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

Infamy In Clerkenwell

The Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, in 1971. (Photo via British History Online.)

‘Excuse me, but are you Bill Oddie?’

It is a freezing night in February 2020. It is my 50-something birthday. I am sat outside The Crown pub on Clerkenwell Green with my friends Chris, Mark and Paul. The first pints of the evening have just been assembled on the table and an attractive young woman, obviously pleased to have spotted a celebrity out on the town, has just identified me as the noted birdwatcher and ex-Goodie. ‘Can I get your autograph?’ But I am not Bill Oddie, any more than I am Alfred Molina, Trevor Nunn, or Paul Greengrass, for whom I have, at one time or another, been mistaken. What’s worse, much worse, is that the shock has caused me to knock over Chris’s drink.

I made haste to repair the damage I had done to Chris’s pristine, un-tasted, pint. For all his affability, Chris is nearly seven feet tall; and just as Serengeti park rangers advise visitors never to get between a hippo and a waterhole, it is unwise to separate Chris from his cider. I returned with a fresh Aspall’s and heard Mark, a trade union operative with a rich Barnsley accent that masks the fact that he was born in Croydon, offering some observations on Clerkenwell’s long association with radicalism: exactly the sort of spot that would interest Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin, both of whom lived and worked locally. Lenin published his proto-Bolshevik periodical Iskra out of an office No. 37a Clerkenwell Green between 1902 and 1903. It’s also been suggested, although no-one can prove it, that Lenin took Stalin for drinks at The Crown when the latter visited London a few years later. Stalin certainly went drinking elsewhere in London during that visit, sometimes in the company of his new friend Leon Trotsky, who he had assassinated thirty years later. (37a is now The Marx Memorial Library.)

Clerkenwell Green has the aspect of the classic London village, church and houses nestling around a village green. It seems this is accidental, and that it actually came into being as little more than a bare patch between the Fleet and the two religious houses here: St John’s priory and St Mary’s nunnery, where St. James’s church is now. As the religious institutions declined, new buildings were constructed looking onto the Green rather than away from it, so you get the classic village configuration. There were riots here in the 1760s in support of radical MP John Wilkes, and by the 1780s the Gordon Riots demonstrated in spectacular fashion that slum conditions could fuel social disorder. Living conditions were certainly grim, even for those involved in small trades like watchmaking, which was a local speciality. Somewhere near here was Frying Pan Alley – a lane just twenty feet long by two feet wide. The name may have had something to do with it being the width of a frying pan, or it may be related to one of the bleak occupations resorted to by the desperate: frying-up rancid, cast-off fish at home and hawking them round local pubs as a bar snack. There was a similar trade in out-of-date cabbages, which were cleaned up to be re-sold; but neither pursuit was going to endear you to your neighbours. The rookeries became great material for the mid-Victorian press, as they were able to parlay sensational stories under the banner of outraged decency. When they began to be cleared away, the demise of the more notorious slums was marked by a certain nostalgia for grunge and squalor.

Reform League protesters outside the Middlesex Session House, Clerkenwell Green, 1867.

By the 1860s Clerkenwell Green was a well-established forum for dissent and radicalism. Thousands of people turned out at mass demos in the fields that lay just north of the churchyard. In 1887 William Morris addressed a crowd of 5,000 here, protesting for social justice on a range of issues, including rights for Ireland, reflecting the make-up of the local community. That demo (dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday‘) ended in violence, police moving in on the marchers as they reached Trafalgar Square. Earlier, in 1867, an Irish nationalist named Captain Richard O’Sullivan Burke was being held in the Clerkenwell House of Detention on Clerkenwell Close. Fenians attempted to spring Burke; the first try didn’t work because they used damp gunpowder, so the second time they parked a wheelbarrow of explosive against the prison wall. The blast was heard forty miles away. An entire street of houses was levelled, killing six and injuring forty others. There was a mass jailbreak, naturally, but Burke had already been moved so he was not amongst the escapees. One of the bombers, Michael Barrett, was convicted and became the last man to be publicly executed in Britain, hanged outside the door of Newgate Gaol.

I think I was boring my birthday evening companions with this factoid, as by that point we had relocated to The Horseshoe in Clerkenwell Close, near the site of the old prison. Although the Peabody flats that back on to the pub show the reforming zeal of the late Victorians, Clerkenwell Close now boasts some of the most expensive (and controversial) properties in any EC district. (One wonders what George Gissing, whose resolutely bleak, Zola-esque novel The Nether World is set in 1880s Clerkenwell, would have made of this.) As for The Horseshoe, it remains a pub of fond memory for me, as my much-missed friend John O’Driscoll ran a photo darkroom next door in the 1990s. The pub hasn’t changed since then; well, it hadn’t changed in February 2020 – I’m not sure what Covid has done to it since.

My memory of the evening is a little vague past a certain point … I remember a vivid discussion of why Harvey Keitel was dismissed from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut; and even more vivid speculation as to whether it was the same reason he was fired from Apocalypse Now (I’m not going to peddle scurrilous rumours here, you’ll have to Google them yourself.) Was that the night that Andrew and Alan came along? When we went on to that club near Tower Bridge, and I had to walk all the way from The Minories to Whitehall through pelting hail to get the night bus home? Who knows … but one thing is certain: Bill Oddie turns 80 in July this year.

