The Debtor’s Doom – the grim fate for London’s penniless

Grim business being in debt in the old days – a debtor could expect to end up behind bars!

London had its fair share of prisons located very centrally and one of them was the Fleet – where debtors were flung. The location is quite hard to imagine now but it would have been roughly where Limeburner Lane and Fleet Place are today – bordered by Ludgate Hill, Old Bailey and what is now Farringdon Street. That street was originally the Fleet river, which still runs underneath channeled into the sewers.

Fleet Prison
Fleet Prison in 1691 – note the inmates begging for passing charity

The prison was pulled down in 1846 after 700 years of banging up criminals. The site was sold off to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway company and there’s still a City Thameslink station nearby. I can remember in the 1970s when there was a now removed railway bridge across the road. All traces of the miserable prison disappeared long ago but it was a notorious place in its heyday. A poem in 1738 summed up the horror:

A starving life all day we lead; No comfort here is found; At Night we make one Common bed; Upon the boarded ground

And the prisoners often grumbled that there were plenty in high society who were committing worse crimes than they had but got away it because of their social position:

Thus, we Insolvent debtors live; Yet we may Boldly say; Worse Villains often Credit give; Than those that never pay

For wealthy knaves can with applause; Cheat on, and ne’er be try’d; But in contempt of human Laws; In Coaches Safely ride

The Fleet was mainly a debtors prison from the 17th century onwards and run by a warden who had almost dictatorial powers. He also had the right to “farm” the prisoners – that is, extort fees from them for their upkeep. This may seem unusual to us now, but prisoners on arrival at the Fleet had to cough up six shillings, bring their own bedding or hire some or sleep on the floor. Conditions were appalling and abuse was rife. One warden, Thomas Bambridge, was notorious for holding prisoners in irons and refusing to let them leave after their sentences had expired.

Fleet Prison in 1830 - note the racket court
Fleet Prison in 1830 – note the racket court

During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the Fleet was burnt down but after repairs, it carried on in business. Prisoners would beg passers by for charity. Raising some money was their only forlorn hope of escaping this four storey hell with its high walls, chapel, coffee-room and tap-rooms. It was badly lit and a countless number of doors opened up onto rooms averaging 14 by 12 feet. Walking down the dark corridors, you would have heard an endless clanging of doors to jar your nerves. If the prisoners were lucky, a wealthy passer-by clutching scented herbs to their nose, would approach the barred windows and press a coin in to their hands.

There was a recreation yard that included a racket court. Every year, the prisoners elected a Racket Master to run the sports activities here and this was apparently a hotly contested position. In 1841, three

people were running against each other to win the position. One candidate noted that the “health of my fellow inmates is in some measure placed in the hands of the person appointed”.  Skittle Master was another bitterly contested post among the prisoners!Fleet prison

In 1842, parliament agreed to proceed with the demolition of the Fleet and transfer of all prisoners to the Queen’s Bench Prison. Some prisoners weren’t happy about this, especially as the Queen’s Bench ran a tougher regime. A song went thus:

To racquets, skittles, whistling shops; We must soon say farewell; The Queen’s assent to her prison bill; Has rung their funeral knell

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London Chinese restaurant honours two great Victorian artists!

If you’ve ever been to Wong kei in London’s Chinatown, you may have experienced the joy of being shouted at by the waiters – it had the reputation for years of being the rudest restaurant in London. I understand that as of last year, they’ve refurbished the place and decided to tone down the bad attitude – even though many punters paid to be treated badly. It was all part of the fun.

Wong Kei Chinese restaurant
Wong Kei Chinese restaurant

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But what has often caught my eye on going into Wong kei – and I haven’t dined there for at least ten years – are the plaques on either side of the main door. One commemorates Sarah Bernhardt laying the foundation stone of the building in 1904. And who, you might ask, was she?

