Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The story of Jack Sheppard

Jack Sheppard is one of London's most entertaining criminal stories. His story would seem almost implausible if we didn't know it to be true, and seems perfect fodder for some kind of swashbuckling film adaptation.

Sheppard was a petty burglar in London in the 18th Century, and fenced goods via Jonathan Wild. Wild deserves a post of his own, but he essentially was an incredibly corrupt lawman who bought stolen items from theives, and then sold them back to
their owners for a profit. Wild and Sheppard had had a financial disagreement, and so it was conspired to get Sheppard arrested. By providing information as to a known felon's arrest, Wild was also able to make money. So, Sheppard was captured and imprisoned on the top floor of St. Giles's Roundhouse for questioning. Sheppard probably rightly figured that as he'd fallen afoul of Wild he wouldn't stand much of a chance of any leniency. So he resolved to break out.

He fashioned a rope from his bedclothes, broke through the wooden ceiling and lowered himself to the ground still wearing leg irons. By this time a crowd had gathered outside the Roundhouse having noted that someone was escaping. He slipped into the crowd, then pointed at the roof and shouted that he could see someone lurking in the shadows. In the confusion created by his cunning act of misdirection, he made good his escape.

Sheppard seems unable to keep a low profile for long, and soon after he was arrested for pickpocketing and kept overnight in St. Ann's Roudhouse where he was visited by his wife, a woman named Bessie who history primarily records as being large and incredibly busty. Suspecting conspiracy she was detained too and locked in a cell with him. They were then sent to the New Prison in Clerkenwell, where they were locked up together. It seems strange to us to imprison a married couple together, but prison in those days was far less ordered. Prisoners, especially in Newgate were allowed to freely intermingle in enclosures, rape, murder and violence were common. Regardless, the Sheppards soon devised an escape plan. They filed through their manacles, dislodged a bar from the window and again used their knotted bedsheets to make good their descent to ground level. They then stood in front of the imposing prison wall, the only thing standing between them and freedom. What Jack did next laid the foundations of his future fame. He lifted his wife onto his shoulder and using a nearby gate scrabbled and climbed up the ironwork managed somehow managed to reach the summit. He then, acrobatically (or as acrobatically as one can be with your wife over your shoulder) rapidly descended to the street; and freedom.

Of course, these escapes only served to inflame Wild, and being on the wrong side of this man was not a recipe for an easy life in London at this time. A man of immense resources and grasp, Wild soon ensured that Sheppard was captured and quickly tried. Wild sat in the witness box across from Sheppard directly giving evidence against him, and the verdict was a predictable one: death. The date for execution was set for 4th September. Imprisoned in Newgate, on 31st August, Sheppard resolved to escape once more. They key was a window in the cell which allowed the prisoner to talk to visitors or legal representatives. He set to work in dislodging one of the bars of the door and with the collusion of some friends and Besse (who hadn't be rearrested) he squeezed through the tiny gap in the bars. His wife provided him with a convincing disguise; dressing him up in her clothes as a woman and he waltzed daintily past the unsuspecting guards.

Having made three daring escapes (and non-violent ones at that) he had become somewhat of a celebrity. His profile made it hard for him to keep a low profile, and it wasn't long before he was re-arrested by a posse from Newgate after briefly leaving London. Sheppard was returned to the condemned cell at Newgate once more. His fame had increased to such a level that nobles and other movers and shakers visited him in Newgate to marvel at him. Respect for him had increased to such a level that these esteemed visitors tried slipping him files and escape tools, but they were discovered by the guards. As a result, he was transferred to a strong room in Newgate prison known as the "Castle", clapped in sturdy leg irons and chained down to two metal staples set into the floor.

Showing off, he demonstrated how easily it was for him to escape by picking the lock of his padlocks in front of the guards. As a result, he was bound even more tightly. He seems to have been relishing his celebrity by this point, and is recorded as saying:

"I am the Sheppard, and all the Gaolers in the Town are my Flock, and I cannot stir into the Country, but they are all at my Heels Baughing after me."

But maybe he had a right to be cocky, as he was about to boggle and astonish his gaolers and ensure his place in history. Wild had betrayed one of his lieutenants (a fellow called Blueskin), and whilst giving evidence against him Blueskin had leapt across the courtroom and tried to slash Wild's throat. He was lucky to escape with his life. This attempt to murder Wild sent the prison into an uproar - he was loathed as he had betrayed many of the men behind the prison's sturdy walls.

Sheppard saw his chance. He picked the lock of his handcuffs and removed the chains. He quickly realised he wasn't able to free himself of the bulky and awkward leg irons, so they he would have to escape wearing them. His plan was to climb up the sooty and claustrophobic chimney, see how far he could get and then improvise from there. Halfway up he encountered an iron bar set across the chimney blocking his progress. Somehow he removed the bar, and used it to smash through the ceiling into the "Red Room" which was used to house aristocratic political prisoners. He dropped down into the room (still wearing leg irons). But this was still a prison, and with it a selection of locked and bolted doors. Through a combination of delicate lockpicking and brute force using his crowbar he broke through door after door, six in all, all in the pitch dark and with the prospect of being caught at any time by a patrolling guards.

Sheppard eventually found himself standing in the cold night air of London on the roof of the prison. The sweet, fresh air must have seemed like a tonic after the filth of the prison. One problem though, he may be outside, but he was sixty feet above the ground. There was no way down.

