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.)

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