Sarah was the leading actress in the late Victorian period. Born in Paris of a Dutch prostitute and unknown father, she briefly trained to be a nun before taking up acting. She was very aware of her public image and projected herself as mystical and unknowable. This extended to having some very odd pets including a boa constrictor and an alligator fed on milk and champagne (it died). When I first came across her story what struck me was the choice of resting place at night – Sara slept in a coffin, which she took with her on tour. When the great actress died, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Paris to bid her adieu.

The other plaque is to another legend of the same period, Sir Henry Irving. He laid the coping stone in 1905. Irving was both an actor and theatre manager – a very hands-on member of the acting fraternity. He had a close association with the Lyceum Theatre, near the Strand, which today has been hosting the Lion King for what seems like an eternity. Irving found a sound financial manger for the Lyceum in the form of a Dubliner called Bram Stoker.  Yes – THAT Bram Stoker! The creator of Dracula.

I’m not going into all the detail here but there’s a debate that has raged for a hundred years over whether Irving was the model for Dracula. The theory tends to emphasise a history of conflict between the two men with Stoker seething with hatred for the overbearing and evil Irving. The truth doesn’t quite bear that out – though they seem to have had stormy episodes, they co-operated for decades in running the Lyceum.

So why are these two plaques outside Wong kei? Well, the building originally opened as a theatrical costume shop in the heart of London’s bohemian Soho. Little could Bernhardt and Irving have known that the thespians would one day give way to scoffers of crispy duck noodles.

Taking a dead man’s head to the pub

Londoners do some very odd things but taking a dead man’s head to the pub is probably one of the more unusual. Read on!

There’s a monument that many office workers pass under every day that they’d never realise has a ghoulish past. It’s an innocuous old gateway that leads from the front of St Paul’s cathedral into Paternoster Square. A lovely old thing with two statues on either side. What’s not to like?

Temple Bar
Templar Bar – a ghoulish secret

Only you have to imagine this gateway – Temple Bar – in its original location. For centuries, it bestrode Fleet Street as the westernmost entrance to the City of London. The spot is now marked by a late Victorian monument – a sort of pillar – with a dragon on top. The reason for Templar Bar’s removal was that by the 1870s, the 17th century gateway was causing serious traffic jams with its narrow arches. So it was taken apart stone by stone and re-erected in a park owned by a brewer for many years before being moved to its current spot in 2004.

The ghoulish part of its history is that Temple Bar was more often than not surmounted by the heads of traitors on spikes in the eighteenth century. Sir Christopher Wren had designed the arch to replace one incinerated in the Great Fire of 1666. The statues on it, by the way, are of Queen Elizabeth I and James I on one side and Charles I and Charles II on the other. After the Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745, the heads of leading rebels decorated the top. This was to be an object lesson to bolshy Londoners that anybody taking on the kings of England would see their head join the others.

One of the heads was that of a leading rebel against the king, involved in the so-called “Jacobite” uprisings, called Christopher Layer. Like many traitors, his head remained on top of Templar Bar for years. In fact, you could hire some glasses to take a closer look if you wanted. But one stormy night, Layer’s head blew off his spike and bounced into Fleet Street. It was picked up by an attorney called John Pearce who took it to a local public house and showed if off to his friends.

Christopher Layer
Christopher Layer’s head was taken to the pub – the indignity!

An account of this incident I have before me from the early nineteenth century says that a friend of Isaac Newton and eccentric collector Dr Richard Rawlinson asked if he could buy the head. Apparently, he was palmed off with somebody else’s head (where were all these heads coming from!!). When he died, Rawlinson “directed it to be buried in his right hand”. I know – weird eh? And so what happened to Layer’s head? Well, the story has it that it was buried under the floor of the aforementioned public house.

The Calves Head Club – celebrating a beheaded king!

Who would join a club that celebrated the beheading of a 17th century king? Well, rich Londoners it seems…

On the 30th January, 1649, king Charles I stepped out of a first floor window of the Banqueting House in Whitehall (a building you can still see today though much restored) and on to a wooden scaffold. In front of a great crowd, the king’s head was chopped off. This was the culmination of the English Civil War – a bitter conflict between the forces of the king and those of parliament. The latter, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, won. The decision to kill Charles wasn’t taken lightly and followed a trial after which 59 Commissioners signed his death warrant.