Most men would have admitted defeat there, but not Sheppard - he went back through darkened corridors of the prison, back through the locked doors, up through the ceiling of the Red Room, crawled all the way back down the chimney into his cell and took the blanket from his bed. He then (still wearing the leg irons I remind you) went all the way back to the roof, and using his blanket as a makeshift swing made it over the walls landing softly on the roof of an adjacent house. He broke into the house, and stealthily made his way through the building past the sleeping occupants and into the street. He then got his leg irons removed by spinning a sob story to passing shoemaker. Freedom once more!

By this time Sheppard was really starting to revel in his infamy. He broke into a pawnbrokers and robbed it of all its cash and then dressed himself in a a black silk suit, a silver sword, rings, watches and a wig. In his dandified outfit and
accompanied by two comely maidens he proceeded to go on a what can only be described as a bender. He got hammered at every bar he went to, mostly being given free drinks by people awed by his celebrity. He was finally arrested, blind drunk "in a handsome Suit of Black, with a Diamond Ring and a Cornelian ring on his Finger, and a fine Light Tye Peruke".

They weren't taking any chances with him this time. He was kept and observed at all times in Newgate and loaded with 300lb of iron weights (the actual irons are pictured below). His celebrity had grown so much that his gaolers charged visitors 4 shillings to visit him. Petitions were sent to the King urging him to commute the death sentence to transportation.

Contemporary reports state:

"The Concourse of People of tolerable Fashion to see him was exceeding Great, he was always Chearful and Pleasant to a Degree, as turning almost everything as was said onto a Jest and Banter."

He was also noted to have said to a visiting priest: "One file's worth all the Bibles in the World".

But he was not to escape the gallows again. On 16th November he was taken to Tyburn for the grisly sentence to be carried out. True to form, he had a plan to get out of this one, having a pen-knife concealed on him that he would use to cut the ropes binding him, but it was found by his guards.

The procession to the place of execution was one of the biggest events in London up to that time. As much as 200,000 people showed up to send him off, and after the customary pint of ale given to a condemned man at the City of Oxford Tavern he was sent to the gallows. He took 15 minutes to asphyxiate to death, and after his body was cut down the crowd rushed forward to get a piece of the escape artist that charmed London. Eventually his body was recovered, having been mauled by the crowd, and the broken remains buried in St. Martins-in-the-Fields later that day.

Truly an astonishing series of exploits, humiliating the establishment at every turn. His notoriety after his death was such that usage of his name to promote a play or book was banned for years afterwards. His tale is all the more notable due to his non-violent methods. Of course one cannot say what he would have done had he found a guard on his escape route, but among the tarnished reputations of many of London's 'lovable' rogues Sheppard seems to stand as one of the more daring, and a person that can genuinely be admired for his persistence, and for his refusal to be confined by a corrupt system.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Whitecross Street Part 6 - Prison

“The system of imprisonment for debt is in itself impolitic, unwise, and cruel in the extreme:- it ruins the honest man, and destroys the little remnant of good feeling existing in the heart of the callous one. It establishes the absurd doctrine, that if a man cannot pay his debts while he is allowed the exercise of his talents, his labour, and his acquirements, he can when shut up in the narrow compass of a prison, where his talents, his labour., and his acquirements are useless. Larceny and theft are punished by a limited imprisonment, with an allowance of food; but debtors, who commit no crime, may linger and languish - and starve in gaol.”

- George W. M Reynolds: 'Mysteries of London' (1844)

London had became notable for the levels of poverty and squalor associated with it at various points in its history. As a result, the early 1800s found large numbers of the populace being imprisoned for being unable to cope with their levels of debt. Being a debtor and unable to pay in these times was very serious, you faced the prospect of being imprisoned in the notorious Newgate Prison with any number of violent criminals. Mixing debtors and more common criminals began to widely considered to be unjust and following a campaign by Sir Richard Phillips the construction of a new debtors prison was ordered. The location for this prison: Whitecross Street.

The prison, designed by William Montague, was constructed in 1813. It was divided into a number of sections; the first was known as the Ludgate side, for debtors who were freemen of the City of London, the second, which was known as the London side, was set apart for persons within the jurisdiction of city, and the third was the Middlesex side, for persons arrested in the country various wards were opened in the following years also. In all, the prison was initially designed to hold 500 debtors. The numbers of people passing through the gates of this building must have been astronomical. From the time of its opening any person who owed a debt of a shilling or sixpence against another party, and was unable or unwilling to pay would be ordered to be imprisoned for twenty days. It was estimated that the number of people annually committed to the prison would have been more than 2000.

Whitecross Street Prison

The prisoners were fed on funds raised by philanthropists in the city whose their names were displayed on a large board facing onto the yard of prison. Different wards had different benefactors, the poorest of the prisoners could be employed to make the beds, clean the floors and so on. To keep costs down, and as a result of their relatively short imprisonment, the prisoners were encouraged to being their own food in, tea and coffee, bread and butter, tobacco and so forth. To this end they were provided with a small lockable pigeonhole to keep their consumables in. As this was a congregation of the poorest Londoners, theft was endemic. People accustomed to good living may have tried to continue their rich diet while imprisoned, but found their valuable delicacies stolen overnight by their fellow prisoners or opportunistic guards. The general feeling of the prison was that this was a place of penitence, and luxuries were not permitted, spirits and liquors were banned, as were dice and cards. Strangely, it was felt inhumane to force the prisoners to be completely abstinent from alcohol, and they were permitted to drink a pint of wine each day.

In 'Mysteries of London', a penny dreadful which began to be published by George W. M. Reynolds in 1844, the central character is committed to Whitecross Street Prison. Here is an edited extract which describes how the character, Chichester, is processed into the prison population.

“A COLD drizzling rain was falling, as Chichester proceeded along the streets leading to the debtors' prison.

