From The Betsey To The Black Friar

A more-than-slightly idealised view of the mouth of the Fleet as it joined the Thames; painting after Scott, 1750 (detail).

Beneath the unlovely Farringdon Road runs the greatest of all the lost rivers of London, the Fleet. The Fleet rises from its headwaters in Hampstead, runs through Kentish Town, Camden Town, King’s Cross and beneath this churning highway before debouching into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Just north of the junction with Clerkenwell Road is the Betsey Trotwood, formerly The Butcher’s Arms, a charming Victorian pub which I will take today as the northern marker for the Fleet Valley. (I have already written about the Fleet in relation to Hockley Hole, a depression a few yards west of the Betsey, which marks the final turn in the river’s course downstream; and have also referenced the open sewer that it became in connection with various nasty episodes in Georgian times. See the list of links below.) I suggest you order a stiff one at the Betsey before proceeding downhill.

Once, a very long time ago, the Fleet was navigable from the Thames to Kentish Town, and there were gardens along the Fleet Valley; but even in the medieval period they were building prisons in the vicinity, which lent a distinctly penitential character to an increasingly forbidding area. Furthermore, the meat industry centred on Smithfield market threw all its detritus into the Fleet so the river became a great open sewer, carrying human, animal and vegetable waste towards the Thames. The surrounding slums and general ghastliness became a grim London joke. Ben Jonson’s poem On the Famous Voyage describes the Fleet as more hellish than all the rivers of Hades, and mordantly observes the smells, filth and offal assailing two boatmen as they row through the shit-caked creek. Alexander Pope’s Dunciad contains the lines:

“To where Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams,
Rolls its large tribute of dead dogs to Thames.”

The Fleet Prison was actually in the river itself, being constructed on one of the two islands in the middle of its lower reaches. This jail was already in operation by the 12th century and by the 18th century the Fleet was a debtors’ prison – and like all penitential institutions of the day, it charged inmates for their imprisonment: food, water, and the ‘services’ of warders and turnkeys were all billed at exorbitant prices. Those who could afford to took lodgings outside prison walls, in surrounding streets known as the ‘Liberty of the Fleet’ (but they had to compensate the warder for loss of income). Thus the surrounding area became a sort of extension of the prison itself.

Fleet Ditch blows itself up, 1862.

Bit by bit, the Fleet was forced underground. In 1732 the section between Holborn Bridge and Fleet St. was covered and a market was constructed on top of it, just north of where Ludgate Circus is now. But it took the Victorians to properly tame it. The engineering of the river chimed with the clearing of slums, the creation of new roads and the vaulted arches of Holborn Viaduct, along with the development of the railways. But even the Victorians had a hard time burying the Fleet: it exploded once in the 1840s, the product of a build-up of noxious gas, and burst its culvert in 1862, when it broke through railway diggings and spewed sewage into homes. It also washed corpses from St Peter’s churchyard into the streets. This is from a letter written to Charles Darwin in 1860 by one John Rodwell, who had been intrigued by Darwin’s recently published Origin of Species:

‘ … about 1843 when I was Incumbent of S. Peter’s Saffron Hill, a large portion of the old Fleet Sewer, said never to have been before opened since the days of Queen Elizabeth, was exposed to view. I then saw several enormous rats which had been taken thence by the workmen, and upon examination they all proved to be blind and almost entirely devoid of hair, and so ferocious were they that the workmen assured me they were deterred from entering the old parts of the sewer as the rats would unquestionably fly at them. The rats which I saw were taken out at Holborn Bridge, and as there are three arches still remaining there of an old roman Bridge some sixteen or more feet below the present surface, it is possible that those rats may have been breeding there for ages, and if like the blind cave animals you mention in chapter 5 of the Origin of Species —their progenitors lost the power of sight a 1000 years since, and lost as they would, I suppose, at the same time any great ability for migration, this would be a curious illustration of a part of your theory.

(It seems likely that the Roman bridge mentioned was, in fact, a 17th century one designed by Christopher Wren. After the Great Fire Wren tried to rehabilitate the Fleet by trying to refashion it in the style of a Venetian canal. Worth a go, I suppose.)

The 1983 Calvi inquest jury inspecting the spot beneath Blackfriars Bridge where the banker’s body was found.

