Some Fleet Street Killers

John Strype, Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720: Adjoining to St. Dunstan’s Church, Eastwards, is a small Place of two Houses, which bears the Name of Hen and Chicken Court. And near unto this Court, Fetter lane falleth into Fleetstreet. Flower de lyz Court, or rather Alley, being long, narrow and ordinary, with a Freestone Pavement; hath three Out-lets, two into Fetter lane, and another into Three Leg Alley. This Court is of very small Repute, being but meanly inhabited; the Buildings are on the East side, the West being the back Yards to the Houses in Fetter lane. It is of some Note for the Mousetrap House, being the Receptacle for leud Persons.

Hen and Chicken Court remains an actual address in 21st century London, a dingy survivor of ‘The Great Wen’ amidst gleaming corporate anonymity. Sadly, The Mousetrap House has vanished, so if it’s lowlife drinking you’re after you’ll have to go elsewhere. There are more than a few websites that list this spot as the site of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop, a joint where you risked getting turned into a savoury pastry for the sake of a shave. Sweeney Todd is, of course, entirely fictitious, a character created for a mid- 18th century Penny Dreadful called The String of Pearls. But the era didn’t need fictional killers, it had more than enough real ones.

Sarah Malcolm was a 22-year old laundress of Irish extraction who lived above a local pub and did laundry for various Temple residents. One of these was Lydia Duncomb, a rich 80-year old who lived in a house with her two maidservants. One morning in February 1733, Miss Duncomb and her maids were found dead, variously strangled or stabbed, and the house ransacked. Sarah was quickly connected to the murders by a stolen tankard and some bloodied clothing found in her room. At her brief trial (lasting all of five hours) she maintained that she’d only kept watch for the gang and hadn’t killed anyone, and said that her clothes were bloodied with her own menstrual blood. But in the absence of other culprits, she was convicted and hanged on the corner of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. Days before her execution, Hogarth visited Sarah in Newgate Gaol and painted a celebrated prison portrait of her. She’s holding a rosary in the picture, which is significant: catholics weren’t too popular in England at that time. The great artist thought she was capable of any vice, although it seems that her hangman thought she was innocent. She maintained her innocence to the end (her confession became a posthumous bestseller) and was pitifully distressed that she was to be executed on Fleet Street, where her death would be witnessed by neighbours and acquaintances.

The Fleet Street/Fetter Lane junction had long been a busy venue for hangings, with a gibbet on the spot since at least the 16th century. Sarah was executed there in accordance with the convention that criminals hanged close to the scene of their crimes might be a warning to other likely offenders. But public executions functioned as a spectator sport, and the advent of the ‘bloody code’ in the 18th century increased the number of offences that carried a death sentence, offering greater opportunities for popular entertainment. At this time Temple Bar * was festooned with the decaying heads of miscreants stuck on poles and displayed as examples of justice exacted. Horace Walpole wrote in a letter in 1746 about seeing the ‘new heads’ on Temple Bar, ‘where people make a trade of letting spy glasses at halfpenny a look’. (* Christopher Wren’s elegant gateway, removed in 1878 as an impediment to traffic. It languished in the grounds of a brewer’s mansion in Hertfordshire until it was finally moved back to London in 2004. It now gleams white and pristine in the environs of St Paul’s cathedral, its associations with past horrors seemingly expunged.)

In 1767 a further address mentioned by Strype became associated with another notorious murder case. Mary Clifford was a fourteen year-old apprentice killed by her employer, Elizabeth Brownrigg, a midwife who lived in Fleur-de-Lis Court. Mary had been placed at Mrs Brownrigg’s establishment by the newly-established Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields, Bloomsbury. The Hospital was looking to find apprenticeships for the adolescent orphans in its care, but they were not bothering to vet the employers too thoroughly. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Brownrigg was a violent sadist who abused the three girls in her care in horrific ways: chaining them up and beating them, starving them, locking them in the coal cellar, cutting their tongues with pincers and so on. Mary was treated so badly that she died of her infected wounds. Mrs Brownrigg was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and was duly hanged at Tyburn. This was a cause celebre in its day, highlighting the plight of orphans and the extent to which they were prey to slavery and cruelty, even when they were under the care of a charitable institution like the Foundling Hospital.

One final word on Sweeney Todd: the following Georgian news item has an eerie echo of the mythical barber …

The Annual Register, December 1st, 1784: A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been for a long time past jealous of his wife, but could no way bring it home to her. A young gentleman by chance coming into his master’ s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned his having seen a fine girl home to Hamilton Street, from whom he had certain favours the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber concluding it to be his wife, in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’ s throat from ear to ear and absconded.

