Sunday, November 28, 2010

Crooked Billet (2)

There were a number of other public houses called the Crooked Billet, aside from the one that the LCS met in. For example there was one on Tower Hill, which was, according to H.E. Popham, originally a Royal Palace that had been an inn since the days of Henry VIII. An underground passage apparently afforded communication with the Tower of London. Most of the rooms, Popham observed in 1927 when the Crooked Billet still stood, were wainscotted in oak, and many were provided with secret hiding places. Leopold Wagner, writing in 1924 described the inn's demise:

Until recently its internal embellishments comprised richly carved chimney-pieces, oak panellings, fine ceilings and freizes and representations appertaining to ancient music. Now everything detachable has of late been taken away, so that irrespective of its tavern equipment, naught but the shell remains to tell the tale of departed glory.

It was, however, still standing in 1936, when the photographer Bill Brandt took a series of images of the interior.

Bill Brandt, Barmaid at the Crooked Billet, Tower Hill, 1939

Another Crooked Billet was found on Crooked Lane in Eastcheap, which dated to the reign of James II.

The one which interests me most, however, was at the back of St Clement Danes near the Crown and Anchor. Writing in 1828 on the subject of songs sung about the street, Francis Place recalled this pub in connection with a pair of notorious drinking songs. The first was 'Sandman Joe,' (also known as 'The Sandman's Wedding') which was published in a cleaned up version by the Anacreontic Society which met at the Crown and Anchor. Place's version, however, includes a much more graphic verse that never made it into the printed text:

He star'd awhile, then turn'd his quid

Why, blast you, Sall, I loves you!

And for to prove what I have said,

This night I'll soundly fuck you.

Why then says Sall, my hearts at rest

If what you say you'll stand to;

His brawny hands, her bubbie prest

And roaring cried, white sand O

He concludes his transcription of the song with the following observation:

It was usually for a long time on saturday night sung in an open space at the back of St Clement in the Strand at the front of an alehouse door called the Crooked Billet by two women who used to sham dying away as they concluded the song amidst roars of laughter. (Add MSS 27825 ff. 154)

Elsewhere Place recalls another song sung by (presumably) the same two women:

Two women used to sing a song opposite a public house the sign of the Crooked Billet at the Back of St Clements Church in the Strand it was an open space between Holywell Street and Wych Street. The song was a description of a married man who had a lecherous wife, it described his being a pale fellow reduced by her to a skeleton. I can only remember the last two lines.

“And for which I’m sure she’d go to hell
For she makes me fuck her in church time.”

I remember these words in consequence of the shout which was always got up as the song closed with them. (Add MSS 27825 ff. 148)

This Crooked Billet was located at 37 Wych Street, but changed its name in around 1856 to The Rising Sun. The map below is John Rocque's map of 1746 (this area is awkwardly split between two sheets of Horwood's map of 1792-9). It shows Wych Street and Holywell street coming together to form "Back Side" just outside St Clement's opposite Arundel Street, where the Crown and Anchor was located.

A series of images shows the conjunction of Holywell Street and Wych Street head on, and reveals the Rising Sun alongside a variety of different businesses:

This image, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd dates from 1855, and is held at the British Museum, as part of the Crace Collection. Here the Crooked Billet is shown as the "St Clements Stores," though it was registered as The Crooked Billet in the Post Office Directory as late as 1856. The sign above the door reveals it to be owned by "Charrington Head Co." This was the name the Charrinton Brewery traded under between 1833 and 1880. Thomas Hosmer Shepherd was employed by Frederick Crace who employed him to paint pictures of old buildings before they were demolished. In this case, however, it seems that the building was not demolished, as it is shown going strong in a second image, by John Crowther (1837-1902):

Crowther's image dates from 1881, and is in the Chadwyck-Healey Collection at the London Metropolitan Archives. It shows The Rising Sun on the left with a beer cart in front of the tavern.

