Old and New London: Volume 4. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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The Locality a Century ago—A Pair of Eccentric Old Maids—The Field of Forty Footsteps—A Singular Superstition—Street Brawls and Roysterers—The Game of Base—Bloomsbury deserted by the Aristocracy—Albert Smith's Remarks on this once Patrician Quarter of London—The "Rookery," or "Holy Land"—Meux's Brewery—The "Horse-shoe" Tavern, New Oxford Street—The Royal Arcade—George Street—Bainbridge and Buckeridge Streets—The "Turk's Head"—Old Dyot Street—"Rat's Castle"—The "Hare and Hounds," originally called "The Beggar's Bush"—A Dangerous Locality—Model Lodging Houses in Streatham Street—Bloomsbury and Duke Streets—Mudie's Library—Museum Street—Great Russell Street.
The district now known under the general name of Bloomsbury lies on the north side of Holborn, stretching away as far as the Euston Road, and is bounded to the east and west respectively by Gray's Inn Road and Tottenham Court Road. It was originally called Lomsbury, or Lomesbury, and the manor and village are said to have occupied the site of Bloomsbury Square and the surrounding streets. At the time when Lomesbury was a retired village, the royal mews, an establishment for horses and also for hawks, stood here; but on these stables being burnt down, in 1537, the hawks and steeds were removed to the stabling at Charing Cross, which was altered and enlarged for their reception. "Indeed." remarks Mr. Jesse; in his work on London, "as late as the middle of the last century it (the mews) would seem to have been still kept up as a branch of the royal stables."
Of this neighbourhood, about the year 1685, Macaulay writes thus in his "History of England:"—"A little way north from Holborn, and on the verge of pastures and corn-fields, rose two celebrated palaces, each with an ample garden. One of them, then called Southampton House, and subsequently Bedford House, was removed early in the present century to make room for a new city which now covers, with its squares, streets, and churches, a vast area renowned in the seventeenth century for peaches and snipes. The other, known as Montague House, celebrated for its furniture and its frescoes, was, a few months after the death of King Charles II., burned to the ground, and was speedily succeeded by a more magnificent Montagu House, which, having long been the repository of such various and precious treasures of art, science, and learning as were scarce ever before assembled under a single roof, has since given place to an edifice more magnificent still." The building here referred to, we need hardly remark, is the British Museum.
Nor was Bloomsbury only an isolated village, but it was quite rural in its retirement. Mr. Smith tells us, in his "Book for a Rainy Day," that in 1777, when he went on a sketching excursion to St. Pancras Churchyard, the whole of the space between that spot and the British Museum was open country, the only buildings that met the eye in the interval being Whitefield's Chapel, in Tottenham Court Road, and Baltimore House, which, as we shall see presently, now forms one of the mansions in Russell Square.
Mr. Smith also remarks that when he was a boy—that is, about 1774—"the ground behind the north-west end of Great Russell Street was occupied as a farm by two old maiden sisters named Capper. They wore riding-habits and men's hats; one rode an old grey mare, and it was her spiteful delight to ride with a pair of shears after the boys who were flying their kites, in order to cut their strings. The other sister's business was to seize the clothes of the lads who trespassed on their premises to bathe. From Capper's farm were several straggling houses; but the principal part of the ground to the 'King's Head,' at the end of the road, was unbuilt upon. The 'Old King's Head,' opposite to the 'Adam and Eve,' forms a side object in Hogarth's celebrated picture of 'The March to Finchley,' which may be seen, with other fine specímens of art, in the Foundling Hospital."
The whole of the ground north of Capper's farm, so often mentioned as frequented by duellists, was in irregular patches, and many of the fields had turnstiles. The pipes of the New River Company were propped up in several parts to the height of six and eight feet, so that persons walked under them to gather watercresses, which grew in great abundance and perfection, or to visit "The Brothers' Steps," or "Field of the Forty Footsteps."
