Category Archives: Street life

Just How Romantic Were Highwaymen?

I have a vested interest in that question because two of my ancestors were hanged at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire for highway robbery in the first half of the 18th century – fortunately for me, they had married and left children by then. Not so fortunate for their families. So, were these two handsome masked men on flashy black stallions, setting ladies’ hearts a flutter as they relieved the gentlemen of their coin? I very much doubt it – from what I can establish of these two, and their circumstances, they were probably an unpleasant pair of muggers out for what they could get and unscrupulous about how they got it.

But the highwayman was a popular figure (at least, if you weren’t one of his victims). The crowd loved a villain, especially one who robbed those better off than themselves, carried out daring raids and escapes and, when almost inevitably brought to justice, “died game” on the gallows. Reality was less romantic – even the famous Dick Turpin, shown here on Black Bess, was a violent thug who tortured victims and inn keepers. The dashing Frenchman, Claude du Vall was hanged at Tyburn January 1670 despite (according to legend) gallantly sparing the possessions of any pretty lady who was prepared to dance with him. Presumably the plain ones just got robbed. The Victorians loved him and he was immortalized in a painting by Frith.

So, what was the risk of encountering a highwayman? Up until the third quarter of the 18th century the danger was significant. Roads were bad, so travel was slow and out-running a mounted attack virtually impossible. There was no effective policing of highways and the response of the law was to react to incidents, not to prevent them. The London Gazette in 1684 carried an advertisement offering a reward after the Northampton stage was, ‘set upon by four Theeves, plain in habit but well-horsed,’ and in one week in 1720 every stagecoach into London from Surrey was robbed by highwaymen.

However, as I discovered when I was researching  Stagecoach Travel, although rapid improvements to roads in the later 18th century meant that there were far more vehicles moving over them it also meant that the coaches – increasingly better designed – became faster. Stage and mail coaches were now major businesses with a lot to lose and the guards were better armed and trained. The authorities put mounted patrols on the roads and eventually made the whole business too risky to be worthwhile.It took a while, though – the last incident of highway robbery on Knightsbridge, the road between Hyde Park Corner tollgate and the village of Kensington, was in 1799.

Today as you travel along that route, perhaps on the top of a London bus, look north as you pass the Royal Albert Hall, built on the site of Gore House. Opposite Gore House was the infamous Halfway House Inn (below). There the spies for the highwaymen of Hounslow Heath would congregate to see who was travelling and pass the word on to alert the highwaymen about fine carriages or vulnerable riders.  The wall behind the inn is the boundary of Hyde Park.

Highwaymen did persist longer in Ireland where the roads were less good and the slower coaches made easier pickings. In 1808 a coach lined with copper and advertised as bulletproof was tried on the Dublin to Cork road, an indication that highwaymen were not afraid to shoot into the body of the vehicle at the passengers as well as threaten the guard and coachman.

The highwayman and his less glamorous compatriots were sufficiently significant in Georgian society to have left their mark on the slang of the time as I discovered when I was researching Regency Slang Revealed: Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.   The mounted highwayman was “on the High Toby” the footpads were on the “Low Pad” or “Low Toby”. I found eleven general terms for a highwayman – a Gentleman’s Master being one that perhaps gives a clue as to why they were popular with the common people. A Bully Ruffian was a very violent highwayman whereas a Royal Scamp preyed on the rich in a most gentlemanly fashion. It seems that equipment was important – a Rum Padder was particularly well-armed and well-mounted and a Chosen Pell was a highwayman operating inside a town, riding a horse with leather covers on its feet to muffle the sound of hoof-beats.

A highwayman’s mistress was his Bloss or Blowen and she may have waited for him at inns like the Halfway House when he went “on the pad” advised by his Carriers or Cruisers – the informants. They would all have hoped for a Catching Harvest – a time when the roads were thronged with travellers going to some event or another. Fairs, boxing matches and races gave particularly good pickings.

Just remember, when you are held up by a highwayman – mention the Music. That’s the universal password that will see you safe.

