Brave And Chilly Spring

April is the cruellest month … Gipsy Hill, 11 April 2021.

Sam Hancock, The Independent, 13 April 2021:

London’s Soho was busier than ever on Monday night — although some of those enjoying the reopening of pubs admitted there was “very little” social distancing being adhered to. Police patrolled central London as crowds flocked to Old Compton Street, signalling the end of certain lockdown restrictions and the reopening of pubs and bars’ outdoor areas across England. Several West End streets were even closed to traffic between 5pm and 11pm, to create outdoor seating areas as part of measures implemented by Westminster City Council to support hospitality businesses. Pictures and videos being shared online show people packed onto tables, while dozens more stood on the streets raising a glass to England officially entering into stage two of Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown.

The spring-like peep out of lockdown has everyone on edge. And attempts to enjoy a freezing al fresco drink inevitably emphasise the painful distance between Before Covid and our current Covid Era. Personally, I have no plans to book a slot to do my Captain Scott impersonation (‘this is an awful place …’) in an arctic pub garden, and don’t fancy drinking amidst desperate Soho crowds pretending it’s VE Night. It’s indoor spaces that I miss. My mind wanders to cold spring evenings in former times; when the pub garden turned chilly in twilight, you would retreat to the cosy public bar, to the gleam of polished mahogany and the crystalline brightness behind the counter. You’d take your drink to a spot next to the wooden partition that separated you from the customers in the saloon, and fragments of their conversation drifted in and out of your hearing:

‘Nah, it was John Wayne they filmed in this pub. Him and that Richard Attenborough, played policemen they did. Filmed it here, I should know, I was in it wasn’t I?’

‘Do you know what my son said to me the other night? He phones up and he says: :”Dad, can I come round? I need to borrow fifty pence”‘.

‘I don’t know whether she knew or not, but let’s put it this way: she got very good at getting blood out of carpet.’

‘My dad knew him, he was staying at a hotel in Kensington Gardens, very dapper and polite he was, you’d never guess he had bodies dissolving in a tank in Crawley’.

Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing.’

Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell.

‘From Muscat he was, yeah – one of those places where they don’t wear things on their feet.’

The Victorian pub interior is an inviting place, an urban parlour, a place where plumbers give racing tips to bankers, where visitors from exotic lands fall for boys from Penge or girls from Hainault, and where addled regulars share unlikely stories (‘it’s true, I swear, I was there’) with anyone who will listen. Britain’s peculiar drinking culture might have been a source of appalled wonder for foreign tourists but London’s lugubrious, booze-only boozers offered easy access to the interior life of the city. In an earlier time, I would bewail the rise of the gastro-pub as a factor eroding the democratic nature of the institution: tables take up room, families colonise the bar space and the social or solitary drinker is marginalised. ‘The decline of the pub’, I would say to anyone who would listen, ‘as a place to just drink is making the city colder and less knowable than before’. (And thus I became someone else’s loquacious pub bore.) Well, what did I know. Now, if I could, I would cheerfully walk into a gastropub and order the most pretentious thing on the carte du jour just so I could be in an interior where people have come to gather. Even a hipster bar is good for overheard remarks:

So what does a full-time anarchist do? Do you celebrate Christmas?’

But if Monday night demonstrated anything, it’s that Londoners need to drink. The manifest ills of drinking are well rehearsed, but the social value of documents such as Life and Labour of the People in London are often compromised by their authors’ failure to empathise with hard-pressed city-dwellers, or to fully understand their need for release. London is an ongoing experiment in urban life: a 2,000 year-old Roman settlement that became the first industrialised city, the first world city, the first mega-city. Londoners have had to suffer the sharp end of history so it’s no wonder that they developed a craving for booze – as a stimulant, a palliative, a tradable commodity, or simply a safer beverage than Thames water. And, call me old-fashioned, but I think that public drinking is healthier than private drinking: if there are people around you, there’s always someone to tell you that you are overdoing it, or simply being a tit. (Altogether now: ‘What good is sitting alone in your room …’ etc.) But I’m looking forward to getting inside pubs, not lurking outside them. And who knows? Maybe it will be all over by Christmas.

The other milestone this week was, of course, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. I did, as it happens, have a few encounters with him over the years but I didn’t fancy contributing to the tsunami of news coverage, or the grinding of axes by op-ed toters. Those stories will have to wait.

Working Class Family’ by Ralph Steadman, circa 1969. Via Ralph Steadman Printshop.

The Rugby Romance

Drury Lane, looking south towards St. Mary-le-Strand, circa 1870. This end of Drury Lane was obliterated by the Aldwych/Kingsway development of the early 20th century.

In London, that city gorged with wealth, and where palaces filled to the full with treasures extend over a space of several leagues, there are frightful dens,—dens without a name, inhabited by cadaverous souls in hideous bodies,—dens, the like of which do not exist on any point of the globe. Louis Blanc, writing on the ‘Rugby Romance’, Letters on England, September 21st, 1861

As we saw last week, child neglect is common currency in the lives of the Victorian poor, the tales of misery so extreme as to invite parody. But The Rugby Romance was the name given to a startling news item from 1861, a story that made the news because a child’s plight crossed class boundaries.

