Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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HAMPSTEAD (continued).—THE HEATH AND THE "UPPER FLASK."
"It is a goodly sight through the clear air,'
From Hampstead's healthy height, to see at once
England's vast capital in fair expanse—
Towers, belfries, lengthen'd streets, and structures fair.
St. Paul's high dome amidst the vassal bands
Of neighbouring spires a regal chieftain stands;
And over fields of ridgy roofs appear,
With distance softly tinted, side by side
In kindred grace, like twain of sisters dear,
The Towers of Westminster, her Abbey's pride.
The View from the Heath—Attempted Encroachments by the Lord of the Manor—His Examination before a Committee of the House of Commons—Purchase of the Heath by the Metropolitan Board of Works as a Public Recreation-ground—The Donkeys and Donkey-drivers—Historic Memorabilia—Mr. Hoare's House, and Crabbe's Visits there—The Hampstead Coaches in Former Times—Dickens' Partiality for Hampstead Heath—Jack Straw's Castle—The Race-course—Suicide of John Sadleir, M.P.—The Vale of Health—John Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Shelley—Hampstead Heath a Favourite Resort for Artists—Judge's Walk, or King's Bench Avenue—The "Upper Flask"—Sir Richard Steele and the Kit-Kat Club—"Clarissa Harlowe."
The great attractions of Hampstead, as we have
endeavoured to show at the commencement of the
preceding chapter, are its breezy heath, which has
long been a favourite resort not only of cockney
holiday folk, but also of artists and poets, and its
choice beauties of scenery, to which no mere description can do justice. Standing upon the broad
roadway which crosses the Heath, in continuation
of the road by the "Spaniards," and leading to the
upper part of the town, the visitor will be at a loss
whether to admire most the pleasing undulations
of the sandy soil, scooped out into a thousand
cavities and pits, or the long avenues of limes, or
the dark fir-trees and beeches which fringe it on the
north—of which we have already spoken—or the
gay and careless laughter of the merry crowds who
are gambolling on the velvet-like turf, or riding
donkeys along the steep ridge which reaches towards Caen Wood. It is probably Hampstead
Heath to which Thompson alludes when he writes
in his "Seasons:"—
"Or I ascend
Some eminence, Augusta, in thy plains,
And see the country far diffused around,
One boundless bush."
Indeed, few, if any, places in the neighbourhood of the metropolis can compare with its range of scenery, or show an equally "boundless bush." As Richardson puts into the mouth of Clarissa Harlowe: "Now, I own that Hampstead Heath affords very pretty and very extensive prospects; but it is not the wide world neither."
In addition to the charming landscape immediately around us, teeming with varied and picturesque attractions, the view is more extensive, perhaps, than that commanded by any other spot of only equal elevation in the kingdom; for from the broad roadway where we are now standing—which, by the way, seems to be artificially raised along the ridge of the hill—we get a fine view of St. Paul's, with the long line of Surrey Hills in the background extending to Leith Hill, the grand stand on Epsom race-course, and St. Martha's Hill, near Guildford. Standing nearly on a level with the top of its cross, we have the whole of the eastern metropolis spread out at our feet, and the eye follows the line of the river Thames, as it winds its way onwards, nearly down to Gravesend. Dr. Preston, in a lecture on Hampstead, very graphically describes how, throwing himself mentally back five hundred years, he commands from its high ground a distant view of London:—"I am alone in the midst of a wood or forest, and I cannot see around me for the thickness of the wood. Neither roads nor bridlepaths are to be seen; so I climb one of the tallest of the oaks, and survey the landscape at leisure. The City of London rises clear and distinct before me to the south, for I am at least three hundred feet above the level of its river banks, and no coal is burnt within its walls to thicken and blacken the atmosphere. I can just distinguish the Tower, and the walls ranging from Bishopsgate to Cripplegate, Aldersgate, and Ludgate. Outside the City gates, however, all is open country, except a group of cottages round the Priory, at Kilburn." And then he describes how London stands on a group of smaller hills, intersected by brooks and water-courses, as we have already seen in detail. (fn. 1)
The northern side of the Heath is particularly wild and charming; and the groups of elms and firtrees, combined with the broken nature of the sandy and gravelly soil, add greatly to the picturesque beauty of the foreground. Looking in this direction, or somewhat to the north-west, the background of the view is formed by the dark sides of Harrow hill; nor is water altogether wanting to lend its aid to the picture, for from certain points the lake at Kingsbury at times gleams out like a sheet of burnished silver in the mid-distance.
From this description it is obvious that a stranger climbing to the top of Hampstead Hill on a bright summer morning, before the air is darkened with the smoke of a single fire, and looking down on the vast expanse of London to his left and to his right, stretching away for miles along the bosom of the Thames valley from Greenwich and Woolwich up to Kew and even Richmond, with its towers, spires, and roofs all crowded before him as in a panorama, they, with pride and enthusiasm, may well exclaim, with the essayist, "Yonder is the metropolis of the empire, the abode of the arts and of science, as well as the emporium of trade and commerce; the glory of England, and the wonder of the world."
