Friday, May 1, 2009

The Pub Hunt Explained

This project has its origins in the summer of 2007, when I travelled to London for "Romanticism in the Age of Revolution," a summer course devoted to experiencing London through the lens of the turbulant final decade of the eighteenth century. While there, inspired by John Barrell's chapter "Charing Cross and The City" in The Spirit of Despotism, I decided that I would attempt to find -- and have a beer in -- one of the alehouses in which the London Corresponding Society met during the early 1790s. I was curious about the architecture of these spaces, and wanted to know what the interiors of these buildings might look like. I wanted to sit in a small eighteenth-century alehouse, drink a beer, and imagine what it would have been like to gather here with Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall, Thomas Spence, or Francis Place.

I began reading Mary Thale's Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society, marking down the names and addresses of the meeting places that were mentioned. Over the course of a few weeks, using Thale's book, Horwood's map of 1790's London, and an A-Z, I visited the sites of about thirty places in which the LCS met. It was a frustrating experience. I did not find a single remaining alehouse. A few of the sites (the Ship in Little Turnstile, the Bell on Exeter Street) still had pubs on the same land, but in each case the building had been rebuilt since in the 1790s. More frequently the streets, and all the buildings on them, had been ripped up -- destroyed to make way for Trafalger Square, or the Royal Courts of Justice in the nineteenth-century, cleared during the building of the Charing Cross Road or Regent's Street, or bombed during World War II.

And yet, many pubs in London remain from the eighteenth century. Many more date from considerably before that. In total Thale list 145 different venues in which the LCS met. My hope was that of these alehouses one might remain in place, still serving beer.

Thanks to a tip off from Iain McCalman, I discovered that the Red Lion in Kingly Street, now operated by the Samuel Smith's Brewery, was a former LCS meeting place. You can read my discussion of it here. To date it is still the only LCS alehouse that I know of that still functions as a pub, though the hunt continues, and there is still much to explore.

This blog continues to be devoted to tracking down each of the sites listed in Thale's Selections. The ostensible goal remains to find further LCS alehouses that still function as pubs. But the hunt itself has become far more valuable than its initial purpose might suggest. In the process of tracking down the sites I have learned a great deal about London in the 1790s, its streets and alleys, its grandeurs, and - more frequently - its dirty, squalid side.

The membership of the LCS consisted of people from considerably more varied backgrounds than historians tend to suggest. They ranged from the violent and scurrilous through to members of "respectable" professions (such as James Parkinson, a well-known physician who gives his name to Parkinson's Disease). While the LCS was heavily male-oriented, there is a body of evidence to suggest that women had a considerable influence in their operations -- Thomas Hardy's wife was certainly heavily involved in many of the early activities, and there are suggestions that there was a "Society of Women" that was loosely affiliated with the LCS, and who met at one of the same venues (No. 3 New Lane Gainsford Street Horsley down -- see Thale 83). Certainly the open air general meetings that the LCS held at Copenhagen House, Marylebone Field,  and St George's Fields would have been accessible to women, who are indeed prominent in Gillray's depiction of the Copenhagen House meeting.

The places the society met in reflect this broad socioeconomic background, and ranged from the grandest tavern of the day (The Crown and Anchor) through to small alehouses that have left no trace in the archive outside of the LCS documents themselves. The vast majority of the meeting places, however, were of the latter kind. Most of the meeting venues of the society, especially after the 1794 Treason Trials, were small, out of the way places in which the society could hope to escape the gaze of the government's network of spies. It is due to the necessity of keeping a relatively low profile that I attribute the fact that many of the places the LCS met in have been destroyed. It is due to this also that the hunt has uncovered a host of under-explored areas of late eighteenth-century London, and revealed a hidden aspect to the metropolis teaming with alleys and alehouses, bagnios and beer, prostitution and politics.

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