Dr. E. F. Rimbault, in Notes and Queries, gives the following particulars of these remarkable footprints, and of the locality in which they were situated:—"The fields behind Montagu House were, from about the year 1680, until towards the end of the last century, the scenes of robbery, murder, and every species of depravity and wickedness of which the heart can think. They appear to have been originally called the 'Long Fields,' and afterwards (about Strype's time) the 'Southampton Fields.' These fields remained waste and useless, with the exception of some nursery grounds near the New Road to the north, and a piece of ground enclosed for the Toxophilite Society, towards the north-west, near the back of Gower Street. The remainder was the resort of depraved wretches, whose amusements consisted chiefly in fighting pitched battles, and other disorderly sports, especially on Sundays. Such was their state in 1800. Tradition had given to the superstitions at that period a legendary story of the period of the Duke of Monmouth's Rebellion, of two brothers, who fought in this field so ferociously as to destroy each other; since which their footsteps, formed from the vengeful struggle, were said to remain, with the indentations produced by their advancing and receding; nor could any grass or vegetable ever be produced where these forty footsteps were thus displayed. This extraordinary area was said to be at the extreme termination of the north-east end of Upper Montagu Street. . . . . The latest account of these footsteps, previous to their being built over, with which I am acquainted, is the following, which I have extracted from one of Joseph Moser's Common-place Books:—'June 16, 1800. Went into the fields at the back of Montagu House, and there saw, for the last time, the forty footsteps; the building materials are there ready to cover them from the sight of man. I counted more than forty, but they might be the foot-prints of the workmen.' This extract is valuable, as it establishes the period of the final obliteration of the footsteps, and also confirms the legend that forty was the original number."
The story is also recorded in Southey's "Common-place Book," (fn. 1) where, after quoting a letter from a friend, recommending him to "take a view of those wonderful marks of the Lord's hatred to duelling, called The Brothers' Steps," the author thus records his visit to the spot:—"We sought for nearly half an hour in vain. We could find no steps at all within a quarter of a mile, no, nor half a mile of Montagu House. We were almost out of hope, when an honest man, who was at work, directed us to the next ground, adjoining to a pond. There we found what we sought, about threequarters of a mile north of Montagu House, and 500 yards east of Tottenham Court Road. The steps are of the size of a large human foot, about three inches deep, and lie nearly from north-east to south-west. We counted only seventy-six; but we were not exact in counting. The place where one or both the brothers are supposed to have fallen is still bare of grass. The labourer also showed us the bank where (the tradition is) the wretched woman sat to see the combat." Mr. Southey then speaks of his full confidence in the tradition of their indestructibility, even after ploughing up, and of the various conclusions to be drawn from the circumstance.
In the third edition of the "Book for a Rainy Day" appears the following note upon the above mysterious spot:—"Of these steps there are many traditionary stories; the one generally believed is, that two brothers were in love with a lady, who would not declare a preference for either, but coolly sat upon a bank to witness the termination of a duel which proved fatal to both. The bank, it is said, on which she sat, and the footmarks of the brothers when pacing the ground, never produced grass again. The fact is," adds the writer, "that these steps were so often trodden that it was impossible for the grass to grow. I have frequently passed over them; they were in a field on the site of Mr. Martin's Chapel, or very nearly so, and not on the spot as communicated to Miss Porter, who has written an entertaining novel on the subject." It may be added here that at Tottenham Street Theatre (now the Prince of Wales's), about the year 1830, was produced an effective melodrama, by the Brothers Mayhew, founded upon the same incident, entitled the Field of Forty Footsteps.
Apart from the air of superstition which seems to have settled round the remarkable footprints spoken of above, the Long Fields had, from a much earlier period, been associated with superstitious notions, for Aubrey tells us, that on the eve of St. John Baptist's (Midsummer) Day, in 1694, he saw, at midnight, twenty-three young women in "the parterre behind Montagu House, looking for a coal, under the root of a plantain, to put under their heads that night, and they should dream who would be their future husbands." The superstition, we may here remark, is a very ancient one, and not confined to London or even to England, and is probably connected with the fire and serpent worship, which came at an early date into Europe from the East. But this is a matter foreign to the subject in hand.
The street brawls which disgraced the times of our later Stuart sovereigns frequently ended in a duel on this spot. In the days of Charles II., when there was next to no pavement, and when among the population of London there were so many strange characters that the peaceful wayfarer was obliged to pick his steps with circumspection, and be ready for conflict at the turning of every alley, each passer-by endeavoured to take the wall, and this gave rise to numerous quarrels. Indeed, as Macaulay tells us, "if two roysterers met, they cocked their hats in each other's faces, and pushed each other about till the weaker was shoved into the kennel. If he was a mere bully he sneaked off, muttering that he should find a time. If he was pugnacious, the encounter probably ended in a duel behind Montagu House. The mild and timid gave the wall; the bold and athletic took it."
