The Return Of King Mob

What follows is a post which originally appeared here in April 2020. I am re-posting because it feels appropriate for the surplus of history we are currently living through. The past is never far away; we are lumbered with it the whole time, even the bits we’ve forgotten or would prefer to forget.

‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne) depicts the Gordon Riots.


Lord George Martini’
Ingredients:
One gin distillery.
Equipment:
One anti-Catholic mob.
Method:
Set fire to distillery; drink contents until building explodes.

The opening of chapter 52 of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841):

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from or whither it goes, few men can tell. 

If you are looking for some lockdown reading with contemporary overtones, Barnaby Rudge might fit the bill. The climax of Dickens’s early historical novel features one of his most vivid set pieces, as London is put to flame by a monstrous assembly. Dickens was recreating the incendiary climax of The Gordon Riots of June 1780. This orgiastic week of violence, fuelled by anti-Catholic paranoia, which threatened to overwhelm the army and unseat the government, came to be named after their unwitting instigator, the deluded Lord George Gordon, an MP and demagogue who was seeking to overturn a law aimed at relaxing restrictions on Catholics. (This was at a time when England was at war with America and there was widespread fear that older enemies such as France and Spain were poised to invade.)

Newgate feels the heat: the night of 6 June 1780 as reported in a contemporary pamphlet.

The riots were the most destructive in London’s history, as the ‘No Popery!’ agitators joined common purpose with London’s slum-dwelling poor, who emerged from the city’s favelas with curiosity and absolutely nothing to lose. On the night of Tuesday 6th June, they torched that symbol of state oppression, Newgate Gaol. A note written on the smouldering walls of Newgate stated that the inmates had been released on the orders of ‘King Mob’. Embittered convicts swelled the crowd as they sacked and burned swathes of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury (although, in the aftermath of the fire, there were also reports of bewildered lifers wandering amidst the ruins of Newgate, waiting for someone to take charge of them).

The next night, another hot one, the mob set fire to Fleet Jail, King’s Bench Prison, the Borough Clink, and several other clinks, freeing about 1600 prisoners, and then marched on Langdale’s gin distillery. Thomas Langdale was a Catholic who had a chapel on the premises of his distillery at the corner of Holborn Hill and Fetter Lane, along with 120,000 gallons of gin. Troops guarding Langdale’s had been called away to shore up defences at the Bank of England and on Blackfriars Bridge, leaving the distillery an open goal for the rioters. Langdale attempted to buy the mob off, but they weren’t buying and the building was soon alight. At the same time, a gentle wind began to blow, fanning the flames until all Holborn resembled ‘a volcano’.

And this is where British character asserts itself and revolution turns into an opportunity for a party. As the distillery went up, rioters brought raw gin and casks of rum out of the cellars by whatever method available – a pig trough was put to this purpose. Rather unfortunately, a fire engine briefly employed to douse the flames pumped gin instead of water, fuelling the fire even further. Another fire pump was captured by an old cobbler who used it to draw buckets of gin from Langdale’s cellars, selling it on to spectators at a penny a mug.

‘Phiz’ illustrates the Langdale episode for Dickens in ‘Barnaby Rudge’.

As the stills inside exploded, rivulets of raw gin poured into the streets. This 20th century description is too good not to quote:

By nine the buildings were enveloped in smoke and flame, while there flowed down the kennel of the street torrents of unrectified and flaming spirit gushing from casks drawn in endless succession from the vaults. … Ardent spirits, now running to pools and wholly unfit for human consumption, were swallowed by insasiate fiends who, with shrieking gibes and curses, reeled and perished in the flames, whilst others, alight from head to foot, were dragged from burning cellars. On a sudden, in an atmosphere hot to suffocation, flames leapt upwards from Langdale’s other houses on Holborn Hill. The vats had ignited, and columns of fire became visible for thirty miles around London. (John Paul DeCastro, The Gordon Riots, 1926.)

Gillray’ contemporary comment, dated 9th June.

The riots petered out shortly after that, and order was restored amidst an epic collective hangover. ‘King Mob’ came very close to overwhelming the army and it’s interesting to consider what might have happened if so many rioters hadn’t got smashed at Langdale’s. For all the ambition of political agitators (‘populists’, as we’d say now) who were exploiting latent xenophobia borne out of misery and deprivation, the broader mob had no clearly defined aims. As far as ‘King Mob’ was concerned, it was just a chance for a piss-up, with a bit of recreational arson thrown in. A very British coup.

Further reading: King Mob: The London Riots Of 1780 by Christopher Hibbert.