Turning from poetry to prose, however, we may observe that the Heath, "the region of all suburban ruralities," as it has been called, originally covered a space of ground about five hundred acres in extent; but by the gradual growth of the neighbouring town of Hampstead and of the surrounding hamlets, and also by occasional enclosures which have been made by the lord of the manor, and by the occupiers of villas on its frontiers, it has been shorn of nearly half its dimensions. These encroachments, though unlawful at the time when made, have become legalised by lapse of years. As an "open space" or common for the free use of the Londoners, its fate was for some time very uncertain. About the year 1831 an attempt was made by the lord of the manor, Sir Thomas Wilson, to build on the Heath, near the Vale of Health; but he was forced to desist. A new road and a bridge, and a range of villas was designed and commenced, traces of which are still to be seen on the side of the hill rising from the Vale of Health towards the south front of Lord Mansfield's park. Sir Thomas Wilson made another attempt at enclosing the Heath, near "Jack Straw's Castle," in more recent years, but was forced again to desist by a decree of the Court of Chancery, to which the residents appealed. Indeed, numerous attempts were made by successive lords of the manor to beguile Parliament into sanctioning their natural desire for power of enclosure; but, fortunately, so great was the outcry raised by the general voice of the people, through the press, that all further encroachment was stayed.
How far Sir Thomas Wilson considered himself justified in his attempted enclosures of the Heath, and the consequent shutting out of the holiday folk from their ancient recreation-ground, may be gathered from his answers before the "Select Committee appointed to inquire into the Open Spaces of the Metropolis." The extract is from the Report of the Select Committee; the catechised is Sir Thomas Wilson:—
You have never treated the public as trespassers?—Some people imagine that they go to Hampstead Heath to play games, but it could not be done. Part of the heath is a bog, and there are cases of horses and cows having been smothered there.
Would you sell Hampstead Heath?—I have never dreamt of anything of the kind; but if the public chose to prevent me, or to make any bargain that I am not to enclose it, they must pay the value of what they take from me.
Sir Thomas Wilson valued the Heath at two and a half millions of money for building purposes; and such might, perhaps, have been its market value if actually laid out for building. But the law restricted his rights, and his successor was glad to sell them for less than a twentieth part of the sum.
The Metropolitan Commons Act, procured in 1866 by the Right Hon. William Cowper, then Chief Commissioner of the Board of Works, secured the Heath from further enclosure; and in 1870, the manor having passed to a new lord, the Metropolitan Board of Works were enabled to purchase the manorial rights for the sum of £45,000, and thus to secure the Heath in perpetuity for public use. Prior to this exchange of ownership, the surface of the Heath had for several years been largely denuded of the sand and gravel of which it was composed, the result being that several of the hillocks and lesser elevations had been partially levelled, deep pits had been scooped out, trees in some parts undermined, and their gnarled roots left exposed above the surface of the ground to the action of the wind and rain. But since the Board of Works has taken the Heath under its fostering care, the barren sand has become in many places re-clothed with verdure, and the wild tract of land is again resuming its original appearance, gay and bright with purple heather and golden furze blossom.
Apart from an occasional sham fight on its slopes on a volunteer field day, the Heath is now left to the sole use of the people as a place of common resort and recreation, where they can breathe the fresh air, and indulge in such rural sport and pastimes as may be provided for them by the troops of donkeys and donkey-boys who congregate on these breezy heights. Indeed, "Hampstead," as the modern poet says, "is the place to ruralise;" it is also, it may be added, especially at Whitsuntide, the place to indulge in a sort of equestrian exercise. Decked out with white saddle-cloths, frisking away over the sunny heath, and perhaps occasionally pitching some unlucky rider into a shallow sand-pit, the donkeys, we need hardly say, are, to the juvenile portion of the visitors at least, the chief source of amusement. By the male sex the horse is principally affected; the women and children are content with donkeys. The horse of Hampstead Heath has peculiar marks of his own. His coat is of the roughest, for he knows little about curry-combs, and passes his nights—at any rate, during the summer months—under the canopy of heaven. For his own sake it is to be hoped that he has not often a tender mouth, when we consider the sort of fellows who mount him, and how mercilessly they jerk at the reins. The Hampstead Heath horse is a creature of extremes. He is either to be seen flying at full gallop, urged along by kicks, and shouts, and blows; or if left to himself, he shambles slowly forwards, being usually afflicted in one or more of his legs with some equine infirmity. As for the donkeys, they are much like their brethren everywhere in a country where the donkey is despised and mismanaged. They are much more comfortable to ride when homeward than outward bound. The sullen crawl of the "outward-bound" donkey—his perpetual endeavours to turn round, and his craving after roadside vegetation—are, as may be well imagined, varied at intervals by the onslaughts of the donkeyman, who, with a shower of blows, a string of guttural oaths, and a hoarse "kim up," stimulates the unlucky beast into a spasmodic gallop of two minutes' duration, during which time the equestrian powers of the rider are severely tested. It may be here stated that whatever may have been the torture to which the poor animals were subjected in bygone days, there is at least a possibility of their being more tenderly dealt with hereafter, seeing that the "donkey-boys" are now under the control of the authorities who rule the Heath, and that any undue severity practised by them may end in a suspension or withdrawal of their licence.
