked as dark blue, for very poor, casual, chronic want, to black – “vicious, semi-criminal”. Today the area is now slightly more respectable, being, until recently, the site of the Guardian newspaper’s main offices. The Coach and Horses pub occupies the site where the dogfights, bullfights and swordfights once took place.
The Fleet can’t be seen above ground, throughout its entire length after Hampstead, but it can be heard. If you wander over to the middle of Warner Street where it intersects with Back Hill (right in front of the Coach and Horses), stoop and listen to the grating… That rushing of water is a thousand years of the past flowing past you…
The Fleet Sewer in 1830
Walk up Warner Street
Warner Street Temperance Hall: From 1843: Eliza Sharples, freethought pioneer, ex-free love partner of free press radical champion Richard Carlile, opened the Literary and Scientific Institution at back of the hall.
Eliza grew up in a middle-class household in Lancashire, where she had largely educated herself and adopted freethought ideas. She had come to London on hearing of Carlile’s imprisonment in 1831, visited him in prison, and became his (unmarried) lover. Carlile established her as a regular lecturer on religion and other issues a the Rotunda, the massive lecture hall on Blackfriars Road in Southwark.
Dubbed ‘Lady of the Rotunda’ and ‘Isis’ (derived from the romantic myth of the Egyptian Goddess of Reason), Eliza Sharples was billed as the first Englishwoman to speak publicly on matters of politics and religion in a ‘style unparalleled in this country’ (though this wasn’t totally true, as at two centuries earlier women had preached and taken part in debates during the English Revolution). Her identity was concealed for many months to protect her family, a ‘mystery’ also designed to whip up interest and controversy, and in true Carlile-style was “promoted as intensely as an opening night at the theatre”, timed to coincide with a date auspicious to all radicals: the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Paine.
Her lectures became a ’regular strain of abuse of Religion, priests and all institutions.’ She argued that man and his language, thought and manners were perfectible on Earth and therefore the only sin was the absence or denial of knowledge and free discussion to all people. Christianity, she held, was the chief barrier to the dissemination of knowledge; by denying the people education, priests were denying man’s liberty. Nor was knowledge espoused merely for intellectual fulfilment. Sharples urged her audience to think and act upon their new though. Passive submission and non-resistance were seen as the ‘doctrine of priesthood’.
Eliza’s lectures aroused fury among conservatives and Christian evangelicals… The very fact that a woman was lecturing in public was considered ‘unfeminine’ in itself –the ‘blasphemous content’ of her talks compounded this. A correspondent to The Times considered her a “female who exhibits herself in so unfeminine a manner… so utterly illiterate is the poor creature, that she cannot yet read what is set down for her with any degree of intelligibility…with her ignorance and unconquerable brogue…her ‘lecturing’…is almost as ludicrous as it is painful to witness.” Another report contemptuously described her as the ‘Pythoness of the temple’, branding her message as ’rubbish’ and suggesting retirement from the public sphere back to a domestic role, where, they supposed, she would more fittingly occupied as a “housemaid, or servant of all work, in some decent family…”
The editor of the Christian Advocate feared that the claims of a new occupation of the building were merely a ruse, believing that “the change of performers will only occasion a reiteration of those scenes of blasphemy and immorality which have so long been a disgrace to the metropolis”.
This prediction was soon proved correct. Sharples used the Rotunda platform to denounce the priesthood, mock religious superstition and pour scorn on established authority. “She accused the government of complicity in the devastating outbreak of cholera. They had ‘laid such burdens on the people that they could not exist and thus created pestilence among them while they “Rolled in Luxury”’.
Sharples tenure as a speaker at the Rotunda only lasted a few months. By February 1832, Sharples reported that over £1000 was needed to keep the venture open, to cover rent, taxes, lights, repairs, servants and to keep it in ’good order’. At the end of April 1832, facing an ever-widening financial burden, Carlile and Sharples took the difficult decision to end their tenure at the Rotunda.