Occasionally, however, this neighbourhood witnessed encounters of a less sanguinary nature. "About the year 1770," writes Strutt, in his "Sports and Pastimes," "I saw a grand match at base (Prisoner's Base) played in the fields behind Montagu House and the British Museum, by twelve gentlemen of Cheshire against twelve of Derbyshire, for a considerable sum of money, which afforded much entertainment to the spectators." The game, we may add, is described in detail by Strutt in the chapter from which we make our quotation.
At the above period the grounds at the back of Montagu House were open to the fields extending to Lisson Grove and Paddington; north, to Primrose Hill, Chalk Farm, Hampstead, and Highgate; and east, to Battle Bridge, Islington, St. Pancras, &c. The north side of Queen Square was left open that it might not impede the prospect. Dr. Stukeley, many years Rector of St. George's Church, describes (in his MS. diary, 1749) the then sylvan character of Queen Square and its neighbourhood. On the side of Montagu Gardens, next Bedford Square, was a fine grove of lime-trees; and the gardens of Bedford House, which occupied the north side of the present Bloomsbury Square, reached those of Montagu House. "We can, therefore," adds Dr. Rimbault, "understand how, a century and a half since, coachmen were regaled with the 'perfume of the flower-beds of the gardens belonging to the houses in Great Russell Street,' which then enjoyed 'wholesome and pleasant air.' Russell Square was not built until the year 1804, although Baltimore House was erected in 1763; the latter appears to have been the only erection made in this neighbourhood from the publication of Strype's 'Survey' down to this period, with the exception of a chimney-sweeper's cottage, still further north, and part of which is still to be seen in Rhodes's Mews, Little Guildford Street. In 1800 Bedford House was demolished entirely, with its offices and gardens; this house had been the home where the noble family of the Southamptons and the illustrious Russells had resided during more than 200 years." (fn. 2) About the middle of the last century, when the gardens of Gray's Inn became deserted by the beaux and belles of that period, those at the back of Montagu House became for a time fashionable as a lounge and promenade.
Where Euston Square is now, in the year 1820 was a large nursery garden, in which the children of privileged neighbours were glad to be allowed to take their morning walk and to play. There is extant a small print, by Corbould, published in the first decade of this century, showing the distant and quite rustic view of Primrose Hill, and Hampstead with its spire beyond, taken from the top of Woburn Place. In the foreground is a rustic wooden bridge, and a little further off, as nearly as possible where is now the terminus of the London and North-Western Railway, stands a small group of farm-buildings quite isolated.
No doubt the district at present under notice cannot be regarded as fashionable; it is too near to St. Giles's to have much in common with the courtly region of St. James's. It nevertheless includes within its area as great a number of commodious dwellings around open spaces as can be met with in any other spot of similar dimensions within the scope of the Registrar-General's functions. When we remember that this was, until no very distant date, an aristocratic part of London, it is not surprising that the associations which cluster around it, from the memory of great and eminent men, are as abundant and interesting as its claims to be still considered one of the most convenient and sanitary divisions of the modern Babel are well founded. This particular quarter, more especially about Bedford and Russell Squares, appears to have been a highly favoured one with "gentlemen of the long robe;" indeed, those two squares have had more than a fair share of judicial occupants. Like those parts of the metropolis lying eastward of Temple Bar, this neighbourhood, when once deserted by the wealthier classes, came to be looked upon by them—or some, at least—with a sort of reproachful feeling; indeed, as a witty writer has observed, the very absence of knowledge of its locality "was accounted a mark of high breeding," and this notion was once forcibly illustrated by Mr. Croker's inquiry in the House of Commons, "But where is Russell Square?" Apropos of this joke, another may be told, how that a nobleman once commissioned his son to go into the City for him to transact some business, and rung for his carriage to convey the young gentleman. "The City? the City? my lord?" he said, inquiringly; "I've been told that is a dreadful way off; where shall I change horses?"
