Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Wards of Old London: Holborn - London's Underworld

A visitor to London, exploring the Ward of Farringdon Without, and walking in a south-westerly direction along West Smithfield, arrives at Holborn Viaduct. He or she is, though there are few clues to this today, entering the course of the Fleet River, which flows south, from Hampstead and Highgate, to join the Thames at Blackfriars. The viaduct itself is the latest version of a bridge that has existed since Roman times, carrying Watling Street out from Newgate towards Westminster, the West Country, and, ultimately, Wales.

Holborn Viaduct. Photo: Chris Downer (licensed under CCA).

The stretch of Watling Street that passes through the Ward of Farringdon Without is named Holborn and, to the west, High Holborn. The coronation processions of Medieval and Early Modern monarchs passed along it, on their way from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, but the lanes and alleys leading off to the north and south had very different stories to tell. King Edward V, in 1483, gave orders to the City authorities " ... to eschewe the Stynkinge and Orrible Synne of lechery" in the district, whilst James I, in 1622, complained of " ... disorderly houses in Saffron Hill" (one of the roads leading north from the eastern end of Holborn), which "of longe tyme hath bene and is still much pestered with divers immodest lascivious and shameless weomen generally reputed for notorious common whores."

Staple Inn, Holborn, in 1866 (image is in the Public Domain). The building, which dates to 1585, and in which wool was once weighed and taxed, still stands.
Leather Lane, leading north from Holborn (image is in the Public Domain). 

The entertainments to be had in the area were not exclusively of a heterosexual nature. In 1726, the City authorities raided the home of a coffee-shop keeper named Margaret Clap, in Field Lane (very close to where Holborn Viaduct is today). It had been reported to them as a "molly house," a gathering place for homosexual men. They found forty men on the premises, three of whom were subsequently executed for sodomy. "Mother Clap," as she was known, was not operating a brothel, merely providing beds, and drinks which she fetched from a nearby tavern. She was, nonetheless, pilloried, and died later in the year.

The molly house never re-opened, but Field Lane retained its low-life reputation. It features in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, as the location of one of Fagin's dens:

"Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right-hand side as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets."

Field Lane in 1840 (image is in the Public Domain).

Field Lane was swept away in the wave of civic improvements that saw the construction of Holborn Viaduct itself, but the wider area remained a magnet for people whose personal journeys were approaching their unhappy endings.

The Fleet Ditch, close to Field Lane, in 1844 (image is in the Public Domain). 

The opening of Holborn Viaduct in 1869 (image is in the Public Domain).

Many of them ended those journeys in the Shoe Lane Workhouse. Others preferred suicide. One such was the poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had come to London from his native Bristol with high hopes of making his fortune as a writer: he ended his life at the age of eighteen, with arsenic, in his lodgings in Brook Street, in the home of a sack-maker. The tragedy of his life would later be romanticised by more successful poets and artists.  

Street-map showing the location of Shoe Lane Workhouse (image is in the Public Domain). Although he was not an inmate, Thomas Chatterton was buried in its cemetery. 
"The Death of Chatterton," by Henry Wallis, 1856. Image: Tate Britain (Public Domain).

Holborn today is an extension of the modern City of London, a place of jewellery shops, insurance company headquarters, and smart hotels; but there are also taverns, many of which were once frequented by the whores and mollies, the pickpockets and their victims; and by those whose once bright hopes had been dashed, drowning their sorrows with one last drink.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The Wards of Old London: Smithfield - Slaughter and Tournaments

A visitor to London, exploring the Ward of Farringdon Without, and walking north from Saint Bartholomew's Hospital emerges into West Smithfield, a road running north-east to south-west, connecting Aldersgate Street with Holborn. Today, this quarter of London is dominated by Sir Horace Jones's meat market, which opened in 1868. The market sits above a network of tunnels, which made it possible for trains to bring an annual total of 220,000 cattle and 1.5 million sheep into London, to be slaughtered out of the sight, hearing and smell of the city's inhabitants, and the effluvia cleared away, before the cleaned and butchered carcasses were hauled up into the market itself.