Sharples would continue to work tirelessly in the freethought movement, publishing a secular magazine, Isis, and continuing to lecture on religion. She formed a link between the freethinkers of the 1820s-30s and the later large British secularist movement that evolved in the 1850s-70s, giving a home to the young Charles Bradlaugh, later to become a leading member of the secularist movement and a Radical MP, after his commitment to free thought led to alienation from his family.
Under the bridge to Mount Pleasant; turn right, walk up to the post office
Coldbath Fields Prison, also known as Clerkenwell Gaol, was built in 1794 and closed in 1877, and stood here on site of Mount Pleasant Post office.
“As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
A solitary cell.
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in Hell.
He saw a turnkey tie a thief’s hand
With a cordial try and jerk.
Nimbly, quoth he, a man’s fingers move
When his heart is in his work.
He saw the same turnkey unfettering a man
With little expedition.
And he chuckled to think of his dear slave trade
And the long debates and delays that were made.
Concerning its abolition.”
From The Devils Walk, Coleridge and Southey.
Originally intended to be a new Bridewell, to hold vagrants and put them to work, this was a Middlesex House of Correction, (though the City did put up some cash so that it could also make use of the prison) run by local magistrates and where mostly petty offenders served short sentences. Until 1850, the prison housed men, women and children; thereafter it was restricted to adult male offenders over the age of 17. By the 1850s it held 1450 inmates; Mayhew, visiting around that time, noted that half the inmates were there for non-payment of petty fines. Despite being designed by prison reformer John Howard, and intended to be more humanitarian prison than its predecessors it became notorious for its ‘Silent System’ regime, which banned all communication by word, gesture or sign. Any resistance to these rules was punished with the wearing of leg-irons, bread and water diets, solitary confinement and floggings. But the inmates resisted nonetheless; “A prison semaphore of winks, hand signs and tapping through the pipes emerged, its secret alphabet becoming one of the cultural inheritances of the London underworld.” The prison administration “resigned themselves to policing a silence that actually hummed with a secret language.”
Work was considered entirely as punishment, with no educational or useful effects, and for this purpose the treadmill was provided; prisoners marched aimlessly round the six huge treadmills in silence, 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. “The treadmill was a huge revolving cylinder with steps on it like the slats of a paddle wheel. Prisoners mounted the steps of the wheel, making it turn with their feet while gripping a bar to keep themselves upright. While some wheels were geared to grind corn or raise water, most, including the one at Coldbath Fields did nothing more than ‘grind the air’.
Initially, there were severe miscalculations as to how far a con could trudge in a day; only after mass ill health was the distance reduced to a tenth of the original 12000 feet a day. Prisoners in Coldbath were prone to disease, and it is thought the proximity to the foul Fleet sewer may have helped the Prison to have an abnormally high death rate… The gaol became known as the ‘English Bastille’, later the ‘Steel’.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century prison reformers combined genuine ‘reform’ with new forms of social control, including the rule of silence, separation of inmates, ‘improving’ work, increased religious observance and a growing professionalism for the prison workforce. The old prisons like the Fleet and Newgate had been too uncontrollable, and were clearly shown to be mere holding cells, with no attempt at moral improvement or rehabilitation… new prisons like Coldbath had a moral mission, to turn the dissolute and rebellious poor into individuals conditioned to capital’s aims… And to prevent bribery, fraternisation and corruption that had led to escapes, and an easy life for some…
Bentham’s panopticon may never have been built, but the penitentiaries of the 19th century aimed at total
control total surveillance and moral bludgeoning.
A brutal and corrupt regime goes without saying: one early governor roamed the nick with a knotted rope to lay into cons who he didn’t like the look of.
In 1799, a Board of Visitors reported, having visited the prison, “the prisoners without fire, without candles, denied every kind of society, exposed to the cold and the rain, allowed to breathe the air out of their cells only for an hour, denied every comfort, every innocent amusement, excluded from all intercourse each other…”
Inevitably, though, resistance bloomed even in the new bastilles…
In August 1798, eleven mutineers from the great 1797 naval mutinies that had paralysed the Royal navy (and terrified the government for a while), including the rebel captain of the Sandwich, escaped from Coldbath Fields.
