Ten weird things about London at the time of the BBC drama series “Taboo”

TabooIf 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.

  1. 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!
  2. pillory1
    Always something to see in London!

    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.

  3. 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.”
  4. 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”.
  5. 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”.
  6. 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.
  7. f79da947962a9096e88f6373d5d25a77--william-hogarth-anatomy
    A dissection before dinner perhaps?

    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.

  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

 

 

 

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

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

Newgate prison

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.

Newgate Prison: Public hangings in Victorian London

This is the first of a series of blog posts about the notorious Newgate Prison that once stood on the site of the Old Bailey

You might assume that hanging people in public had died out in England after the 18th century but in fact, these gruesome events continued right up until 1868. The authors Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray both witnessed some of the last hangings – which still drew crowds of tens of thousands. In fact, Dickens seems to have been a serial attender at executions while also condemning them. He was present, for example, when murderer Marie Manning gasped her last outside the Surrey County Gaol in 1849 and outside Newgate prison when Francis Courvoisier dangled from the rope.IMG_0872

I have a battered old guide to the city – London As It Is Today – published for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it tells visitors all about the delights of London’s prisons and even how they could be visited. It even lists some of the most recent executions!

Newgate prison was a huge jail standing where the Old Bailey is today. 19th century public hangings there included:

  • John Bellingham – executed in June, 1812 for shooting dead the prime minister Spencer Perceval. This was the only assassination of a prime minister in British history
  • Henry Fauntleroy – a banker hanged for forgery in November, 1824
  • Joseph Hunton – a well-known Quaker executed for forgery in December, 1828
  • George Widgett – the last person to be hanged for sheep stealing in May, 1831
  • John Bishop and Thomas Williams – for the murder of an Italian boy in December, 1831
  • Francis Benjamin Courvoisier – who killed Lord William Russell, his master, July 1840
  • Daniel Good – for the murder of Jane Jones at Putney in May, 1842
  • William Henry Hocker – for the murder of James De La Rue at Hampstead in April, 1845

My 1851 guide remarks on the imposing aspect of Newgate prison with its solid masses of granite walls.

In the open space in front of this prison, executions (now happily of rare occurrence), usually take place, with all their terrors; how many a young heart has here had its pulsation stopped! how many who once were the pride of their parents, and the joy and hope of their circle of friends, have here had their careers of profligacy and crime cut short, and in the pride of their strength, been “lighted away the way to dusty death”

In the prison chapel, there were galleries for male and female prisoners and at the centre – a chair for the following day’s condemned “shedder of blood”. Before the 19th century, his or her coffin would be placed at their feet during their last service just to rub the point home. In a small ante-room near the entrance to the prison was a collection of casts of the heads of well known executed individuals. Duplicates could also be seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s. IMG_0875

Newgate prison dated back to the 12th century but the last building dated from 1770 to 1783 and was designed by George Dance, who was the son of the architect of the Mansion House in the City of London (still standing). When it was decided to stop dragging condemned criminals from Newgate to Tyburn to be hanged (roughly where Marble Arch is today), they were simply led out to the front of Newgate and executed there – the first hanging being on the 7th November, 1783.

In another old guide to London in my possession, it states that on public execution days, local coffee shops and gin palaces would be bursting with people bargaining for seats to get the best view away from the crowds aside. You would hear the punters saying “excellent situation, comfortable room, splendid view”. The crush of people extended down Giltspur Street with criminals boasting loudly how their mates had been hanged, transported or imprisoned while they were still at large committing their foul deeds. City clerks often lingered too long and were late for work or even sacked.

When public hangings stopped in 1868 (Michael Barrett on the 26th May that year – an Irish Fenian), you would know that a life had been cut short within the prison walls by the flying of a black flag.

Should Victorian visitors wish to take a tour of the prison, they could apply to the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Home Office today), the Lord Mayor or the Sheriffs of London. Newgate Prison was finally torn down at the turn of the 20th century and the Central Criminal Court, or Old Bailey, was constructed between 1903 and 1906.

Tyburn gallows

Stealer of children’s clothes

Mall Floyd was a wicked woman who developed an unpleasant line in criminal activity. She would steal or kidnap children, take them somewhere far from their parents or guardians and then relieve them of their clothes and valuables. They’d then be left to fend for themselves as best they could.

In 1674, Mall Floyd found a girl of about eight years of age in Shoe Street. I may be wrong but I think Shoe Street now corresponds to what’s called Shoe Lane in Farringdon. In the seventeenth century, that thoroughfare would have been just outside the ancient city walls. The road ran parallel to the Fleet River, which is now hidden away in a sewer. It was there then that Mall Floyd chanced upon this refined girl who looked very finely dressed. Our thief figured the girl’s clothes would make a pretty penny or two.

Approaching the eight year old, she claimed to be from her mother and then carried off the child as far as St Giles.  That was a pretty run down village where Centre Point stands, at the top of Tottenham Court Road. The parish church of St Giles is still there behind Centre Point. St Giles was a notorious slum that contributed a great number of villains to the hanging tree at nearby Tyburn.

So, Mall Floyd took the child to an ale house and seeing that it was about to rain, suggested that the girl should remove her expensive laces and linens as they would be spoilt. Now with her hands on the goodies, Mall Floyd took the girl to the churchyard of St Giles. Luckily for our villain, there was a burial going on with a big crowd. Without a second thought, Mall Floyd simply dumped the girl in the crowd and melted away.

Tyburn gallows
Mall Floyd was lucky not to end up here

The distressed kid burst into tears and a charitable individual took pity and very gallantly escorted her back to the house of her parents. The girl recounted everything that had happened – the women claiming to be a friend of her mothers, taking her to a pub, removing her pricey garments and then disappearing. The family were furious but what could they do? Then a remarkable thing happened.

The child’s mother was walking through Holborn when she saw her daughter’s lost clothes hanging up for sale in a shop window. She raised hell with the shopkeeper and after some investigating – there were no police in those days remember – the family found the culprit. Mall Floyd was dragged before the courts. Incredibly, she confessed everything and was sent to Newgate prison. When she returned for sentencing, Mall Floyd might have expected to dangle from a rope for the amusement of the crowd at Tyburn. Instead, she was “transported to some of the plantations beyond the seas”. Most likely the Americas where Mall Floyd, if she survived the journey, undoubtedly breathed her last.