Sir Horace Jones's Smithfield Market. Photo: James Ketteringham (image is in the Public Domain).

It had not always been like this. Before the construction of the Victorian market, and the beginning of the railway age, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys were brought on foot to the capital from all corners of England Scotland and Wales. The drovers who brought them did not use the main roads, where the presence of so many animals would have been a considerable nuisance to human travelers: instead they followed a network of tracks, many of which had probably been in use since prehistoric times.

Montgomeryshire drovers, c 1885, National Library of Wales (image is in the Public Domain).
Stone bridge carrying a drovers' track over the River Dylif, Gwynedd. Photo: Tony Edwards (licensed under CCA).

In the pre-Victorian market of Smithfield, beasts were slaughtered and butchered in the open air, having previously been fattened by graziers in Islington or Bermondsey, and driven though the streets of the City itself. By the mid-Nineteenth Century, however, the presence of a beast-market in such close proximity to the metropolis was, in itself, recognised as a public nuisance.

Smithfeld in 1827, by John Greenwood. Image: Mark Annand (licensed under CCA).

"Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed," complained Thomas Maslen, in 1843, "there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined ... " Charles Dickens was among those who campaigned for its closure, which finally took place in 1855, the market moving out to Islington whilst Jones's state of the art facility was being built.

The last day of Old Smithfield, 1855, Illustrated London News (image is in the Public Domain).
New Smithfield Market in the Nineteenth Century (image is in the Public Domain).

The sale and slaughter of beasts had been carried on at Smithfield at least since the Twelfth Century. Nor was it only animals whose blood was spilled there. It had, in the Middle Ages, and in Early Modern Times, been a place of public execution. Lollards (proto-Protestants who argued for the translation of the Bible into English) were burned at the stake here under Henry V; as were Protestants under Mary I; and the Scottish rebel (or patriot, depending on one's point of view), William Wallace, had been hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield in 1305. Here it was, also, that Wat Tyler, the leader of the "Peasants' Revolt," had met his death at the hands of the City's Lord Mayor, in 1381.

Smithfield, as shown on the Agas Map of 1561. Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).
The death of Wat Tyler, from Les Chroniques de France et de l'Angleterre, by Jean Froissart. Image: British Library (Public Domain). The building in the background may be the Priory of Saint John, Clerkenwell. 

As an area of open ground beyond the City gates, Smithfield was also the venue for Medieval tournaments. The ageing Edward III held a seven day tournament in 1374, in honour of his mistress, Alice Perrers. Richard II held one in 1390, with Geoffrey Chaucer as master of ceremonies: this tournament had been announced by heralds the length and breadth of Europe, ensuring that the greatest knights of France, Flanders, and Germany, as well as England and Scotland, came to Smithfield to compete. Edward IV held a joust in 1467, as part of his strategy to win the support of Londoners for his regime.

Knights competing in Edward IV's joust at Smithfield in 1467 (image is in the Public Domain).
Whilst the wholesale meat market at Smithfield continues to function today, it does so on a much smaller scale than was the case only a few decades ago. The future of many of the area's historic buildings is currently uncertain, although the proposed relocation of the Museum of London to the former market (perhaps opening as early as 2021, if funding can be secured, offers some hope of sustainable regeneration.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 45 - "Birds of Passage," by Brian Castro

The Australian continent was among the last significant land masses on Earth to be "discovered" and colonised by Europeans, beginning with the voyages of the Dutchman, Willem Zamszoon, in 1606; and the English navigator, James Cook, who claimed the territory for the British Crown in 1788. Unlike other territories, such as New Zealand and Hawaii, Australia was developed by the British as a series of penal colonies, the "First Fleet" arriving in Botany Bay in 1788.