It was now nine o'clock; and the place, viewed by the flickering light of the lamp at the gate of the governor's house, wore a melancholy and sombre appearance. The prisoner was introduced into a small lobby, where an elderly turnkey with knee-breeches and gaiters, thrust a small loaf of bread into his hand, and immediately consigned him to the care of another turnkey, who led him through several alleys to the staircase communicating with the Receiving Ward.

He cast a glance round the room ; and saw three or four tolerably decent-looking persons warming themselves at the fire, while fifteen or sixteen wretched-looking men, dressed for the most part as labourers, were sitting on the forms round the walls, at a considerable distance from the blazing grate.
"How many prisoners, upon an average, pass through the Receiving Ward - in the course of one year?"
"About three thousand three hundred as near as I can guess. All the Debtors receive each so much bread and meat a-week. The prison costs the City close upon nine thousand pounds a year."
"Nine thousand a-year, spent to lock men up, away from their families !" exclaimed Chichester. " That sum would pay the debts of the greater portion of those who are unfortunate enough to be brought here."
That man over there, with the little bundle tied up in a blue cotton handkerchief, is only arrested for 8d. The costs are three and sixpence."
"He is actually a prisoner, then, for four and two-pence."
In addition to the few instances of flagrant dishonesty, or culpable extravagance which were pointed out to Chichester, information was given him of many - very many cases of pure and unadulterated misfortune. Misery - lank, lean, palpable misery - is the characteristic of Whitecross Street prison.
The legislature says - "We only allow men to be locked up in order to prevent them from running away without paying the debts they owe." - Then why treat them as felons? Why impose upon them rules and regulations, the severity of which is as galling to their souls as the iron chains of Newgate are to the felons' flesh? Why break their spins and crush their good and generous feelings by compelling them all to herd together - the high and the low - the polite and the vulgar - the temperate and the drunkard - the cleanly and the filthy - the religious and the profane - the sedate and the ribald?
George W. M. Reynolds: “The Mysteries of London” (1844)

So, even though this prison, at least in comparison to some other London prisons was relatively well-kept, the people imprisoned within were not hardened criminals, they were the common folk of London, thrust into a world of strict rules and dishonesty. It would be a great stigma to a businessman or prominent citizen to be shown to be unable to pay his or her debts, and obviously, during the period of confinement they were unable to run their businesses, inflicting further financial hardship upon them.

A prisoner being released from Whitecross Street Prison

The operation of the prison was eventually wound up with the passing of the Debtors Act of 1869. Prior to this, public opinion had shifted on the morality of imprisonment for debt, and the sentence had become a rarity. This Act finally abolished the sentence of imprisonment for debt, and arrangements began to be made for the closure of the prison. By 1870, the last prisoners had been transferred to Holloway Prison and the prison was closed. Soon afterwards, the land was sold to the Midlands Railway Company, who built a terminus on the site, which was then subsequently destroyed in the Blitz. The northern most part of the Barbican Centre is now built on the location.

Whitecross Street, like thousands of other streets in London has a rich and varied history. Purely by researching what has taken place in a certain location, you can gain insights into conditions in the city as a whole, and insights into human nature through time. The sediment of history piling on top of itself throws up a lot of confusion, but by restricting myself along strict geographical lines, studying a microcosm in effect, it is fascinating what has happened here. We may not know what the future holds for Whitecross Street, but at least we can get some understanding of what the past can tell us.


Whitecross Street Part 5 - Poverty

“She was a very little woman, with the smallest bonnet I ever saw. It was, positively, nothing more than a black patch on the back of her head, and the frayed ends were pulled desperately forward towards her chin, showing her ears through a ragged trellis-work. As to her dress, it looked as if some cunning spinner had manufactured a textile fabric out of mud; or, as if dirt could be darned and patched. I did not see her feet; but I heard a flapping on the floor as she moved, and guessed what sort of shoes she must have worn. She was the sort of little woman who ought to have had a round, rosy, dumpling face - and she had two bead- like black eyes; but face and eyes were all crushed and battered by want and exposure. Her very skin was in rags. The poor little woman did nothing but make faces, which would have been ludicrous, if - in the connection of what surrounded and covered her, and her own valiant determination not to cry - they had not been heartrending.

Description of a resident of Whitecross Street
George Augustus Sala: “Houseless and Hungry” (1859)

Whitecross Street today lies dotted with upmarket boutiques. However, the street was once notorious for the misery that dwelled within the cramped and filthy slum houses that festered around the centre of old London.

As the population of the country increased in the 19th Century, living conditions for the poor began to decrease in the city. London, being an economically minded city, never seems to have much space for those without means within the bounds of the City, but the situation for the poor in the Victorian era rapidly became almost unbearable. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing by the early 18th Century, and many workers were travelling to London to work in the docks which had become the centre of trade in the world. The potato blight had struck Ireland, resulting in a huge influx of desperate Irish immigrants to areas like St. Giles and Spitalfields. Additionally, the building of the railroads in the 1830s had displaced thousands, resulting in a rush towards the city. London’s population exploded.

With no welfare system in place, unscrupulous landlords began converting their buildings into what became known as ‘rookeries’. These rookeries would house the poorest that London would have to offer for a pittance every night. Whitecross Street, which, prior to this population explosion was regarded as a relatively middle-class area became dotted with them. Charles Booth’s infamous map of London recorded the poverty levels of each area of Central London as a colour code – Whitecross Street’s housing ranged from purple: “Mixed. Some comfortable others poor.” right the way to black: “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.”