The lower reaches of the Fleet are always yielding up weird artifacts, like the dismembered 11th century skeletons that were found near the Thames outlet twenty-something years ago (alongside three seats from a medieval latrine), as well as more contemporary unpleasantness. In the morning of 18 June 1982 the body of Roberto Calvi, a prominent Italian banker, was discovered hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge. There were bricks in his clothes, along with about $15,000 of cash in several currencies. Calvi was dubbed ‘God’s banker’ because of his ties to the Vatican, and the church’s investments in Banco Ambrosiano, the bank of which he had been chairman. But he’d been sacked following allegations of malpractice, and his secretary had already killed himself by jumping out of a window. Calvi belonged to a Masonic lodge known as the ‘frati neri’ or ‘black friars’, which has led some to assume that it was no coincidence that his body was discovered under Blackfriars Bridge. His body was found a week after he he’d left Italy on a false passport. After two inquests in British courts, the cause of his death was left open. A court in New York later agreed with his family’s assertions that he had been murdered. An informer later claimed that Calvi’s death was a professional hit in retaliation for the demise of Banco Ambrosiano, as the Mafia had taken a shower on the bank’s collapse. (Perhaps also worth mentioning that a small-time drug dealer that later occupied the same London flat as Calvi – up river, in Chelsea – was later found dead in not-dissimilar circumstances.) As late as 2007, trials of suspects were held in Rome but no convictions were secured. So to mark the grisly fate of Calvi, and indeed anyone else who perished in or around Fleet Ditch, I suggest going for a quick one at The Black Friar, a miraculous Arts and Crafts pub tottering anomalously at the bottom of Farringdon Rd., its glittering décor and façade a reminder that it wasn’t only Christopher Wren who tried to bring civilization to Fleet Valley.

London’s own little Flatiron Building … The Black Friar, built in the 1870s.

Whilst you are enjoying your drink, it’s perhaps worth considering the impact that 21st century climate is having on the brooding Fleet. Recent flooding in London has shown the extent to which the city’s infrastructure is being stretched by the monsoon-type downpours we are having to adjust to. The Fleet is biding its time, waiting for its chance. I’ll leave you with the last lines of A Description of a City Shower by Jonathan Swift:

Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

See also:
Jonathan Wild’s House,Chick Lane
Fights and Festivities at Hockley Hole
The First Gin Palace
Some Fleet Street Killers
One More Before Doomsday

How Was It For You?

It is human nature to minimise the peril that seems passed. The town, so recently roused out of despair, indulged an exaggerated confidence. From The Great Plague In London In 1665 by W.G. Bell, 1924.

It feels strange to be constantly living through history, one preposterous event following another in quick succession. A bit like being Chris Morris’s reporter in On The Hour, ‘… standing next to the hole out of which the events are emerging.’ Yesterday was something called ‘Freedom Day’ which, in true British fashion, turned out to be something of a fiasco: a queasy admixture of nervous hedonism, ongoing grievance and hubris. We were, thankfully, spared Boris Johnson’s planned ‘Victory Day’ speech as he was forced into reluctant self-isolation after Sajid Javid’s Covid diagnosis. A friend of mine did manage to celebrate yesterday, by having an eight-hour lunch at Soho House. This demonstrates admirable spirit and might have been something I would have done if I wasn’t broke. I did do a bit of indoor drinking but that wasn’t a celebration, merely business as usual. Only the ferocious heat seemed different. Anyway, what are we supposed to be drinking to? Celebrating ‘freedom’ from a contagious virus that is not fully understood is so idiotic that one winces and wonder what it says about the state of the nation. I don’t think anyone ever waved a flag to declare that the Spanish Flu was now over and we could all have a party. Perhaps the end of the Black Death was marked with the odd roast swan or two, easier to poach in the de-populated countryside than before. In any case the Brexit mess is the very definition of unfinished business, so Johnson’s ‘Churchillian’ speech would have gone down as yet another national embarrassment. (To paraphrase the late Artist Formerly Known As Prince, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1938 …’)

Recent parallels being of limited use (after all, you can’t catch the Blitz) I consulted W.G. Bell’s account of the Great Plague of London in search of historical resonance for the present moment. (I’ve written about The Plague before, at the start of the Great Covid.) Bell marks the official end of the Plague with the King’s return to London. The Plague had started in the spring and Charles II and his court abandoned London in July. Administration of the city was left to George Monck, first Duke of Albemarle, a tough but efficient soldier who had played a vital role in Charles’s restoration. The contagion raged through the hot summer months but the infection was checked by a cold winter and Charles made his royal return to Whitehall Palace on 1st February. But whilst the Plague might have receded from the commercial and fashionable areas of town it still lurked in less salubrious corners. The first four months of 1666 saw 781 Plague deaths reported in the Bills of Mortality and the true number was certainly higher than that. There was alarm in Whitehall Palace in April when the king’s ‘closet keeper’, Tom Chiffinch, died suddenly of the ‘pestilence’, less than twenty-four hours after he was reported to be cheerfully playing backgammon (but at least he got to be buried in Westminster Abbey). There were fears of the Plague returning at full strength but it petered out in the capital – although towns like Deal, Colchester, Norwich and Cambridge suffered terrible outbreaks in 1666. (And then there is the heroic story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire.) The official total of Plague victims was 68,596. Bell extrapolates that if allowance is made for error, lack of reporting and concealment, the true number is in the vicinity of 110,000; he goes on to calculate that, beyond the wealthy who had fled the city, about one in three of London’s population died from the disease.

