The Poor Wee Drinkur

A kid walks into a bar … .

Further to last week’s glimpse of Charles Dickens as an admirer of interventionist policing, today’s entry concerns itself with Dickens the ‘little gentleman’: the child labourer and prototype for many of the lost children in his own fiction. Here he is venturing into a pub for a little refreshment between shifts at the sweatshop:

‘I was such a child, and so little, that frequently when I went into the bar of a strange public-house for a glass of ale or porter, to moisten what I had had for dinner, they were afraid to give it me. I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public- house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best – your very best – ale a glass?’ For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday. ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.’ “Then,”‘says I, producing the money, ‘just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.”

This is a fragment of autobiography embedded in David Copperfield, Dickens’s favourite of his novels and the one which adhered most closely to the contours of his own life. It draws on the author’s experiences as a twelve-year old newly employed at Warren’s, a factory that manufactured boot blacking, operating in a ‘crazy, tumble-down old house’ at 30, Hungerford Stair, a building that stood roughly where Charing Cross station is today. Dickens was sent to work there in 1824, decades before Bazalgette embanked the Thames, and the tottering factory abutted the filthy river itself. Young Dickens was terrified of the building: of its reek of filth and decay, of the rats ‘swarming in the cellars’ and ‘squeaking and scuffling’ up and down the stairs, and, above all, of the dashed hopes represented by his employment therein. Only a few days after Charles started work at Warren’s his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for non-payment of debts: the family’s grip on bourgeois respectability was tenuous enough as it was, but debtors’ prison raised the spectre of total societal failure.

Warren’s blacking factory, with the spire of St.Martin in the Fields beyond.

So, in the teeth of his more refined sensibilities, young Charles was forced to labour alongside ‘common men and boys’, and was deeply ashamed of his association with them. ‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship.’ His one friend in the factory was an older boy called Bob Fagin, who trained the middle-class refugee how to prepare the bottles for sale and whose kindness Dickens later repaid by appropriating his name for his first great villain (a projection of Dickens’s fear of relegation to the lower orders). But the experience gave Dickens the raw material for his work. Dickens kept re-purposing the riverside warehouse in his fiction: 30, Hungerford Stair, its once-fine rooms sinking into filth, was a potent symbol of class collapse, put to good use throughout Oliver Twist (Fagin’s lair, Bill Sikes’s hideout, etc.) and beyond. ‘The bright pure child in the mouldering house’ (John Carey’s phrase) turns up in Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, and the dark, flickering, early-19th century Thames-side atmosphere saturates his fiction, all the way to Our Mutual Friend. But in David Copperfield the childhood trauma might have been too close to home: Dickens’s self-pity and self-regard is showcased to the detriment of the book. It is a rare achievement for an author to make a reader want to strangle a put-upon child hero, but young David is an unbearable little creep who grows up to be an unbearable prig. Here is the rest of the passage quoted above, from chapter 11, wherein the 37-year old novelist fondly recollects his childhood precociousness (in a pub in Parliament Street):

‘The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hand, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition. They asked me a good many questions; as, what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, how I was employed, and how I came there. To all of which, that I might commit nobody, I invented, I am afraid, appropriate answers. They served me with the ale, though I suspect it was not the Genuine Stunning; and the landlord’s wife, opening the little half-door of the bar, and bending down, gave me my money back, and gave me a kiss that was half admiring and half compassionate, but all womanly and good, I am sure.’

(I cannot read that passage without hearing the voice of Martin Prince, Bart’s classmate in The Simpsons.)

Dickens was able to leave Warren’s Blacking factory after his father had settled his debts and been released from the Marshalsea. By then Warren’s had abandoned Hungerford Stair in favour of smarter premises on Chandos St., on the north side of the Strand, and Charles had become so adept at preparing the bottles of blacking he was put in the window to perform the task for the benefit of passers-by, a winsome human advertisement for the firm. A blue plaque now commemorates Dickens’s stint there, floating on a wall above a branch of TGI Friday. For those seeking a flavour of the late Georgian riverside, Gordon’s at the bottom of Villiers St. – right opposite the site of Hungerford Stairs – remains an atmospheric place to drink, a subterranean cellar where drops of Thames water fall gently from the vaulted ceiling into your glass of port or Madeira or whatever. It is nice to hear that it has re-opened, but Covid regulations will make getting a table an even harder propostion than before; but if you manage to get a seat you can try ordering a Genuine Stunning and see what they give you.

Fights and Festivities at Hockley Hole


From The Annual Register, January 15th 1763:
A man was found in Fleet Ditch standing upright and frozen to death. He had, it seems, unfortunately mistaken his way in the night and slipped into the mud; and being in liquor could not disentangle himself.’

(It seems that this unfortunate was a barber from Bromley, which only goes to show that people from the suburbs have always been coming to grief on nights out ‘up west’.)