Researching the street in the archives of the Old Bailey reveals a myriad of violent crime and robbery over the years. Drunken stabbings over some imagined slight were a regular feature of the street for a few hundred years. Violence against women was common;

“I saw the Prisoner at the Bar throw a Piece of Brick at his Wife. - She asked him to go and carry Malt at the Peacock Brewhouse, he would not go; but taking up a Piece of Brick, said if she was not easy, he would throw the Brick at her, which he did; and then said he would throw another if she did not get away; she said a good while unconcerned, but at Length the Neighbours got her away. The Brick was almost as big as my Fist. - He stood five or six Yards from her; he bid her get away several Times, yet she would not go, and then he threw it at her with his Left Hand, it hit her pretty hard on the Head”

“He said, Damn your Blood, I will knock your Brains out if you do not get away. I will speak the Truth, for we must all appear before one Tribunal Judge, to be sure; he said afterwards, God damn your Eyes and limbs, if I have not kill'd you, I will kill you, and to be hanged for it I do not value it.”

Evidence from the trial William Shaw for murder on Whitecross Street

There are records of numerous violent and disturbing incidents over the years, ranging from the body of an unidentified toddler found half buried in a privy, to naked bare-knuckle boxing in the street. These were violent times, and these were desperate people.

Life became harsh, inhospitable and desperate very quickly. A prospective tenant in one of the Whitecross Street slums would be expected to sleep in a shared bed or pile of straw with numerous other residents. There were some regulations on what standards a slumlord was permitted to keep his building in, but they were essentially unenforceable and therefore ignored. It was not unheard of for 20 or 30 people to be crammed into a small room, sleeping wherever there was space on the floor. Naturally, in unhygienic conditions like this, disease was endemic. As well as the fetid stench of their fellow inhabitants, residents at a rookery had rats and fleas to look forward to. Contagion spread rapidly, and the average life expectancy on the streets of London was around 37 (1841 figure).

A Court for King Cholera, Punch Magazine – December 1852

A large amount of people in Victorian society turned their backs on their fellow citizens, ashamed or disgusted by the manner in which they were forced to live. Pamphlets such as a “the Jolly Beggar” put forward the notion that many of the homeless population of London were faking their misery in order to elicit sympathy and money from those gullible enough to provide it. Some even denied that there was a problem at all;

“How can there be any destitution with your outdoor relief, and your in-door relief, your workhouse test, relieving officers, and your casual ward? Besides, there is employment for all. There are hospitals and infirmaries for the sick, workhouse infirmaries for the infirm. Prosperity, the war notwithstanding, is continually increasing. None but the idle and the dissolute need be houseless and hungry. If they are, they have the union to apply to; and, consequently, asylums for the houseless serve no beneficial end; divert the stream of charitable donations from its legitimate channels; foster idleness and vice, and parade, before the eyes of the public, a misery that does not exist.”

A sceptical view of London poverty (as told to the author)
George Augustus Sala, Gaslight and Daylight, 1859

Life for children was particularly tough. Half the burials in London in 1839 were for children under 10, and the period is infamous for the vivid descriptions of life in London’s workhouses by Dickens. A Whitecross Street child here gives his own account of his life in the street, as interviewed by James Greenwood in 1874:

"I am nine and a half," said he, "and I lives in Playhouse Yard, in Whitecross Street. It ain't a house, at least it ain't a house what you goes in-doors to, with tables and chairs and that, and a fire. … It’s a baker’s barrer, one of them with a lid. The baker lets me sleep there, and I watches out for the cats."
"For the cats?"
"It's down a yard with gates to it where the barrer is and the baker he keeps breeding ducks and pigeons there and the cats come and nail 'em o' nights, and when I hears em I gives the lid of the barrer a histe, and down it comes with a whack, and they are off like a shot."
"Are your parents alive ?" I asked him.
"I ain't got no mother, I've got a father; I sees him sometimes. He don't live up my way, he goes to fairs and that. I ain't got no brothers. I've got a sister she's in the hospital. She used to work up Mile End I way, at the lucifer factory, till she got the canker making of em. She's been in the hospital this ever so long. That's why I don't sell 'lights.' I can t bear the sight of em. I'm on my own hands. I earns all I gets. I've been adoin' it ever since she was took to the hospital."
"Are you ever ill ?"
"I haint been ill a long time, not since the middle o' summer, when I had the measles. No, I didn t sleep in the baker's barrer then. I didn't know him. I knowed a pipemaker, and he let me lay in his shed, and his missus was werry kind to me. I do werry well. I hardly ever goes without grub. Yes, sometimes I wears boots. I ain't had none since the last boat-race day, Cambridge and Oxford, and I lost one on 'em turning cat'n wheels behind a carriage."
"Were you ever in trouble?"
"I never was locked up; cert'ny not. Don't I think I should be better off in the workus? No, I don't want to be shut up anywheres. I am all right. I don't want nobody to be a-looking arter me like that, thanky all the same, mister."
"Can you read?"
"No, I can't read, nor write neither; I never was in a school. Never was in a church. I don't like to be shut up anywhere. I'd a jolly sight rather go on as I'm a goin.'"

James Greenwood: “In Strange Company”, (1874)

A life for a child being brought up ‘on the stones’ was fraught with hazards, they had to grow up fast to survive in this world.

Fortunately there was some semblance of a culture of philanthropy in Victorian London. The alms-house constructed on the orders of Henry V in the 15th century was the precursor of ‘The Asylum of the Society for Affording Nightly Shelter to the Houseless’ which opened at around the mid 1820s. This society described itself as providing “nightly shelter and assistance to those who are really houseless and destitute during inclement winter seasons, and the occasional suspension of out-door work, in consequence of the rigour of the weather.”