I’ll leave you with a watercolour portrait that I own. I have no idea of date, artist or subject, but he haunts me. I just have the feeling that he’s a highwayman, no longer in his prime. Should he mount up and take to the High Toby tonight? Or would that be one time too many…

 

 

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Filed under Crime, Gentlemen, Street life, Transport and travel, Travel

Blowing a Cloud

People have been smoking tobacco in Britain since the late 16th century and for most of that time they were using clay pipes to do it. Clay tobacco pipes are a huge study in themselves with learned societies devoted to tracing their manufacturers and the evolution of the various types, but in their day they were virtually as disposable as a cigarette end. I dig them up in my garden occasionally – my house is built on an old farmyard site  – and here are two. The larger, with a shamrock stamped on it is Victorian, the smaller from a time when tobacco was more expensive and bowls were smaller, is 18th century.

The Victorian bowl has a maker’s stamp on it from Stoke on Trent, one of the major centres for pipe manufacture, although they were made anywhere there was a pottery industry. There are still some clay pipe makers around today producing them for film and TV productions and for clubs, but the industrial scale manufacture ended as late as the 1950s.

You can still visit a clay pipe factory preserved as it was the day the workers put down their tools for the last time in 1957. The Broseley Pipeworks in Shropshire is now one of the Ironbridge Gorge museums and pipe making began on the site in the 17th century. The factory is housed in converted cottages which adds even more to the atmosphere. In the view of the yard you can see the pile of clay in the shed at the back, waiting to be transformed into pipes by a method that was unchanging for hundreds of years. On the other side of the yard was the oven where the pipes, stacked into containers called saggars (then was actually an occupation of ‘saggar-maker’s bottom knocker’, but that’s for another day…), were fired.

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the dusty space are moulds for the long-stemmed ‘churchwarden’ pipes, like those the gentlemen at the top of the post are smoking. The long stem gave a cooler smoke, but they were easily broken. Prints depicting working people often show them smoking pipes with only a stub of a stem so they could safely keep them pipe in their mouths while they worked. One mould, opened out, is on the front bench. The device on the rear bench with the long handle is the press for hollowing out the bowl of the pipe.

By the 19th century a huge range of pipes with novelty bowls were produced, from erotic (ladies’s legs) to political. The Pipeworks contains showcases of hundreds of different models. The popularity and availability of cigarettes finally killed off the clay pipe but for hundreds of years tens of thousands were turned out. In an inn a customer could order a pipe along with his ale and lead tobacco boxes were provided on the tables for communal smoking. The lead kept the tobacco moist and they contained a weight-plate inside to press it down. They are scarce now – many got knocked off pub tables and the soft lead was damaged on stone floors – but I own a dozen or so. This example, complete with its internal plate and a wonderful lid covered in grape vines, shows crossed churchwarden pipes on its side.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Buildings, Domestic life, Entertainment, Street life

To Go On the Buz Gloak or We’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two

The Sami people of Arctic Scandinavia (shown here in a print of c1800) have one thousand words for their reindeer and more than one hundred and eighty for snow and ice, figures that emphasize how important those things are in their lives.

When I was researching for Regency Slang Revealed I found twenty seven words or phrases relating to the crime of pickpocking which suggests that while it might not have filled the thoughts of people in 1800 to quite the same extent, it was a significant crime and one that was encountered on a regular basis.

To go pick-pocketing, or to practice the Figging Law (the art of picking pockets) was to go on the Buz Gloak, to File the Cly or to Dive, Draw, Foist or Shake. There were categories of pickpocket. A Knuckles was a superior practitioner and a Rum Diver was particularly dexterous while a Fork used his middle and forefingers  to delve into pockets. A pick pocket who was constantly at work was said to keep his Fives A-Going.

Pickpockets generally were Buzmen, Cly Fakers, Divers, Dummee Hunters, Files or Foists. Very often they worked in groups – Bulk and File – or had associates who would run off with the stolen goods the moment they were taken – the Adam Tylers. A female pickpocket might well wear a Round-about, a large circular pocket worn under her skirts in which to stash her ill-gotten gains.

