Origin of the Name—The Ballad of the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green—Kirby's Castle—The Bethnal Green Museum—Sir Richard Wallace's
Collection—Nichol Street and its Population—The French Hospital in Bethnal Green and its present Site.
According to Mr. Lysons, Bethnal Green probably derives its name from the old family of the
Bathons, who had possessions in Stepney in the
reign of Edward I.
The old ballad of "the Beggar of Bethnal
Green," written in the reign of Elizabeth, records
the popular local legend of the concealment under
this disguise of Henry de Montford, son of the
redoubtable Earl of Leicester. He was wounded
at Evesham, fighting by his father's side, and was
found among the dead by a baron's daughter, who
sold her jewels to marry him, and assumed with
him a beggar's attire, to preserve his life. Their
only child, a daughter, was the "Pretty Bessie"
of the bailad in Percy.
"My father, shee said, is soone to be seene,
The seely blind beggar of Bednall Green,
That daylye sits begging for charitie,
He is the good father of pretty Bessee.
"His markes and his tokens are knowen very well,
He alwayes is led with a dogg and a bell;
A seely old man, God knoweth, is hee,
Yet hee is the father of pretty Bessee."
The sign-posts at Bethnal Green have for centuries preserved the memory of this story; the
beadles' staffs were adorned in accordance with the
ballad; and the inhabitants, in the early part of the
century, used to boldly point out an ancient house
on the Green as the palace of the Blind Beggar,
and show two special turrets as the places where
he deposited his gains.
This old house, called in the Survey of 1703
Bethnal Green House, was in reality built in the
reign of Elizabeth by John Kirby, a rich London
citizen. He was ridiculed at the time for his extravagance, in some rhymes which classed him
with other similar builders, and which ranked
Kirby's Castle with "Fisher's Folly, Spinila's Pleasure, and Megse's Glory." It was eventually turned
into a madhouse. Sir Richard Gresham, father of
the builder of the Royal Exchange, was a frequent
resident at Bethnal Green.
The opening, in 1872, of an Eastern branch of
the South Kensington Museum at Bethnal Green
was the result of the untiring efforts of Mr. Cole,
aided by Sir Antonio Brady, the Rev. Septimus
Hansard, rector of Bethnal Green, and Mr. Clabon,
Dr. Millar, and other gentlemen interested in the
district, and was crowned with success by the
princely liberality of Sir Richard Wallace (the inheritor of the Marquis of Hertford's thirty years'
collection of art treasures), who offered to the
education committee the loan of all his pictures and
many other works of art. The Prince and Princess
of Wales were present at the opening of the
Museum, which took place June 24, 1872.
Sir Richard Wallace's collection, which occupied
the whole of the upper galleries, comprised not
only an assemblage of ancient and modern paintings in oil, by the greatest masters of past or modern
times, a beautiful gallery of water-colour drawings,
miniatures, and enamels by French, German, and
British artists, but also some fine specimens of
bronzes, art porcelain and pottery, statuary, snuffboxes, decorative furniture, and jewellers' and goldsmiths' work. The collection was strongest in
Dutch and modern French pictures. Cuyp was
represented by eleven pictures, Hobbema by five,
Maes by four, Metzu by six, Mieris by nine, Netscher
by four, Jan Steen by four, Teniers by five, Vanderneer by six, A. Vandevelde by three, W. Vandevelde by eight, Philip Wouvermans by five, Rubens
by eleven, Rembrandt by eleven, Vandyck by six.
In the Italian school the collection was deficient in
early masters, but there were excellent specimens
of Da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, Carlo Dolce, and
Canaletto. Of the Spanish school there were fine
specimens of Murillo and Velasquez. The French
school was well represented—Greuze by twentytwo works, Watteau by eleven, Boucher by eleven,
Lancret by nine, and Fragonard by five. There
were forty-one works by Horace Vernet, thirteen
by Bellangé, four by Pils, fifteen by Delaroche,
five by Ary Scheffer, two by Delacroix, two by
Robert Fleury, five by Géricault, six by Prud'hon,
twelve by Roqueplan, thirty-one by Decamps, and
fifteen by Meissonier.
In the English collection Sir Joshua Reynolds
stood pre-eminent. His matchless portrait of
"Nelly O'Brien" stood out as beautiful and bewitching as ever, though the finer carnations had
to some extent flown. The childish innocence of
the "Strawberry Girl" found thousands of admirers,
though the picture has faded to a disastrous degree;
and "Love me, Love my Dog," had crowds of
Among the superb portraits by Reynolds, in
his most florid manner, "Lady Elizabeth SeymourConway," and "Frances Countess of Lincoln,"
daughters of the first Marquis of Hertford, and one
of "Mrs. Hoare and Son" (a masterpiece), were
the most popular. The mildness and dignity of
Reynolds was supplemented by the ineffable grace
and charm of Gainsborough. Novices in art were
astonished at the naiveté of "Miss Haverfield,"
one of the most delightful child-portraits ever
painted. The fine works of Bonington, a painter
of genius little known, astonished those who were
ignorant of his works. Among his finest productions at Bethnal Green were "The Ducal Palace
at Venice," "The Earl of Surrey and the Fair
Geraldine," and "Henri IV. of France and the
Spanish Ambassador." This king, to the horror
of the proud hidalgo, is carrying his children
Among the French pictures there were eleven
first-rate Bouchers. This protégé of Madame de
Pompadour was a great favourite with the Marquis,
and at Bethnal Green one saw him at his best.