Some Fleet Street Killers

John Strype, Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720: Adjoining to St. Dunstan’s Church, Eastwards, is a small Place of two Houses, which bears the Name of Hen and Chicken Court. And near unto this Court, Fetter lane falleth into Fleetstreet. Flower de lyz Court, or rather Alley, being long, narrow and ordinary, with a Freestone Pavement; hath three Out-lets, two into Fetter lane, and another into Three Leg Alley. This Court is of very small Repute, being but meanly inhabited; the Buildings are on the East side, the West being the back Yards to the Houses in Fetter lane. It is of some Note for the Mousetrap House, being the Receptacle for leud Persons.

Hen and Chicken Court remains an actual address in 21st century London, a dingy survivor of ‘The Great Wen’ amidst gleaming corporate anonymity. Sadly, The Mousetrap House has vanished, so if it’s lowlife drinking you’re after you’ll have to go elsewhere. There are more than a few websites that list this spot as the site of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop, a joint where you risked getting turned into a savoury pastry for the sake of a shave. Sweeney Todd is, of course, entirely fictitious, a character created for a mid- 18th century Penny Dreadful called The String of Pearls. But the era didn’t need fictional killers, it had more than enough real ones.

Sarah Malcolm was a 22-year old laundress of Irish extraction who lived above a local pub and did laundry for various Temple residents. One of these was Lydia Duncomb, a rich 80-year old who lived in a house with her two maidservants. One morning in February 1733, Miss Duncomb and her maids were found dead, variously strangled or stabbed, and the house ransacked. Sarah was quickly connected to the murders by a stolen tankard and some bloodied clothing found in her room. At her brief trial (lasting all of five hours) she maintained that she’d only kept watch for the gang and hadn’t killed anyone, and said that her clothes were bloodied with her own menstrual blood. But in the absence of other culprits, she was convicted and hanged on the corner of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. Days before her execution, Hogarth visited Sarah in Newgate Gaol and painted a celebrated prison portrait of her. She’s holding a rosary in the picture, which is significant: catholics weren’t too popular in England at that time. The great artist thought she was capable of any vice, although it seems that her hangman thought she was innocent. She maintained her innocence to the end (her confession became a posthumous bestseller) and was pitifully distressed that she was to be executed on Fleet Street, where her death would be witnessed by neighbours and acquaintances.

The Fleet Street/Fetter Lane junction had long been a busy venue for hangings, with a gibbet on the spot since at least the 16th century. Sarah was executed there in accordance with the convention that criminals hanged close to the scene of their crimes might be a warning to other likely offenders. But public executions functioned as a spectator sport, and the advent of the ‘bloody code’ in the 18th century increased the number of offences that carried a death sentence, offering greater opportunities for popular entertainment. At this time Temple Bar * was festooned with the decaying heads of miscreants stuck on poles and displayed as examples of justice exacted. Horace Walpole wrote in a letter in 1746 about seeing the ‘new heads’ on Temple Bar, ‘where people make a trade of letting spy glasses at halfpenny a look’. (* Christopher Wren’s elegant gateway, removed in 1878 as an impediment to traffic. It languished in the grounds of a brewer’s mansion in Hertfordshire until it was finally moved back to London in 2004. It now gleams white and pristine in the environs of St Paul’s cathedral, its associations with past horrors seemingly expunged.)

In 1767 a further address mentioned by Strype became associated with another notorious murder case. Mary Clifford was a fourteen year-old apprentice killed by her employer, Elizabeth Brownrigg, a midwife who lived in Fleur-de-Lis Court. Mary had been placed at Mrs Brownrigg’s establishment by the newly-established Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields, Bloomsbury. The Hospital was looking to find apprenticeships for the adolescent orphans in its care, but they were not bothering to vet the employers too thoroughly. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Brownrigg was a violent sadist who abused the three girls in her care in horrific ways: chaining them up and beating them, starving them, locking them in the coal cellar, cutting their tongues with pincers and so on. Mary was treated so badly that she died of her infected wounds. Mrs Brownrigg was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and was duly hanged at Tyburn. This was a cause celebre in its day, highlighting the plight of orphans and the extent to which they were prey to slavery and cruelty, even when they were under the care of a charitable institution like the Foundling Hospital.

One final word on Sweeney Todd: the following Georgian news item has an eerie echo of the mythical barber …

The Annual Register, December 1st, 1784: A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been for a long time past jealous of his wife, but could no way bring it home to her. A young gentleman by chance coming into his master’ s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned his having seen a fine girl home to Hamilton Street, from whom he had certain favours the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber concluding it to be his wife, in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’ s throat from ear to ear and absconded.

A Quick Trip Round The Bermudas, By Way Of Porridge Island and Saffron Burrows

Goodwin’s Court seen from Bedfordbury.

From The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose, 1785:
‘PORRIDGE ISLAND. An alley leading from St. Martin’s church-yard to Round-court, chiefly inhabited by cooks, who cut off ready-dressed meat of all sorts, and also sell soup.’