As with these other territories, however, the native population, which, in the case of Australia, had occupied the land for more than forty thousand years, was soon devastated by the diseases brought by the colonists; and the task of building the infrastructure and developing the economy of a new nation was too great to be accomplished by the European settlers on their own. The Australian colonies drew in migrant labour and, as in New Zealand and Hawaii, many of the immigrants were Chinese, driven from their homeland by a combination of poverty and political upheaval.

The discovery of gold in Victoria and New South Wales, in the mid-Nineteenth Century, became a major pull-factor. It is estimated that, in 1855, 11,493 Chinese immigrants arrived in Melbourne alone. Almost all of these were young men, keen to make their fortune (which few did), and return home (in Victoria's Bendigo Goldfield, in 1861, there were 5367 Chinese men recorded, and only to women).

Bendigo, a sketch-map of the newly discovered gold-field, William Sandback, 1851 (image is in the Public Domain).
Gold diggings at Ararat, Victoria, 1854, by Edward Roper. State Library of New South Wales (image is in the Public Domain).

Clashes broke out between Chinese prospectors, and those of English, Scottish and Irish ancestry, who, ironically, now considered themselves to be "native" Australians. The Chinese were regarded as better organised and harder working, but were also accused of being dirty, spreading disease, and "stealing" white women.

Anti-Chinese cartoon of 1886, National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).
Anti-Chinese cartoon of 1886, National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).
Banner used in anti-Chinese protests and riots at Lambing Flats, New South Wales, 1860-61 (image is in the Public Domain).

Australia's gold-rush was as short-lived as its counterparts in New Zealand, and those Chinese immigrants who did not return to China (as many did), found themselves a minority, frequently discriminated against in education and employment. The beginning of the Twentieth Century saw the implementation of the "White Australia" policy, with support from successive state and federal governments of both the right and the left. Its legacy persisted into the 1970s, and arguably still reverberates in aspects of Australian culture and politics today.

"White Australia" badge, 1910, produced by the "Australian Natives' Association" (image is in the Public Domain).

Brian Castro's novel, Birds of Passage, tells the story of an Australian-born Chinese man, Seamus O'Young (Sham Oh Yung) struggling to find his identity in post-Second World War Sydney. He suffers very modern forms of discrimination, but also discovers papers relating to his Nineteenth Century ancestor, Lo Yun Shan, who made the journey from China's Pearl River Delta to Australia in the 1850s, and eventually returned home, leaving his son in the care of his mother, a woman of Irish heritage.

"My passport lies open on the table. Its empty pages marked with the word VISAS tease my imagination. My stub of a pencil trembles over them for it is here that I will begin my journey. Beside me I have the fragments of a journal. I found them a long time ago, stuck to my memory like the remnants of a dream. I have read and re-read those words, translated and re-translated them, deciphering the strokes of the Chinese characters, building up their meaning, constructing and re-constructing their sense. I feel the closeness of the situation the author is describing; I feel I am the counterpart of this man who was writing more than a century ago."

"I had to go for an interview. They were undecided about whether I was capable of being a teacher. They wanted to give me a reading test. (I later discovered that this was only given to foreigners) ... In the city I went to a bookstore and browsed among the shelves to kill time; I bought a copy of 'The Trial' by Franz Kafka ... I was called first ... 'Please read from the book in front of you' ... The heading at the top of the page said 'The Yellow Race.' I began to read. 'Before the discovery of gold there were relatively few of the Celestials in Australia. However, in the fifties, the yellow tide threatened to engulf the country. The white race was partially to blame for spreading rumours in Chinese ports that fortunes could be made here ...'"

The stories of the two men, descendant and ancestor, immigrant and Australian-born, both recounted, for the most part, in the first person, are interwoven, and combine to make up a poignant narrative of the search for individual identity in a nation that has yet to settle on is own, or to find a reconciliation with its past.

Australia Day, 2014 (Chinese Australians make up around 4% of the country's population. Photo: Chris Phutully (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales - a London-based trilogy of historical novels.