This final image is taken from Frank L Emanuel's illustrations to Wilfred Witton's A Londoner's London (1912). The Rising Sun is no longer next to Dashwood's second hand clothes store as it was in Shepherds picture of 1855. Now it abuts a second hand book shop, which proudly announces that it purchases libraries. The Wych Street-Holywell Street area was demolished in around 1899 to make way for the building of Aldwych, and the Aldwych Theatre, so this illustration must have been drawn from an older painting, which I have been unable to locate.

In fact, this area was well know for its second hand clothes and cheap books. The London Metropolitan Archives holds a surprisingly large number of permit requests for printing presses in the 1820s and 1830s. Edward Walford observes of Wych Street in Old and new London: a narrative of its history, its people, and its places Vol 3 (1873):

Like Holywell Street, of late years this thoroughfare has gained a notoriety for the sale of books and prints of an immoral class, and at present the sale of them is only partially suppressed. In bygone days, however, it was tenanted by a very different class of persons; although in 1734, according to a statement quoted by Mr. Diprose, this street was "much taken up by upholsterers for the sale of bedding and second-hand household goods."

On September 5, 1874 the Builder published a letter from 'A Working Man.' In the letter the correspondent describes a legend belonging to these streets at the North of the Strand, which colorfully illustrates the condition of the streets around the Crooked Billet, before they were knocked down to build Aldwych:

the whole nest of streets and passages behind the south side of Lincoln's Inn Fields requires re-arrangement and improvement. There is a legend hereabout that years ago a young man from the country, bearing a black bag, started one winter night from PortugalStreet to get into the Strand, and that he has been wandering round and about ever since, constantly returning with a disconsolate aspect to his original starting-point. On foggy nights his form may be descried in Clare Market. Anyhow, no one has yet heard that he ever reached the Strand.

What is perhaps most remarkable about these accounts of the street around the Strand is their proximity to the more respectable buildings that lined the streets of the Strand itself -- including the famous Crown and Anchor tavern. They create a sense of London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in which the legal world centered around the great inns of court must have constantly jostled with the inhabitants of the nest of streets in which men and women spilled out of the pubs singing lewd ballads and simulating orgasms.

Note: I owe a large debt of gratitude to the website whose pages relating to Wych Street have helped immeasurably with the history of the Crooked Billet.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Crooked Billet, Little Shire Lane

In April 1798 the entire general committee of the LCS were arrested. Binns, Bone, Col Despard, Hodgson, A. Galloway Lemaitre, and J. Moore, following the suspension of Habeus Corpus on 21 April, were held until 1801. Thomas Spence was bailed. This was the twilight of the LCS. On July 12 1799, it would be officially outlawed, having been one of the societies named in 39 Geo II, c 79, an Act "for the more effectual suppression of societies established for seditious and treasonable practices." By this point a number of its former leaders (Ashley, Place, Thelwall) had resigned from the society because they disagreed with the increasingly confrontational position the society had assumed. Place for example, claims to have resigned over the determination to hold a public meeting in a field near St. Pancras Church in July 1797. He claims that after his resignation the LCS "declined very rapidly and by the end of the year was in a very low state," by which he meant only the less "respectable" members (i.e. those with the most violent tendencies) remained.

View London Corresponding Society Meeting Places in a larger map

It was during this final phase of the the LCS's existence that meetings were held at the Crooked Billet, near Temple Bar (the other major meeting place at this time was the Unicorn in Shoreditch). Spy reports from William Gent, who was providing reports on both the LCS and the United Englishmen, which was training its members in the use of arms, suggest that the two societies had considerable overlap in terms of membership. In one report he describes a 31 August 1798 meeting:

I last night being Delegate joined the Committee of the London Corresponding Society at the Crooked Billet Shire Lane near Temple Bar, where Mr Eastbourne was Chosen their President and Mr Philips their secretary, but on their last meeting night there was some mistake concerning their future Meeting, some Persons came to the Crooked Billet on the night before, so there were only Ten that attended. All the Business that was done was the Regulating the Divisions and appointing the place of the next Meeting, which was agreed it should be at the same place on Thursday night next a 8 oClock. (PC 1/42/A144; Thale p438)

At a meeting of the 7 September, also held at the Crooked Billet, Gent reports that the LCS had received a Letter from the Friends of Liberty at Norwich, asking why they had not heard from them in such a long time. The LCS answered, urging the Norwich society to "hold on with the utmost vigor, and not to be timid in the least."

