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.

Charles Booth visits Shelton Street

‘… In little rooms no more than eight feet square would be found living father, mother and several children. … as to not a few it is a mystery how they live. Drunkenness and dirt prevailed … violence was common, reaching at times even to murder. … Not a room would be free from vermin, and in many life at night was unbearable. Several occupants have said that in hot weather they don’t go to bed, but sit in their clothes in the least infested part of the room.’

From the introduction to the profile of Shelton Street in Life and Labour of the People in London Volume II , Charles Booth, 1891.

Charles Booth was a Victorian businessman and social scientist; we might say ‘sociologist’ in today’s terminology, although his work examining the lives of London’s poor in the 1880s and 90s doesn’t have the academic detachment of today’s practitioners. His initial motivation seems to have been indignation at assertions made by The Social Democratic Federation that more than a million people in London lived in great poverty. Funding his own researches, he set out to disprove such ‘incendiary’ allegations; but he eventually concluded that the reality was much worse.

His 17-volume survey Life and Labour of the People in London was a more forensic study of the capital’s poverty than the great Henry Mayhew survey of forty years earlier. He defined the ‘poverty line’ separating those who were just about managing to make ends meet from those who were in dire straits. Street by street, Booth’s team visited every house and interviewed – or tried to interview – the inhabitants. Booth’s callers included missionaries who had known some of the residents for years.

Booth’s map.


One of Booth’s great contributions was his colour-coded mapping of London according the quality of life found on each street, the ones coloured black being the worst. Inevitably, there is a gulf between the well-meaning proto-sociologist and the desperate lives of the subjects of his inquiry. Booth’s admirably laconic accounts tend to slapstick whenever he or his researchers encounter resistance.

Shelton Street in Seven Dials was one of Booth’s blackest streets. Here’s an excerpt from Booth’s profile of the residents of number 8:

‘The mother is a notorious drunkard, very violent in her cups, often in trouble with the police, and struck the protestant missionary in the face in defence of her holy mother of God, backing this up with oaths and foul language. The third floor was occupied by more Irish, and one of these, a powerful woman took an active part in the attack on the missionary, driving him downstairs into the shelter of Mrs McConnell’s shop. … In the parlour at no. 8 a man one day told the visitor that, although a Catholic, he did not believe in anything but beer.’

Gustave Dore again: a generic London slum of the 1860s.

The reader grasps at these moments of light relief because the overall picture is so bleak. Drink and desperation feed each other in an unremitting cycle. The man who lived ‘only for beer’ is next described attempting to sell his pocket knife to buy booze and, unable to find a buyer, taking out his frustration by shoving it into someone’s heart.

‘In the adjoining room on the third floor lived a man of fifty with a woman of about the same age. He was a market porter and drank the larger part of his earnings. Most of what came home to the woman went also immediately to the public house. The man was never to be seen sober, but came rolling and roaring upstairs into his room. This couple lived like demons one with another, and made of their room a little hell on earth.’

At number 11 a wedding ‘led to a row which lasted several days, the friends of the bride and bridegroom having come to blows, while the police interfered in vain.’

‘At number 25 lived a big man who was employed at one of the music halls. … This man’s house and family have been all along the ideal of the drunkard’s home. On the second floor lived a well-known character, one Welsh who sold shellfish in the neighbouring streets and drank all he made. This man’s house was even worse than that of the music hall servant.’

‘The Organ in the Court’. Dore’s illustrations are theatrical and unreliable in purely documentary terms, but his contribution to posterity’s image of Victorian London is immense.

On the second floor of number 18 Shelton St., he records the situation of Mr. and Mrs Parks and family. Mr. Parks ‘… served in India as a soldier, and was discharged in ill-health suffering from pains in his head and loss of memory due to fracture of the skull and sunstroke. His drinking habits also stand in his way. He does house painting when he can get it, which is rare. The mother works hard for her children …’ He concludes with a sinister observation: ‘These people have seven children but eight years ago two of them, aged nine and eleven, going to school in the morning, have never been heard of since’

At number 24, the first floor was the story ‘of utmost horror’ concerning a drunk who beat his wife to death. On the third floor of number 28 lived a market porter and his family, a man who ‘became a great drunkard’ and whose wife said she had lost all heart: ‘The panels of the door told their story of drunken violence. The man belonged to an association in Clare Market called ‘The Guzzler’s Club’ …’ As for number 33, ‘the missionary remembers well. An Irishman tried to throw him downstairs …’

Shelton Street today is absorbed within Covent Garden’s retail zone. Under normal circumstances (remember normal?), I would conclude with a neat and no doubt predictable comparison between late Victorian poverty and contemporary consumerism. But in our present locked-down state, it is the couple Booth profiled at no.8 who haunt me the most. Below my front door is a mat, a gift from a loved one, emblazoned with Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’. This once-amusing item has now acquired a darker implication, something much nearer Sartre’s original intention. ‘This couple lived like demons one with another, and made of their room a little hell on earth.’

Jonathan Wild’s House, Chick Lane

The Gordon Riots, 1780: a jamboree of anarchic, xenophobic mayhem. A Victorian imagining (painted by John Seymour Lucas in 1879) of ‘King Mob’ being put in its place.

