Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Wards of Old London: Fleet Street - Wordsmiths, Pubs, and an Unexpected Ghost

A visitor to London, exploring the ward of Farringdon Without, and having walked along Holborn and High Holborn, can, from Holborn Circus, follow a series of small roads (Saint Andrew Street, Shoe Lane, Little New Street, New Hardings, Pemberton Row) southward to Gough Square. A statue of a cat named Hodge identifies one of the houses in the square as the one-time home of Hodge's owner, the Eighteenth Century lexicographer and literary critic, Dr Samuel Johnson.

Dr Johnson's house, in Gough Square. Photo: Jim Linwood (licensed under CCA).

Johnson lived here from 1748 to 1759, and it was here that he completed his famous Dictionary of the English Language (1755). It was not, as has sometimes been claimed, the first English dictionary, but it was the best of the early ones, and provided the model for most subsequent dictionaries. Johnson's house is also one of the best-preserved examples of a Georgian town-house that is open to visitors in London.

Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1775 - image is in the Public Domain). 

Johnson was an immensely sociable man, whose generosity towards friends and literary associates frequently extended well beyond his own, rather limited, financial means. A widower from 1752, and one without children, many of these friends and associates lodged with him, and helped him in the compilation of the dictionary, working word by word through key texts, beginning with the King James Bible, and the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. His intellectual circle included women as well as men, and even a former slave, Francis Barber, whom he had educated himself.

Francis Barber, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (image is in the Public Domain).

One thing that I noticed, on visiting the house last year, was the tiny proportions of the basement kitchen. A member of staff overheard me commenting on this to my sister, who was accompanying me. He smiled, explaining that this was a frequent topic of conversation among his colleagues: "we have come to the conclusion that beyond the toasting of muffins and crumpets, very little cooking actually happened here." Johnson, and his many house-guests and literary collaborators, must either have dined out in some of the many pubs and chop-houses in the surrounding streets, or brought food in from such establishments. Such, presumably, were the habits of many literate, middle class Londoners at the time.

Walking south from Gough Square, along Hind Court, one emerges into Fleet Street. Among the first pubs that one encounters is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which in its current form, dates to the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666, but which, as an establishment, is much older. It has often been mentioned in association with Johnson, and, although there is no direct evidence that he actually frequented it, it does seem to me more likely than not. What is more certain is that Charles Dickens refers to the pub in A Tale of Two Cities, as does Anthony Trollope in Ralph the Heir. Other literary figures who have held court there include P.G. Wodehouse and W.B. Yeats.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Photo: Banjobacon (licensed under CCA).

There is a ghost story associated with the pub, concerning a midwife, whose spirit was unable to rest on account of her murder of new-born children that she had delivered. This story was the subject of a Seventeenth Century broadsheet ballad, a recording of which can be heard here. The children's bones were said to be at the pub in 1680, but the current staff were unable to produce them for my sister and I, nor had they seen or heard anything of the ghost.

The printed broadsheet of the Ballad of the Midwive's Ghost (1680 - image is in the Public Domain).

Fleet Street itself runs west from Ludgate towards The Strand in Westminster, crossing the (now subterranean) River Fleet. To the south, in the Medieval and Early Modern eras, lay the Bridewell, a palace in the early years of Henry VIII's reign, and subsequently an orphanage and prison; Whitefriars, a Carmelite priory; and the Temple, the London headquarters of the crusading Knights Templar, until the dissolution of the order in 1312. To the north of Fleet Street lay the sumptuous townhouses of provincial prelates, including the Bishops of Salisbury and Saint David's.

The Civil Parishes of the City of London in 1870, including those (lower left, showing the positions of the Bridewell, Whitefriars and the Temple) bordering Fleet Street. Image: Doc77can (licensed under CCA).
Fleet Street is today more famous for journalism (although few journalists actually work there now), going back to 1500, when Wynkyn de Worde set up one of England's first printing workshops near Shoe Lane. The newspaper industry was given a very considerable boost by the repeal of the Newspaper Tax in 1855, and of Paper Duty in 1858, and flourished in Fleet Street until the final quarter of the Twentieth Century.

Fleet Street in 1890, looking east towards Saint Paul's Cathedral. Photo: James Valentine (image is in the Public Domain).
The former Daily Telegraph building, now the London headquarters of Goldman Sachs. Photo: N.Chadwick (licensed under CCA).

This stroll along Fleet Street brings us to the end of our exploration of the intramural and extramural wards of the City of London, which I had thought to complete in 2016, but didn't quite succeed. There is, of course, far more to "London," as we understand it today, than simply The City, and I shall be launching a new series of posts in the coming weeks.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Mark, I have been following this series for some time; it's always interesting and I learn a lot from it. Among other things in this post, I was delighted to find out about the UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive.

    Thank you for your outstanding series, it makes me want to revisit London.

  2. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of my favourite London pubs. I knew of the association with Dr Johnson, but not the other literary figures.

  3. Fascinating, Mark. Thank you so much - must make these into a map and visit next time I'm in London

  4. When I first moved to London, I lived on one of the top floors of the Cheshire Cheese. There’re a HUNDRED ghost stories about that place (especially with the creepy cellar/crypt in the basement). The stuffed parrot on the ground floor that keeps moving overnight, for example.

    I spent half of one night in that building on my own when the other residents were at a party, and it was… creepy…

  5. I enjoy these posts so much, and will refer to them when I visit London later this year. Thank you.

    Just a side note: The Joshua Reynolds painting of "Blinking Sam" Samuel Johnson resides at the Huntington Library in my town, Pasadena (specifically San Marino, CA). I've visited it many times. The Huntington owns several giant Reynolds portraits, and is a must for visitors here.