Not something to be celebrated!
Not something to be celebrated!

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, several of those Commissioners were hunted down and then hanged, drawn and quartered – a slow and dreadful way to die. Any talk of sympathy for the regicides was treason. So it’s rather surprising to find that reports began to emerge in the early eighteenth century of a gentlemen’s club that actually celebrated the beheading of Charles I.

They did this in a rather macabre way. At a tavern in Suffolk Street, a large dish of calves’ heads was served up each dressed in a different way to represent the late king and other royalists who’d died in a similar manner. When the cloth was whipped away to reveal the strange meal, the revellers sang an anniversary song. A calf’s skull filled with wine was then passed around and every man toasted the regicides and their good work.

In 1735, the gentlemen got a little carried away and chucked a bloodied calve’s head out of the tavern window. According to an account titled the Secret History of the Calves’ Head Club or the Republican unmasked, this act – on the anniversary of the king’s beheading, provoked a riot. At least that was the widely circulated version of events.

Lord Middlesex, who was one of the revellers, wrote an indignant letter to a friend of his, Mr Spence, who he referred to playfully as “Spanco”. According to his lordship, there was indeed a drunken party and the gentlemen even made a bonfire outside the tavern door for a bit of fun. But they suddenly realised that such an act on the 30th January would make it look as if they were celebrating the execution of Charles I, which they definitely weren’t, he wrote.

However, a mob of royalist Londoners was not so easily convinced and gathered round the tavern to rain rocks through the windows for an hour .  To try and fend off the mob, the party shouted “The King, Queen and Royal Family!” Only the arrival of some soldiers saved the gathering from getting their heads bloodied. After that incident, we don’t hear about the Calves Head Club again.

The terrifying London garroters of the 1860s

1862 saw a new crime trend hit the streets of London.  The criminals robbed well-to-do people while an accomplice gripped the victim by the throat from behind.  This outbreak of “garroting” horrified the great and the powerful – especially when a member of parliament fell victim. In 1863, an indignant Lord Norton demanded that the garroters should be flogged in prison and the measure was passed with ease.

London garroters in action!
London garroters in action!

In the century before, thieves and robbers could still be tied to a cart and whipped in public. But these garroters were punished in private at Newgate. Well, not entirely in private. Because wealthy folks could gain access to the room with the “whipping press” to watch the brutal action unfold. They just had to get a ticket from the sheriff and demand was high!

A journalist who attended one flogging described it:

We entered a long, low room, ignorant of furniture, except a sort of press, waist-high against one wall and a long deal table by the other. What I liken unto the press was the whipping apparatus with stocks for the prisoner’s feet and holdfasts for his hands. He stepped into this appartus and his feet were forthwith imprisoned. Extending his arms, he placed them in the crescent hollow of a plank before him, another plank was let down and his wrists were pinioned in rings.

Then a jailer picked up a whip with nine cords and knots at the end of each – the infamous cat o’nine tails! The first garroter led in to be punished was, according to the journalist, a “sullen, lumpish thick-skinned brute, with an evil forehead”. I’ll spare you the full description in the book before me (the Victorians loved to describe a good beating!) though it says the jailer “plied the scourge airily, as a fly-fisher would his line”. A nice angling motif!

Supporters of corporal punishment in prisons – which did continue well into the 20th century – claimed it stopped the garrotting epidemic in its tracks. But even at the end of the 19th century, looking back at this very odd crime, the Liberal Home Secretary Lord Asquith (1892-95) said the crime had already subsided before Norton brought his flogging measure to the House. This view was supported by another Home Secretary, Lord Ridley (1895-1900).

Still – the throttlers had given the rich a big scare – and they’d retaliated with the whip!

Newgate prison: where the condemned were buried

Another blog post in my current series on Newgate prison – demolished over a hundred years ago and replaced by the Old Bailey court building

Newgate prison
Under the flagstones lie the condemned

By the end of the nineteenth century, if you committed a murder north of the Thames – you would face the hangman at Newgate. If you committed it south of the river, then you breathed your last at Wandsworth.