‘The Asylum of the Society for Affording Nightly Shelter to the Houseless’ (male and female wards)

This help consisted of bread, warm shelter and a place to sleep. For those whose only option was a night on a freezing London street, this place would have seemed like some small kind of heaven. In cases of sickness and exhaustion, the shelter provided gruel, wine, brandy, soup and medicine, all administered under medical supervision. The shelter comments; “many have been thus rescued from the grasp of death”.

Given the inviting services provided, it can be taken that these facilities were near constantly full, with the poor clamouring to get inside. Friedrich Engels comments in the “Condition of the Working Class in England” that “the number of applicants in ... the asylum of Whitecross Street, was strongly on the increase, and a crowd of the homeless had to be sent away every night for want of room.”

A tradition of philanthropy still exists along Whitecross Street. There are charities that support the LGBT community, Ethnic Minority widows and the headquarters of ‘UnLtd’, an organisation that helps fund ‘social entrepreneurs’ – people who want to improve their local communities. Also, a few doors down from the North end of the street the headquarters of the homeless charity Shelter is based – which brings a nice continuity to the area as it fulfils a modern version of the function of Henry V’s almshouse.

Another notable institution present on Whitecross Street is the large estate run by the Peabody Trust. In 1862 George Peabody, widely acknowledged as the father of modern philanthropy established an institution that would provide what he defined as “a good home, a place that is safe, warm, clean, light, well maintained and evokes personal pride”; he promoted “a strong feeling of belonging” as “active involvement in the neighbourhood and the spirit of togetherness and friendliness that goes with it”.

The Whitecross Street buildings were built in the 1880s, and though like most of the street they suffered bomb damage during the Blitz many of the original buildings stand to this day. It has been noted that these buildings did not cater towards the desperately poor – they were designed to accommodate low-paid city and service workers, so large numbers of people were displaced during the construction of the buildings thus contributing to the gentrification of the street. In modern times the Peabody estate does excellent work in housing those that need a roof above their head but have nowhere else to turn to.

It is somewhat reassuring that despite the degradation that the street has subjected its inhabitants to over time, that it has nurtured a strong charitable side also. If the local history were just pain, bloodshed and murder it is doubtful the street would be looking as upbeat as it does at the moment. As it stands, the work carried out by many of the Victorian philanthropists still benefits residents of the street to this day, and for that we can be thankful.

Concluded in Part 6

Whitecross Street Part 4 - Entertainment

" . . .a Statue, in the fore-front of your house
For euer ; like the picture of Dame Fortune
Before the Fortune play-house."

We may be pelted off, for ought we know,
With apples, eggs, or stones from thence below ;
In which weele craue your friendship, if we may,
And you shall haue a dance worth all the play."

Thomas Heywood, "English Traveller" (1633)

Happily, the history of this street is not pain, misery and disease. One of London’s first theatres; The Fortune Playhouse, opened at what came to be known as Playhouse Yard opposite what is now the Two Brewers pub.

Funded by the actor Edward Alleyn, famous for playing the title role in the original production Marlowe’s classic Faustus, and constructed in about 1600 by Peter Street, architect of the Globe, it became rapidly known as “the fairest play-house in the town”. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist recorded a visit and commented that he;

“found the musique better than we looked for and the acting not much worse, because I expected as bad as could be."

When it opened the theatre was a jewel in the crown of Elizabethan London, hosting receptions for foreign diplomats, and the box reserved for nobility to watch the shows was rarely empty.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Elizabethan Stage, a recreation of the Fortune Playhouse

However, the theatre soon began a slow and irreversible decline. It was customary after the show for the audience, their mood buoyed by alcohol and good spirits, to begin a drunken party, which the authorities at the time claimed led to murder, theft and violence. The ire of the governors of London was further raised by the fact that in 1613 a country farmer stabbed a city gentleman during one of these parties.

Around this period the infamous Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse aka ‘The Roaring Girl’ appeared on the stage. Mary Frith was an eccentric character; dressing almost exclusively in men’s clothing, she smoked heavily and constantly, stole and fenced goods and was apparently incredibly obscene in both her language and her conduct. She was known for appearing on the stage in a state of extreme drunkenness, singing dirty songs and bantering with the audience. This kind of genderbending ‘unwomanly’ behaviour would have been alien to the Elizabethan audience at the time, and it seems that Frith was tolerated simply because she bent societal norms so far that it became ludicrous. Regardless, she quickly became notorious, being mentioned in a lot of writing at the time as a unique London character. However, as useful as notoriety was to her, it did not serve the Fortune well, furthering its reputation as a place of ‘low’ behaviour, violence and depravity.

Moll Cutpurse

On the 9th of December 1621, the wooden theatre burned to the ground, leaving Alleyn in considerable financial trouble. The theatre reopened in 1623, although its reputation as a den of licentiousness and bawdy activity did not disappear with the new building.

In 1624 the well-known astrologer and abortionist ‘Dr’ John Lambe, who was apparently an expert in securing poor pre-adolescent virgins for sexual use by the rich was mobbed when coming out of the theatre and ‘hys braines were bashed out’. He aroused the ire of the crowd by raping and buggering an eleven year old virgin named Joan Seger. The offence was compounded when it was discovered he had infected her with venereal disease. He was found guilty, but the Duke of Buckingham intervened, and Lambe was set free. Many aristocrats were in Lambe’s debt, ostensibly for his astrological predictions, but actually because he won favour by performing numerous clandestine abortions among London high society. Following his vicious beating by the mob, he died soon after.

In 1626 a riot broke out, with sailors apparently smashing seats and violently brawling, seriously injuring a Constable. The Fortune Theatre’s name now seems to be becoming ironic, an outbreak of plague closed the theatre from 1636 – 1637, causing the owners of the theatre to fall into crippling debt. Again controversy struck, as the actors, having performed what was considered to be a religious ceremony on stage were fined £1000, an enormous sum of money.