January, 1859. Richard Guinness Hill, a brewer from Dublin (but no relation to the famed Guinness dynasty), was visiting England in the company of his heavily pregnant wife, Amy Georgina. Mrs Hill was ‘a young lady of great personal attractions and large fortune, the granddaughter of the late Sir Francis Burdett, and niece of Miss Burdett Coutts, who had taken a great interest in her welfare.’ Amy Georgina was only eighteen when she married Hill and her youth and sheltered upbringing may account for some of the events that followed. The couple were en route to London from Liverpool when Amy went into labour; they were forced to break their journey in Rugby and the baby was delivered in a room in a local inn, the only lodgings that were available. As his wife was recuperating, Hill visited the local registrar’s office and registered the child, a boy, under a false name. He then insisted that the newborn should be put out to nurse and went ahead to London to seek ‘appropriate care’ for the child. Upon arrival in the capital, Hill traipsed from Euston to Piccadilly, where he noticed a woman begging in Great Windmill Street; the woman was parading a pair of shivering, barefoot children to elicit pity and Hill spotted an opportunity. He slipped her a coin and made his proposition:

‘Will you take charge of a child? It will not be necessary for you to treat him as if he really belonged to you, and you can dispose of him by putting him into a workhouse, or into an asylum.’

After a little prevarication, the woman conferred with a friend and both women agreed to accept the child and Hill’s offer of £16 ‘ a year’ for the infant’s care. He then wrote to Amy in Rugby and assured her that he had secured suitable provision for the child and asked for the infant to be sent to London by a specific train, in the care of a fourteen-year old serving girl from the inn. This girl, Catherine, was to be a crucial witness, as was the begging woman with whom Hill had contracted the deal. Catherine later testified that she cradled the ten-day old child from Rugby to London, arriving at Euston at midnight. There, she was met by the child’s father and two shabby women, both of whom were drunk. In Catherine’s presence, the father gave his child into the care of the pair of street drinkers. The baby was wrapped in a shawl that had sentimental value for Amy, and she had specifically asked for it to be returned; but the new nursemaid obstreperously insisted on keeping it, and so the shawl went with the child. On returning to Rugby, Catherine voiced her misgivings to the child’s mother but Hill emphatically dismissed the child’s protestations; and Amy, presumably browbeaten by her controlling husband, acquiesced.

Two years passed. Mrs. Hill’s anxieties for her son grew as her husband’s assurances of his welfare became more spotty. Finally, he changed his story and said that the child was dead. Or that he had been sent to Australia. Clearly, Hill was ‘gaslighting’ Amy to an appalling degree, and by now was physically abusing her as well. The couple separated and Amy’s family instigated a search for her missing toddler. The Burdetts’ solicitor hired a sharp London detective, officer Brett, who posted a £20 reward for information. After searching ‘all the holes and corners of St. Giles’, Brett finally arrived in Lincoln’s Court, a ‘filthy alley’ off Drury Lane. This is how the story was reported in The Annual Register’s chronicle of 1861:

After searching various rooms, Brett proceeded to a small apartment on the second floor. In one corner lay a man, nearly naked and apparently dying, and squatting all over the floor were several women in a most ragged and miserable condition. … On the floor in this horrible den Brett discovered the heir to £14,000 almost nude, and covered with vermin and filth. No shoes were on his feet, and only one dirty rag enveloped the entire body. One of his thighs had been broken and had been badly mis-set, his toes were terribly scarred with wounds, and the head and body generally showed unmistakable marks of neglect and ill-usage. The house, from top to bottom, appeared to be occupied by prostitutes and beggars.’ 

The child was positively identified by the recovery of the shawl, which the beggar had pawned, and of a box that had once contained the child’s linen. For eighteen months the woman had used the child as a beggar’s prop, holding it in her arms when panhandling in the street, and leaving it in a workhouse for a couple of spells when she’d been in prison. £14,000 in 1861 would be worth something like £1.4 M today, and that would have been the child’s annual income. Hill’s motivation seems to have been pure greed; if Amy had no children, he would receive her inheritance upon her death. (One really does recall the plot of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, from which the term ‘gaslighting’ derives.) The boy was reunited with Amy, who had gone to stay with family in Brussels; rather incredibly, Hill followed them there in an attempt to effect a reconciliation. Unable to arrest Hill on the continent, the police lured him into a trap: Amy returned to London, Hill followed in pursuit and was promptly arrested when he tried to make contact. When the case finally came to court, Hill was charged merely with false register of a child’s birth, a crime that carried a maximum penalty of seven years hard labour, and ‘ …therefore out of all proportion to the cruelty and unnatural conduct of the prisoner; but it seems to have been the only legal mode of securing his apprehension’. Hill’s solicitor made unsavoury implications about Amy’s character, implying that Amy’s child was not fathered by Hill. But public sympathy was firmly on the side of the poor child, even if there was widespread incredulity at the credulousness of the boy’s mother. This was a famous case in its day and reads like the plot of a Wilkie Collins novel. However, I’m afraid I can’t tell you the outcome of the trial. I read that Hill couldn’t find anyone to stand bail for him, in spite of him writing ‘copious letters‘ and having ‘an unlimited supply’ of writing paper. But I hit a brick wall; the ultimate fate of the family is obscure. What happened to the son and heir in later life? Maybe I’ll find out when the libraries re-open.

‘The story itself is strange and romantic enough, and yet it is at the same time sufficiently commonplace. It is very like the story books, and as nearly as possible fills out the recognised and traditional tale familiar to nurseries and school-rooms, of the little boy who, being a bad little boy, was given to the gipsies.’

‘The Crawler’: photograph by John Thomson from ‘Street Life in London’ 1877. The woman in this photo was the widow of a tailor, here minding another woman’s child for a few pennies. I don’t wish to infer that this unfortunate woman was in any way a criminal, but this is one of the most penetrating images ever made of London street life (or, for that matter, of human misery).

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.