General introduction

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Centre for Metropolitan History

Publication

Author

Walter Thornbury

Year published

1878

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Pages

1-5

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'General introduction', Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878), pp. 1-5. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45124 Date accessed: 30 August 2014.


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LONDON.

WESTMINSTER AND THE WESTERN SUBURBS.

"I began to study the map of London."—R. Southey.


Decorative illustration, page 1

In the first two volumes of this work we have dealt with the antiquities, the buried history, the traditions, the folk-lore, and the anecdotes of what we may term the eastern hemisphere of London, and if a like success can be achieved in our treatment of the corresponding world which lies west of the above-mentioned line, we shall have accomplished a task of no ordinary difficulty. With the world of Westminster and its surrounding districts—the "old court suburb" of Kensington, Chelsea, Marylebone, and the suburban regions of Lambeth, Bayswater, and Hampstead —we have henceforth to discharge the duty of a topographer and a chronicler in one, describing their features, "old and new," pointing out the spots which they contain rendered sacred by old traditions and haunted by ancient memories, and contrasting their present with their former state. In the performance of this pleasant task, we shall indeed be much wanting to our subject and to the public too, if we cannot wake up again into life and being the ghosts and the shadows of departed greatness, and summon up before the readers' eyes some of the illustrious characters who have been identified with western London, especially during the past three or four hundred years, during which it has mainly grown into being. In this western hemisphere there are no Roman walls to tell of, no mention to make of Julius Cæsar, or of Boadicea, with her scythed chariots of war; but there will be much to say of Edward the Confessor, of William Caxton, of our Norman, Plantagenet, Tudor, and Stuart sovereigns, of the statesmen of the reigns of Henry VIII., Elizabeth and James, and of the far less interesting courts of our Hanoverian kings. The records of the Georgian and the Victorian eras, as well as those of the two previous lines of English monarchs, we shall do our best to ransack, bringing their chief men and chief events before the eyes of our readers; and it will be our pride and privilege to carry the record of the last-named era down to a date not very far short of the fortieth year of the reign of Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria, whom may God long preserve, to rule over a loyal and united people!

We shall make our start, of course, from the western side of that central edifice, Temple Bar. It can hardly be allowed that the Strand, to which we shall first bend our steps, is inferior to Fleet Street, or any other street in the City proper, in old memories and literary associations. It is not merely full of them, it positively teems with them. For centuries it was a fashionable thoroughfare lying, as it did, between the City and the Court, and many of the noblest of the land dwelt along it, especially on its southern side, on account of the then bright and clear river on which it looked down. Where now stands Essex Street, adjoining the western side of the Temple, the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth's rash favourite, was besieged, after his hopeless foray into the City. In Arundel Street lived the Earls of Arundel, whose title is now merged in the ducal house of Norfolk; in Buckingham Street, further to the west, Villiers, the greedy favourite of Charles I., began to build a palace. There were royal palaces, too, in the Strand; for in the Savoy lived John of Gaunt, and Somerset House was built by the "Protector" Somerset, with the stones of the churches that he had pulled down. At Somerset House, too, dwelt Charles I.'s queen, Henrietta Maria, and also poor neglected Catharine of Braganza; and it was almost on this very spot that Sir Edmundbury Godfrey, the zealous Protestant magistrate, was supposed to have been murdered. There is, too, the history of Lord Burleigh's house, in Cecil Street, to record; and Northumberland House, which has stood so long, recalling its noble inmates of two successive lines of the Percies. On the other side of the Strand we shall have to take note of Butcher's Row, the place where the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot held their meeting; Exeter House, where lived Lord Burleigh's wily son, and, finally, Exeter Hall, where the poet Gay lay in state, and where the annual meeting of many "religious" societies are held. Nor shall we forget to make mention of Cross's menagerie and the elephant Chunee, or of the many eccentric shopkeepers who once inhabited Exeter 'Change. At Charing Cross we shall stop to see the Cromwellians die bravely, and to stare at the pillory, in which many incomparable scoundrels have stood in their time, and which we much regret could not be revived for Arthur Orton, the perjured claimant of the Tichborne title and estates. The Nelson column and its lions, and the statues which surround them in Trafalgar Square, have all of them stories of their own; and, as we press on further northward, St. Martin's Lane becomes specially interesting as the haunt and home of half the painters of the early Georgian era. Here and in Leicester Square there are anecdotes of Hogarth and his friends to be picked up; and the whole neighbourhood generally deserves a careful exploration, from the quaintness and genius of many of its former inhabitants.

