Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fleece, Little Windmill Street

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In the minutes of the LCS general committee from 27 August, 1795 "The Fleece little Windmill Street Golden Sqre" was reported as one of eleven houses that "wished to receive Divns" (Add MSS 27813, fos 113v-21; Thale, 292). The minutes from the general committee meeting two weeks later (10 September, 1795) then reported from Division 31:

The Delegate informed the Comee that that Landlord (where his Divn met) informed him they must get a fresh place to meet in, As he should [not] have his license renewed if he let them meet in his house - they therefore moved to the Fleece little Windmill St to meet to morrow & then change their night to Wednesday.
(Add MSS 27813, fos. 126-9; Thale 302).

The earliest mention of the Fleece is in the coroner's inquest into the suspicious death of Elizabeth Cooper, who was found "hanging by a Cord fastened to a Staple from the Ceiling with her head hanging down." (See City of Westminster Coroners.) The witness for the inquest was questioned at "the Dwelling House of Mr. Thomas Watson the Sign of the Fleece in Little Windmill STreet" on 30 July 1773.

In a trial at the Old Bailey in 1774 Joseph Medcalfe was sentenced to death for breaking and entering the Fleece at 2am on 16th April and stealing four hundred and eighty copper halfpence, the property of Thomas Watson, who kept the Fleece. Medcalfe was a young boy who had allegedly broken into the tap room with two accomplices by breaking the shutters and sash window. When a watchman disturbed them the burglars ran away, but Medcalfe was caught in the passage of a nearby house.

In addition to keeping the Fleece, Thomas Watson for many years ran the box office of the Haymarket Theatre. And indeed it seems that the Fleece itself occasionally sold tickets for Haymarket performances. Tickets for a performance of the "The Gentle Shepherd" by Allan Raeburn at the Haymarket on 9 February 1784 could be had of "Watson at the Fleece, Little Windmill Street (being the original Scotch house)." (See The London Stage, 1660-1800 , Vol 5, 1776-1800, p. 679.).

Watson had a son (also Thomas Watson) who was a notable artist, who was still living with his father at the Fleece when he exhibited a drawing at the first exhibition of the Royal Academy. (See Gordon Goodwin, British Mezzotinters: Thomas Watson, James Watson, Elizabeth Judkins (London, 1904)).

Iain McCalman identifies the Fleece as one of the alehouses, along with the George in East Harding Street, the Green Dragon in Fore Street and the Cecil in St Martin's Lane, that became a focal point for resistance in the years after the LCS were outlawed. It subsequently became a regular meeting place of Thomas Spence's free-and-easies. (McCalman. Radical Underworld, p. 115.)

On 12 February 1808, during the time it was used for Spence's meetings the Fleece was insured to John Clark with the Sun Fire Office (see Guildhall Library MS 11936/445/814167).

In Pigot's directory of 1839 the Fleece is registered to Thomas Laidley, and the address is given as 27 Little Windmill Street

In the 1840s the Fleece was the home to one of twelve societies into which London's tailors had combined in order to regulate their trade at a time when the business was dramatically falling off, thanks to the increased mechanization of the trade. (David Goodway, London Charistm, 1838-1848, p. 172).

Little Windmill Street was renamed in 1885, when along with Cambridge Street it became part of Lexington Street. Horwood's map shows a brewery further south on street, belonging to "Starkey & Co," which was the latest installment of Ayre's Brewery, and was likely where the Fleece purchased its beer. Ayres's Brewery had first been set up in about 1664, and was rebuilt in 1700. A Survey conducted by Henry Mayhew in 1831-6 show the site with some of the houses built in 1700 still lining an open court. (See Survey of London, Vols 31-2)

View London Corresponding Society Meeting Places in a larger map

The site on which the Fleece formerly stood is currently occupied by the PR agency Trimedia.

Lexington Street in the present