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.)

Greene and Philby in The King’s Arms

Graham does it gently.

‘Castle, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken his lunch in a public house behind St. James’s Street, not far from the office. If he had been asked why he lunched here he would have referred to the excellent quality of the sausages; he might have preferred a different bitter from Watneys, but the quality of the sausages outweighed that. He was always prepared to account for his actions, even the most innocent, and he was always strictly on time’.

The first paragraph of The Human Factor by Graham Greene, 1978. (Greene had a thing for sausages. In the mid-1960s he nearly went bankrupt after he was defrauded in a bogus sausage factory scam fronted by Hollywood villain George Sanders.)

Number 14 Ryder Street, off St. James’s St., was where the Secret Intelligence Service’s Section V (prototype for MI6) was based during the later stages of the 2nd World War. Another wartime SIS location was a flat at no. 5 St. James’s St., which was used to brief agents due to be sent into occupied countries. Graham Greene, who worked for SIS during the war, used a description of the flat for The Human Factor, his novel about a Soviet spy in British Intelligence. Greene’s wartime boss was none other than Kim Philby, the most damaging Soviet spy in the history of the Cold War.

Philby and Greene became good friends and they took their lunches together in The King’s Arms, located – as per the description in The Human Factor – ‘behind St. James’s Street.’ (The King’s Arms is no longer in business, and Greene left no description of it beyond the one given in the above extract. Anyone seeking a simulacrum is advised to try The Red Lion in Crown Passage, an old and atmospheric little pub which retains a pre-war flavour: a Greene-ish combo of cosy and seedy. It’s easy to imagine sausages and secrets being bandied about in there.)

Greene and his whiskies in his rooms at the Albany.

When Philby’s fellow spies Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean defected in 1951, suspicion fell upon Philby. Summoned to a series of meetings at MI5’s HQ in Curzon St., Philby was subject to increasingly sharp interrogations. But Philby refused to confess and his friends in MI6 stood by their man, even though MI5 remained suspicious. Philby resigned instead. The frustration of unimpressed MI5 investigators may be judged by the fact that they kept Philby under surveillance after his resignation from MI6. It is worth noting that MI6 was made up of well-connected, ‘clubbable’ old boys and toffs; whereas the ranks of MI5 were largely drawn from the armed forces and the police.

Philby’s victory lap: the ‘exonerated’ spy lies through his teeth to the press.

In 1955, Philby was named in the House of Commons as a possible traitor once rumours of a ‘third man’ began to circulate: but he faced down these accusations with extraordinary chutzpah, calling a press conference in his mother’s South Kensington flat after his ‘exoneration’ by an internal MI6 inquiry, and received an apology from the Labour MP who had made the allegations. Amazingly, he was later re-recruited into MI6 and worked as a journalist, agent and double agent in Beirut until 1963, when MI6 finally realised his treachery, courtesy of a Soviet defector. Philby fled before he could be arrested; although some believe he was allowed to run, as a public trial of a traitor who’d spent years at the heart of the British establishment would have been even more embarrassing than having one turn up in Moscow. It was eventually revealed that there were actually five Soviet spies at the heart of British intelligence: Anthony Blunt was outed in 1979 and John Cairncross in 1990. Neither was prosecuted.

It’s fascinating to consider what Greene and Philby talked about during their lunches in The King’s Arms. The bond between them seemed strong, forged over a mutual love of booze and a natural flair for subordination, albeit one that ran a lot deeper on Philby’s part. Greene even contributed a foreword to Philby’s memoir, written in Moscow, My Secret War. In his biography of Greene, Norman Sherry was sharp with his subject on this point: Greene had a horror of personal betrayal and Philby betrayed everyone, so why make a moral exception in his case? But after Greene’s death Sherry received a letter disclosing that Greene was feeding information about his later correspondence with Philby back to MI6, suggesting that Greene might have remained a British agent well into his seventies – and that his public indulgence of Philby was an elaborate front.

Paperback edition of ‘The Human Factor’ with very silly cover photo.

The Human Factor is an interesting foray into Le Carre territory, although its depiction of late 1970s English life seems anachronistic. It was made into a dull film by Greene’s friend Otto Preminger. They ran out of money during shooting and Preminger had to sell a Matisse and a spare house to finish it. The film is notable for Nicol Williamson’s performance as Greene’s conflicted spy, but its cramped budget makes it looks a bit like late 1970s TV: a dud episode of The Sweeney, perhaps, one without any car chases. It is also hampered by a wooden performance by supermodel Iman as Williamson’s screen wife. (An amazing piece of trivia about this film is that Preminger reportedly considered author, Tory peer and former jailbird Jeffrey Archer for the lead – but this was dropped when they realised that Archer was about a foot shorter than Iman.)

Nicol Williamson and Iman in ‘The Human Factor’.

Philby, like Guy Burgess, was an old Etonian; and, whilst they might have been traitors for Stalin, they never abandoned the privileges of their own class. That nameless, numberless people might be tortured and killed as a result of their actions was to them an abstraction; the same mechanism that allowed 18th century old boys to squander colossal fortunes in the gaming rooms of White’s, Brooks’s, et al. It is a very specific kind of entitlement; one only has to look at the Britain of our own time to see that high-stakes gambling regardless of consequences is still pursued with zeal by old Etonians at the highest levels of government. Europe was lost in the debating chambers of Eton.

Philby in Moscow, 1980s.