The following year there were two rebellions in the prison, in June and August, which were quelled by the Clerkenwell Volunteers (like most of the Volunteer Companies, they had been set up to defeat revolution in France and potential revolution at home). In the August mutiny, prisoners shouted “Murder” and that they were being starved. Radicals from groups like the London Corresponding Society, accused of plotting revolution, were held here from 1798: many detained under repressive laws designed to keep down rising radical ideas at home, and sympathy to the French Revolution during the War… The prisoners staged a protest in the gaol in 1800. LCS leader Thomas Evans was held for nearly 3 years; another detainee was Colonel Despard, later hanged in 1803 for plotting a nationwide radical uprising. The LCS prisoners mounted a steady attack on the regime of solitary. An article in the society’s magazine described the regime as ‘an ingenious mode of intellectual torture.’ It asserted that ‘remorse is to the intellect what the rack is to the body. Their treatment by Governor Aris provoked a scandal; moderate radical (and later MP) Sir Francis Burdett’s exposure of conditions there, and crowd pressures, led to Despard and others being released…
Thomas Evans was a returning guest in 1817, here with his son, Samuel Bamford and other reformers in the social and political crisis of the late 1810s. Accused of organising the Spa Fields Riots, the Evans were interned under the Suspension Act. Some of the lesser accused in the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820 also languished here.
Chartists were held here in the movement’s most insurrectionary period, in 1839-40, some for “printing and publishing seditious or blasphemous libel, or for uttering seditious words, or for attending any seditious meetings, or for conspiring to cause such meetings to be held, or for any offence of a political nature”.
Later Chartists held here included Ernest Jones, an important late leader of the movement (and later a proto-socialist), arrested in the turbulent summer of 1848, as some Chartists plotted an insurrection, after the presenting of the petition in April had ended in anti-climax…
The prison closed in 1877. The site was transferred to the Post Office in 1889 and its buildings were gradually replaced. The last sections were demolished in 1929 for an extension of the Letter Office.
The Battle of Coldbath Fields
Cold Bath Fields itself was an open patch of waste land, bounded on the west by Gray’s Inn Lane, now Gray’s Inn Road, and on the cast by Bagnigge Wells Road, now King’s Cross Road. Surrounded by a simple post and rail fence and sloping downwards at the north‑cast towards the Union Tavern in Bagnigge Wells Road. 13th May 1833: a National Union of the Working Classes mass rally, (roughly where Calthorpe Street is now) was attacked by the recently formed New Police, leading to a pitched battle. This was widely seen as a trial of strength between the ‘Blue lobsters’ & the power of the radical wing of the ‘London Mob’. One copper was stabbed to death, but Rioters charged with murder were acquitted, following a ‘Justifiable Homicide’ verdict from the Coroners Jury, due to the ferocity of the police attack. The police were widely unpopular then, seen not as solving crime but keeping down the poor in the interests of the rich. The inquest was held in the Calthorpe Arms, on Grays Inn Road, & the jury was locked up for days by the coroner to try & get them to change their mind – without success. The jurors were feted for months by the London radicals, & commemorative plates were cast in their honour!
The name ‘Mouth Pleasant’, may have arisen as a sarky local joke, or as an offical euphemism to cover up the fact that dunghills and dustheaps filled the street… Hence neighbouring Laystall Street – a ‘laystall’ was a dung heap.
Mount Pleasant Post Office: there have been many strikes here: posties generally being still stroppy in the face of generally crap conditions and bullying management… The first strike I could find evidence of was in July 1890: it was defeated with consequent victimisation and sackings. According to EP Thompson bad planning and mistakes by socialists JL Mahon, Binning and AK Donald was responsible!
In recent times, there have been numerous wildcat posties strikes, like that of October 2003, over aggressive management, but sometimes sparked by workers here refusing to do the work of other postal workers on strike in other offices.