"It is very curious," writes Albert Smith, "to speculate as to what part of England will ultimately be the West-end of London—no less than to watch the gradual progress that the apparent desire of the fashionable world to get still nearer the sunset has made in that direction for many years. Keeping within the recollection of old inhabitants still extant, we find that the anomalous neighbourhood between the Foundling Hospital and Red Lion Square, north and south, and Gray's Inn Lane and Bloomsbury, east and west, was once the patrician quarter of London. The houses, even in their decay of quality, have a respectable look. Their style of architecture is passé, it is true; but they evidently make a great struggle to keep up appearances. If chance leads you into them, you will find that they are all similarly appointed, even to their inhabitants. All the furniture is rubbed up to the last degree of friction polish, and the carpets are brushed cleanly threadbare. The window-curtains, blanched in the sun of thirty or forty summers, until their once crimson hue has paled to a doubtful buff; the large semi-circular fireplace, with its brass handled poker and latticed fender; the secretary and large flap-table, on which is the knife-case with its forlorn single leaf, or shell, in marqueterie on the cover—all remain as they were. Even the ancient landladies have given the same conservative care to their flaxen fronts and remarkable caps. They are grave and dignified in their demeanours, for they believe Great Ormond Street still to be the focus of the West-end. It is long since they have been out to learn to the contrary: left stationary, whilst time has flown by them, like an object in the tranquil side-water of a stream, whilst similar ones are hurried past with the torrent, they still regard Russell and Bedford Squares as their Belgravia—for at every epoch all fashionable parts of town had an ultra-aristocratic neighbourhood. So, when the superior classes still moved on towards the west, colonising Percy and Newman Streets and the old thoroughfares about Soho, then Fitzroy and Golden Squares were in turn looked up to with respect."
Of that part of Bloomsbury which lies between New Oxford Street and High Street and Broad Street we have already spoken in our account of St. Giles's. (fn. 3) The parish of St. George's is coextensive with what used to be called the Bloomsbury side of St. Giles's-in-the-Fields; in other words, with that part of the parish which lay to the north of the old line of Holborn. What is now called "Broad Street, Bloomsbury," still forms part of St. Giles's parish, and of old was called by its proper name of "Broad Street, St. Giles's." Even at the commencement of the present century, the scene which the said "High Street" presented was not very inviting. On both sides of the way were rows of chandlers' shops, low public-houses, cook-shops—or rather cellars—for the accommodation of the poorer Irish, who even then formed a colony here before what was called "the ruins" of St. Giles's were cleared away, and the site devoted to broad and spacious streets. This "colony" was generally known as "The Rookery," but it was also called the "Holy Land" and "Little Dublin," on account of the number of Irish who resided there. It is true, although the place bore anything but a reputable name, some of its residents were honestly employed, even in the humblest walks of industry. Of the inhabitants of the "Holy Land" there was, at least, a floating population of 1,000 persons who had no fixed residence, and who hired their beds for the night in houses fitted up for the purpose. Some of these houses had each fifty beds, if such a term can be applied to the wretched materials on which their occupants reposed; the usual price was sixpence for a whole bed, or fourpence for half a one; and behind some of the houses there were cribs littered with straw, where the wretched might sleep for threepence. In one of the houses seventeen persons have been found sleeping in the same room, and these consisting of men and their wives, single men, single women, and children. Several houses frequently belonged to one person, and more than one lodging-house-keeper amassed a handsome fortune by the mendicants of St. Giles's and Bloomsbury. The furniture of the houses was of the most wretched description, and no persons but those sunk in vice, or draining the cup of misery to its very dregs, could frequent them. In some of the lodging-houses breakfast was supplied to the lodgers, and such was the avarice of the keeper, that the very loaves were made of a diminutive size in order to increase his profits. Yet amidst so much wretchedness, there was much of wanton extravagance; and those who might have traversed the purlieus of the "Holy Land" on a Saturday night, must have felt convinced that the money squandered away in dissipation would have procured much daily comfort both in bed and board. But the extravagance of beggars is proverbial; and an anecdote is related of old Alderman Calvert going in disguise to one of their suppers, and being much alarmed at hearing some of them ordering an "alderman in chains," until he learnt from the landlord that it was but another name for a turkey and sausages.
At the angle of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street stands the celebrated brewery of Messrs. Meux and Company, one of the largest in London. It was founded early in the reign of George III., by Messrs. Blackburn and Bywell, whose name it bore until Mr. Henry Meux, at that time a partner in the brewery of Messrs. Meux, in Liquorpond Street, joined the firm. He was a cousin of Lord Brougham, and was created a baronet by William IV., in 1831.