We get some little insight into the character
and amusements of the company usually brought
together here at the commencement of the last
century, in a comedy called Hampstead Heath,
which was produced at Drury Lane Theatre in
1706. The following extract will serve our purpose:—
Act I., Sc. 1. Scene, Hampstead.
Bloom. London now, indeed, has but a melancholy aspect, and a sweet rural spot seems an adjournment o' the nation where business is laid fast asleep, variety of diversions feast our fickle fancies, and every man wears a face of pleasure. The cards fly, the bowl runs, the dice rattle, some lose their money with ease and negligence, and others are well pleased to pocket it. But what fine ladies does the place afford?
Smart. Assemblies so near the town give us a sample of
each degree. We have court ladies that are all air and no
dress, city ladies all dress and no air, and country dames
with broad brown faces like a Stepney bun; besides an endless number of Fleet Street semptresses that dance minuets
in their furbeloe scarfs and cloaths hung as loose about them
as their reputations. . . .
Driver. And d'you think me so very shallow, captain, to leave the good of the nation and getting money to muddle it away here 'mongst fops, fiddlers, and furbeloes, where ev'ry thing's as dear as freeholders' votes, and a greater imposition than a Dutch reckoning? I am come hither, but it is to ferret out a frisking wife o' mine, one o' the giddy multitude that's rambled up to this ridiculous assembly.
That this exhilarating subject has not altogether lost its hold on the play-going public may be inferred when we state that Happy Hampstead is the title of a comedy or farce produced at the Royalty Theatre in the present year (1877).
On fine Sundays and Mondays, and on Bank Holidays, we need hardly add, the Heath is alive with swarms of visitors; and it is estimated that on a bright and sunny Whit-Monday as many as 50,000 people have been here brought together. Writing on this subject in the "Northern Heights of London," Mr. Howitt observes: "Recent times have seen Sunday dissipation re-asserting itself, by the erection of a monster public-house with a lofty tower and flag, to attract the attention of Sunday strollers on the Heath. Of all places, this raised its Tower of Babel bulk in that formerly quiet and favourite spot, the Vale of Health. That suitable refreshments should be attainable to the numerous visitors of the Heath on Sundays and holidays is quite right and reasonable; but that taps and ginpalaces on a Titanic scale should be licensed, where people resort ostensibly for fresh air, relaxation, and exercise, is the certain mode of turning all such advantages into popular curses, and converting the very bosom of nature into a hotbed of demoralisation and crime. Any one who has witnessed the condition of the enormous crowds who flock to the Heath on summer Sundays, as they return in the evening, needs no argument on the subject."
Hampstead Heath has very few historical associations, like Blackheath; but there is one which,
though it savours of poetry and romance, must not
be omitted here. Our readers will not have forgotten the lines in Macaulay's ballad of "The
Armada," in which are described the beacons which
announced to the outlying parts of England the
arrival of the Spanish Armada off Plymouth; how
"High on bleak Hampstead's swarthy moor they started for the North."
It is, of course, quite possible that Hampstead Heath may have been used for telegraphic purposes, but there is no actual record of the fact.
Like Blackheath, however, and, indeed, most of
the other bleak and open spaces in the neighbourhood of London, Hampstead Heath has its recollection of highwaymen, of their depredations, and of
their executions, as we have mentioned in the previous chapter. In a poem published at the close
of the seventeenth century, called "The Triennial
Mayor; or, The New Raparees," we read—
"As often upon Hampstead Heath
We've seen a felon, long since put to death,
Hang, crackling in the sun his parchment skin,
Which to his ear had shrivelled up his chin."
Mr. Howitt, in his "Northern Heights," says that "one of the earliest and most curious facts in history connected with Hampstead Heath is that stated by Matthew of Paris, or rather by Roger of Wendover, from whom he borrows it, that so lately as in the thirteenth century it was the resort of wolves, and was as dangerous to cross on that account at night, as it was for ages afterwards, and, in fact, almost down to our own times, for highwaymen."
Down to the commencement of the last century, when that honour was transferred to Brentford as more central, the elections of knights of the shire for Middlesex were held on Hampstead Heath, as we learn from some notices which appear in the True Protestant Mercury, for March 2–5, 1681, the Flying Post for October 19–22, 1695, and for November 9–12, of the same year.
The poet Crabbe was a frequent visitor at the hospitable residence of Mr. Samuel Hoare, on the Heath. Campbell writes: "The last time I saw Crabbe was when I dined with him at the house of Mr. Hoare, at Hampstead. He very kindly came to the coach to see me off, and I never pass that spot on the top of Hampstead Heath without thinking of him." The mansion is called "The Hill," and was the seat of Mr. Samuel Hoare, the banker. Here used to congregate the great poets of the age, Rogers, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Campbell, Lucy Aikin, Mrs. Marcet, and Agnes and Joanna Baillie; whilst the centre of the gathering was the poet Crabbe. In the "Life of the Rev. George Crabbe," by his son, we read: "During his first and second visits to London my father spent a good deal of his time beneath the hospitable roof of the late Samuel Hoare, Esq., on Hampstead Heath. He owed his introduction to this respectable family to his friend Mr. Bowles, and the author of the delightful 'Excursions in the West,' Mr. Warner; and though Mr. Hoare was an invalid, and little disposed to form new connections, he was so much gratified with Mr. Crabbe's manners and conversation, that their acquaintance grew into an affectionate and lasting intimacy. Mr. Crabbe, in subsequent years, made Hampstead his head-quarters on his spring visits, and only repaired thence occasionally to the brilliant circles of the metropolis."
