The Poor Wee Drinkur

A kid walks into a bar … .

Further to last week’s glimpse of Charles Dickens as an admirer of interventionist policing, today’s entry concerns itself with Dickens the ‘little gentleman’: the child labourer and prototype for many of the lost children in his own fiction. Here he is venturing into a pub for a little refreshment between shifts at the sweatshop:

‘I was such a child, and so little, that frequently when I went into the bar of a strange public-house for a glass of ale or porter, to moisten what I had had for dinner, they were afraid to give it me. I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public- house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best – your very best – ale a glass?’ For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday. ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.’ “Then,”‘says I, producing the money, ‘just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.”

This is a fragment of autobiography embedded in David Copperfield, Dickens’s favourite of his novels and the one which adhered most closely to the contours of his own life. It draws on the author’s experiences as a twelve-year old newly employed at Warren’s, a factory that manufactured boot blacking, operating in a ‘crazy, tumble-down old house’ at 30, Hungerford Stair, a building that stood roughly where Charing Cross station is today. Dickens was sent to work there in 1824, decades before Bazalgette embanked the Thames, and the tottering factory abutted the filthy river itself. Young Dickens was terrified of the building: of its reek of filth and decay, of the rats ‘swarming in the cellars’ and ‘squeaking and scuffling’ up and down the stairs, and, above all, of the dashed hopes represented by his employment therein. Only a few days after Charles started work at Warren’s his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for non-payment of debts: the family’s grip on bourgeois respectability was tenuous enough as it was, but debtors’ prison raised the spectre of total societal failure.

Warren’s blacking factory, with the spire of St.Martin in the Fields beyond.

So, in the teeth of his more refined sensibilities, young Charles was forced to labour alongside ‘common men and boys’, and was deeply ashamed of his association with them. ‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship.’ His one friend in the factory was an older boy called Bob Fagin, who trained the middle-class refugee how to prepare the bottles for sale and whose kindness Dickens later repaid by appropriating his name for his first great villain (a projection of Dickens’s fear of relegation to the lower orders). But the experience gave Dickens the raw material for his work. Dickens kept re-purposing the riverside warehouse in his fiction: 30, Hungerford Stair, its once-fine rooms sinking into filth, was a potent symbol of class collapse, put to good use throughout Oliver Twist (Fagin’s lair, Bill Sikes’s hideout, etc.) and beyond. ‘The bright pure child in the mouldering house’ (John Carey’s phrase) turns up in Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, and the dark, flickering, early-19th century Thames-side atmosphere saturates his fiction, all the way to Our Mutual Friend. But in David Copperfield the childhood trauma might have been too close to home: Dickens’s self-pity and self-regard is showcased to the detriment of the book. It is a rare achievement for an author to make a reader want to strangle a put-upon child hero, but young David is an unbearable little creep who grows up to be an unbearable prig. Here is the rest of the passage quoted above, from chapter 11, wherein the 37-year old novelist fondly recollects his childhood precociousness (in a pub in Parliament Street):

‘The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hand, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition. They asked me a good many questions; as, what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, how I was employed, and how I came there. To all of which, that I might commit nobody, I invented, I am afraid, appropriate answers. They served me with the ale, though I suspect it was not the Genuine Stunning; and the landlord’s wife, opening the little half-door of the bar, and bending down, gave me my money back, and gave me a kiss that was half admiring and half compassionate, but all womanly and good, I am sure.’

(I cannot read that passage without hearing the voice of Martin Prince, Bart’s classmate in The Simpsons.)

Dickens was able to leave Warren’s Blacking factory after his father had settled his debts and been released from the Marshalsea. By then Warren’s had abandoned Hungerford Stair in favour of smarter premises on Chandos St., on the north side of the Strand, and Charles had become so adept at preparing the bottles of blacking he was put in the window to perform the task for the benefit of passers-by, a winsome human advertisement for the firm. A blue plaque now commemorates Dickens’s stint there, floating on a wall above a branch of TGI Friday. For those seeking a flavour of the late Georgian riverside, Gordon’s at the bottom of Villiers St. – right opposite the site of Hungerford Stairs – remains an atmospheric place to drink, a subterranean cellar where drops of Thames water fall gently from the vaulted ceiling into your glass of port or Madeira or whatever. It is nice to hear that it has re-opened, but Covid regulations will make getting a table an even harder propostion than before; but if you manage to get a seat you can try ordering a Genuine Stunning and see what they give you.

A St. Giles Basement

Old St. Giles: 7 Denmark St. in 2015.