Prostitutes often acted as decoys for pickpockets and a man whose mind was anywhere but on the contents of his pockets might well find them empty after an encounter in a back alleyway. But even the most virtuous were in danger – Autem Divers operated in churches, picking the pockets of worshippers whose concentration was on higher things. An Anabaptist, however, was not a follower of that religious sect but a pick pocket who had been caught and suffered summary punishment with a ducking in the nearest pond or under the pump. In a detail from an Alken print of a race meeting (at the head of this post) the man in a blue coat is picking the pocket of another who is totally distracted by a game of dice.

Stealing handkerchiefs (Clouts or Wipers) was a particular specialty. Unlike the paper tissues of today, costing virtually nothing and instantly discarded, a handkerchief in the Georgian period was a large piece of fabric, often good linen (a Kent), fine cotton lawn (a Lawn) or silk (a Sleek Wipe, India Wipe or Fogle), and worth money. Stealing them was to go on the Clouting Lay and a Fogle, Napkin Hunter or Wipe Drawer was the specialist in this form of crime.

Gentlemen often kept their handkerchiefs in a pocket in the tails of their coats which preserved the line of the body of the coat but made the handkerchief vulnerable. Sometimes they were deliberately displayed coming out of the back pocket to perhaps show off a fine Belcher (spotted silk handkerchief) – and that was asking for trouble. The two lads in the print by Alken seem to be stealing just such a handkerchief, one distracting the mark by begging, the other taking the handkerchief.

In no time at all a stolen handkerchief would be in the hands of of a Ferret (pawnbroker) or for sale in a Bow-Wow, a secondhand clothes shop.

Theft of an article worth more than one shilling was a crime punishable by death until 1823, although juries frequently assessed stolen goods at under that value in order to save the accused from the gallows. Stealing handkerchiefs was probably a profitable form of larceny that kept the Buzmen just on the right side of that line, although they could well face transportation and/or a vicious flogging. One pickpocket who did not do too badly, despite being caught, was George Barrington, known as ‘the pickpocket of gentleman and the gentleman of pickpockets.’  He was transported to Botany Bay  in 1791. By 1796 he was the Superintendent of Convicts, and later, High Constable.

The final print, of the famous street entertainer Black Billy performing in front of the statue of Charles I, shows another handkerchief being stolen on the extreme right of the picture. The pickpocket is a most respectable-looking youth – it seems you couldn’t trust anyone!

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May Day

May DayHappy May Day! This is such a lovely image that I am reposting a 2015 blog. Above is one of Cruickshank’s great monthly images of London streets showing a May Day procession, led by a clown and followed by a couple – he is carrying a sword, she appears to have a large wooden spoon. Behind them comes an extraordinary character, disguised as a pile of greenery shaped into a crown at the top, and followed by a motley crowd led by a drummer and fife player. Suitably they are passing the shop of Budd, Florist.

To try and make some sense of the picture I turned to Brand’s “Observations on Popular Antiquities…Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions.” (1813) He records that, “It was anciently the custom for all ranks of people to go out a Maying early on the first of May…both sexes were wont to rise a little after midnight on the morning of that day, and walk to some neighbouring wood, accompanied with musick (sic) and the blowing of horns, where they broke down branches from trees and adorned them with nosegays and crowns of flowers. This done, they returned home with the booty, about the time of sunrise, and made their doors and windows triumph in the flowery spoil.”

He records, “In the Morning Post, Monday, May 2nd, 1791, it was mentioned, ‘that yesterday, being the first of May, according to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful.’ I remember too, that in walking that same morning between Hounslow and Brentford, I was met by two distinct parties of girls with garlands of flowers, who begged money of me, saying, ‘Pray, Sir, remember the Garland.'”

The strange foliage figure in the print is presumably a walking May Day garland of branches and greenery and perhaps the procession is on its way to dance around a Maypole. He quotes a Mr Strutt: “The Mayings are in some sort yet kept up by the milk-maids at London, who go about the streets with their garlands and musick, dancing; but this tracing is a very imperfect shadow of the original sports; for May-poles were set up in the streets, with various martial shows, morris-dancing and other devices, with which, and revelling, and good cheer, the day was passed away.”