From Cunningham’ s Handbook of London,1850:
‘PORRIDGE ISLAND. A paved alley or footway, near the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, destroyed in 1829, when the great rookery (of which Bedfordbury is still a sample) was removed from about the Strand and St. Martin’s-lane. [See Bermudas]. It was filled with cooks’ shops, and was cant name. The real name is, I believe, unknown.’
*
‘THE BERMUDAS: A nest or rookery of obscure alleys and avenues running between the bottom of St Martin’ s Lane, Bedford St. and Chandos St.’.

As Cunningham’s Handbook says, not all of the ‘great rookery’ disappeared, and even now fragments may be seen amidst the glitz of the modern city. A notable survivor is Goodwin’s Court, just off Bedfordbury. A hovel-alley turned West End ornament (notwithstanding a pervasive stench of piss), Goodwin’s Court features beautiful bowed shop-fronts, 18th century in style, although they are no longer shops and God knows what they are now. When I was a boy my parents took me to a show-business party in the house at the Bedfordbury end, the one with the staircase that straddles the alley. The host was the late Tony Sympson, an actor whose family were instrumental in preserving Goodwin’s Court against destruction (this was when practically all of WC2 was slated for demolition). I remember a jewel-box of a house composed of implausibly large rooms, their Regency elegance constituting an act of defiance. The house is still someone’s home; perhaps the most desirable place to live in all the West End. Next door is Giovanni’s, a discreet Italian restaurant popular with old-school actors and producers (the house red is especially good value, but watch yourself).

On the corner of Bedfordbury and Chandos Place is a generic boozer called The Marquis of Granby. This pub is nowhere near as nice as The Harp a couple of doors down but The Marquis is of interest because it was once The Hole in the Wall, an authentic 17th Century dive at a time when this area was a scary district. Supposedly, the Hole in the Wall was where the legendary highwayman Claude Duval was finally arrested and taken into custody. That was in 1670 and Duval had been at large for several years by then, his reputation as the prototype gallant highwayman disseminated widely in Restoration England. Duval was a Frenchman from Normandy and, possibly, an ex-mercenary; but his biography has become fused with myth. The legend has him asking permission to dance a minuet with a lady whose jewels he had just stolen from her husband’s coach; but that tale derives from a satire by Pope that mocked the idea of the dashing thief on horseback (and, not incidentally, alluded that the handsome young crook was a molly). Notions of genteel criminality were an even bigger joke then than they are now, yet somehow the send-up became the romantic tableau (as per Wm. Frith, see below). In any case, it seems unlikely that he was arrested at the Hole in the Wall, although he was definitely was hanged at Tyburn, aged 27. The legend holds that his body was then conveyed to St Paul’s churchyard, about a hundred yards from The Hole, in a torch-lit procession flanked by hordes of weeping women who may or may not have been mugged by him. That’s less likely. And there was never a monument to him in the church, as is often stated. In fact, so much of this story is bollocks that I feel like a bit of a tit mentioning it.

William Frith’s Victorian imagining of Claude Duval: ‘Grand Theft Minuet’.

Behind the Marquis of Granby is a slim, dagger-shaped passageway called Brydges Place. At the thicker end of its wedge are the back doors to The Marquis and The Harp, the latter being one of the nicest West End of all pubs, as well as a discreet entrance for Two Brydges Place, a civilized drinking club. The eastern end of the passage offers many possibilities for drinking, socialising and making odd connections in general, especially on a warm night when punters overflow from the pubs into the alley. The stars are more vivid when you can only see a narrow slit of sky, assuming you can see anything at all past the sodium yellow of the streetlights. Due to its secluded aspect, Brydges Place is a refuge for the homeless, the covered yard next to The Harp being a place where they can gather in considerable numbers. At the sharper end of its point it acquires a grimmer aspect and one usually has to be careful not to trip over at least one filthy sleeping bag, with or without its occupant. Here, the antique desperation of The Bermudas still persists: Brydges Place remains a rookery in miniature, an authentically oppressive period setting for contemporary deprivation. Fittingly for the survival of an ancient slum, Brydges Place narrows to shoulder-width at the point where it debouches into St Martin’s Lane. This limits its utility as a cut-through, especially when there are crowds emerging after a show. (Remember when there were shows in London?) One evening, as I trundled down it towards St.Martin’s Lane, I noticed a very beautiful woman waiting for me to clear so she and her friend could enter the alley: I recognised her as being the celebrated actress Saffron Burrows. I clocked her cheekbones and made eye contact, whereupon she said to her companion: ‘We’ll have to wait for this large man to exit before we can go down here’. A fraction of a second later, I stepped on a loose paving slab and my desert-booted foot dropped into filthy rainwater up to my ankle. Smooth, smooth, smooth.

Brydges Place, looking towards St.Martin’s Lane.