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.

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).

Flogging A Dead Thing

The Fortune of War, circa 1900. Note the Golden Boy.

Every trade has its pub. And The Fortune of War, Giltspur Street, Smithfield, was a speakeasy for the bodysnatching fraternity. At one time, it was said that the pub accommodated its clientele to the extent that the landlord allowed customers to leave corpses under the benches – with tags attached – whilst they went to try to strike a deal with the surgeons at St. Barts, just around the corner (the porters at Barts left empty hampers outside the hospital, a tacit invitation for them to be taken and filled with fresh ‘specimens’ by those in the ‘resurrection’ business’). And if Barts didn’t want what you were offering, there were plenty of other places you could try.

Saturday 5th November 1831. A ferry carrying two men arrived at the riverside entrance of Robert Smirke’s handsome new King’s College (so new that a mason was still working on site) to enquire whether the resident surgeons might be interested in a body – or, as they said in the trade, a ‘Thing’. The two men, one of whom was drunk, were trying to sell a ‘Big Small’, and wanted ten guineas for it. (A dead child was a ‘Small’; a ‘Big Small’ was a dead adolescent. Ten guineas would be worth something in excess of £1,000 today.) They had been trying to sell the Thing since the previous day and had traipsed all over London in search of a good price (as well as hospitals, there were private academies where anatomy was taught), fortified by frequent visits to the pubs en route. The surgeon said he might be interested – but would only offer nine guineas. The men went away and returned later with two accomplices and a hamper containing the body of a boy of about 14, which they tipped onto the floor. ‘It’ s a good ‘un’, said one of the men trying to make the sale. The dissecting room porter and the college anatomist were suspicious of the freshness of the corpse and called in the Covent Garden police.

At the start of the 19th century the science of anatomy advanced and the ‘bloody code’ of the 18th century receded, resulting in fewer executions and, thus, fewer bodies available for study. Surgeons had to make a queasy compact with those who were prepared to furnish subjects by illegal means, and prices were high. But although the trade aroused public revulsion, it was seen as a relatively trivial crime, as a human body was not considered to be anyone’s actual property. The commonest method of obtaining a body was simply to dig up a newly-dug grave, but other ruses included posing as a relative of the recently deceased to claim their remains, or stealing them from homes where they were awaiting burial. But some in the trade resorted to murder, and the notoriety of Edinburgh’s Burke and Hare in 1828 exposed the medical profession’s indifference to the sources of their research material. In London in 1831 the murder of ‘The Italian Boy’ threw the furtive relationship between body- snatcher and man of science into sharp relief, and shone a searchlight into London’s darkest corners.

John Bishop, the ringleader of the gang collared at King’s College (and who claimed to have sold over five hundred Things), later confessed that the ‘Italian Boy’ was actually a drover from Lincolnshire that he had picked up on market day in Smithfield and enticed back to his family home in Nova Scotia Gardens, Bethnal Green: a swampy, semi-rural slum. There, Bishop and his son-in-law accomplice Thomas Williams stupefied the boy with rum and laudanum, then drowned him in a well at the back of the house. Bishop admitted to using this method on another child and a woman. (In his confession Bishop exonerated his grave-robbing colleague James May of knowledge of the murders. The party who carried the body to King’s was a Covent Garden porter and sometime corpse-hauler who was not charged in connection with the killings.) It is at least possible that the real number of Bishop and Williams’s victims was far greater but no-one was in a position to prove it. Many women and children went missing in the capital but institutions kept very few records of their transactions with bodysnatchers, and human remains were totally consumed by dissection. As no-one reported a Lincolnshire drover missing, the corpse was formally identified as Carlo Ferrari: the lost ‘Italian boy’, trafficked from northern Italy by a ‘master’ who sent him out to exhibit animals for pennies on London’s streets.

Sarah Wise’s magnificent book on the case depicts London in that nameless age in the reign of William IV, the same city that terrified the young Dickens and formed the setting for his greatest novels.* An unlit, unpaved, undrained, festering town that has more in common with Hogarth’s London than the city of the high Victorian era. A stinking metropolis of rookeries and public executions, of cattle driven to slaughter through busy streets, overflowing cesspools, vagrant children and numberless poor. In this context the body-snatchers sound like almost any other street trader, hawking their wares around the teaching hospitals and schools of anatomy before the produce went off. What is really striking is the social aspect of the trade in the dead; as Ms Wise comments, convivial drinking was central to the enterprise, and a pub like The Fortune of War was a safe space for those in the trade to share tips and compare notes on the going rate for a Thing. On Friday, the day before the trip to King’s and during one of the gang’s many trips to the pub, James May stood at the Fortune’s bar rinsing blood and flesh from a set of teeth he produced from his handkerchief. The teeth belonged to the dead boy, and he nonchalantly discussed their potential value with the barman: May was confident that he could get two pounds for them. (He managed to sell them to a dentist before his arrest; the dentist later displayed them in his window as ‘the teeth of the murdered Italian Boy’.) The Fortune of War was only a few yards up the hill from Newgate Gaol, and it was outside the Debtor’s Door of that prison that Bishop and Williams were hanged before a large crowd on 5 December, 1831, just four weeks after their arrest. Their bodies were promptly handed over for dissection. James May was sentenced to transportation to Australia, but died on board a prison ship before the voyage began. The Fortune of War was demolished in 1910.

* Sarah Wise suggests that Dickens might actually have been present at the Old Bailey for the climax of the trial of the Bishop gang: an anonymous published account of the reading of the verdict bears a striking resemblance to Fagin’s court appearance in Oliver Twist.

Newgate’s Debtor’s Door, photographed shortly before the prison was demolished in 1904.