Things came to a head in 1642. The new Puritan parliament ordered the closure of all theatres, seeing the performances as impure and ungodly. Laws were enacted threatening to imprison anyone using the now-disused theatre for performance work. It sounds like a pretty joyless time to live in London for theatre-lovers. The actors bravely tried to violate the edict, itis recorded that the theatre was raided and costumes and scenery seized, but the game was up. Soon, soldiers stormed the theatre, ripping up the seats, smashing the stage and laying waste to the building. The building was by now a ruin, partially collapsing under its own weight, a danger to anyone that would dare set foot within. The owners, finally seeing that there was no way back, sold what rubble and masonry remained for scrap.

Entertainment on the street was also present in a far more salacious form at the famous Six Windmills pub, later to be renamed the ‘Jack a Newberries Six Windmills’. This place was reknowned as an ‘ale-house of ill repute’. It was run by a woman named Priss Fotheringham, who, in John Garfield’s 1660 tome ‘the Wand’ring Whore’ (a guide to London’s prostitutes) is ranked the second-best in the city.

The King’s Head pub (now closed), former location of the Six Windmills

Priss Fotheringham, much whose life revolved around her pub/brothel on Whitecross Street, was a remarkable woman in many ways. She is first mentioned in the Middlesex Sessions in 1658 where she is sentenced to be hanged for theft. Fortunately, she is pardoned, and then soon after marries into the Fotheringham family, whose trade for many decades had been brothel keeping. Her new husband, the young Edmund Fotheringham, quickly became her pimp. She was not a beautiful woman, her face being scarred by the pock-marks of smallpox, so she concentrated on developing the erotic novelty act which made her name.

The more sensitively minded of you may want to skip the few paragraphs, as it shall be proved that 17th Century Londoners took as much pleasure in bizarre and kinky sex acts as they do today. Priss decided to bring back an act that was last historically popular in the time of the Romans known as ‘chucking’. Chucking, Priss-style, involved her standing on her head with two men holding her legs apart. Customers in the tavern would then insert coins into her ‘commoditie’. It is recorded that she was able to fit sixteen half-crowns into her ‘commoditie’, and to close the act, a gentleman would pour a bottle of red wine down the hatch. Priss is reported as saying that she did not mind the coins so much, but became annoyed when cheap wine was used as “it smarted”. A half-crown was a considerable sum at the time, and John Garfield gleefully exclaims upon seeing the act that “a Cunny is the dearest piece of flesh in the world!”

Naturally this performance was a hit, and her corner of Whitecross Street began to attract clientele from far and wide seeking to watch the spectacle, which she performed several times a day. But, of course, where there is success, there soon tends to be competition, and Priss soon found an adversary. A ‘Mrs. Cupid’ took up residence in the tavern, and it is recorded in ‘the Wand’ring Whore’ that;

“one evening French dollars, a pair of Spanish pistols and English Half-Crowns were chuck’d in as plentifully poured the Rhenish wine.. the Half Crowns chuckt into her Commoditie doing lesser harm than the Wine … for its searing and burning quality.”

And so it went that larger and more bizarre objects began to be used in a kind of vaginal arms race. ‘Mrs. Cupid’ fades out of the historical record at this point, so it can be assumed that Priss maintained her title as ‘Queen of the Chuckers’.

This kind of career does not have any long-term prospects, and as the years advanced Priss moved into the managerial side of brothel running, becoming a kind of matron for the younger girls. She was a physically fit woman, she would have had to be to keep the chucking game up as long as she did, but in her later years she was afflicted by disease. John Garfield writes in 1663 that she was “now overgrown with age and overworn with her former all-to-frequent embraces”. Her husband died soon after, “rotten with syphilis” and in 1668 Priss, now in her mid-fifties succumbed too. She died wealthy, leaving a notorious house of ill-repute behind her. In some ways, as a successful entrepreneur and business owner in her own right, Priss can be seen almost as a precursor of women’s liberation, although admittedly I would imagine that standing on her head with a drunken Londoner about to dispense a bottle of cheap wine into her, she may not have felt particularly liberated. Nonetheless, she stands as an interesting insight into what Londoners considered top-flight erotic entertainment.

More mainstream theatre did make its way back to Whitecross Street in the 19th century, albeit in an unrefined and crude manner. There is recorded as being a ‘penny gaff’ on Whitecross St. These were extremely informal stage affairs, almost a precursor of the later music-hall era. Performances ranged from re-enactments of famous highway robberies, to musical and variety acts.
“It is one thing to read about the flashing and slashing of steel blades, and of the gleam of pistol barrels, and the whiz of bullets, and of the bold highwayman’s defiant “ha! ha!” as he cracks the skull of the coach-guard, preparatory to robbing the affrighted passengers; but to be satisfactory the marrow and essence of the blood-stirring tragedy can only be conveyed to him in bodily shape. There are many elements of a sanguinary drama that may not well be expressed in words. As, for instance, when Bill Bludjon, after having cut the throat of the gentleman passen¬ger, proceeds to rob his daughter, and finding her in possession of a locket with some grey hair in it, he returns it to her with the observation, “Nay, fair lady, Bill Bludjon may be a thief: in stern defence of self he may occasionally shed blood, but, Perish the Liar who says of him that he respects not the grey hairs of honourable age!”

