Category Archives: Street life

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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In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb (or vice versa?)

march

Cruikshank’s scene of chaos on the London streets in March is a reminder of just how variable March weather can be. Here’s another equally windy scene from my collection. The little watercolour sketch is undated and unsigned, but looks about 1820s to me.

windy-weather

So – keep tight hold of your umbrella – or remember that Beau Brummel considered that no gentleman would be seen with one and take a sedan chair instead.

 

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A Fleet Street Church

fleet-st-st-dunstans

The scene above (from Ackermann’s Repository ) 1812 shows the view west along Fleet Street towards Temple Bar, the point where the City of London becomes Westminster. The Regency Londoner  would have trouble recognizing it today – always assuming they could stand in the same spot without being mown down by the traffic. Temple Bar, after many adventures is now re-erected next to St Paul’s Cathedral and the church whose west end faces us – St Dunstan’s in the West – was demolished and rebuilt in 1830 when Fleet Street was widened by nine metres.

I found a mid-eighteenth century print of St Dunstan’s in a folder I bought at auction a few weeks ago and that image prompted me to look at the one above again. I have to confess an interest in St Dunstan’s – two of my ancestors were in London in 1643, died of the plague and were buried there.

st-dunstans

I love the street scenes these prints show, especially the shops. In the 18th century one you can clearly see the way shops have been built right around the walls of the church itself as was common at the time. Each has its hanging sign and the shop on the far left must be a clockmaker’s. By the time of the 1812 print the shops along the side have been swept away, but the ones of the east end remain.

St Dunstan’s was built in the 12th century, grew and was changed and even survived the Great Fire of 1666 which reached almost to its walls. Samuel Pepys, whose groping is one of his most unattractive features, tried it on with a servant girl while listening to a sermon in St Dunstan’s. She took out a packet of pins in a threatening manner and he took the hint!

Inside there are monuments rescued from the old church and the ring of bells is the original. The only survival of the old church on the outside is the clock projecting from a temple containing the figures of two men with clubs who used to hit a bell every fifteen minutes. It was erected in 1671 by the parishioners as a thank-offering for the escape from the Fire. The clock and the figures are set back a little now, so it is difficult to see them unless you are square in front of them, but they show up well on Streetview. The clock which according to the London Encyclopedia, was the first in London to have minutes marked and to be double sided, was a tourist attraction mentioned by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge and Sir Walter Scott in The Fortunes of Nigel.

When the church was demolished it was removed to the Marquess of Hertford’s Regent Park villa, but it was returned in 1935, thanks to Lord Rothermere the newspaper proprietor who brought it back to the heart of London’s newspaper world, Fleet Street.

 

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The Statue of Charles I – a London landmark Jane Austen would have known

chas-i-in-brass

Standing on the southern edge of Trafalgar Square, facing down Whitehall, and in the midst of a permanent traffic jam, stands the bronze statue of Charles I, looking down towards the place of his execution as he has done since 1675. The surroundings have changed beyond recognition, but every Georgian Londoner and visitor would have been familiar with the statue which appears in numerous prints.

The statue was created by Hubert le Suer in 1633, but it was not erected immediately and by the time of the Civil War it had become a target for the Parliamentarians. It was sold to John Rivett, a brazier, in 1649 on the strict instructions that it was to be melted down. Rivett, obviously both a shrewd political forecaster and a businessman, buried it in his garden and made a great deal of money from small souvenirs allegedly made from the bronze. Charles II acquired it on his restoration and it was erected, more or less on the site of the medieval Charing Cross, in 1675. It can be seen on the map, just below the R of Cross. Behind it is the King’s Mews and the Golden Cross Inn, now occupied by Trafalgar Square. The bulk of Northumberland House is to the east, below the final S of Cross.

chas-i-map

The pedestal is said to have been designed by Wren and carved by Grinling Gibbons.

This print of 1811 from Ackermann’s Repository, shows the view east past Northumberland House and down the Strand.

chas-i-char-x

The statue was obviously a familiar landmark that enabled artists to locate their images. The 1823 print of ‘The notorious Black Billy “At Home” to a London Street Party’ (drawn by Samuel Alken, published by Thos. Kelly) shows it surrounded by lively street life. Despite being shown as white, “Black Billy” Waters (c. 1778–1823) was black and is said to have been a slave who escaped by joining the British navy and who lost a leg in a fall from the rigging. Whatever the truth, he was a popular street entertainer with his characteristic feathered hat and violin.

chas-i-black-billy

By the middle of the 19th century street life was rather more decorous and this undated Victorian engraving shows a pristine Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery (with columns recycled from Carlton House).

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Today the traffic around the statue is unrelenting, and so often jammed solid, that bus and taxi passengers have ample opportunity to study Charles in all his melancholy glory!

chas-i-pic-a

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