The photo here is of the passage from the jail to the former Old Bailey court house, which was also a graveyard of sorts. Those hanged were placed under the flagstones! Lime was enclosed in the coffins to rot the bodies quicker. And their only marker was an initial carved into the walls, which you can see.

This passageway disappeared when Newgate was finally taken down.

A slum district in London’s west end

Stand at Tottenham Court Road station and let your eyes drift from the Dominion Theatre past New Oxford Street and down Charing Cross Road. Now imagine that this whole stretch of London extending down to St Martin’s Lane and back to Drury Lane was one huge enormous slum. A warren of impenetrable alleyways, wooden houses, tens of people living in single rooms, filthy water, disease and crime. Welcome to the “rookery” (slum district) of St Giles throughout the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. Viewed by Charles Dickens and used as inspiration for his work. And at the centre, the ancient church of St Giles, built on what was a medieval leper hospital.

The Victorians were keen clearers of slums – and there were two tried and trusted methods. Widen the roads and create large public squares then demolish what was left and replace with offices and swankier housing. And so Oxford Street was extended towards Holborn creating New Oxford Street. A pre-existing road was widened to give us Charing Cross Road leading down to Cambridge Circus. And then Shaftesbury Avenue cut off the then grubby Seven Dials (which even had a pillory at one stage).

As these two images show – the result was impressive.  One image of the rookery in the 1840s and the other of New Oxford Street in 1930. A hundred years made all the difference!

New Oxford Street in 1930
New Oxford Street in 1930
St Giles Rookery
St Giles Rookery in about 1846

Newgate Prison: George Cruikshank witnesses a hanging

This is one of a series of blog posts about the once notorious Newgate prison that stood on the site of today’s Old Bailey 

George Cruikshank was a caricaturist who drew the illustrations for the books of Charles Dickens. He was also vehemently opposed to the death penalty, following something he saw outside Newgate prison. Cruikshank lived in Dorset Street, Salisbury Square and one day had to visit a house near the Bank of England. As he passed Newgate, he gazed upwards to be met with the grisly sight of several bodies still hanging from the gallows – two of them women. It turned out they had been executed for forging one pound notes.IMG_0931

All of which gave Cruikshank an idea. As he wrote: “After witnessing this tragic scene I went home and in ten minutes designed and made a sketch of this”. He created his own bank note – not forged of course – but depicting the awful scene on what looked like a bank note. And of course this referenced the crime of the condemned. A perfect meeting of medium and message!

Hard to believe but this little act of protest created a sensation and Cruikshank’s house was mobbed by supporters. The Bank of England reacted by stopping the issuance of one pound notes while Sir Robert Peel moved new legislation to outlaw hanging for forgery.

Before the London Eye – there was the Earls Court Wheel !!

Behold the Earls Court wheel – forerunner to the London Eye. For just over ten years – 1895 to 1906 – this dominated the skyline at Earls Court in west London. It was a hit with visitors to exhibitions at the nearby large events venue. In one book of photos I have from the turn of the 20th century, there is a hilarious and very Victorian description of the ride I have to share with you:IMG_0880

This gigantic wheel, which forms such a prominent object in the landscape anywhere west of London is extensively patronised by the public during the Exhibitions at Earl’s Court and it matters very little if it is an Indian or Colonial or South African exhibition, the big wheel always has its crowd of patrons who like to experience the exhilarating effects of an ascent into the air minus the dangers attending a balloon and the probability of making an ascent rather higher than they had originally intended and the improbability of landing on the earth again in such a perfect condition. This slowly revolving wheel takes you up to a good height, from which you have a splendid view of bricks and mortar below you; and there is just that touch of danger which always gives piquancy to pleasure, that perhaps it may stop, and refuse to go on, and its patrons may have to be fed on buns and soda water by venturesome sailors until the machinery once more gets into working order and you slowly descend to your despairing relatives and expectant friends with tumultuous applause and you feel proudly conscious of something attempted and (thank goodness) something done.