At the commencement of the century, if we may trust Mr. Chambers's assertion in his "Book of Days," Hampstead and Highgate could be reached only by "short stages" (i.e., stage-coaches), going twice a day; and a journey thither once or twice in the summer time was the furthest and most ambitious expedition of a cockney's year. Both villages then abounded with inns, with large gardens in their rear, overlooking the pleasant country fields towards Harrow, or the extensive and more open land towards St. Albans or towards the valley of the Thames. The "Spaniards" and "Jack Straw's Castle" still remain as samples of these old "rural delights." The features of the latter place, as they existed more than a century since, have been preserved by Chatelaine in a small engraving executed by him about the year 1745. The formal arrangement of the trees and turf, in humble imitation of the Dutch taste introduced by William III., and exhibited on a larger scale at Hampton Court and Kensington Palace, may be noted in this humbler garden.
To Hampstead Heath, as every reader of his "Life" is aware, Charles Dickens was extremely partial, and he constantly turned his suburban walks in this direction. He writes to Mr. John Forster: "You don't feel disposed, do you, to muffle yourself up, and start off with me for a good brisk walk over Hampstead Heath? I know a good house there where we can have a red-hot chop for dinner and a glass of good wine." "This note," adds Forster, "led to our first experience of 'Jack Straw's Castle,' memorable for many happy meetings in coming years."
Passing into "Jack Straw's Castle," we find the usual number of visitors who have come up in Hansoms to enjoy the view, to dine off its modern fare, and to lounge about its gardens. The inn, or hotel, is not by any means an ancient one, and it would be difficult to find out any connection between the present hostelry and the rebellion which may, or may not, have given to it a name. The following is all that we could glean from an old magazine which lay upon the table at which we sat and dined when we last visited it, and it is to be feared that the statement is not to be taken wholly "for gospel:"—"Jack Straw, who was second in command to Wat Tyler, was probably entrusted with the insurgent division which immortalised itself by burning the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem, thence striking off to Highbury, where they destroyed the house of Sir Robert Hales, and afterwards encamping on Hampstead heights. 'Jack Straw,' whose 'castle' consisted of a mere hovel, or a hole in the hill-side, was to have been king of one of the English counties—probably of Middlesex; and his name alone of all the rioters associated itself with a local habitation, as his celebrated confession showed the rude but still not unorganised intentions of the insurgents to seize the king, and, having him amongst them, to raise the entire country."
This noted hostelry has long been a famous
place for public and private dinner-parties and
suppers, and its gardens and grounds for alfresco
entertainments. In the "Cabinet of Curiosities,"
published by Limbird in 1822, we find the following
lines "on 'Jack Straw's Castle' being repaired:"—
"With best of food—of beer and wines,
Here may you pass a merry day;
So shall mine host, while Phoebus shines,
Instead of straw make good his hay."
The western part of the Heath, behind "Jack Straw's Castle," would appear to have been used in former times as the Hampstead race-course long before the "Derby" or "Ascot" had been established in the popular favour. The races, however, do not appear to have been very highly patronised, if we may judge from the fact that at the September meeting, 1732, one race only was run, and that for the very modest stake of ten guineas. "Three horses started," says the Daily Courant of that period; "one was distanced the first heat, and one was drawn; Mr. Bullock's 'Merry Gentleman' won, but was obliged to go the course the second heat alone." We learn from Park's "History of Hampstead" that the races "drew together so much low company, that they were put down on account of the mischief that resulted from them." The very existence of a race-course on Hampstead is now quite forgotten; and the uneven character of the ground, which has been much excavated for gravel and sand, is such as would render a visitor almost disposed to doubt whether such could ever have been the case.
On the greensward behind "Jack Straw's Castle," on Sunday morning, February 17, 1856, was found the dead body of John Sadleir, the fraudulent M.P. for Sligo. The corpse was lying in a hollow on the sloping ground, with the feet very near to a pool of water; beside it was a small phial which had contained essential oil of almonds, and also a silver cream-jug from which he had taken the fatal draught. In his pocket, among other things, was found a piece of paper on which was written "John Sadleir, Gloucester Square, Hyde Park." In 1848, as we learn from his memoir in the Gentleman's Magazine, Mr. Sadleir became chairman of the London and County Joint Stock Banking Company, and for several years he presided over that body with great ability. Shortly before his death, he vacated the chair; and though still a director, he ceased to take an active part in its business. He continued to be a principal manager of the affairs of the Tipperary Bank, and he was chairman of the Royal Swedish Railway Company, in which it appeared that, out of 79,925 shares issued, he got into his own possession 48,245; besides which he dishonestly fabricated a large quantity of duplicate shares, of which he had appropriated 19,700. Among other enterprises in which Mr. Sadleir was also actively engaged, were the Grand Junction Railway of France, the Rome and Frascati Railway, a Swiss railway, and the East Kent line. He had dealt largely in the lands sold in the Encumbered Estates Court in Ireland, and in several instances had forged conveyances of such lands, in order to raise money upon them. The catastrophe was brought about by Messrs. Glyn, the London agents of the Tipperary Bank, returning its drafts as "not provided for," a step which was followed a day or two after by the Bank of Ireland. On the day preceding that on which his body was discovered on Hampstead Heath, Sadleir wrote to Mr. Robert Keating, M.P. for Waterford (another director of the Tipperary Bank), a letter, intended to be posthumous, commencing thus:—
"Dear Robert,—To what infamy have I come step by step—heaping crime upon crime; and now I find myself the author of numberless crimes of a diabolical character, and the cause of ruin, and misery, and disgrace to thousands—aye, tens of thousands! Oh, how I feel for those on whom this ruin must fall! I could bear all punishment, but I could never bear to witness the sufferings of those on whom I have brought this ruin. It must be better that I should not live."