In October 1798 another spy report, this time from John Tunbridge, mentions the Crooked Billet as a place where the LCS leaders spent time. "Child enquired of Baxter where he was to meet the Committee. Baxter said he must go to Little Shire Lane Temple Bar to the crooked Billet next Thursday Evening into the back Room where Baxter would meet him and introduce him up Stairs" (PC 1/3119. fos 49-50; Thale p439). Typically alehouses would have a single downstairs room for the public, the landlord would live upstairs with his family. That the LCS had access to the little room at the back of the upstairs suggests both that the landlord was complicit in their activities, and that the LCS felt the need to continue their business with considerable discretion.

Mary Thale describes one of the meetings in the Crooked Billet in more detail:

The reformer- revolutionary George Blythe told Tunbridge that he had been attending a Sunday debating society whenever the question dealt with reform and that he had proposed the question to be debated next Sunday: 'what were the first duties of a Representative Government?' That Sunday Blythe led Tunbridge and three other reformers, none of whom knew their destination, to an upper room in a public house, the Crooked Billet in Shire Lane. (Blythe's circumspection was necessary- though futile on this occasion- even though the Two Acts had expired a month earlier and such a topic was, theoretically, no longer illegal. With habeascorpususpended, any political talk could lead to long imprisonment.) In the secluded room Tunbridge found seventeen or eighteen men 'all very genteely dressed', one of whom was reading aloud from a book by Paine. Before the debate broke up at 10.00p.m., fifty men were present, including several members of the revolutionary society of United Englishmen. In the debate the speakersall agreed with a Mr Proctor that the first duty of a representativegovernment would be 'for Men to be chosen to go and find out the Grievancesof the People and after that to establish Schools to enlighten their Minds and do away with Ignorance they are now too many of them possessedof'. Although the location had been secret, the fear of spies and prosecution retarded the discussion. Even so, a Mr Piercy said 'he hoped the present cursed infernal Constitution would be soon done away with'. Proctor instantly reproved him and told him 'he was liable to be called to account'. (Recall, for contrast, the 1795 debate which included hopes of seeing Pitt marched to the scaffold.) Proctor seems to have been the only cautious man there; he is the only one who objected to the topic proposed for the next debate: 'whether a Reformcan be obtained by Unity or by the Dint of Arms'. Piercy asserted that they could apply the question to another country. But Proctor 'thought their Friends were suffering in Prison for less Things than had been done that Evening. And that if they were apprehended and taken before the privy Council it would be told them it could not be thought they were debating about any other Country than this, particularly as they knew their Principles.' Proctor was outvoted, and the meeting ended with a dis- cussion of Proctor's proposal of a supper to celebrate 'the Anniversary of the King of France's Head being cut off'.

(Mary Thale, "London Debating Societies in the 1790s," The Historical Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), p81.

The Crooked Billet had been around since at least 1769, when it shows up on the historical record as the site of a robbery of a bundle of "four marine bed-curtains, a head cloth, tester and vallance, unmade, and two table-cloths, value 5 s. the property of John Webb."

Shire Lane was so named because it was the dividing line between Middlesex and the City of London. The Quarterly Review described it as "a vile, squalid place, noisy and noxious, nearly inaccessible to both light and air, and swarming with a population of a most disreputable character." (Written in 1843, but looking back on the 1820s). It was just one of thirty or so streets "all of them more or less dirty and overcrowded" according to Old and New London, that were cleared during the building of the law courts in the 1870s.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Red Lion, Kings Street

Ten months after the LCS first met in the Bell on Exeter Street, the society was big enough and disturbing enough to have attracted the attention of the government. By November 1792 spies such as George Munro, George Lynam, and Christopher Kennedy had infiltrated the society and were regularly feeding information to government officials. It was in this context that division 21 met in the Red Lion on Kings Street, near Golden Square on 26 November 1792. This may have been the only meeting of the LCS in this alehouse, and we know little about what happened there except that John Prothero was elected delegate to the LCS General Committee (see TS 11/958/3503; Thale 88). It is nevertheless a significant meeting because the Red Lion still stands at the same location and is still serving beer.