So where does this get us, exactly? Dominic Cummings is all over the news today, as he is giving his first broadcast interview to Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC. It appears that one of his claims is that Boris Johnson resisted a second national coronavirus lockdown because he believed those dying were ‘essentially all over 80‘. Johnson is also reported as denying that the NHS was overwhelmed. Cummings is backing up his claims with WhatsApp messages purporting to be from Johnson, who he accuses of ‘putting his own political interests ahead of people’s lives‘. Cummings is, of course, the slipperiest of slippery operators, who spent a significant portion of last summer smirking his way past accusations that he had himself had breached lockdown for trivial reasons (at a time when families were prevented from seeing each other by Covid restrictions, when family members were unable to say goodbye to mortally sick relatives , etc. etc.) And he was all over Brexit, let’s not forget that. But he was at the centre of government and, if he is dishing the goods on his former boss now, it seems congruent with the culture at the top. Can someone have social immunity from a disease? In his history of the Plague, W.G. Bell pointedly notes that: ‘No single gap was made by the Plague in the ranks of statesmen; no member of Lords or Commons is returned dead by Plague. […] I have not found that a magistrate succumbed to the Plague. The Court and the professional classes, the big financiers […] who assisted King Charles in his often desperate need for money, the wealthier London merchants and tradesmen – all returned to London to take up the broken thread of their affairs. Yet there were one hundred thousand dead. To these others the Plague had been an inconvenience, a monetary loss, no more. […] It had been ‘the poore’s Plague.”

It would be tempting to compare Johnson to Charles II – the foppishness, the entitlement, the sleaze, the girls, etc. – but at least Charles knew his limitations and was smart enough to delegate Plague command to the very capable Albemarle. And, of course, Charles was a monarch rather than a politician, someone who was lumbered with his dynastic legacy and whose obligations were pre-destined. (I’m not going to get into an argument about the Restoration now, we can do that another time.) He wasn’t a career politician or an opportunistic chancer whose default setting is to treat national leadership as a branch of the entertainment business. Cummings also claims that Johnson had to be stopped from meeting with the Queen early in the pandemic, when official advice was to avoid unnecessary contact, especially with the elderly, amidst signs that Covid-19 was already spreading in Downing Street. This is where we enter a level of reality that is beyond satire – although one could see this scenario work in the format of a situation comedy. This is political history as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, with Dominic Cummings as Sid James, Sajid Javid as Bill Kerr, and Johnson, of course, as ‘the lad himself’. In this episode the Queen plays herself, although we only hear her talking to her corgis. Waiting outside, in a Buckingham Palace ante-room, Hancock tousles his hair to achieve a look of endearing boyishness as Sid tries to persuade him that passing on a deadly virus to HMQ might be a bad look with the electorate. Then his phone rings: it’s Bill. ‘Tub? I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news …’

(Priti Patel as Hattie Jacques? Discuss.)

Dominic Cummings’s interview with Laura Keunssberg is on BBC2 at 7pm tonight.

See also:

Dry Quarantini

A Man Doesn’t Walk Into A Bar

Entitlement-on-Thames

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, sporting facial hair that would pass muster in Hoxton and Dalston today.

At the bottom of Villiers Street, just next to Gordon’s Wine Bar, is a set of steps leading down to Watergate Walk, a pathway that cuts through to the Adelphi and doubles as a sort of pub garden for Gordon’s. If, lockdown notwithstanding, you fancy taking your glass of vintage Madeira outside you will find yourself staring at a marooned fragment of the lost riverside landscape that once characterized this area. This is York Watergate, a richly rusticated Renaissance structure, a stately gateway to nowhere. It was built in the 1620s as a private dock for York House, a mega-luxe townhouse that once stood on this spot: a relic of an era when the Strand was a district of palaces and a private water frontage a prerequisite for every Jacobean plutocrat (the 17th century equivalent of your own helicopter pad).