I wonder whether the wooden spoon the young lady is holding is some kind of dairy implement – a cream skimmer, perhaps – symbolic of the milk maids? The small boy just behind her may be a chimney sweep’s boy, holding his brush and dust pan. Brand records that, “The young chimney-sweepers, some of whom are fantastically dressed in girls’ clothes, with a great profusion of brick dust by way of paint, gilt paper etc, making a noise with their shovels and brushes, are now the most striking objects in the celebration of May Day in the streets of London.” This lad’s hat certainly seems to be decorated.

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A Slightly Soggy Smile

I bought a few pages from a 19th century scrap book which included this delightful cartoon about the state of London streets. It isn’t dated, but from the men’s clothes I would guess 1820s. St Paul’s can just be seen in the background.

The standing man, who seems to be perched on wooden pattens is saying, “Why friend, you are over shoe tops. Catch hold of my stick and I’ll help you out.”

The other, who it can just be seen is holding reins in one hand, replies, “I thank you, Sir, but I’ve a Horse under me that’s used to bad roads.”

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A Fishy Business – Billingsgate Market

The New Family Cookery or Town and Country Housekeepers’ Guide by Duncan MacDonald (1812) begins its General Directions for Marketing with fish and with Billingsgate Market:

The comment in the penultimate paragraph is ironic, considering Billingsgate’s colourful reputation! When I was researching for my book Regency Slang Revealed I discovered that to talk Billingsgate meant to use particularly coarse and foul language.

Billingsgate Market was sited at the foot of Lower Thames Street from at least the 10th century until it was moved to the new market site on the Isle of Dogs in 1982. The first set of toll regulations covering it dates from 1016 and by the time of Elizabeth I it was dealing in corn, malt, salt and vegetables, although fish was always the main reason for its existence at the highest point where fish could be unloaded straight from the boats before London Bridge. It can be seen in Horwood’s map of London (c1800) below with the deep indentation of the dock taking a bite out of the waterfront and London Bridge on the left. This dock vanished with the Victorian rebuilding of the market in 1850. That building proved inadequate and was replaced with the present handsome structure by Sir Horace Jones, opened in 1877. It was refurbished after the closure and is now used for various commercial purposes. During the 1988 work extensive remains of the late 12th century/early 13th century waterfront were revealed.

The engraving from a print of 1820 shows the view of the dock from the river. At this date there was no covered market building, simply stalls and tables set out around the dock. In the days before a ready supply of ice dealers would come into Billingsgate from places within about twenty five miles – an outer ring that included Windsor, St Albans and Romford – and fish was sold in lots by the Dutch auction method where the price falls until a buyer is found. Many of the fish were caught in the Thames and in 1828 a Parliamentary Committee took evidence that in 1798 there were 400 fishermen, each owning a boat and employing one boy, who made a good living between Deptford and London catching roach, plaice, smelts, flounders, shad, eels, dudgeon, dace and dabs. One witness stated that in 1810 3,000 Thames salmon were landed in the season. By the time of the Commission,eighteen years later, the fishery had been destroyed by the massive pollution of the river from water closets and  the waste from gas works and factories that went straight into the river.

It was the fishwives of Billingsgate who became its most notorious feature. They were tough women, as they needed to be to thrive in such a hard, competitive business, and they did not shrink from either physical violence or colourful language. In Bailey’s English Dictionary (1736) a “Billingsgate” is defined as “a scolding, impudent slut.” Addison referred to the “debate” that arose among “the ladies of the British fishery” and Ned Ward describes them scolding and chattering among their heaps of fish, “ready enough to knock down the auctioneer who did not knock down a lot to them.”

The women of Billingsgate were an inevitable attraction to young bucks and gentlemen slumming, as the two prints below show. The top one is a drawing by Henry Alken for the Tom and Jerry series – “Billingsgate: Tom and Bob taking a Survey after a Night’s Spree.”  Below that is “A Frolic: High Life or a Visit to Billingsgate” from The London Spy.

Here two sporting gentlemen stand out in the crowd of working people as they watch a fight that has broken out between two bare-breasted fishwives. Another has just been knocked to the ground. Amongst the details note the woman sitting on a basket smoking a clay pipe, another (far left) taking a swig from a bottle and the porter’s hat on the man in the centre foreground with its long ‘skirt’ to protect the neck.