The brewery covers nearly four acres, and its interior arrangements are well worth a visit. The stranger is shown over several ranges of buildings, each devoted to some one process or other, by which ale, porter, and stout are manufactured. These we shall not attempt to describe, but will simply state that the brewery contains seven or eight huge vats, one of which holds 1,500 barrels of liquid, and others hold 1,000 or 900. It is said that the firm employ some 150 hands and fifty horses, and that they turn out of their manufactory not very much less than half a million of barrels yearly. The demand for ales, it may be interesting to learn, is steadily on the increase, while that for the dark-coloured liquids shows a slight tendency to diminish.
It may not be out of place here to state the circumstances under which London "porter" came to be so called. Prior to the year 1722 the malt liquors in general use were ale, beer, and "twopenny," and it was customary for the drinkers of malt liquors to call for a pint or tankard of half and half—i.e., half of ale and half of beer, half of beer and half of twopenny. In course of time it also became the practice to call for a pint or tankard of three-threads, meaning a third of ale, beer, and twopenny, and thus the publican had the trouble to go to three casks and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor. To avoid this trouble and waste, a brewer of the name of Harwood conceived the idea of making a liquor which should partake of the united flavours of ale, beer, and twopenny. He did so, and succeeded, calling it "entire," or entire butt beer, meaning that it was drawn entirely from one cask or butt; and being a hearty, nourishing liquor, it was very suitable for porters and other working people. Hence it obtained its name of "porter."
In 1816 this brewery was attacked by a London mob, who were anxious to wreak upon it—why or wherefore is not clear—their dislike of Lord Liverpool and Lord Sidmouth, and the rest of the Tory ministers.
Adjoining the entrance to Messrs. Meux and Co.'s Brewery is the "Horse-shoe Tavern," so called from the shape of its original dining-room—a shape doubtless assumed for a reason which will presently appear. By absorbing the adjoining premises, and erecting large additions, the modest tavern has lately grown into a monster hotel, where the table d'hôte system has been introduced, on a plan similar to that which we have mentioned in our account of the "Langham."
The sign of the "Horse-shoe," though common
in combination with other subjects, as Mr. Larwood tells us, in his "History of Sign-boards," is
rarely found by itself. Its adoption here is due,
doubtless, to the large horse-shoes nailed up at the
entrance of Meux's Brewery, and conspicuous both
on the trappings of the dray-horses of that establishment, and also as the trade-mark of the firm. There
was formerly, and perhaps may be still, a "Horseshoe Tavern" on Tower Hill, and another in
Drury Lane, because it is mentioned in connection
with Lord Mohun's attempt on Mrs. Bracegirdle, (fn. 4)
as the place where he and his comrades drank a
bottle of sack while they lay in wait for that lady.
It is also mentioned by Aubrey, in his "Anecdotes
and Traditions," as the scene of a bloody duel.
The horse-shoe, from its forked shape, was regarded
in the Middle Ages as a potent charm against
witchcraft. Thus Robert Herrick writes:—
"Hang up hooks and speres to scare
Hence the hag that rides the mare!"
New Oxford Street, which we now enter, extends from the corner of Tottenham Court Road to Bury Place, where it forms a junction with High Holborn. It runs through what once was the thickest part of St. Giles's "Rookery," and was opened in 1847. Many of the houses, particularly on the north side, have a pleasing appearance, built as they are of red brick and stone dressings, in the domestic Tudor and Louis XIV. style of architecture, whilst some of the house-fronts are of Ionic and Corinthian character. In about the centre is what is called the Royal Arcade, a glass-roofed arcade of shops extending along the rear of four or five of the houses, and having an entrance from the street at each end. The shops here are mostly confined to the sale of drapery and haberdashery. This arcade was opened about 1852, with great expectations, but it never "took" with the public, and is almost unknown and unnoticed.
George Street, crossing New Oxford Street, and leading from Great Russell Street to Broad Street, was formerly known as Dyot Street, being so called after one Richard Dyot, a parishioner of St. Giles's, in the reign of Charles II., and possibly a man of considerable importance at that time. Bainbridge and Buckeridge Streets were built prior to 1672, and were named after their respective owners; of these streets the latter disappeared in the general clearance which was effected in the formation of New Oxford Street. In old Dyot Street was a public-house called the "Turk's Head," where Haggarty and Holloway, in November, 1802, planned the murder of Mr. Steele, on Hounslow Heath, and to which they returned after the murder. It may be here mentioned that at the execution of the murderers at the Old Bailey twenty-eight people were crushed to death. "Rat's Castle" was another rendezvous in Dyot Street for some of the vilest denizens and outcasts of the "Rookery." The Rev. T. Beames, in his "Rookeries of London," in speaking of this famous thieves' public-house, says: "In the ground floor was a large room, appropriated to the general entertainment of all comers; in the first floor, a free-and-easy, where dancing and singing went on during the greater part of the night, suppers were laid, and the luxuries which tempt to intoxication freely displayed. The frequenters of this place were bound together by a common tie, and they spoke openly of incidents which they had long since ceased to blush at, but which hardened habits of crime alone could teach them to avow." In our account of the beggars of St. Giles's we have already mentioned one curious character, "Old Simon," who used to take up his quarters in this den of infamy, (fn. 5) appearing in the street near the church in the daytime.