The northern site of the Post Office yard behind has been the site of a long battle by locals to prevent a massive development, opposing both Camden and islington Councils (as the site lies on the border) who have both backed it…
17 Mount Pleasant, (opposite the sorting office) was the Socialist Party of Great Britain Head office from 1919 to 1929. The SPGB was formed in 1904 by a group who (like the earlier Socialist League) left the Social Democratic Federation, in opposition to the SDF’s reformism and domination by a small clique. ‘Impossibilists’, the party (which still exists today) maintains capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of the working class, and that socialists could not take part in government under capitalism; however they believe workers can use the vote to achieve the revolution and continue to stand in elections, while opposing direct action.
Walk back down to the Warner Street; at the Apple Tree pub, turn right, walk up Phoenix Street, Pakenham Street: the ‘River of Wells’
Although polluted and infamous below Clerkenwell, north of the City, the Fleet was for centuries known as the ‘River of Wells’; local springs included St Chad’s Well, an ancient spring once of great importance, close to Kings Cross Thameslink Station; Black Mary’s Hole, (later converted into a cesspool), and the Clerk’s Well (which gave Clerkenwell its name).
But the grandest was Bagnigge Wells, which became famous in the late 1700s as a popular spa and resort:
“Come, come, Miss Priscy, make it up, and we will lovers be:
And we will go to Bagnigge Wells, and there we’ll have some tea.
And there you’ll see the ladybirds all on the stinging-nettles
And there you’ll see the waterworks and shining copper kettles.
Oh la! Oh dear! Oh dash my vig, how funny.” (18th century song)
In 1757, when two mineral springs were discovered in the gardens of the big house at Bagnigge Wells, it was opened to the public, and water from the two wells, one rich in iron, the other thought to possess ‘cathartic properties’, was piped to a double pump installed in a central domed colonnade.
Visitors paid threepence for the privilege of taking the waters from the pump, or could drink their fill in the Long Room at eightpence per gallon. For the next forty years Bagnigge tea gardens were considered the place to spend the afternoon: the respectable flocked here to sip tea, to take in one of the many concerts, or to stroll the ornamental gardens on the banks of the Fleet.
But like many respectable spas, Bagnigge gradually gained a reputation for drunkenness and debauchery, frequented by ‘loose women and boys whose morals are depraved’. Its popularity declined, and in 1813 the owners went bust, selling off most of the gardens to stay in business. The spa was replaced by a tavern, and the wells fell into disuse; in the 1860s the coming of the Metropolitan underground railway swept away all trace of them.
“Will you go to Bagnigge Wells, Bonnet builder, O!
Where the Fleet-ditch fragrant smells, Bonnet builder, O!
Where the fishes used to swim, So nice and sleek and trim,
But the pond’s now covered in, Bonnet builder, O!” (popular song, 1839)
Continue straight on, up Cubitt St
Re-digging the Fleet Sewer
The underground Fleet River cuts across Acton Street and Swinton Street, so the best way to walk is: from Cubitt Street, right into Kings Cross road, left into Acton Street, up Swan Passage, right into Swinton Street, left into Kings Cross road, up to Brittania Street.
Acton Street, Swinton Street, Britannia Street and Leeke Street also provide good bridges to look down on the Metropolitan line, way below street level; which is weird when you realise that many feet beneath that is the Fleet, buried beneath the railway. A design not without its flaws: as they were building the line, in the summer of 1862, disaster struck: the newly enclosed Fleet Sewer suddenly burst its walls, and flooded a half-mile stretch of the railway to a depth of ten feet:
“effluent was observed leaking out of the Fleet sewer at a rate of several gallons a minute, filling the vaults along the new street for a hundred yards and pooling against the walls of St Peter’s Church and Schools in Great Saffron Hill. In June disaster occurred when a section of the sewer fell in near Ray Street, the tide of sewage inundating the ground on the west side of Farringdon Road and backing up behind the new retaining wall of the railway cutting. Despite concerted efforts over the next couple of days by the railway contractors and the Metropolitan Board of Works (as the new sewers authority), the wall began to fail, shores and scaffolding across the cutting were smashed and the cutting and tunnel as far north as Exmouth Street (Exmouth Market) were flooded. The vault holding the bodies cleared from Ray Street burial ground, which stood exposed on the east side of the cutting, was broken open by shoring which had been laid against it. Blame for the incident clearly lay with the construction of the Fleet sewer, and if anything the incident showed how substantially the railway work itself was being carried out. With the flood temporarily diverted towards the Thames, the sewer was reconstructed, a section of it passing through the railway tunnel in an iron pipe.”