One of the Dublin newspapers—the Nation—speaking of this unexampled swindler, thus expresses itself: "He was a man desperate by nature, and in all his designs his character, his objects, his very fate, seemed written in that sallow face, wrinkled with multifarious intrigue—cold, callous, and cunning—instinct with an unscrupulous audacity, and an easy and wily energy. How he contrived and continued to deceive men to the last, and to stave off so securely the evidences of his infamies, until now, that they all seem exploding together over his dead body, is a marvel and a mystery."
"Hampstead," says Mr. Thorne, in his "Environs of London," "is an awkward place for a suicide to select. The lord of the manor possesses very extensive rights, among them being that of deodand, and is, therefore, in the case of a person who commits suicide within the manor, entitled as heir to 'the whole of the goods and chattels of the deceased, of every kind, with the exception of his estate of inheritance, in the event of the jury returning a verdict of felo de se.' Sadleir's goods and chattels were already lost or forfeited; but the cream-jug was claimed and received by the lord as an acknowledgment of his right, and then returned." As "deodands" have been since abolished by Act of Parliament, such a claim could not arise again.
In Hardwicke's "Annual Biography" for 1857 we read thus: "Strange as it may sound, there are not wanting those who believe (in spite of the identification of the corpse by the coroner, Mr. Wakley, who had formerly sat in Parliament with him), that, after all, John Sadleir did not commit suicide, but simply played the trick so well known in history and in romance, of a pretended death and a supposititious corpse. These persons believe that he is still alive and in America."
Immediately at our feet, as we look down in the hollow towards the east, from the broad road in front of "Jack Straw's Castle," is the Vale of Health, with its large modern hotel, and its ponds glistening in the sunshine beyond. We wish that it could be added that this hotel forms any ornament to the scene: for down to very recent years this Vale of Health presented a sight at once picturesque and pleasant. "In front of a row of cottages," writes Mr. Howitt, "and under the shade of willows, were set out long tables for tea, where many hundreds, at a trifling cost, partook of a homely and exhilarating refreshment. There families could take their own tea and bread and butter, and have water boiled for them, and table accommodation found for them, for a few pence; but then came this great tavern, with its towers and battlements, and cast them literally and practically into the shade. It was, however, really gratifying to see that the more imposing and dangerous place of entertainment never could compete with the more primitive tea-tables, nor banish the homely and happy groups of families, children, and humble friends."
An "old inhabitant" of Hampstead writes thus
in 1876:—"A plot of land lately enclosed in the
Vale of Health is classic ground. In a picturesque
cottage, with its pretty balcony environed with
creepers, and a tall arbor vitæ almost overtopping
its roof, lived for some time Leigh Hunt. Here
Byron and Shelley visited him; and when this
cottage from age was obliged to be pulled down,
there was still in the parlour window a pane of glass
on which Byron had written these lines of Cowper—
"'Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumour of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Shall never reach me more.'"
Cyrus Redding, in his "Recollections," thus writes, in 1850:—"I visited him (Leigh Hunt) in the Vale of Health at Hampstead, where there was always a heartiness that tempted confidence, and with much imaginativeness, much skimming of literature, and a light culling of its wild flowers, criticism without envy, and opinions free of insincerity. Leigh Hunt yet survives, or I might be tempted to proceed to many details, which would infringe the rule I have made for myself in the mention of but few who are still spared from a day of our literature, the similar of which is hardly likely soon, if ever, to recur again." Leigh Hunt died at the house of a friend at Putney, in 1859.
The "Cockney poets," Keats, Shelley, Leigh Hunt, and their friends, loved Hampstead. Coleridge, who lived many years at Highgate, was no stranger to "The Spaniards" or the "Vale of Health," with its toy-like cluster of cottages in the little hollow where we are gazing down. Keats (whom the author of "Childe Harold" styled, in his Ravenna letter to the elder Disraeli, "a tadpole of the lakes," but to whom he made the amende honorable by a magnificent compliment a year later) was residing in lodgings at Hampstead when he felt the first symptoms of the deadly consumption which shortly afterwards laid the most fervid genius of this century in the Protestant buryingground at Rome.