The building from which the Red Lion operates was originally built in the 1720s as part of the development of the Lowndes Estate. Kings Street developed out of the foot-path from Piccadilly to St. Marylebone, which ran through Six Acre Close and which marked the boundary between William Lowndes's land to the east and that of Lewis Maidwell, Dr. Tenison and Thomas Beak to the west. The houses on the east side of King Street, on the Lowndes estate, were built by Richard Tyler between 1688 and 1693 and rebuilt in the 1720's (see Survey of London 31, Ch XI, p. 176-195).

John Strype described Kings Street in the 1720s, as follows:

King street cometh out of Beak-street and Silver-street, and runneth Northwards to the Road: It is a pretty good Street, having divers very good Houses fit for Gentry. On the West Side is the Chapel of Ease, by some called, The Tabernacle; near unto which is Hide's Court, of small Account. On the East Side is Cross-street, ordinarily built and inhabited; which falls into Carnaby street. And farther Northwards is another Passage into the upper End of Carnaby-street, and another into Swallow street, by Mr. Medwell's, a fine, large, and well built House, with a curious Garden before it. Then farther Northwards is a good Bowling Alley, well resorted unto.

The buildings on the west side of the street were all destroyed during the development of John Nash’s Regent’s Street which cut through the seventeenth and eighteenth-century street plan with the express intention of drawing a “Line of Separation between the inhabitants of the first classes of society and those of the inferior classes” (see John Barrell The Spirit of Despotism p. 25-6). The name of the street was changed from Kings Street to Kingly Street in 1906. Today the buildings on the west side of Kingly Street are the recently renovated backs of the tall blocks fronting on to Regent Street. The east side of the street narrowly escaped the Regency redevelopment, and thus marks the boundary of what Nash regarded as “the narrow Streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community.” Most of the buildings on the east side of the street, including the Red Lion, are the buildings that were built in the 1720s, although the original exteriors have undergone a great deal of remodeling from the nineteenth century onwards, largely to accommodate the preferred model of ground storey shops with houses above them.

While it is true that the Red Lion still exists on the same site, it is almost certainly unrecognizable from its original form. The old wooden paneling that adorns the front of the pub most likely dates from the nineteenth century when the house, which would have originally been built as a domestic residence (as most alehouses were) was converted into a shop-like establishment to reflect the trend that developed in the early nineteenth-century to present alehouses as retail spaces. The large bay windows that dominate the front of the upper stories would again have been a later external embellishment from the original flat front, most likely added in the 1820s when bay windows became increasingly popular, and provided additional seating for customers.

Inside the pub the interior is dominated by a large horseshoe-shaped bar, with a wooden pot shelf on which glasses are stored when not in use. This would also have been a much later addition. In the eighteenth-century "bars" were generally storage rooms in which drinks and drinking vessels were stored. Customers would have been served in their seats, with the serving staff bringing drinks in jugs from the storage room. The development of the modern counter bar occurred in the 1820s and 1830s, and was a practice borrowed from dram shops and gin palaces. The idea of the counter bar as a place of surveillance, from which the landlord could observe his customers in the various rooms of the pub, a function that the horseshoe-shaped bar in the Red Lion enables, is a later development again, and evolved alongside the Victorian penchant for dividing the space of the pub up into several small spaces to ensure the privacy of customers.

