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.

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.