The name of John Keats has many associations with Hampstead. At Leigh Hunt's house Keats wrote one of his finest sonnets, and in a beautiful spot between Millfield Lane and Lord Mansfield's house, as we have already narrated, occurred that one short interview between Keats and Coleridge, in which the latter said that death was in the hand of the former after they had parted. These words soon proved true. In a recent volume of the Gentleman's Magazine there is a very interesting passage touching the author of "The Eve of St. Agnes." "I see," says Miss Sabilla Novello, "that Sylvanus Urban declares himself an unmeasured admirer of Keats; I therefore enclose for your acceptance the photograph of a sketch made of him, on his death-bed, by his friend Joseph Severn, in whose diary at that epoch are written, under the sketch, these words: '28th January, 3 o'clock, morning—Drawn to keep me awake. A deadly sweat was on him all this night.' I feel you will be interested by the drawing." The sketch is, indeed, a most touching memento of the youth who, having his lot cast in the golden age of modern English poetry, left us some of the finest, and purest, and most perfect poetry in the language, and died at twenty-five. So excellent a work is this little picture, and so accurately does it suggest the conditions under which it was drawn, that no doubt the time will come when it will be regarded as the best personal relic of the author of "Endymion." Severn's portrait of Keats, taken at Hampstead, is in the National Portrait Gallery; and hard by, in the South Kensington Museum, Severn's merits as an artist may be seen in his poetic transcription of Ariel on the bat's back.
Connected with Keats's illness and death may be mentioned two incidents that for the living reader contain a mournful and a striking interest. Among the earliest friends of Keats were Haydon, the painter, and Shelley, the poet. When Keats was first smitten, Haydon visited the sufferer, who had written to his old friend, requesting him to see him before he set out for Italy. Haydon describes in his journal the powerful impression which the visit made upon him—"the very colouring of the scene struck forcibly on the painter's imagination. The white curtains, the white sheets, the white shirt, and the white skin of his friend, all contrasted with the bright hectic flush on his cheek, and heightened the sinister effect; he went away, hardly hoping." And he who hardly hoped for another, what extent of hope had he for himself? From the poet's bed to the painter's studio is but a bound for the curious and eager mind. Keats, pitied and struck down by the hand of disease, lies in paradise compared with the spectacle that comes before us—genius weltering in its blood, self-destroyed because neglected. Pass we to another vision! Amongst the indignant declaimers against the unjust sentence which criticism had passed on Keats, Shelley stood foremost. What added poignancy to indignation was the settled but unfounded conviction that the death of the youth had been mainly occasioned by wanton persecution. Anger found relief in song. "Adonais: an Elegy on the Death of John Keats," is among the most impassioned of Shelley's verses. Give heed to the preface:—"John Keats died at Rome of a consumption in his twenty-fourth year, on the — of ——, 1821, and was buried in the romantic and lovely cemetery of the Protestants in that city, under the pyramid which is the tomb of Cestius, and the massy walls and towers, now mouldering and desolate, which formed the circuit of ancient Rome. The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place." Reader, carry the accents in your ear, and accompany us to Leghorn. A few months only have elapsed. Shelley is on the shore. Keats no longer lives; but you will see that Shelley has not forgotten him. He sets sail for the Gulf of Lerici, where he has his temporary home; he never reaches it. A body is washed ashore at Via Reggio. If the features are not to be recognised, there can be no doubt of the man who carries in his bosom the volume containing "Lamia" and "Hyperion." The body of Shelley is burned, but the remains are carried——whither? You will know by the description, "The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place." There he lies! Keats and he, the mourner and the mourned, almost touch each other!
All the later years of Keats's life, until his departure for Rome, were passed at Hampstead, and
here all his finest poetry was written. Leigh Hunt
says:—"The poem with which his first volume
begins was suggested to him on a delightful summer
day, as he stood by the gate which leads from the
battery on Hampstead Heath into a field by Caen
Wood; and the last poem, the one on 'Sleep and
Poetry,' was occasioned by his sleeping in the Vale
of Health." There are, perhaps, few spots in the
neighbourhood of Hampstead more likely to have
suggested the following lines to the sensitive mind
of poor Keats than the high ground overlooking the
Vale of Health:—
"To one who has been long in city pent
'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open space of heaven—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy when, with heart's content,
Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening with an ear
Catching the notes of Philomel—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlets' bright career,
He mourns that day so soon has glided by,
E'en like the passage of an angel's tear,
That falls through the clear ether silently."
No wonder that great painters as well as poets have loved this spot, and made it hallowed ground. Romney, Morland, Haydon, Constable, Collins, Blake, Linnell, Herbert, and Clarkson Stanfield have all in their turn either lived in Hampstead, or, at the least, frequented it, studying, as artists and poets only can, the glorious "sunset effects" and wondrous contrasts of light and shade which are to be seen here far better than anywhere else within five miles of St. Paul's or Charing Cross.
Linnell, the painter of the "Eve of the Deluge" and the "Return of Ulysses," made frequently his abode at a cottage beyond the Heath, between North End and the "Spaniards." To this quiet nook very often resorted, on Sunday afternoons, his friend William Blake, that "dreamer of dreams and seer of visions," and John Varley, artist and astrologer, who were as strange a pair as ever trod this earth.
Goldsmith, who loved to walk here, describes the view from the top of the hill as finer than anything he had seen in his wanderings abroad; and yet he wrote "The Traveller," and had visited the sunny south.