“A warning was given by the cracking and heaving mass and the workmen had time to escape before the embankment fell in… the massive brick wall, eight feet six inches in thickness, thirty in height and a hundred yards long, rose bodily from its foundations as the water forced its way beneath…” (Illustrated London News, 6th September 1862)
Again, we’re not generally given to pretentious similes. But the Fleet, the underground stream, buried deep but carrying its wealth of history, has always called to mind, for us, the subversive impulse, the riotous underbelly, the unruly flood that threatens to overwhelm the carefully hierarching bourgeois structures that wall us all in. The flood of 1862… the Gordon Riots… all part of a current, which still flows, hidden from view and forgotten or not… Feel free to giggle behind your hand.
Pipes carrying water from the New River reservoirs at New River Head pass over the old Fleet River.
In Brittania Street, 1936: The Red Players, a Jewish communist theatre group, was established in the church hall. They later become the Unity Theatre.
Unity Theatre developed from workers’ drama groups in 1930s. From the beginning Unity saw itself as the people’s theatre. Many of its productions sought to dramatise the lives and struggles of ordinary working people. Its aims were to bring theatre to the masses and in doing so help in the struggles for world peace and better social and economic order. Unity was a product of the turbulent 1930s and the rising threat of Fascism. It had strong links with the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Left Book Club Theatre Guild.
Unity Theatre later moved to rear of Goldington Crescent, Somers Town: 1930s. Where it was later burnt down, possibly through arson.
Walk up to Pentonville Road
Pentonville Road was built in the late eighteenth Century, a pioneering ring road, created as the eastern third of the New Road from Paddington. It was opened in 1756 to allow livestock drovers to bypass the wealthier streets of the West End and Holborn (where the crowds of animals often caused nuisance, stench and total chaos) on their way to Smithfield. While not in the league of the Farringdon Road clearances, the New Road was another crucial link in the creation of a new city, where the mechanics of the supply of food and other necessities was increasingly being hidden, hived off, from the view of the well-off.
Rich travellers and theatregoers were robbed so often here in the mid-eighteenth century, that the Bow Street horse patrol was set up to ride the roads and protect them.
Kings Cross was for many centuries named Battle Bridge, after an ancient bridge over the Fleet (now under the Scala). No, queen Boudicca did not fight the Romans here. In August 1794, recruiting offices on or near Battle Bridge were attacked by angry crowds in the Crimp House Riots (see Shoe Lane, above).
The disappeared neighbourhood of Agar Town, which once lay around modern Kings Cross was erased from the map by the building of St Pancras Station & Goods yards.
Agar Town was widely condemned in the mid-nineteenth century as a slum by reporters, journalists and historians – a place of open drains, cut through by a stinking canal; residents were said to be mainly workers in the knackers’ yards, soap boiling, bone boiling, and manure making industries that dominated the area.
However historian Steven L J Denford disputes this. Investigating the residents of Agar town, he feels that the myth of the area being much worse than other parts of London was overblown, the conditions exaggerated and the type of employment denigrated. Agar Town was not much worse than many other areas; but it suited the interests of the railway companies who wanted to knock it down and the MPs and other authorities (many of whom were shareholders in rail companies!) to paint it as particularly horrible. In echoes of the clearances of the earlier rookeries by road building, railways were deliberately routed through poor areas. Yes land was cheaper and objections likely to be less powerful and co-ordinated; but removal of plebs was a handy bonus.
Many people who had settled at Agar Town could well have been refugees from the Farringdon Road clearances mentioned earlier, large numbers of whom were said to have moved ‘north of Battle Bridge’. It was known that rookery residents often faced demonisation and eviction repeatedly as one slum area after another was cleared.