The Watergate was added to York House by George Villiers, the flamboyant, corrupt and generally ghastly 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had taken possession of the mansion after engineering the political demise of its previous owner, philosopher Francis Bacon, which seems to have been fairly characteristic behaviour on the Duke’s part. Buckingham pulled down Bacon’s beloved home (which had existed in various guises for several hundred years) and rebuilt York House in a manner more fitting to his own extrovert sensibility, furnishing it with luxuries and fine art. Despite his abrasive and thrusting unpleasantness, Buckingham was an inescapable personality in the courts of James 1st and Charles 1st, his considerable influence attributed to King James’s fondness for his profile. Whether or not the relationship between King and courtier was a full-blown affair is a matter of scholarly debate, but here’s James writing to Buckingham:

The Lord of Heaven send you a sweet and blithe wakening, all kind of comfort in your sanctified bed, and bless the fruits thereof that I may have sweet bedchamber boys to play me with, and this is my daily prayer, sweet heart.

Buckingham was a conspicuously terrible diplomat – the Spanish ambassador to London called for his execution following a mission to Madrid – a compulsive intriguer and an unsuccessful military leader, none of which hindered his political advancement. Buckingham continued his career under Charles 1st and York Watergate is festooned with carved anchors to advertise his status as an admiral, despite the fact that he oversaw one of the worst naval disasters of the era: a botched 1627 raid against the French at La Rochelle in which he lost 4,000 out of his 7,000 men. Drenched, as we would now say, in Teflon, Buckingham’s unstoppable progress was finally ended the following year, when a disgruntled soldier called Felton stabbed him to death in a Portsmouth pub. Buckingham’s unpopularity was such that his assassination was widely celebrated and Felton was acclaimed as a folk hero. During the Commonwealth York House belonged to Cromwell’s associate Thomas Fairfax, a period that saw the mansion stripped of its pictures, sold off because they offended Puritan sensibilities. After the Restoration York House was occupied by another Buckingham, the 2nd Duke and another George, who by means of smart dynastic gamesmanship happened to be married to Fairfax’s daughter (and sole heir).

George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, by Peter Lely. (National Portrait Gallery.)

George Jnr. proved to be no less reckless than his father; in fact, he was a sort of cartoon image of the Restoration rake: vastly rich and vastly profiligate, lecherous and bisexual, a lethal duellist and a minor poet of skill. The 2nd Duke ingratiated himself with the restored king and pursued a life of pristinely aggressive hedonism. One episode concerned Buckingham’s mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who he had installed at another, up-river, Thames-side mansion. None of this played well with the Countess’s husband the Earl of Shrewsbury, who naively objected to the appropriation of his wife. Buckingham challenged the Shrewsbury to a duel, placing Shrewsbury at a considerable disadvantage, since the Duke’s skill with the epee was very widely admired. The duel took place in Barnes, perhaps the only exciting thing that has ever happened in Barnes, and – predictably – resulted in the deaths of Shrewsbury and another of his party, skewered on the end of Buckingham’s sword. Pepys reports on all this, drily noting that the countess is: ‘a whore to the Duke of Buckingham’ and that the Duke himself ‘is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore’. (The Duchess of Shrewsbury had form. In 1662 two of her previous lovers fought a duel over her, leaving one seriously wounded and his ‘second’ stone dead.)

But although Buckingham was one of the richest shits in England he was permanently short of cash, and in 1672 he flogged York House to a developer for £30,000, who promptly pulled it down and built streets upon the site. One typically egocentric condition that Buckingham insisted on in the Deed of Sale was the provision that his name and full title should be commemorated in the new development: hence George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street and – wait for it – Of Alley. (In a nice turn of history, Pepys ended up living in one of the houses on the site, 12 Buckingham St.; but don’t go looking for Of Alley, it has been re-christened York Place.) After that, Buckingham, continued to lose money, fell out with Charles II, spent a spell as a prisoner in the Tower, and died, without heir and in reduced circumstances, in 1687. Anyway, as you sip your hypothetical glass of Madeira in that hypothetical future when you are allowed to visit Gordon’s pub garden, indeed any pub garden, you can stare at the sole survivor of York House and wonder which of London’s contemporary landmarks is due a similar fate.

York Watergate today. Photo: Valentine Hamms.

As fate would have it, the 2nd Duke’s much re-built country seat, Cliveden (in Buckinghamshire, naturally), became the pivotal venue for The Profumo Affair, another salacious collision of power and socially transgressive sexual relations; but that’s fun for another time.

See also: The Poor Wee Drinkur.