Further to last week’s investigation into the mysterious bond that links Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury to contemporary British comedy, today’s outing is a further trip round the blasted landscape of St. Giles. Centre Point notwithstanding, Renzo Piano’s day-glo ‘Central St Giles’ development now dominates the locality: an arrangement of Lego-like orange, yellow and green blocks which can be seen with the naked eye from my flat in Crystal Palace six miles away. (Piano is also responsible for The Shard, which is even harder to ignore.) In its way, Central St. Giles is 21st century London’s equivalent of Hawksmoor’s St.George’s: an unintentional joke, a tinselly distraction in the midst of urban blight. As previously discussed, this was where Hogarth located Gin Lane, his celebrated image of London as Hell: that was in 1751, the height of the gin craze, when the district had something like 500 gin shops and 82 lodging houses. The slum became known as ‘The Holy Land’ in honour of its largely Irish population, and a ‘St Giles cellar’ was an 18th century colloquialism for the worst imaginable habitation. When the brewery on Bainbridge St. exploded in 1818, it flooded St Giles with 10,000 gallons of beer and downed eight unfortunates in their basements. Thomas Beames, writing in the middle of the 19th century, said that St Giles represented ‘the lowest conditions under which human life is possible’.

A bright horror … Renzo Piano’s Central St. Giles looming over Denmark St.

You get the idea. St Giles was a frightful stew of poverty and filth. By the Victorian period The Holy Land covered somewhere between six and ten acres, its precise boundaries being hard to gauge as the edges shaded in and out of more respectable streets. In Curiosities of London, John Timbs describes the rookery as: ‘one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone, eaten by slugs into numberless small chambers and connecting passages’. The Holy Land’s proximity to the West End made it a perfect refuge for thieves who were able to work well-heeled crowds before retreating to the rookery’s impenetrable depths. Its labyrinthine complexity, bolt-holes, and booby traps made pursuit of offenders as pointless as it was dangerous: a constable could find himself decoyed into an ambush in some dead end court, or simply tipped into a concealed cesspool.

Unsurprisingly, Dickens was all over this place. In A Gin Palace, first published in 1835, the young journalist indulges his revulsion for low life, whilst noting the glamour of the gin palaces themselves. Later, when he was fully established as great novelist and social reformer, Dickens returned to St Giles in the company of a group of armed police led by the legendary Inspector Field during a nocturnal tour of the city’s rookeries. On Duty With Inspector Field contains a description of the forbidding lodging house called Rats’ Castle, a crooks’ hangout in an ancient pile somewhere near Dyott St. (fittingly – but very debatably – built upon the ruins of a medieval leper hospital):

‘St Giles church strikes half past ten. We stoop low and creep down a precipitous flight of steps into a dark close cellar. There is a fire. There is a long deal table. There are benches. The cellar is full of company, chiefly very young men in various conditions of dirt and raggedness. Some are eating supper. There are no girls or women present. Welcome to Rats’ Castle, gentlemen, and to this company of noted thieves!’

This was not a raid: Field was merely putting on a show for Dickens, inundating the company with threateningly matey banter, showing them that it was his manor; and the novelist endorses the policeman’s gloating with lip-smacking fervour. They then proceed to a ‘tramps’ lodging house’, where families of desperately poor Irish are likened by the great social reformer to ‘maggots in a cheese’, before he mimics their speech for comic effect. By the time Dickens wrote this, in 1851, the Victorians were hacking away at the rookery, their road building schemes opening up the honeycombed warren to the light. New Oxford St., Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Rd. were all run through slum housing, residents left homeless amidst the rubble. But the demolition and social cleansing left St Giles permanently denuded; much of the rebuilding feels dead and even the Shaftesbury Theatre (1911) can’t offer much excitement.

But at least you can go for a drink beneath the theatre; at present, this rambling venue is occupied by a branch of The London Cocktail Club, a concern which has gobbled up a few of London’s wine bars over the past few years. It used to be an establishment called The Grapes, which remains vivid in my memory after a spectacular misadventure on my part, but I’ll leave that episode for another occasion. Right now I’m not in the mood for a cocktail, so I will retreat to the cosy downstairs saloon at The Toucan, a Guinness-themed pub on Carlisle St.. All right, it’s Soho not St. Giles, but there’s only a few yards in it; and, as basement bars go, it is unbeatable. I have, over the years, drunk a significant portion of my life away down there – on Guinness, naturally. They even offer Guinness cocktails, but that’s where I draw the line. (Black Velvet, Guinness and champagne, is a concoction that succeeds in wrecking two perfectly acceptable drinks, and looks, smells and tastes like something from a pathology lab.) Of course, my retreat to the Toucan is in my mind, a dredging of blurry memories as I look out of the window in distant SE19. The Toucan’s bars are ideal Petri dishes for Covid-19 to flourish; they will sell you a pint to drink outside, but the interior is closed for the foreseeable. Somewhere, a bell is tolling; and it tolls for me.

The spire of St.Giles’s amidst 21st century destruction.