A photo – circa 2010 – showing the Coach and Horses pub (now just ‘The Coach’) on Ray Street, reflected in a traffic mirror. In the 18th century the site was known as ‘Hockley Hole’.

The Coach is a recently renovated pub in a curious backwater just west of Farringdon Rd. The pub used to be known as the Coach and Horses and it sits in a strange depression where three roads meet: Ray St., Back Hill and Herbal Hill. You can usually hear running water coming from a grating in the middle of the road: it is the sound of The Fleet, the greatest of all London’s lost rivers, now subsumed within the Ministry of Works’ drains. The section where it runs beneath Ray St. is the only stretch where it maintains its original course from its headwaters in Hampstead all the way to the Thames, where it spits out below Blackfriars Bridge. The Victorian sewer sits 14 feet under Ray Street; when they were laying it they found traces of a Roman pavement and, underneath that, the petrified remains of a mill dam.

Supposedly, an earlier incarnation of the Coach and Horses afforded access to the Fleet from its cellars, providing Georgian fugitives with an escape route to the Thames, or certain death in a fetid sewer, whichever was more likely. This can’t be too easily dismissed as an urban legend, as the sinister house ‘of Jonathan Wild’ was a few yards south of here, and the cellar of that dive definitely connected to the filth of Fleet Ditch. But the Coach is interesting for other reasons, as it occupies the site of Hockley Hole (or Hockley-in-the-Hole), one of the most scabrous entertainment venues in London’s history.

‘Just here, where Back Hill and Ray Street meet, was Hockley Hole, a famous place of entertainment for bull and bear baiting, and other cruel sports that delighted the brutal taste of the eighteenth century. One of the proprietors, named Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit, and was devoured, a form of sport that doubtless did not appeal to him.’ (The Fascination of London: Holborn and Bloomsbury by Sir Walter Besant,1903.)

Hockley Hole was famous for its bull terriers, which were bred and trained on the premises. In 1710 there was ‘… a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate market, against one from Honey-lane market, at a bull … Likewise, a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him. Also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three of the clock.’ On match days, bulls and bears were paraded through the streets to promote the carnage; there’s even an account of a tiger being baited by six dogs, that was a premier attraction in 1715.

Hockley in the Hole was referenced by Ben Jonson and Henry Fielding, and also gets a mention in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. It was swept away in 1756, after which bull-baiting moved to Spitalfields; but its memory lingered, an echo of a more primitive townscape. In Oliver Twist, Dickens has the Artful Dodger leading Oliver this way, en route to Fagin’s headquarters, which he placed a bit further south in Field Lane: ‘… down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole … the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels’

In the late 1980s and early 90s this end of Clerkenwell was a media boiler room, outwardly nondescript but bristling with energy; churning yet hidden, like the Fleet. A district of studios and print shops and publishers and dilapidated warehouses hastily re-purposed as temporary art spaces. A sense of something exciting happening, even if you couldn’t quite work out what it was. Opposite The Coach and Horses is a massive Art Deco factory block that was then Holborn Studios, a vast, labyrinthine lair for photographers, designers and printers, with a drinking culture to match. And, in his art scene memoir Lucky Kunst (that’s a pun, in case you weren’t clear), gallerist Gregor Muir identifies an event at The Coach and Horses as a moment of coalescence for the scene associated with the YBAs. One night in 1992, after the opening of a show in a Farringdon warehouse curated by nascent impresario Jay Jopling, the art mob invaded this unfamiliar pub to celebrate. The mood turned sour when someone picked a fight with the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, and a glass was broken over Dinos’s head. Muir asserts that, in the wake of this seemingly trivial pub fight, a new, collective spirit developed that dissolved pre-existing cliques and art world boundaries. ‘Something new was coming round the corner, something larger in scale’.

Jake and Dinos Chapman’s riff on Goya’s ‘Disasters of War‘: an original set of Goya’s lithographs with 21st century elaboration.

So: Georgian cruelty to YBA punch- up, bull baiting to Mother and Child Divided, etc., where does that get us, you ask? If I subscribed to the Ackroyd/Sinclair school of psychogeography, I might conclude with a paragraph devoted to the mysterious, subterranean forces of ‘the terrain’, throw in a mention of Guy Debord and generally risk getting kicked in the head. (A woman of my acquaintance recently observed that seeing ‘psychogeography’ listed under hobbies on a guy’s dating profile was the ultimate turn-off. Thus the term joins ‘spiritual’, ‘salsa’, ‘yoga’ and ‘angling’ as a romantic deal-breaker.) Instead, I leave you with this lovely portrait by the late John Londei. The subject is Clerkenwell mascot ‘Little Jimmy’, posing next to Holborn Studios in 1983. Jimmy was like a wizened Artful Dodger, a relic of old London amidst ‘80s media chancers. His uniqueness and his attitude – a kind of formal defiance – make the Dickens comparison inevitable. But I make no apology because this is one occasion where ‘Dickensian’ may be used with absolute conviction.

Little Jimmy by John Londei.