From an account quoted in The Citizen’s Monitor, Jonas Hanway, 1780:

‘One of our detachments visited Chick Lane, Field Lane and Black Boy Alley, and some other such places. … These places constitute a separate town or district, calculated for the reception of the darkest and most dangerous enemies to society; and in which, when pursued for the commission of crimes, they easily conceal themselves. … the owners of these houses make no secret of their being let for the entertainment of thieves.’

Further to last week’s gin-soaked look at The Gordon Riots, here’s a further slice of Georgian low-life. In the aftermath of the great riot, there was great concern over the hidden incubation of revolutionary intent afforded by the city’s slums, and the above account comes from a soldier sent into the rookeries of Smithfield to flush out seditionaries. At that time Chick Lane formed part of a rookery succinctly known as ‘Little Hell’, which sprawled across Smithfield and the Fleet valley. Chick Lane is cited in over 300 cases at the Old Bailey during the course of the century and, at the western end, near Saffron Hill and backing onto Fleet Ditch, stood an ancient pub that was notorious for its criminal connections. It was known, variously, as The Old House, The Red Lion Tavern or, for our purposes, Jonathan Wild’s House. Jonathan Wild, the self-styled ‘thief taker general’, was the early Georgian prototype for every subsequent bent copper. The pub bore his name because he stored stolen goods on site, but it was also popular with other celebrity criminals, including Jack Sheppard (the model for Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera) and Dick Turpin, highwayman of romantic legend. This boozer offered ample opportunities for the concealment of people and plunder; a fugitive could take advantage of any number of hidden exits into adjoining houses and alleys, and the basement allegedly afforded access to Fleet Ditch – as an escape of last resort, perhaps, or just a handy way of getting rid of an inconvenient corpse. (In 1758 mother and daughter Sarah and Sarah Metyard came all the way from Hanover Square to dump the remains of a starved apprentice in Fleet Ditch. They found it harder to access the Fleet than they had supposed, so they left their victim’s head and torso in the mud of Chick Lane.)

Hogarth’s ‘Idle Tom’ in a tavern cellar, about to be taken.

Fortunately, Hogarth has preserved this fabulously lurid milieu for posterity. In his narrative series Industry and Idleness, his ne’er do-well apprentice ‘Idle Tom’ turns to crime and is betrayed by his lover, a prostitute. The setting for this scene is a nightmarish pub, wherein a syphilitic barmaid (her false nose is the giveaway) attempts to serve brawling customers whilst ‘Idle Tom’ assesses the spoils of a robbery with his accomplices, one of whom is disposing of a body through a trapdoor. Meanwhile, Tom’s girl is pointing out her boyfriend for the pursuing sergeant, who is giving her a coin for her trouble. Hogarth’s model for his tavern is, according to some, Jonathan Wild’s House – while others assert that it depicts The Bowl of Blood in Black Boy Alley. (Black Boy Alley had its own gang of murderous thugs, who targeted sailors and other incautious pub-goers.) But as our pub’s name was something of a moveable feast it is at least possible that it and The Bowl of Blood were one and the same. So how bad was this dive? Was Hogarth exaggerating for the purposes of a morality tale? What would its TripAdvisor score be today?

The Fleet Ditch seen from The Red Lion (a.k.a. Jonathan Wild’s House), drawn in the 1840s and reproduced in Thornbury’s ‘Old and New London vol.2’.

The pub gave up some of its secrets following its demolition in 1844, by which time Chick Lane had been renamed West Street in a vain bid to shed some of its former associations. Exposed to the light, its sinister intricacy became a tabloid sensation, a period ‘House of Horror’. Hidey-holes, secret passages, a still for making gin and a blast furnace for counterfeiting coins were all revealed: and in the basement there was indeed a tunnel giving onto Fleet Ditch – alongside a skull and a quantity of human bones. The Old House made good on its reputation. This is a prime example of a pub as an emblem of projected fear. Just as Rats’ Castle fascinated Dickens in the 19th Century, and modern tourists visit The Blind Beggar and other pubs on the Kray Twins nostalgia trail, so Jonathan Wild’s House – or The Red Lion – or The Bowl of Blood – represents the theatre of Georgian crime: zeitgeist fears projected onto a physical space, the trapdoor drop into the filth of Fleet Ditch the ultimate terror. You can’t fall any lower than that.

Jonathan Wild throws an opponent to his doom: an illustration by George Cruikshank
for Harrison Ainsworth’s
‘Jack Sheppard’. The unfortunate victim is being hurled into
an ancient well hidden inside Wild’s house. Concealed water = oblivion.

As for Jonathan Wild, he rather came unstuck after he arrested Sheppard, who had become a folk hero on account of his startling escapes from Newgate and various other prisons. Wild’s duplicity was exposed and he followed his former confederate to hang from Tyburn tree just a year after Sheppard, in 1725. The legends of these Georgian thugs retained a strong hold over the English imagination, fostered by the ‘Newgate Novels’ of the early Victorian era. Harrison Ainsworth wrote one about Dick Turpin and another of his successful potboilers was simply called Jack Sheppard. The young Charles Dickens was put out by the latter as he had not long published his own Newgate novel: Oliver Twist.

(I am indebted to Jerry White’s wonderful book London in the 18th Century for much information regarding Chick Lane.)