During the improvements which were effected
about the year 1844–5, when the greater part of
the "Rookery," or the "Holy Land," was swept
away, one at least of the houses which disappeared
had a history of its own. This was a public-house
called the "Hare and Hounds." It stood nearly
in the centre of what is now New Oxford Street,
and, says Mr. Jacob Larwood, in his "History
of Sign-boards," "it was one of those places
associated with 'the good old customs of our
ancestors.'" "The 'Hare and Hounds,'" writes
Mr. Richardson in his "Recollections of the Last
Half Century," "was to be reached by those going
from the West-end towards the City, by going
up a turning on the left hand, nearly opposite
St. Giles's Churchyard. The entrance to this
turning or lane was obstructed or defended by
posts with cross bars, which being passed, the lane
itself was entered. It extended some twenty or
thirty yards towards the north, through two rows of
the most filthy, dilapidated, and execrable buildings that could be imagined; and at the top or
end of it stood the citadel, of which 'Stunning Joe'
was the corpulent castellan. I need not say that it
required some determination and some address to
gain this strange place of rendezvous. Those who
had the honour of an introduction to the great
man were considered safe, wherever his authority
extended, and in this locality it was certainly very
extensive. He occasionally condescended to act
as a pilot through the navigation of the alley to
persons of aristocratic or wealthy pretensions, whom
curiosity, or some other motive best known to
themselves, led to his abode. Those who were
not under his safe-conduct frequently found it very
unsafe to wander in the intricacies of this region.
In the salon of this temple of low debauchery were
assembled groups of all 'unutterable things,' all
that class distinguished in those days, and, I believe, in these, by the generic term 'cadgers.'
'Hail cadgers, who, in rags array'd,
Disport and play fantastic pranks,
Each Wednesday night in full parade,
Within the domicile of Banks'.'
A 'lady' presided over the revels, collected largess in a platter, and at intervals amused the company with specimens of her vocal talent. Dancing was 'kept up till a late hour,' with more vigour than elegance, and many Terpsichorean passages, which partook rather of the animation of the 'Nautch' than the dignity of the minuet, increased the interest of the performance. It may be supposed that those who assembled were not the sort of people who would have patronised Father Mathew, had he visited St. Giles's in those times. There was, indeed, an almost incessant complaint of drought, which seemed to be increased by the very remedies applied for its cure; and had it not been for the despotic authority with which the dispenser of the good things of the establishment exercised his rule, his liberality in the dispensation would certainly have led to very vigorous developments of the reprobation of man and of woman also. In the lower tier, or cellars, or crypt, of the edifice, beds or berths were provided for the company, who, packed in bins, after the 'fitful fever' of the evening, slept well." This notorious house was a favourite resort of Londoners in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was known by the sign of the "Beggars' Bush" previous to the reign of Charles II., when the name became altered to the "Hare and Hounds," in consequence of a hare having been hunted and caught on the premises, where it was afterwards cooked and eaten. The Beggars' Bush formed the title of a play brought out in the seventeenth century. In Pepys' "Diary," under date November 20, 1660, is this entry:—"To the new play-house, near Lincoln's Inn Fields (which was formerly Gibbons's Tennis-court), where the play of the Beggars' Bush was newly begun; and so we went in and saw it well acted."
In one part of what was the "Rookery"—now Streatham Street, at the rear of Meux's Brewery—stands a block of model lodging-houses, with perfect ventilation and drainage, and rents probably lower than the average paid for the miserable dens that once existed here. These houses were erected by the Society for Improving the Condition of the Working Classes, on ground leased on easy terms from the Duke of Bedford.