The Red Lion, which is currently operated by the Samuel Smiths brewery, demonstrates the extent to which what we think of now as a pub is essentially a Victorian invention. The characteristics that we associate with old public houses, are not necessarily as old as we might think. Nevertheless the fact that the Red Lion has been operating on the same site for nearly three hundred years, through the various changes in taste goes to demonstrate the adaptability of the pub, and indeed the pressures exerted on landlords to keep abreast of recent developments. While there is still a long way to go on the pub hunt, and there may be more LCS pubs to discover, the scarcity of these eighteenth-century alehouses demonstrates the difficulty, and indeed the expense, of adapting to these changes in opinion. This makes the Red Lion a rare and valuable survivor. Despite the fact that it is difficult to detect the eighteenth-century origins of the pub beneath the layers of history, it remains a valuable testament to the complex cultural and social history of London.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cock and Crown, Villiers Street

The Cock and Crown was the first public house that George Munro visited when he began to spy on the activities of the LCS. His first spy report begins thus:

The first Club I visited was the Cock and Crown kept by one Burton at the corner of Cock Court Villiers Street, this Society meets for what they are pleased to term the reformation of Government and particularly a more equal representation in Parliament, it is the fiteenth Division and sends one Deligate to the Society of Deligates, which notwithstanding every art I used, I could not learn when it was held. the person I spoke most to was the only man in the Club hat had common information, he was young and told me he was the Deligate of the Society he had a large bundle of papers before him which he would not open till I was gone and would not admit me a member without being proposed, and recommended by two of the Members; he however as will as the rest of the members was extremely civil, the whole of them except the Deligate appeared to me to be the very lowest tradesmen, they were all smoaking pipes and drinking porter.
TS 11/959/3505; Thale p27

Munro is a particularly interesting spy. He was a captain in the army and worked as a spy for the British government, spending much time in Paris reporting back to Lord Grenville the activities of the British Colony in Paris in the ealy 1790s. He provided testimony for the trial of John Frost (see John Barrell The Spirit of Despotism, (2006) p78) and reported on a famous celebratory dinner in White's Hotel in Paris in 1792 which was attended by Paine, Robert Merry, John Oswald, John Hurford Stone, and possibly Helen Maria Williams (see David Erdman, Commerce des Lumieres: John Oswald and the British Colony in Paris 1790-1793, (1986) p242-3). His particular emphasis on the low condition of the members of the LCS reveals the marked contrast he must have found between the Anglo-American radical community in Paris and the tradesmen and Shoemakers he found in the alehouses of London.

There is no Cock Court marked on Horwood's map anywhere near Villiers Street, nor have I been able to find any record of it, or a Cock and Crown public house in the vicinity. There are a number of other Cock Courts marked on Horwood's map, one near Smithfield Market, off Snow Hill; one off New Street, near Golden Square; another off Ludgate Hill, by St Paul's Cathedral; one off wood street, near London Wall; and finally one off Jewry Street near Aldgate. Which, if any of these, was the sight of Munro's visit it is difficult to know. Villiers Street itself was part of the Buckingham Estate, and contained a number of impressive residences, the majority dating to 1674-5 (see the Survey of London, vol 18): "The whole of the west side of Villiers Street was pulled down circa 1862–5 in connection with the formation of Charing Cross Railway Station... In 1712 Sir Richard Steele became the tenant of a house a few doors from the lower end of Villiers Street on the west side, and fitted up part of it as a concert room to seat 200 people... The greater part of the Spectator was produced during the period of Steele's residence in Villiers Street (1712–24). He seems frequently to have used the concert room for social and literary gatherings as well as for music."

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cock, Blandford Street

The minutes of a meeting of the LCS General Committee on 6 August 1795 record that:

27 Branches to the Cock Blandford St Manchester Sqre Tuesday To be No 45 - Dixey, Brewer McGuire.

The Cock has left little trace in the history books but in the 1790s Blandford Street was a short street that began at Baker Street and went as far as Manchester Street. Today the street has many eighteenth-century houses on both sides of the street, most of which are used as retail outlets, which suggests that the building the Cock occupied may well still be standing, though I have not been able to track down which of the buildings it was in. Elsewhere on Blandford Street, Michael Faraday worked as an errand boy in a bookbinders from 1804.