In Covent Garden again we "break fresh ground." Let us turn round to our right, then, and go east again, only at a little greater distance from the silvery Thames. As we found St. Martin's Lane full of artists, and the Strand full of noblemen, so the old monastic garden and its neighbourhood will prove to be crowded with actors. We shall trace the Market of Covent Garden from the first few sheds set up under the wall of Bedford House, to the present "Grand Temple of Flora and Pomona." We shall see what is known to our younger readers as "Evans's," a new mansion inhabited by Ben Jonson's friend and patron, Sir Kenelm Digby, and then alternately tenanted by Sir Harry Vane, by Denzil Holles, and by Admiral Russell, who defeated the French at La Hogue. The ghost of Parson Ford, in which no less sober a person than Dr. Johnson believed, awaits us at the door of the "Hummums." There are several duels for us to witness in the Piazza: there is Dryden for us to call upon as he sits, the arbiter of wits, by the fireside at "Will's" Coffee-house: Addison is to be found not far off at "Button's": at the Bedford we shall meet Garrick and Quin; and then stop for a few minutes at "Tom King's," close to the portico of St. Paul's, to watch Hogarth's revellers fight with swords and shovels on that frosty morning when the painter sketched the prim old maid going forth to early service at the church. We shall look in at the "Tavistock" to see Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller at work upon portraits of the frail beauties of the Jacobean and the Caroline courts, remembering that in the same room Sir James Thornhill painted, and poor Richard Wilson produced those fine landscapes which so few had the taste to buy. The old Westminster hustings, the scene of so many a memorable election contest, will deserve a word at our hands. In fact the whole neighbourhood of Covent Garden is rife with stories of great actors, painters, poets, and men of letters; and nearly every house, if its walls and timbers could have a voice, could furnish its quota of interesting and amusing anecdote. Indeed, the history of our two principal theatres,
"The houses twain
Of Covent Garden and of Drury Lane,"
if carefully looked up and sifted, would supply us with an endless store of anecdotes of actors, and with humorous and pathetic narratives that would embrace the whole region both of tragedy and of comedy. Quin's jokes, Garrick's weaknesses, the celebrated "O. P." riots, the miserable ends of some popular favourites, the fortunes made by others, and, generally speaking, the caprices of genius, afford a running commentary on the words of the old Roman satirist—
—voluit Fortuna jocari."
"The oddities of Munden and the humour of Liston," it was observed in a previous volume, "serve only to render the gloom of Kean's downfall the more terrible, and to show the wreck and ruin of many unhappy men, equally wilful though less gifted. There is a perennial charm about theatrical stories, and the history of these theatres must be illustrated by many a sketch of the loves and rivalries of actors, their fantastic tricks, their practical jokes, and their gay progress to success or failure. Changes of popular taste are marked by the change of character in the pieces that have been performed at various eras; and the history of the two theatres will include, of necessity, sketches of dramatic writers as well as of actors."

Then, again turning back into the Strand, and following the line of the Thames Embankment on our left, we shall extend our "voyage of discovery" into another region of dreamland, that of the venerable Abbey which holds the ashes of our kings, statesmen, and poets. "From the night on which," according to the ancient legend, "St. Peter came over the Thames from Lambeth in the fisherman's boat, and chose a site for the Abbey or 'Minster' of the West in the midst of Thorney Island, down to the present day, Westminster has ever been a spot where the pilgrim to historic shrines loves to linger." Need I remind my readers that Edward the Confessor built the Abbey, or that William the Conqueror was crowned within its walls, the ceremony ending in tumult and bloodshed? How vast the store of facts from which we have to cull! We see the Jews beaten nearly to death for daring to attend the coronation of Richard I.; we observe Edward I. watching the sacred stone of Scotland being placed beneath the Coronation Chair of his forefathers. We hear the Te Deum sung for the victory of Agincourt, and watch Henry VII. selecting a site for his last resting-place; we hear, at the coronation of Henry VIII., for the last time the sanction of the Pope bestowed formally upon the accession of an English monarch. We note Charles Edward sitting disguised in the gallery while he looks on and sees the crown which might, under other auspices, have been his own, placed on the head of George III.; we pity poor Queen Caroline attempting to enter the Abbey in order to see the like ceremony performed on her worthless husband; and we view once more in memory the last coronation, and draw from it auguries of a purer and a happier age.

The old Hall of Westminster, too; how could we neglect that ancient chamber in which for so many centuries, since the reign of Richard II., at the least, the Champion of England from time to time has ridden proudly to challenge all gainsayers of the Crown, or any who may refuse to promise their allegiance? How can we forget that the very timbers of its present roof heard Charles I. sentenced to death, and soon after saw the Lord Protector, Cromwell, throned in almost regal splendour within its walls? We must see it not merely as it stands now, but at its exceptional seasons of important public events: when the "Seven Bishops" were acquitted, and the shout of joy shook London, it is said, like an earthquake: when the "rebel Lords" were tried and condemned to death on Tower Hill by the axe. We must see the "bad" Lord Byron tried for his duel with Mr. Chaworth, and the "mad" Lord Ferrers condemned to die at Tyburn for shooting his steward. We must try and get at all events a side view of the shameless Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, and hear Burke and Sheridan pour forth their torrents of eloquence over the misdeeds of Warren Hastings.