Between the Heath and the western side of the town is a double row of noble lime-trees, the gravel path under which is "still called the Judge's Walk, or King's Bench Avenue." The story is, that when the plague was raging in London, the sittings of the Courts of Law were transferred for a time from Westminster to Hampstead, and that the Heath was tenanted by gentlemen of the wig and gown, who were forced to sleep under canvas, like so many rifle volunteers, because there was no accommodation to be had for love or money in the village. But we do not guarantee the tradition as well founded.
Making our way towards the village of Hampstead, but before actually quitting the Heath, we pass on our left, at the corner of Heath Mount and East Heath Road, the house which marks the spot on which, in former times, stood the "Upper Flask" tavern, celebrated by Richardson, in his novel of "Clarissa Harlowe." A view of the old house, formerly the rendezvous of Pope, Steele, and others, and subsequently the residence of George Steevens, the commentator on Shakespeare, will be found in Mr. Smith's "Historical and Literary Curiosities."
When the Kit-Kat Club was in its glory, its members were accustomed to transfer their meetings in the summer time to this tavern, whose walls—if walls have ears—must have listened to some rare and racy conversation. We have already spoken at some length of the doings of this celebrated club in a previous volume. (fn. 2) In 1712, Steele, most genial of wits and most tender of humorists, found it necessary to quit London for a time. As usual, the duns were upon him, and his "darling Prue" had been, we may suppose, a little more unreasonably jealous than usual. He left London in haste, and took the house at Hampstead in which Sir Charles Sedley had recently died. Thither would come Mr. Pope or Dr. Arbuthnot in a coach to carry the eminent moralist off to the cheerful meetings of the Kit-Kat at the "Flask." How Sir Richard returned we are not told, but there is some reason to fear that the coach was even more necessary at the end of the evening than at its beginning. These meetings, however, did not last long. We shall have more to say of Sir Richard Steele when we reach Haverstock Hill.
Mr. Howitt, in his "Northern Heights of
London," gives a view of the house as it appeared
when that work was published (1869). The author
states that the members of the Kit-Kat Club used
"to sip their ale under the old mulberry-tree, which
still flourishes, though now bound together by iron
bands, and showing signs of great age," in the
garden adjoining. Sir Richard Blackmore, in his
poem, "The Kit-Kats," thus commemorates the
summer gatherings of the club at this house:—
"Or when, Apollo-like, thou'st pleased to lead
Thy sons to feast on Hampstead's airy head:
Hampstead, that, towering in superior sky,
Now with Parnassus does in honour vie."
Since that time the house has been much altered, and additions have been made to it. One Samuel Stanton, a vintner, who came into possession of it near the beginning of the last century, was probably the last person who used it as a tavern. In 1750 it passed from his nephew and successor, "Samuel Stanton, gentleman," to his niece, Lady Charlotte Rich, sister of Mary, Countess of Warwick; a few years later George Steevens, the annotator of Shakespeare, bought the house, and lived there till his death, in 1800.
Steevens is stated to have been a fine classical scholar, and celebrated for his brilliant wit and smart repartee in conversation, in which he was "lively, varied, and eloquent," so that one of his acquaintances said that he regarded him as a speaking Hogarth. He possessed a handsome fortune, which he managed, says his biographer, "with discretion, and was enabled to gratify his wishes, which he did without any regard to expense, in forming his distinguished collections of classical learning, literary antiquity, and the arts connected with it. . . . . He possessed all the grace of exterior accomplishment, acquired when civility and politeness were the characteristics of a gentleman. He received the first part of his education at Kingston-upon-Thames; he went thence to Eton, and was afterwards a fellow-commoner of King's College, Cambridge. He also accepted a commission in the Essex militia, on its first establishment. The latter years of his life he chiefly spent at Hampstead in retirement, and seldom mixed in society except in booksellers' shops, or the Shakespeare Gallery, or the morning conversations of Sir Joseph Banks."
"Steevens," says Cradock, in his "Memoirs," "was the most indefatigable man I had ever met with. He would absolutely set out from his house at Hampstead, with the patrol, and walk to London before daylight, call up his barber in Devereux Court, at whose shop he dressed, and when fully accoutred for the day, generally resorted to the house of his friend Hamilton, the well-known editor and printer of the Critical Review."
Steevens, it is stated, added considerably to the house. It was subsequently occupied for many years by Mr. Thomas Sheppard, M.P. for Frome, and afterwards by Mrs. Raikes, a relative of Mr. Thomas Raikes, to whose "Journal" we have frequently referred in these pages. On her death the house passed into the hands of a Mr. Lister. The old house is still kept in remembrance by a double row of elms in front of it, forming a shady grove.