- James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

These penny gaffs, described by Greenwood as “abominable” nonetheless provided the poor of London at least a modicum of entertainment in their otherwise hard, painful and frequently short lives. The theatrical tradition of Whitecross Street would seem to have come to a halt with the advent of the cinema. The street by then was a fairly run-down area with a poor reputation. No-one would build a cinema on the street, and audiences for theatrical performances would have been hard to attract here. However, after the wholesale destruction of much of the street by German bombs, it was decided that a massive social housing project would be started, encompassing modern living areas, communal facilities and green spaces for the use of the residents. This was christened the Barbican Complex. It was decreed that as part of the Barbican, an arts centre would be built, which occupies what was once the southern end of Whitecross Street.

Opened in 1982 and presenting a diverse range of theatre, cinema, music and art, the Barbican Centre is the largest performing arts centre in Europe. Contained within is one of the most comprehensive libraries in the centre of London, with an extensive musical library of scores. The library is the home of the ‘London Collection’ – a historical collection of books and resources, some dating back 300 years. Designed in the brutalist style, the architecture has come under extensive criticism, being described as "London's ugliest building" in a Grey London poll in September 2003. The structure of the building is a concrete ziggurat, it is difficult from the exterior to have any idea what the building is like inside, giving is a strange quality, almost sealed off from the outside world. It’s not the easiest place to find either. The Barbican complex is a multi-level concrete maze, traversing it can feel like you’re stuck in some thriller set in a dystopian future.

There are few who realise that when visiting the cinemas or theatre here that they are participating in a 400 year old tradition, on much the same ground they are treading in the footsteps of those Elizabethan audiences that flocked to see Marlowe’s initial productions of Faustus. But then, such is the nature of London.

Continued in Part 5

Whitecross Street Part 3 - the Market

“The sight of one of these crowded places, the theatre of a vociferous and furious traffic, is generally revolting in the extreme.”

Charles Manby Smith: “Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis” (1850)

One of the most notable and long-lasting features of Whitecross Street is the market. Opening every Thursday and Friday from 11am until 5pm it features a wide variety of different cuisines from around the world. The friendliness of the stall-holders, and the delicious food available all adds up a wonderful atmosphere. It is a pleasure to wander around, and the smell of the various spices that the various chefs use creates an inviting and faintly exotic atmosphere that seems to lighten up what can seem like at times like slightly grey area.

The origins of the market lie in medieval times and it began as a response to the guild laws. The guild laws were essentially a series of laws governing trade within the city, but their reach extended only as far as the boundaries of the City of London. As a result, a lot of trade took place just outside the city walls. Whitecross Street in medieval times would have been dotted with small stalls selling unregulated items, run by travelling pedlars, tinkers and quack doctors. The quality of the produce in this market would have varied massively. Without the strict quality regulations of the guilds, you may get rotten meat, poisonous ale, or bread made heavier with sawdust. Conversely, the market would have been much cheaper than those within the City, but the consumer would have had to take his chances with the produce.

When the city expanded and swallowed up Whitecross Street, the old regulations governing trade within the City walls gradually ceased to be so strictly enforced. The market became one of London’s numerous street markets, catering to the nearby slum-tenements, known as ‘rookeries’. It was not a market with a good reputation. The market in these times of poverty is vividly described by Charles Manby Smith in his wonderfully evocative report of 1850 “Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis”,

"“..We are standing at the junction of the Barbican with Chiswell-street, at the point where this line of thoroughfare is intersected by Whitecross-street, up which we have to proceed as far as Old Street-road, about a quarter of a mile, the whole extent of which is the arena of one of the most extensive markets in the metropolis.

The shopkeepers have at length completed their arrangements, and now, standing at their open doors, and arrayed in aprons and shirt-sleeves, they begin with pretty general accord to bellow for custom. "Buy, buy, buy!" explodes a brawny butcher; and the note is taken up by his neighbour, and repeated by others in every direction a hundred times a minute, rapid and deafening as a running fire of musketry. It would appear as though this simultaneous appeal to the pockets of the public were a signal well known to the neighbourhood, for all the tributaries of Whitecross-street now pour forth their streams of hungry, meagre, and unwashed denizens, to swell the inharmonious concert. The shrill shriek of infant hawkers pierces through the roaring din, and the diminutive grimy urchins are discerned manfully pushing their difficult way among the throng, bent upon the sale of certain trifling articles, upon the produce of which, in all probability, their chance of a supply of food for the day is dependent. "Who'll buy my Congreves, three boxes a penny? "Blacking here! Here's your real Day and Martin, a ha'penny a skin!" "Grid-grid-gridirons! Who wants a gridiron for three-halfpence?" "Hingans - hingans here! Here's your hingans, a ha'penny the lot!" These cries, and a dozen others, from a band of young urchins scattered among the multitude, form the squeaking treble of the discordant chorus that is raging on all sides."

Charles Manby Smith: “Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis” (1850)

A far cry from the pinstriped office workers who buy their lunch at the present market. This situation could never continue indefinitely. The unbelievable filth that these people were forced to live in, and the plagues of rats that infested the area became a worry to the well-to-do members of London society. The rookeries had to go. So, from the late 1880s on, the street began to be gentrified. The decaying houses were knocked down, and as a consequence, the character of the market gradually improved.

Throughout the 20th Century, the area around the market began to change from residential to commercial. This meant that the traditional market goods of perishable food were less needed, although the Whitecross Street Peabody Estate on the street provided life support for a time. Post-war, the market seemed to be inexorably shrinking and growing more shabby. Supermarkets began dominance of the fresh food industry, and this strangled many of the smaller London food markets, who were unable to compete with the price and convenience. It became a distant echo of its tumultuous past, and one could be forgiven for presuming that these were the last days of Whitecross Street Market. Indeed, due to substandard power hubs and the condition of the street surface, the market had dwindled to only 5 or 6 traders in the mid 90s. The market then, with traders complaining of unhygienic streets and poor electricity access closed.