There was a portrait of "The Pompadour," quite
coquettishly innocent, and those well-known pictures, "The Sleeping Shepherdess," the "Amphitrite," and the "Jupiter disguised as Diana."
Three sacred pictures by Philippe de Champagne,
showed us French religious art of the most ascetic
kind, presenting a striking contrast to the gaiety
and license of French art in general. In Greuze
we find the affected simplicity and the forced sentiment of the age before the Revolution in its most
graceful form, "The Bacchante," "The Broken
Mirror," "The Broken Eggs," and the peerless
portrait of "Sophie Arnould," enabled even those
unacquainted with the charm of this painter to
appreciate his merits. Lancret, the contemporary
of Boucher, was represented by many works,
among which the critics at once decided on the
pre-eminence of "The Broken Necklace," and a
portrait of the famous dancer, "Mdlle. Camargo."
Lepicié was represented by his "Teaching to
Read," and "The Breakfast," capital pieces of
character. Watteau, that delightful painter of
theatrical landscape, was a favourite of the Marquis,
and at Bethnal Green appeared his fairy-like
"Landscape with Pastoral Groups," his delightful
"Conversation Humourieuse," and his inimitable
"Arlequin and Colombine." What painter conveys
so fully the enjoyment of a fête champêtre or the
grace of coquettish woman? A dazzling array of
twenty-six Decamps included the ghastly "Execution in the East," and that wonderful sketch of
Turkish children, "The Breaking-up of a Constantinople School." The fifteen Paul Delaroche's comprised "The Repose in Egypt," one of the finest
pictures in the collection; "The Princes in the
Tower hearing the approach of the Murderers,"
and that powerful picture, "The Last Sickness of
Cardinal Mazarin." Amongst the specimens of
that high-minded painter, Ary Scheffer, we had the
"Francesca da Rimini," one of the most touching
of the painter's works, and the "Margaret at the
Fountain." Eugene Delacroix, Meissonier, Rosa
Bonheur, Horace Vernet, Gaspar and Nicholas
Poussin, and many other well-known artists, are
also represented in this part of the great collection.
"Nichols Street," says a newspaper writer of
1862, writing of Bethnal Green in its coarser aspects,
"New Nichols Street, Half Nichols Street, Turvile
Street, comprising within the same area numerous
blind courts and alleys, form a densely crowded
district in Bethnal Green. Among its inhabitants
may be found street-vendors of every kind of produce, travellers to fairs, tramps, dog-fanciers, dogstealers, men and women sharpers, shoplifters, and
pickpockets. It abounds with the young Arabs of
the streets, and its outward moral degradation is at
once apparent to any one who passes that way.
Here the police are certain to be found, day and
night, their presence being required to quell riots
and to preserve decency. Sunday is a day much
devoted to pet pigeons and to bird-singing clubs;
prizes are given to such as excel in note, and a
ready sale follows each award. Time thus employed was formerly devoted to cock-fighting. In
this locality, twenty-five years ago, an employer of
labour, Mr. Jonathan Duthiot, made an attempt to
influence the people for good, by the hire of a room
for meeting purposes. The first attendance consisted of one person. Persistent efforts were, however, made; other rooms have from time to time
been taken and enlarged; there is a hall for Christian instruction, and another for educational purposes; illustrated lectures are delivered; a loanlibrary has been established, also a clothing-club
and penny bank, and training-classes for industrial
Mr. Smiles, in his "Huguenots in London," has
an interesting page on the old French Hospital in
Bethnal Green:—"Among the charitable institutions founded by the refugees for the succour of
their distressed fellow-countrymen in England,"
says Mr. Smiles, "the most important was the
French Hospital. This establishment owes its
origin to a M. de Gastigny, a French gentleman,
who had been Master of the Buckhounds to
William III., in Holland, while Prince of Orange.
At his death, in 1708, he bequeathed a sum of
£1,000 towards founding an hospital, in London,
for the relief of distressed French Protestants. The
money was placed at interest for eight years, during
which successive benefactions were added to the
fund. In 1716, a piece of ground in Old Street,
St. Luke's, was purchased of the Ironmongers'
Company, and a lease was taken from the City of
London of some adjoining land, forming altogether
an area of about four acres, on which a building
was erected, and fitted up for the reception of
eighty poor Protestants of the French nation. In
1718, George I. granted a charter of incorporation
to the governor and directors of the hospital, under
which the Earl of Galway was appointed the first
governor. Shortly after, in November, 1718, the
opening of the institution was celebrated by a
solemn act of religion, and the chapel was consecrated amidst a great concourse of refugees and
their descendants, the Rev. Philip Menard, minister
of the French chapel of St. James's, conducting the
service on the occasion.
"From that time the funds of the institution
steadily increased. The French merchants of
Toulon, who had been prosperous in trade,
liberally contributed towards its support, and
legacies and donations multiplied. Lord Galway
bequeathed a thousand pounds to the hospital, in
1720, and in the following year Baron Hervart de
Huningue gave a donation of £4,000. The corporation were placed in the possession of ample
means, and they accordingly proceeded to erect
additional buildings, in which they were enabled,
by the year 1760, to give an asylum to 234 poor
The French Hospital has recently been removed
from its original site to Victoria Park, where a
handsome building has been erected as an hospital,
for the accommodation of forty men and twenty
women, after the designs of Mr. Robert Lewis
Roumieu, architect, one of the directors, Mr.
Roumieu being himself descended from an illustrious Huguenot family—the Roumieus of Languedoc.