View London Corresponding Society Meeting Places in a larger map

Coach and Horses, Turhnam Green

In a meeting of the LCS General Committee on 3 September 1795, it was reported:

Hodgson informed Comee that Several Citizens wished to establish a Divn at the Coach & horses Turnham Green Sunday 2 O'Clock.

Add MSS 27813, fos. 121v-5v; Thale p99

View London Corresponding Society Meeting Places in a larger map

According to the Coach and Horses occupied the large building on the corner of Chiswick High Road and Netheravon Road, which is now empty. "It was licensed by 1761 and described as a `humble roadside inn’ frequented by market carts on their way to London. The `humble’ inn was demolished in 1900 and replaced by a `palatial building’ which, in 1972 when it had become a Schooner Inn, had a stream running around the main bar. The pub’s `inn sign’ was a full scale model of a coach on the first floor balcony."

In the eighteenth-century Chiswick was a haven for wealthy landowners who built a number of large manor houses in the area. Alexander Pope lived here with his parents between 1716 and 1719, William Hogarth bought a country residence here in 1746, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau stayed here in 1766. As such it is an unusual place for the LCS, but demonstrates the breadth of its appeal in the years after the treason trials.

Coach And Horses, Hatton Garden

On 14 May 1794, two days after Thomas Hardy's arrest, Spy Gosling went for the second time to a meeting at the Coach and Horses on Cross Street, Hatton Garden. This was a particularly tense time for the LCS, and the society was undergoing internal debate about whether they should be arming, or whether they should continue on their present non-violent path. Spy Gosling took particular delight in exposing the violent tendencies of the the society to the government, which make his accounts especially colorful though of suspect accuracy:

In the evening I went to the Society at Cross Street Hatton Garden where I had been once before.* The delegate apologized. for not having bought the Resolutions of the Committee with him - he said he believed they were taken with Thelwall and were to the following purport -

Resolved. That the conduct of Citizen Hardy as far as concerns the Corresponding Society merits our approbation and Applause.
Resolved That we will defend Citizen Hardy with our Lives
Resolved. That we will live free or Die.

These three Resolutions were put and carried with a degree of Enthusiasm I had never before witness in their Meetings and many of them declared that the Day any of the Members should be bought to Punishement for what they had done in their Cause they would die or save them. - After the meeting was thinned the Landlord asked us to remove to the Tap Room as it was late, which we did - he gave us a Reason that he had received a Caution from Mr. Bleamire the Magistrate but said he did not fear him for the Officers were his Friends and he had always something for them to eat and drink... The Conversation of the Delegate and his Father was particularly Violent the Father wised to see Temple Bar covered with Heads - and the Son to see a head on every Lamp Iron about London Bridge... Much other conversation passed about Arming and the Society, in which it was stated that many in the Army and Militia belonged to the Society but that their names were never entered... Previous to our coming down Stairs a Member handed a New Cutlass or Hanger across the Table to another who put it under his Coat saying "these are the Things but the Scabbard is hardly dry.

* About 40 or 50 were at this meeting in the Coach and Horse ph. Late in the evening songs were sung. Gosling who stayed until midnight, described the delegate as 'quite a Lad.'

TS/11/954/3498; Thale p164

This gives further evidence of the kinds of pressure that landlords were being put under at the time, and the ways that landlords, whose sympathies were with the LCS, were able to dodge those pressures. Furthermore it gives some sense of the layout of the Coach and Horses, which, according to this account, had a public bar downstairs, and a more secluded Taproom upstairs to which the landlord and chosen guests could repair for more private conversation.

In March 1797 a dinner was also held at the Coach and Horses as a fundraiser to releive the debts of the LCS (see Thale p392 fn 11).

Cross Street (now known as St Cross Street) is now a small one-way street located just north of High Holborn, near the Saffron Hill area that Dickens used as the setting for Fagin's lair in Oliver Twist. The site of the Coach and Horses is now the headquarters of the chemicals company Johnson Matthey.