Deep Play

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 4.

‘There is nothing, however trivial or ridiculous, which is not capable of producing a bet.’ 
Gambling at White’s club, noted by Connoisseur Magazine, May 1754.

We last met Hogarth’s rakish anti-hero in Covent Garden, insensible with drink in a room at the Rose Tavern; that was plate 3. In plate 4 Tom is in the process of being arrested for debt, the action taking place on the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s St., with St James’s Palace in the distance. As ever with Hogarth, the specificity of locale is key: St. James’s is the playground for the super-rich, although even children wager at cards here. The building being struck by lightning is White’s, 37-38 St. James’s St., oldest and grandest of St. James’s clubs. Although much rebuilt, White’s still operates on the same spot, its members list a roll-call of three centuries of the British establishment, but its heyday was the high Georgian period, when the mania for gambling on anything ran rampant throughout society. White’s and the other clubs of St. James’s., including Almack’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s, etc., gave the monied class a congenial environment in which to flirt with existential ruin.

White’s gaming book was kept from around the 1740s, and some of the more insane wagers of the era may be found within its pages. For example, ‘Lord Montfort wages Sir John Bland one hundred guineas that Mr. Nash outlives Mr. Cibber.’ That particular wager was rendered void as both backers had killed themselves before any outcome was reached (gambling debts, naturally). It was at White’s where Lord Arlington bet £3,000 on one raindrop beating another to reach the bottom of a window pane. In 1750, the diarist Horace Walpole reports an incident where a man who collapsed in the street was carried up the steps and into the hall of White’s, whereupon members began wagering whether or not he was dead. Other stories have members of White’s staving off their aristocratic boredom by betting on which of their alumni would be the next to catch the pox from the girls at Mrs Comyns’ brothel a few doors down; or rolling a sentry box and its occupant downhill, laying bets on the occupant’s chances of survival. At Brooks’s, across the street, Lord Cholomondley bet Lord Derby 500 guineas that he would have sex with a woman in a hot air balloon ‘one thousand yards above the earth’. That was in 1785. No-one knows whether Lord Cholomondley pulled this off or not.

By the end of the 18th century, there were many amazing tales of fortunes being lost – and occasionally won – at games like Faro, Hazard, Picquet, Whist, etc.. Amongst gamblers of ‘the quality’, there was a divide between the shrewd, calculating operators who practised games of skill and those who were addicted to risk itself. The daughters of the aristocracy were not immune either and many were cleaned out by elegant but wily professionals such as John, 2nd Lord Hervey (a courtier of George II and an expert at Quadrille, he made a speciality of relieving the ladies of court of their fortunes). Hogarth dramatised the dilemma of the aristocratic lady embarrassed by her losses in his painting The Lady’s Last Stake, wherein the subject is given the option of repaying her debt to a soldier by taking him as a lover.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 6.

White’s is also the scene of plate 6 of A Rake’s Progress, where Hogarth’s doomed anti-hero Tom gives in to despair as his debts mount in the club’s gaming room. An interesting detail in this image is the night watchman attempting to alert the oblivious gamblers that the building is on fire. (This is a nod to the fact that the original White’s club caught fire in 1733, around the time Hogarth was working on the series.) Brooks’s, at 60 St.James’s St., was founded in 1764 as a more political, even progressive, gentleman’s club; but it was also a theatre for even deeper ‘deep play’ than was practiced at White’s. In the words of the Member of Parliament and wit George Selwyn, Brooks’s was a ‘precipice to perdition’. It once boasted a window at ground level that afforded passers-by a look at the aristocrats losing their shirts at the tables. Amongst so many of the latter, brothers Charles and Stephen Fox deserve special mention, as they ramped up scarcely conceivable debts at games of chance, especially Faro, during the 1770s. By the end of 1773, the brothers’ indulgent, sorrowful and terminally ill father, Lord Holland, was trying to pay off Charles’s debts of £130,000 (something like £11M today); in spite of this, Charles went on gambling at Brooks’s, borrowing wantonly from friends, money-lenders, and, at one point, even the club’s waiters, to finance his compulsion. Like many who lost heavily, Fox’s debts were incurred during all-night sessions where judgement was muddied by booze and fatigue. This is a common factor in the histories of fortunes squandered. The ones who actually made money were the abstainers, the percentage men; men like General Scott, who is reported to have dined exclusively off boiled chicken, toast and water, and who won £200,000 during a bout of whist at Brooks’s. By 1781, Charles Fox’s house on St. James’s St. was in the hands of bailiffs; yet at the same time as all his possessions were being loaded onto carts, Charles returned to Brooks’s in a desperate attempt to turn his finances around. Amazingly, he seems to have had a run of the cards – for a while anyway. For those who were less fortunate, suicide was an honourable way out, although it seems that the accepted thing to do was to dispatch yourself into eternity in a distant and less toney district: Covent Garden perhaps, or Smithfield maybe. Hogarth’s Tom ends up in Bedlam. Charles Fox ended up as Foreign Secretary.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 8.

See also: Greene and Philby in The King’s Arms.