Freakish street performers in 17th century London

Walk through Leicester Square or Covent Garden today and you can see the usual street performers attracting gawping crowds.

If you find these acts annoying, I’m afraid they’ve been a part of London life for hundreds of years. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys were Londoners who kept diaries of their daily lives and both described the entertainers they saw in the 17th century.

So…what kind of street performers were entertaining people back then?

  • A man called The Turk. A rope was fixed to the top of a church steeple and the other end to the ground at a 90 degree angle. The Turk then climbed by his toes. When he reached the top, this fearless chap slid down head first with his arms and legs spread out.
  • The Hairy Woman. Her eyebrows covered her entire forehead. A lock of hair grew out of each ear. And she had a thick beard and moustache.
  • The Dutch Boy. Exhibiting himself at Charing Cross, this strange child had the words Deus Meus inscribed in tiny letters on the iris of one eye and Elohim on the other iris. Doctors examined him but disagreed whether the words were on his eyes from birth or placed there afterwards. It also seems he wasn’t blind.
  • Richardson the fire eater. This incredible individual chewed and swallowed hot coals, ate melted glass and put a hot coal on his tongue on top of which he cooked an oyster. He then had a drink….of pitch, wax and sulphur – flaming!

Add to that collection the usual array of contortionists, dancing bears and bull baiting. Something for everybody!

So as I say – if street performers are a pain in your view – I’m afraid they’re not going away any time soon.

When three thousand people died on London Bridge

London Bridge as you see it today is a modern construction. It’s hard to imagine the medieval bridge that once stood nearby crowded with houses. Even more fantastic is the old story that up to three thousand people may have died as a result of a fire on the bridge.

Even allowing for some medieval hyperbole – it seems there was a huge disaster in the 13th century. Frankly, looking at artist impressions of old London Bridge, I’m amazed it didn’t fall down every other week. It looks rickety as hell.

Before I go any further with this blog post – we are talking about London Bridge here and not Tower Bridge. Please don’t get the two confused. It drives Londoners bonkers. Tower Bridge is that iconic Victorian two level construction further down stream.

London Bridge is the oldest of all the bridges – but what you see today is the latest in several iterations.

London Bridge is falling down…  So says an old nursery rhyme. The city’s oldest bridge has certainly had a turbulent history. But it was just over seven 750 years ago that London Bridge witnessed a horrific calamity not equalled since.

Today’s 1970s bridge is a bog standard affair. Big road bridge, wide pavements, minimal number of spans. Rewind to the medieval period and in 1212, Londoners were gazing in awe at the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. It had taken 30 years to build but what a feast for the eyes!

Made up of about twenty arches that forced the river to gush like a torrent through them. It was a triumph of 13th century engineering. And on top were houses, shops and water wheels with a hustle and bustle of people all day long.

The stone bridge had replaced an earlier timber bridge that had come to grief in a fire that had swept through London in the year 1136. A man called Peter of Colechurch was tasked with constructing a new bridge that would be more resistant to fire. Some accounts claim he diverted the river Thames to achieve this medieval architectural miracle – though many doubt this was possible to any significant scale.

Along the bridge, Londoners built shops and houses, water wheels and even a chapel. The city was confident it now had a link to the southern shore that was indestructible. How wrong they were.

Fire was an ever present threat in a city made largely of wood. And even though the bridge itself was stone, the houses being thrown up along its span were of brick, wood and highly combustible thatched roofs.

On the 12th July, 1212, a fire broke out on the Southwark side of the new bridge. It crept along to the old church of St Mary Overie. Soon it had consumed the area we now call Borough Market.

Londoners from the north side of the river moved on to the bridge to either help or just gawp. Unfortunately for them, cinders or sparks ignited the very combustible roofs of houses on the London side of the bridge.

You get the picture? People on London Bridge were now caught between a fire at both ends. And none of them could swim. Plus there’s no fire brigade to speak of. And the bridge is jam-packed with houses and other buildings.

Smoke is swirling around and panic sets in. There’s a grim choice: stay on the bridge and get burnt alive or jump in the river, which is gushing through the small arches.

Some Londoners with boats tried to rescue people but it was all to little avail. According to John Stow, a historian of the city writing 350 years later, the bodies of three thousand partly burnt people were found while many were completely incinerated or swept away by the river.

Some historians doubt this figure and think it was lower. But there’s little doubt this was a major calamity and remembered for many centuries afterwards.

The horror of the Great Plague of London

London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.

The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:

Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those CrossesEngland’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker

The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.

What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.

Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.

The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history.

This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!

Houses of Parliament burnt down in massive blaze

On the 16th October, 1834, the old Houses of Parliament were completely destroyed by a huge fire. It took several days to extinguish an inferno that engulfed ancient medieval halls, Georgian houses and most of the palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall – a vast space dating back to the Norman period – was only saved because of the wind direction. But the House of Commons and House of Lords were no more. The centre of government was a smouldering ruin.

Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834

Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834

The reason for the fire was something typically archaic in such a venerable British institution. Incredibly, a primitive system of accounting was still being used by the Exchequer in the nineteenth century that involved digging notches into long pieces of wood called “tallies”. The author Charles Dickens mocked this ridiculous practice saying it was no better than the way Robinson Crusoe had “kept his calendar on the desert island”.

Even under George III (reigned from 1760 to 1820), somebody had asked whether it was time for the state’s finances to be kept using pen, paper, ink and pencils instead of pieces of wood. Finally, in 1826, the tallies were abolished. From now on, no more notches in sticks! However, that left a lot of bits of wood lying around – centuries of them in fact. They were of no use whatsoever and probably never had been. So it was decided to gradually burn the lot.

A stove was used in the House of Lords. A labourer called Joshua Cross was hired to shovel the wood in though it turned out he wasn’t properly supervised in this task by the Clerk of Works. As a result, the raging fire in the stove extended to nearby wood panelling and in no time the whole House of Lords was on fire including a fine tapestry of the Spanish Armada being defeated.

Nearby was St Stephen’s chapel, which had been rebuilt between 1320 and 1352 and under Edward VI became the House of Commons. It was in this chamber that Oliver Cromwell had dismissed parliament. And now it was also consigned to the flames. Thousands watched in awe at the spreading orange glow. The very floorboards that had been trodden by great political figures such as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Canning were incinerated. And all because of a daft form of accounting that had never been of any real use.

Sir Walter Raleigh catches fire in Islington

Sir Walter Raleigh – swashbuckling adventurer under Queen Elizabeth I (or Queen Bess if you prefer) – and Islington don’t exactly sit together in your mind. But Raleigh and other Elizabethans loved popping over to the village of Islington to take the air. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its dairies would become famous for their creams, custards, cakes and gooseberry fools. But in the sixteenth century – the time of Raleigh – it was archery practice on the fields and just admiring the views over the green valley of Holloway and on to Highgate hill. The view has changed a bit since then!

Raleigh's old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition

Raleigh’s old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition

The Tudors took to building country homes in the area decorated with oak panels and stained-glass windows. Raleigh, worn out by long voyages of discovery and returning with tobacco to poison his fellow Englishmen, took up residence with gusto. His house was still standing in 1830 by which time it had become the Pied Bull Inn, behind what was then called Frederick Street. There is a very silly story about Raleigh smoking tobacco that I found in an Edwardian history of London:

Sitting one day in a deep meditation with a pipe in his mouth, he inadvertently called to his man (servant) to bring him a tankard of small ale. The fellow, coming into the room, threw all the liquor into his master’s face and running downstairs bawled out: Fire! Fire! Sir Walter has studied till his head is on fire and the smoke bursts out of his head and nose! 

An unusual case of somebody spontaneously combusting due to too much thinking. Pictures depicting this incident used to appear over tobacconist shops. A stained-glass window in Raleigh’s house was bordered with images of sea-horses and parrots plus tobacco leaves. Years later, the pioneer of the filthy habit would be executed for treason. He allegedly took two pipes with him to the Tower of London, his prison, to have a good puff before the big event.

Teenage Londoner whose dress caught on fire!

This is the sad tale of a young lady whose rather large dress caught on fire. It’s an instructive story about the perils of high fashion. It’s also a warning not to stand next to an open fire when you’re wearing highly combustible fabric.

This account of the death of an 18th century socialite comes from a contemporary book in my large collection of antique volumes, magazines and documents. I am a terrible hoarder of ancient stuff. I scour book fairs and antique markets – plus ebay of course – for new additions to my old library. And then flick through the pages looking for stories that would otherwise be forgotten forever.

And so – let’s go back and discover our teenager from two hundred years ago who caught fire.

Isabella Courtenay lived in Grosvenor Square. She was “most elegantly accomplished” according to a report in 1783, the year of her untimely death. Just eighteen years old, this privileged young lady had everything to live for.

But in March of that year, she was warming herself before a fireplace when a spark flew from the grate setting her clothes on fire. This was in the days of big dresses, petticoats and suffocating corsets.

Still, you might have reckoned that somebody would be able to put out the flames that were now engulfing her. In the same room were Isabella’s sister, Lady Honywood, and child.

But the latter was unable to offer any assistance, for reasons not specified, while her ladyship fell into a fit. Poor Isabella ran screaming from room to room without meeting anybody who could help.  In no time at all, she was quite the fireball!  

As a contemporary chronicle explains:

It is generally thought her immediate death, however, was owing to the fright

The same chronicle then advises that should you, as a lady wearing big dresses, catch fire – then the best thing to do is NOT run about. In fact, you should fall down and roll yourself up in a carpet or bed quilt.

Here is the contemporary account below from 1783…

The story in a 1783 annual register