But, thankfully, this was not the end. Islington Council then invested more than £2 million carrying out repaving and lighting works over the last decade, improving the market infrastructure and creating various new public spaces along Whitecross Street. Grants were offered to property owners for restoring their buildings and improving their shopfronts. Whitecross Street Market is now recognised as a fine example of urban regeneration.

It is a far cry from the dirt and squalor of the historical market, and the new style is not without criticism. ‘The Independent Working Class Association’ points out with items on sale including “wood pigeon and roast plum pie at £5.10 a slice, Norwegian winter rosemary bread at £3 a loaf, Morecambe Bay potted shrimps at £2 an ounce and cheeses costing almost £16 a pound” it is hardly catering for the people who actually live in Whitecross Street. However, the project is undeniably a success and the market flourishes from the business of the office workers lunching nearby. Long may Whitecross Street market continue to trade, regardless of the economic conditions of the area.

Continued in Part 4

Whitecross Street Part 2 - The Origins of the 'Whyte Cryse'

"Whytecryse street, a good Place, pritty well built and inhabited."

- John Stow, "A Survey of London" (1598)

The story of Whitecross Street begins with the boggy marsh that surrounded what is presently the Moorgate area of London. Whitecross Street loosely follows the path of an ancient water course that fed the great fen. Being outside of the traditional walls of London, it remained undeveloped until at least the 9th century, although the land surrounding it would have been used for farming and leisure until that time. Notably, there has been found evidence of a Roman military camp in the nearby area, from which the Barbican itself takes its name.

Regardless, as the original route of the street began almost from the mouth of the old ‘Crepelgate’ it is possible that a path to the nearby village of Giseldene (now Islington) would have run indistinctly along it.

After 1000ad records show that a stone arch had been constructed next to the waterway, and soon after a white stone cross was erected beside it. And thus the street was christened with the name that it still holds to the present day. John Stow’s Elizabethan classic, A Survey of London tells us that in medieval times the street is known as Whyte Cryse Strete.

By the time of Tudor London, the city had broken free of the bondage imposed on it by the walls surrounding it. Whitecross St, formerly a relatively peaceful pathway between two fields became a casual market place for merchants unable to sell within the bounds of the City due to the guild laws. Provisions for people entering the city and leaving it were exchanged here. I find it interesting that Whitecross Street Market was doing business on this location before there was even technically a street.

The rural land around the street was originally used as a kind of allotment or garden for various Londoners at this time, but the need for the city to grow and consume its surroundings swallowed up this green land, and in a matter of decades the city expanded greatly, leaving Whitecross Street just another place in a vast metropolis.

In the early 15th century King Henry V selected Whitecross Street to be used as the location for a House of the Brotherhood of St. Giles. This was an almshouse, a place where those unable to work for reasons varying from age, disability to simple lack of jobs were able to live subsisting on charitable donations. They were often dank and vermin-ridden, with beds consisting of maybe a pile of straw on a pallet, but as the alternative was a ‘night on the stones’, it was the only choice. Sleeping rough in London is dangerous in the modern day, but in medieval London it would have been pretty much a death sentence for the old and infirm.

There are a few pin pricks of light in the darkness though. This street became home to one of London’s earliest and most important Elizabethan theatres, the Fortune. The street also hosted a free dissenters library for Protestant ministers in the 17th Century, and on a more salubrious note, was famed for its many gin houses in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In December 1940, the area was bombed violently in the Blitz. The residents of Whitecross Street would have awoken in horror to find that most of the street had been flattened.

Whitecross Street, December 1940

The blitz destroyed much of the old ward of Cripplegate, it is said that from the artillery grounds nearby you could have an unobstructed view all the way to St. Pauls. Following the destruction, the street was rebuilt, gaining many of the houses and buildings that we recognise today.

The southern end of the street became swallowed up by the new Barbican Estate, and would later become shorter still. From the late fifties onwards the street assumed the makeup it has in the modern day.

Continued in Part 3

Whitecross Street Part 1 - Introduction

Whitecross Street, EC1. Running from just beyond the Barbican complex to St. Luke’s Church at Old Street, it’s half a kilometre long, a fairly plain looking mix of commercial and residential properties. Walking down the street, you immediately gather that, while this is a street that has seen better days, it is dragging itself out of the mud, washing the muck off itself and adopting a veneer of respectability. This is the Whitecross Street of 2010;

“The whole neighbourhood is pervaded with a miasma of grinding, unwholesome, sullen, and often vicious poverty. Everything is cheap and nasty, and the sellers seem as poor as the buyers. There are shops whose stock in trade is not worth half a dozen shillings. There are passers-by, the whole of whose apparel would certainly be dear at ninepence. Chandlers' shops, marine-stores, pawn-shops, and public-houses, occur over and over again in sickening repetition. There is a frowsy blight on the window-panes and the gas-lamps. The bread is all seconds; the butchers'-shops, with their flaring gas-jets, expose nothing but scraps and bony pieces of meat. Inferior greengrocery in baskets chokes up the pathway; but it looks so bad that it would be a pity to rescue it from its neighbour the gutter, and its legitimate proprietors, the pigs."

- George Augustus Sala: “Gaslight and Daylight” (1859)

The modern and stylish shops that now dot the street seem to me to be a kind of disguise adopted by the street to conceal its past. A past of blood, chaos, treason, confinement, rape and infanticide. It is poverty and the desperate want for a better life that best defines Whitecross Street’s past.

Continued in Part 2