Class, Sex, Fruit

William Hogarth: ‘Morning’ from ‘The Four Times of Day’ (1738)

As London attempts a return to some sort of normality, Covent Garden’s website offers a handy list of the measures that visitors may expect: social distancing, queuing protocols, hand santiser stations, roads closed to traffic to improve pedestrian access, etc. .The photos on the site are a bit like architects’ visualisations, with figures added for scale. Covid-19 seems to have completed the cauterization of the area, a process that started when the fruit and veg market decamped to distant Nine Elms in the mid- 1970s. It seems astonishing now, but civic functionaries at the GLC intended to flatten the market buildings and replace everything with a giant mall. Public protests eventually forced the GLC to abandon its planned redevelopment; but when the market re-opened in 1980, residents and campaigners felt that they had won a pyrrhic victory. Covent Garden became a Disneyfied retail playground: heritage frosting for the up-market chains, living statues and gaudy stalls peddling trinket-shit to out-of- towners.

Covent Garden is so over-familiar and so despised by Londoners that it is worth remembering what it represents: the only Renaissance square in the city, Inigo Jones’s homage to all things Italian (inspired by the piazza of Livorno) and a gimlet-eyed speculative venture on the part of the Earl of Bedford, who owned the land. It was intended to be an up-market residential development but the Civil War scared off the smarter residents, and by the 18th century it was a full-blown party district, London’s crustiest erogenous zone. Many of the rooms above the piazza’s elegant colonnades were ‘working flats’ leased by prostitutes who used the local drinking shops as places to meet clients. Hogarth’s studio was on the south-eastern side of the piazza, and he remains our best guide to 18th century dissipation, recording several dives for posterity. The first of his series The Four Times of Day (1738) is a winter tableau showing Covent Garden on a freezing morning: a matron en route to church is inconvenienced by a couple of rakes making moves on a pair of malleable wenches. The young blades have clearly spent the night carousing in the dodgy looking shed beneath the portico of St Pauls’s church, ‘Tom King’s coffee house’, an all-night café that served as a place for tarts to pick up trade. Punters also had their pick of several bagnios, bath houses where one could engage private rooms for liaisons with the girls who operated there.

‘The Bagnio’; plate 5 of ‘Marriage a la Mode’.

In the fifth image of his Marriage a la Mode Hogarth sets the fatal fallout of an adulterous liaison in a bedroom at The Turk’s Head, a bagnio in Bow St., wherein a young earl expires after being run-through by his wife’s lover. On the north-eastern side of the piazza you would find another ominous-sounding bagnio, Haddock’s, as well as the Shakespeare Head Tavern, the most notorious of all Covent Garden’s 18th century pick up joints. The Shakespeare’s head waiter was Jack Harris, self-styled ‘Pimp-General to the people of England’, who lent his name to an inventory of tarts, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a London-wide punters’ guide compiled by a succession of writers that was in print for decades. (Harris seems to have been proud of the fact that he made prostitution a bit more upmarket.) A few yards to the east, standing roughly where Drury Lane Theatre is now, was The Rose, a tavern which Hogarth used for a scene in A Rake’s Progress. Here, Hogarth’s anti- hero gets debauched in a chaotic private chamber, surrounded by an assortment of foxy, poxy, gin-spitting girls – their beauty spots masking venereal sores – one of whom is relieving the insensible rake of his watch.

Detail from plate 3 of ‘The Rake’s Progress’; the ‘Rake’ paintings are in the John Soane Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Hogarth seized on the social theatre of Covent Garden: how the licentious nature of the district dissolved class divisions, or threw them into sharp relief. This remained true throughout the 18th century. In August 1776 the debt-ridden son of Lord Milton enjoyed a lengthy supper at the Bedford Tavern, another edgy establishment on the south side of the piazza, in the company of four working girls and a blind fiddler (yes, really). The party continued until three in the morning, at which point young Milton dismissed his entourage and blew his brains out with a pistol. The debts were gambling debts, naturally, incurred in the clubs of St. James’s. Even more tragic and bizarre is the 1779 murder of Martha Ray, singer, and mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, shot outside the Covent Garden Theatre by a demented cleric who was infatuated with her. Perpetrator and victim were taken to the Shakespeare’s Head where an impromptu inquest took place. The killer claimed that he didn’t intend to shoot Martha but ‘a phrensy overcame me’. He was hanged at Tyburn, but the strange thing is that the murderer seems to have attracted more public sympathy than his victim.

The Shakespeare’s Head stood roughly where the crass and ungainly Royal Opera House extension stands now. This 1990s project vandalised a considerable portion of Covent Garden, requiring the demolition of an entire terrace of Georgian houses on Russell St. and putting in its place a lifeless box showcasing shops that one can find anywhere. It is depressing to consider that one of the glories of Covent Garden turned out to be one of the agents of its demise, although in the light of recent events it all seems a bit academic. In the past decade most of the best pubs and bars closed and Covid-19 is succeeding where the GLC failed. You are permitted to consume goods and services if you queue nicely. But there’s no such thing as an antiseptic party, or a socially-distanced debauch. You can’t get slurringly romantic and maintain a two- metre exclusion zone. Welcome to Alphaville, WC2. We are all figures in an architect’s illustration now.

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.)