The First Gin Palace

‘The Gin Shop’, a cautionary cartoon by George Cruikshank. This dates from 1829; in just a few years Londoners could drink themselves to ruin in much plusher surroundings.

‘It was near Field Lane that the first London gin palace was built. The polished mahogany counters, the garish bar fittings, the smartly painted vats, inscribed ‘Old Tom’ and ‘Cream of the Valley’, the rows of showy bottles of noyau and other cordials, and above all the immense blaze of gas light within and without these buildings as soon as dusk set in, were all so many novelties and came as a vision of splendour to the besotted denizens of the neighbouring slums. (From Glances Back through Seventy Years by Henry Viztelly. ‘Noyau’ is, I believe, a French liqueur made from brandy, flavoured with almonds and the pits of apricots.)

The gin palace described by Henry Viztelly was an establishment called Thompson and Fearon’s – and whilst it might have been the first of London’s gin palaces, it didn’t last long. Built in the mid-1830s, it was swept away in 1860 to make way for Holborn Viaduct. A drawing made shortly before its destruction shows a tidy establishment, not the flamboyant palace of booze associated with later examples of the species. But it was a prototype for all the others, and its location is significant, as Field Lane – which remains in ghostly form as Shoe Lane – was a remarkably hairy locality and had been so for at least a hundred years before the Victorians remodelled the area. Field Lane abutted the western edge of ‘Fleet Ditch’, the monstrously polluted Fleet River, and was once notorious as the site of an early 18th century gay brothel, Mother Clap’s, whose proprietor died in the pillory. (Mark Ravenhill wrote a play about her. And I’ve already written about a famous local dive, Jonathan Wild’s House.)

Holborn Hill circa 1860, shortly before redevelopment. Thompson and Fearon’s is on the left, with the cute balcony. As reproduced in Mark Girouard’s ‘Victorian Pubs’.

The new drinking establishments fascinated the young Dickens, who noted that the ‘handsomest’ gin palaces were the ones closest to the worst rookeries, but he evinced unqualified approval for the theatrical glamour of the bars themselves:

The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined … You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. (‘A Gin Palace’, 1835’)

Dickens left an intriguing inventory of the brands of gin on offer, their descriptions a come-on even at a distance of 180 years: ‘The Cream of the Valley,’ ‘The Out and Out,’ ‘The No Mistake,’ ‘The Real Knock- Me-Down’, ‘The Regular Flare-up … I never seen any of these brands in Waitrose, but it’s only a matter of time before some artisan distillery christens their boutique spirit with one of these monickers, slapped with a faux-Victorian label and bottled in hand-blown glass – good value at £46 for 50cl.

There’s a direct connection between the expansion of London and the endless trudges the workforce were compelled to make to and from work (in an era where public transport was non-existent), so that bars located on the main arterial roads offered the working populace an opportunity to break their interminable journey home with a palliative stiff one. If the gin palaces got a bad rep, perhaps it was because a bright pub on a dark street often indicated the only available pleasure in a pitiless urban existence: a source of warmth and light, company and laughter, oblivion and escape. And, as Mark Girouard succinctly puts it in his admirable book Victorian Pubs, Their customers tended to get drunk because semi-starving people get drunk very easily’.

A fun evening in Thompson and Fearon’s (allegedly). Another illustration from ‘London Pubs’.

Dickens was writing Oliver Twist at the same time as he wrote his piece on gin palaces, and he chose to locate Fagin’s hideout in Field Lane, at that time the centre of the ‘snot-haul’ trade. (A pickpocket was a ‘snotter hauler’, although Dickens uses the politer term ‘fogle-hauler’.) Silk handkerchiefs stolen all over London were brought here to be traded on, displayed in lines on poles above the street.

The rear of Wren’s church of St. Andrew abuts Shoe Lane, and the church is name- checked in Oliver Twist, as Bill Sikes leads Oliver away to Hyde Park Corner he makes sure to check the time by its clock. (A few years after Oliver Twist, Dickens used this vicinity again for his historical novel Barnaby Rudge, based on the Gordon Riots of 1780.) The arse end of St.Andrews remains monumentally imposing today, its stony bulk offering no comfort to the lost, vanished souls of Field Lane – or, for that matter, to anyone who walks down Shoe Lane today. When I was researching this post, back in February this year, it seemed to me that Shoe Lane was as desolate and dead a street as it was possible to find in 21st century London. But, post-lockdown, all of London looks like a bit like Shoe Lane now. However, at time of writing there are fragile grounds for hope; pubs are, ever so tentatively, opening again. On Saturday I walked through a deserted Clerkenwell and discovered a small oasis in the hot, empty streets: by St. John’s Gate a bar was open for business, serving a handful of customers sitting in the sunshine. It was indescribably beautiful.