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.