With the interest attached to the place through the pages of "Clarissa Harlowe," it would be wrong not to make more than a passing allusion to it. We will, therefore, summarise from the work those portions having special reference to the "Upper Flask" and its surroundings:—
Richardson represents the fashionable villain Lovelace as inducing Clarissa—whom he had managed, under promise of marriage, to lure away from her family—to take a drive with him in company with two of the women of the sponging-house into which he had decoyed her. Lovelace, afterwards writing to his friend Belford, says:—"The coach carried us to Hampstead, to Highgate, to Muswell Hill; back to Hampstead, to the 'Upper Flask.' There, in compliment to the nymphs, my beloved consented to alight and take a little repast; then home early by Kentish Town." Clarissa no sooner discovers the nature of the vile place into which Lovelace has brought her, than she at once sets about endeavouring to effect her escape. By one of Lovelace's accomplices she is tracked to a hackney coach, and from her directions to the driver it is at once made clear that Hampstead is her destination. The fellow then disguises himself, and making his way thither, discovers her at the "Upper Flask," which fact he communicates to Lovelace in the following words:—"If your honner come to the 'Upper Flax,' I will be in site (sight) all day about the 'Tapphouse' on the Hethe." Lovelace pursues his victim in all haste, and arrives at the "Upper Flask," but only to find that she had been there, but had since taken up her abode somewhere in the neighbourhood. We next find Lovelace writing from the "Upper Flask:"—"I am now here, and have been this hour and a half. What an industrious spirit have I." But all that he could learn with any certainty respecting the runaway was, that "the Hampstead coach, when the dear fugitive came to it, had but two passengers in it; but she made the fellow go off directly, paying for the vacant places. The two passengers directing the coachman to set them down at the 'Upper Flask,' she bid them set her down there also."
Clarissa has in the meantime taken up her abode in the lodging-house of a Mrs. Moore, as she herself tells us in one of her epistles:—"I am at present at one Mrs. Moore's, at Hampstead. My heart misgave me at coming to this village, because I had been here with him more than once; but the coach hither was such a convenience that I knew not what to do better." She, however, is not allowed to rest quietly here, but is soon surrounded by Lovelace's tools and spies. She attempts to escape, and, making her way to the window, exclaims to the landlady—"'Let me look out! Whither does that path lead to? Is there no probability of getting a coach? Cannot I steal to a neighbouring house, where I may be concealed till I can get quite away? Oh, help me, help me, ladies, or I am ruined!' Then, pausing, she asks—'Is that the way to Hendon? Is Hendon a private place? The Hampstead coach, I am told, will carry passengers thither?'" Richardson writes: "She, indeed, went on towards Hendon, passing by the sign of the 'Castle' on the Heath; then stopping, looked about her, and turned down the valley before her. Then, turning her face towards London, she seemed, by the motion of her handkerchief to her eyes, to weep; repenting (who knows?) the rash step that she had taken, and wishing herself back again. …Then, continuing on a few paces, she stopped again, and, as if disliking her road, again seeming to weep, directed her course back towards Hampstead."
Hannah More bears testimony to the fact that, when she was young, "Clarissa" and "Sir Charles Grandison" were the favourite reading in any English household. And her testimony to their excellence is striking. She writes: "Whatever objection may be made to them in certain respects, they contain more maxims of virtue, and more sound moral principle, than half the books called 'moral.'"
At the end of a century, Macaulay tells us that the merits of "Clarissa Harlowe" were still felt and acknowledged. On one occasion he said to Thackeray: "If you have once thoroughly entered on 'Clarissa,' and are infected by it, you can't leave it. When I was in India, I passed one hot season at the hills, and there were the governorgeneral, and the secretary of the Government, and the commander-in-chief, and their wives. I had 'Clarissa' with me; and as soon as they began to read it, the whole station was in a passion of excitement about Miss Harlowe and the scoundrel Lovelace. The governor's wife seized the book, and the secretary waited for it, and the chief justice could not read it for tears. He acted the whole scene as he paced up and down the Athenæum Library; I daresay he could have spoken pages of the book."
The following is the testimony of R. B. Haydon to the merits of "Clarissa Harlowe" as a work of fiction:—"I was never so moved by a work of genius as by Othello, except by 'Clarissa Harlowe.' I read seventeen hours a day at 'Clarissa,' and held up the book so long, leaning on my elbows in an arm-chair, that I stopped the circulation, and could not move. When Lovelace writes, 'Dear Belton, it is all over, and Clarissa lives,' I got up in a fury, and wept like an infant, and cursed Lovelace till I was exhausted. This is the triumph of genius over the imagination and heart of the readers."
Richardson, by all accounts, was one of the vainest of men, and loved to talk of nothing so well as his own writings. It must be owned, however, that he had something to be vain and proud about when he wrote "Clarissa Harlowe," which at once established itself as a classic on the bookshelves of every gentleman and lady throughout England.
"The great author," writes Thackeray, in his "Virginians," "was accustomed to be adored—a gentler wind never puffed mortal vanity; enraptured spinsters flung tea-leaves round him, and incensed him with the coffee-pot. Matrons kissed the slippers they had worked for him. There was a halo of virtue round his nightcap."
So great is the popularity of the author of "Pamela," "Clarissa," and "Sir Charles Grandison," that foreigners of distinction have been known to visit Hampstead, and to inquire with curiosity and wonder for the "Flask Walk," so distinguished as a scene in "Clarissa's" history, just as travellers visit the rocks of Mellerie, in order to view the localities with which they have already been familiarised in Rousseau's tale of passion. The "Lower Flask" tavern, in Flask Walk, is mentioned in "Clarissa Harlowe" as a place where second-rate persons are to be found occasionally in a swinish condition. The "Flask Inn," rebuilt in 1873, is still here, and so is Flask Walk, but both are only ghosts of their former selves!