Resuming our walk along New Oxford Street, we pass Bloomsbury Street and Duke Street. The first of these streets is formed by a junction of two, and named Charlotte Street and Plumtree Street respectively. They were altered into one Street and the name changed in 1845. Museum Street, the next thoroughfare eastward, leads from the top of Drury Lane as far as the British Museum. It was originally called Peter Street, but its name was altered soon after the establishment of the Museum. The southern end was called Bow Street, and the northern end Queen Street. At the corner of New Oxford Street and Museum Street is Mudie's Circulating Library. In describing this establishment we cannot do better than quote the words of a writer in Once a Week, in 1861:—"At the present moment the establishment owns no less than 800,000 volumes. If all these were to come home to roost at one time, it would require a library almost as big as the British Museum to hold them. As it is, the house is one mass of books. Up-stairs are contained the main reserves, from which supplies are drafted for the grand saloon down-stairs. This room is itself a sight. It is not a mere storeroom, but a hall, decorated with Ionic columns, and such as would be considered a handsome assembly-room in any provincial town. The walls require no ceramic decorations, for they are lined with books, which themselves glow with colour. … Light iron galleries give access to the upper shelves, and an iron staircase leads to other books deposited in the well-lit, well-warmed vaults below. We were curious to inquire if volumes ever became exhausted in Mr. Mudie's hard service. Broken backs and torn leaves are treated in an infirmary, and volumes of standard value come out afresh in stouter and more brilliant binding than ever. There is, however, such a thing as a charnel-house in this establishment, where literature is, as it were, reduced to its old bones. Thousands of volumes thus read to death are pitched together in one heap. But would they not do for the butter-man? was our natural query. Too dirty for that. Nor for old trunks? Much too greasy for that. What were they good for, then? For manure! Thus, when worn out as food for the mind, they are put to the service of producing food for our bodies! … The great majority of the works circulated by Mr. Mudie consists of books of travel, adventure, biography, history, scientific works, and all the books of genre, as they say in painting, which are sought for by the public. … Taken altogether, no less than 10,000 volumes are circulating diurnally through this establishment."
The amount of reading which the above figures represent is enormous; and it cannot be denied that, as an educating power, this great Circulating Library holds no mean position among the better classes of society. Its value to authors, moreover, cannot be lightly estimated, inasmuch as its machinery enables a bountiful supply of their works to be distributed to the remotest parts of the island, thereby increasing the demand for their works, and therefore also their reputation in an ever-widening circle.
Passing through Museum Street, we enter Great Russell Street, which runs from Tottenham Court Road to the north-west corner of Bloomsbury Square. It was built in the year 1670, and was named after the Russells, Earls and Dukes of Bedford. It is now a street of shops, but was formerly, as Strype tells us (circa 1700), "a very handsome, large, and well-built street, graced with the best buildings in all Bloomsbury, and the best inhabited by the nobility and gentry, especially the north side, as having gardens behind the houses, and a prospect of the pleasant fields up to Hampstead and Highgate."
In this street John Le Neve, the antiquary, was born in 1679. Here, at one period, lived Sir Godfrey Kneller; and here the Speaker of the House of Commons, Arthur Onslow, died in 1768. Here, too, lived Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, in 1828; and also the great actor, John Philip Kemble, in a house on the north side, afterwards occupied by Sir Henry Ellis, as principal librarian of the British Museum, but pulled down about the year 1848, to make room for extensions. Here, too, in Queen Anne's reign, stood Montagu House and Thanet House. The first of these mansions occupied the site of the British Museum, which will be best dealt with in a separate chapter.
We learn from Horace Walpole, under date January, 1750, that in this street the Lady Albemarle was "robbed in the evening by nine men." Her loss, however, was made up by the king presenting her with a new gold watch and chain the next day.
In this street died, in 1858, Monsieur Louis Augustin Prevost, a celebrated linguist. The son of a French functionary of the town of Arcy, he was born in 1796, and as a boy was an eye-witness of the famous battle fought near that town. He afterwards went to Paris, and studied at a college at Versailles. In 1823 he entered as a tutor into the family of Mr. Ottley, afterwards Keeper of the Prints in the British Museum, and for some years gave lessons in French and other European languages. In 1843 he was appointed by the Trustees of the Museum to the superintendence of the Catalogue of Chinese Books, which he accomplished after mastering almost incredible difficulties. The remains of Monsieur Prevost were interred at Highgate Cemetery.