If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!
Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.
There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!
The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all). At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.
He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern. The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists. If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!
Let me take you back to the early 18th century and the wickedness of a group of criminals known as the Black Boy Alley gang. They operated very near to what is now Holborn Circus – or “midtown” as estate agents like to call it. I worked around this part of London as a journalist for many years and it’s a kind of intermediate zone between the City of London in the east and the bustling shops of the West End.
The story of this gang turned up in a book published in 1817 from my large collection of old London related volumes going back three hundred years. The book is called A History and Description of London and was probably written around ten years before by David Hughson – whose real name was Edward Pugh.
It consists of a series of walks through the city that includes some really nasty areas. Hughson seemed determined to expose his readers to the sleazier side of London life! The streets he mentions once led off what is now Holborn Circus roundabout towards the meat market at Smithfield. Saffron Hill is still there but Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley have gone – and maybe not surprisingly!
Because under the reign of King George II (reigned 1727 to 1760), Black Boy Alley was “the terror of the whole city” – according to Hughson. The Black Boy Alley Gang used prostitutes to lure passers-by into the grubby tenements. These hapless individuals were then gagged, robbed and murdered. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch with all the city rubbish.
Women played a prominent role in the crimes and three were executed in 1743. These included Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot (I’m not making these names up!!). A man called George Cheshire survived an attack by both of them in nearby Chick Lane. Duck and Barefoot beat Cheshire giving him some severe cuts and bruises. In total, they stole four pence. And for that crime – both women were hanged.
Sarah Bartlet and Martha Ewers were sentenced to transportation for luring a man called Robert Copperthwait into a house on Black Boy Alley and relieving him of his watch. Lucky for him he wasn’t murdered but inexplicably decided to return and they mugged him again – this time taking his money.
The gang included a 21-year-old local lad known as Gugg (real name William Billingsley). He had gone to the free school to learn to read and write but crime was way more attractive than working as a lamp lighter. Then there was Thomas Well, reputed to be the husband of Ann Barefoot mentioned above. At his trial, he was said to have been “much addicted to vile women and drinking, swearing, gaming and every other destructive vice”.
Then there was Dillsey (real name William Brister) and a fourteen-year-old called Scampey (real name Henry Gadd). At his trial, Scampey was asked who was his Redeemer and instead of saying “Jesus”, he scandalised the court by yelling “the Devil!”. Another gang member was a Frenchman called Sulspice du Clot who was a Roman Catholic, as was an Irish gang member, Patrick Bourk.
The Black Boy Alley gang also had two Jewish members: Benjamin David Woolfe who was born in Prague, then part of Bohemia and now the capital of the Czech Republic. And Hannah Moses was from Frankfurt. She had seen her husband executed in February 1743 in London for robbing a silversmith.
The law eventually caught up with the gang and a staggering nineteen were executed on a single day at Tyburn gallows – near where Marble Arch is today at the end of Oxford Street. The mass hanging took place on Christmas Eve 1744. Gugg, Dillsey, young Scampey, the Frenchman Sulspice and the two Jewish gang members all swung from the end of a rope in front of a large, festive crowd.
And so ended the terror of the Black Boy Alley gang!
If you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time.
That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.
These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.
Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!
See somebody condemned to death: Incredibly, you could pay a shilling to a door-keeper at the Old Bailey and watch a trial for a capital crime. The death penalty wasn’t just for murder. There was a whole range of offences that could lead to the rope. These included counterfeiting money or stealing. And children could still be hanged in public at this time. If a trial was high profile, the doorkeepers would increase the entrance fee to as much as a guinea.
Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”
You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.
Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.
Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.
Watch a medical operation: If your day in London had proved to be rather dull, it could be enlivened by going to watch a medical operation. The operating table at Guy’s Hospital was circled by viewing galleries where students and the curious could breathe their germs down on the poor afflicted patient. Amputations normally resulted in death due to infection but the removal of kidney stones through the urethra (I’m crossing my legs just thinking of it) had an excellent survival rate
Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.
Observe the diseases killing Londoners: In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.
Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.
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.
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.
This is the story of a terrible accident that occurred because of shoddy building work on a church that still stands in central London to this day. But first we must go back three hundred years to the tragic day in question.
St Mary-le-Strand is the church that appears to be stuck in the middle of the road near Kings college and Somerset House. In fact, it’s been referred to as St Mary-in-the-way. This place of worship was designed by the architect James Gibbs and was one of fifty churches ordered to be built during the reign of Queen Anne.
The first stone was laid by Gibbs on the 25th February, 1714 and the whole thing was completed in three and a half years. But it was only consecrated for use by worshippers on the 1st January, 1723.
Nobody doubted the skill and craft of Gibbs’ work and it stood proud throughout the eighteenth century. But then in 1802, crowds had gathered in the Strand to celebrate peace between France and Britain agreed at the Treaty of Amiens – after a long period of war between the two countries. A man stood on the roof of the church and leaned on one of the many stone urns to watch the heralds marching past announcing the peace treaty. Incredibly, the large urn suddenly fell into the street below.
Three young men were killed. One died instantly as the urn fell on his head. Another was so badly wounded that he died on the way to hospital. While the third died two days afterwards. A young woman was also seriously injured and others suffered cuts and bruises. The two hundred pound urn had bounced off the side of the church taking another piece of masonry with it and when it hit the pavement, it buried itself about a foot into the flagstones.
The poor man on the roof fainted but was still arrested. However, he was discharged when it was found that Gibbs’ workmen a hundred years before had been a bit shoddy. The urn should have been fixed to the roof by an iron spike but instead there was just a wooden pole. That had rotted away over time and it was no surprise that a killer urn tipped into the street below.