Here and all over London in the mid-19th century, 1000s of mostly poor people were displaced by Acts of Parliament granting land to rail companies. Many MPs being shareholders in said companies was not a factor of course.
The Fleet, the old St Pancras Workhouse, and the edge of Agar Town, early 19th century
All the pictures we have of the rookeries come from their enemies, middle class sources, usually with a moral axe to grind. Nothing of the inhabitants perspective survives. This has to lead us to question their assertions, and observations of rookery dwellers, which are coloured by their moral outlook and class prejudice. On the one hand we should question their claim that all the inhabitants were of criminal classes, unemployed etc… but maybe we should also question the older allegation that levellers, fifth monarchists and other political rebels hid out in the rookeries and conspired here. Clearly it is to some extent true that some of the slumdwelling poor marched for the levellers, Chartists; 1790s and 1810s insurrectionaries did meet in ghetto pubs. But it suited the rookeries’ enemies to lump their foes in together, giving them even more justification for repression. There’s an echo of the myths of Robin Hood, the rumours of political exiles conspiring in Epping forest: paranoid ruling classes tend to see conspiracy everywhere, but also to portray rookery inhabitants as too stupid to organise themselves for class violence. It’s also true that forests and slums represented equally unknown and dark wildernesses in different eras.
Its tempting for radicals to like to picture fugitive activists in the ghettoes, and over-romanticise the inhabitants resistance and collectivity: we like the idea of a class conscious barrio holding off authority. But while they clearly did organise in their own interest, by necessity, there are limits, their solidarity was towards their immediate neighbours, not general, all outsiders were possibly fair game.
The gap between the picture and the likely reality of Agar town makes us question even factual assertions of existing rookery conditions. Accounts of Agar town exclusively stressed and still stress how much of a slum it was, but this seems not to have been the case when the facts are studied. If Beames (author of ‘The Rookeries of London’) is so wide of the mark, how reliable is he on other areas? He clearly had a social and political agenda, allied to the middle class view of the poor and what was to be done about them; which involved sweeping away their housing and reforming them through work, workhouse and ‘proper’ housing run by others (the bourgeoisie, co-incidentally).
Now of course, the whole area has been entirely reshaped again; the old railways yards, many of the buildings that surrounded them, have vanished as Agar Town did before them. New playgrounds for the twenty-first century global city have sprung up; Google are moving their HQ here; north of the canal already hosts the flourishing cultural industries (spearheaded by the new Central St Martins School of Art).
We will finish here, though the Fleet runs further north. The lower reaches have a specific character, beyond here the fleet follows different paths through newer suburbs… perhaps we’ll add this section at a later date…
FLOOD THE FLEET?
The lower Fleet Valley is these days, dominated by massive offices, mainly soulless. Various landscaping and building projects over the centuries have levelled put the depth of the valley, made it shallower.
Digging the Metropolitan Line in the 1860s.
The thousands of homes that once crowded here are gone, and barely a few flats remain. The river lies buried, lost beneath the wide street; the wild ingenious anarchitecture of the boarding houses of the rookeries, with their wondrous sliding panels and revolving staircases, are barely a memory.
The making of money is the only social relation here; even the industry that once fouled up the stream into a sewer has few echoes.
What would you do with such a space if a different social system came along, where office work was made irrelevant? Where making money withered away?
Could you re-flood the valley? Span the new river or canal with narrow elegant bridges? Make the stream navigable as far as Kings Cross and beyond again? Turn the valley into a living/ playing area, redesigning the City for our desires. Re-lay out pleasure gardens, spas… Without the bear-baiting…
You can’t turn back time, and we do not want to rebuild Alsatia or Saffron Hill as they were. While we like to see the communal spirit of defiance of authority that sometimes arose here, we want to build Alsatias and Saffron Hills that we’d choose to live in. Maybe the offices could be re-purposed, although many are so ugly it’d be a serious piece of work. But something of the spirit of the communal solidarity that the rookery-dwellers hinted at, could be mobilised to take over the looming monoliths and take on re-designing them with the sly and intricate engineering of the Escher-like mazes of the old Fleet, to tower over and enweave the new…