This print below is not dated, but as there is the funnel of a steam boat in the background amongst the masts it is probably 1820s.

Here a determined-looking lady in a riding habit, her veil thrown back and her whip under her arm, is negotiating the sale of a large fish head. Behind her is a smartly-dressed woman, perhaps a merchant’s wife, and an elderly gentleman in spectacles is talking to another fish seller on the far right. There are two men in livery, perhaps accompanying the lady in the riding habit. The man standing behind the seated fishwife is a sailor, judging by his tarred pigtail, and the porter walking towards us is wearing one of the black hats whose ‘tail’ can just be glimpsed over his shoulders. It is all fairly orderly and respectable, despite the crowd (and the smell, no doubt) but a hint to the other activities in the area may be the couple in the window!

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Buildings, Food & drink, Rivers, Shopping, Street life, Women, working life

The Cock and Pie Public House – “A Specimen of Ancient Architecture.”

cock-pie-drury-lane

This print “View of the Cock & Pie Public House in Drury Lane” was published in 1807 as the frontispiece to volume 52 of The European Magazine. I was amused by the heading “Specimen of ancient architecture” making it sound as though the Druids, at least, were responsible for it! It isn’t easy to work out just how old it is – certainly 17th century, I imagine. It is said that it was where Nell Gwynne had her lodgings and where Samuel Pepys once saw her standing at the door.

I have been trying to place it along Drury Lane but with no success. It is certainly on the western side because one of the churches in the Strand to the south can be clearly seen at the end. The British Museum notes on their copy of the print that this is St Clement Dane, but I’m not convinced. Looking at maps of the time it seems more likely to be St Mary-le-Strand which stood opposite the end of Drury Lane.

The detail is fascinating. This was not a very respectable area, close to Covent Garden and the theatres (Nell Gwynne again!), and the gentleman walking away from us with a bundle on his shoulder is recoiling in surprise (disgust?) as the on the other side of the street woman toasts him with a wine glass. She is slumped drunkenly against a shop front, a basket of plucked chickens at her feet. Perhaps it was gin in that glass. The odd shape hanging in front of the inn is a bush, or bundle of greenery, the sign for home-brewed liquor being available that stretches back to Roman times. “ELLIOT & Co’s ENTIRE” is painted across the front and translating this took me into the history and mythology of ale, beer and porter making.

According to the Brewery History website which explains all this in exhaustive detail, “Entire, or “intire”, was an expression used by brewers to indicate a beer where the first, second and third mashes had been mixed and fermented together to make one grade of beer, rather than brewed separately to produce three different-strength beers…” This is another name for porter, as opposed to stout, a strong beer made from the first mash, which was the strongest. (If you want to be further confused with the different terms for beer and ale, have a look at my Regency Slang Revealed where I identified over thirty terms for ale and beers.)

The inn sign itself shows a cockerel on the ground and a magpie perched on a branch, a literal depiction of the name. Victorian writers maintain that this is a corruption of “Peacock in Pie” referring to the great banquet dish. Drury Lane was also a cock-fighting area and the cock may reflect that. (An area to the north-west of Drury Lane where St Martin’s Lane  met Long Acre and which became the notorious slum of Seven Dials, is shown on William Morgan’s map of 1682 as “Cock and Pye Fields” – it may have the same derivation.)

cock-pie-1840-2

By the time  Old and New London (Edward Walford 1874) was published the building was still standing, although by then it had become “Stockley’s Cheap Bookshop”. The print of 1840 from that book, shows it when it was still a tavern, and indicates how buildings were constantly being adapted and changed. The middle upstairs window has been closed off and the sign is now on that bit of wall, the bush is no longer being displayed and the sheltering overhang over the ground floor front has been continued around the side. It is now “Gooding & Co’s Entire Celebrated Stout and XXX [ie strong] Ales” that are advertised for sale and the buildings on either side have also changed. A barber’s striped pole can be clearly seen and there is street lighting on the opposite building.

Finally here is a 19th century photograph of the poor Cock & Pie, now showing part of it as Stockley’s Bookshop. Does anyone know when Drury Lane was cleared and these old buildings swept away?

cock-pie-late-19thc

 

 

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