Then, next in order, the Parks will draw us westward, and we shall see the Second Charles feeding his ducks and toying with his mistresses at St. James's, or playing at "Pall Mall" in the Mall, which still preserves the name of that once favourite sport of royalty: again, we shall saunter northwards to Hyde Park to watch the fashions and extravagancies of successive generations. "Beau Brummell" and Count d'Orsay will drive by before our eyes, and "Romeo Coates" will whisk past us in his fantastic chariot. There will be celebrated duels to describe, and strange follies to deride. We shall see Cromwell thrown from his coach, and shall witness the foot-races so graphically described by Mr. Samuel Pepys. Dryden's gallants and masked ladies will receive due mention in their turn; and we shall tell of bygone encampments and of many events now almost forgotten by the Londoner of to-day.

Next, the sight of Kensington will summon up the memories of William of Orange, Prince George of Denmark, and the First and Second Georges; and Holland House will become once more peopled with Charles James Fox's friends, and the Whig statesmen, poets, and essayists of the succeeding generation. We shall also have a word to say about William Makepeace Thackeray and Leigh Hunt. At Chelsea we shall come upon pleasant recollections of the great Sir Thomas More, Swift, Atterbury, and Sir Robert Walpole. Then, extending our pilgrimage to the north, we shall again cross Kensington, to find ourselves at the pleasant suburb of Marylebone, where Queen Elizabeth sent the Russian Ambassadors to amuse themselves with a stag-hunt; and where, at a far later date, Marylebone Gardens were the afternoon and evening lounge of persons of "quality" who had a taste for music and flirtations.

But even so, we shall hastily traverse only a very small portion of the ground so full of pleasant memories over which we purpose to conduct our readers, describing it more in detail, and halting at every step to record traditions more or less long since forgotten by the multitude. The districts of Bloomsbury, of St. Pancras, and of Kentish Town, will lead us by easy stages to the "Northern Heights of London;" and we shall endeavour to act as our readers' guides around the pleasant hills of Hampstead and Highgate, leading them about the "wells" of the former, and the old park of Belsize, and the "Spaniards" Inn, and "Jack Straw's Castle," and the haunts of Akenside, Johnson, and Sir Richard Steele, and of Clarkson Stanfield and young Edwin Landseer. Then away, past Caen Wood, we shall take them on to the "High Gate" of the Bishops of London, to the home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the stone where Dick Whittington listened to "Bow Bells" as they prophesied his future fortune.

Then again, after a night's rest in London, we purpose to join them in one or more excursions over Westminster Bridge to Astley's, where the name of Ducrow still lingers, to Lambeth Palace, full of the religious associations of six centuries, and to Vauxhall, with its Gardens, now, alas! blotted out and built over; and we shall try to recall the days when Horace Walpole went thither with Lady Petersham, and helped to stew chickens in a china dish over a lamp. Then, trudging on, our pilgrim staff in hand, we shall make our way to Wandsworth and Putney, and cross the wooden bridge to Fulham, where successive Bishops of London have had their palace for several centuries; and thence we may be led to extend our journey to Chiswick, to see Hogarth's house, and the burial-place of his dogs, and even possibly as far as fair "Shene" and Richmond, still redolent of Thomson and Swift, and Bluff King Hal, and (in more senses than one) of "Maids of Honour."

But the task that is before us is no light one, Mr. Ritchie says, in the opening chapter of his "Night Side of London,"—"One of the first things we are told Sir Walter Raleigh did when he was liberated from the Tower, was to take a promenade around London, to see what wonderful improvements had been effected during his incarceration. For this purpose his biographer calculates two or three hours would have sufficed. Times have altered since then. The man who now makes the tour round London would find he had no easy labour. It is hard to say where London begins or ends." The "City" of London, properly so called, is but a fraction, and geographically only a small portion of that great unit, the Metropolis, and is in reality little more than its counting-house. It is probable that taking London in its wider sense, our capital now numbers three and a half millions of inhabitants, and more than four hundred thousand houses. Indeed, the present population of London alone exceeds by more than half a million that of all England in the reign of Henry VII. By the Local Management Act of 1856 the entire Metropolitan District was made to consist of no less than 126 square miles; and if we regard London in its widest sense as co-extensive with the district under the charge of the City and Metropolitan Police; our readers will be astonished to hear that it covers 687 square miles.

Dr. Johnson has observed àpropos of the London of his day, "Sir, if you wish to have a just idea of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy construction of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists." If the worthy Doctor could behold the Mammoth City at the present time, with its additional century of growth and of population, he would be hardly able to find a word in his dictionary long enough to express adequately his idea of its enormous proportions!

As we, however, mean to take our time, pausing at every striking object which meets our view, to rest and to admire, the extent of ground which we have to explore need not alarm us, while in leisurely sort we roam from flower to flower over a garden as varied as the imagination can well conceive. There have been others who have essayed this flight before us, and we shall hope to profit largely by their experience. There have been brave and learned workers in this field. We shall therefore be able to build on good foundations any structure that we may endeavour to rear up. We shall hope to be wide and catholic in our selection, and to supply a variety of dishes, all suited to the taste of some one section of our numerous and varied body of readers. We shall endeavour to choose all that is of local, personal, and, above all, of human interest, pruning away what is dull and superfluous: we shall select our anecdotes with care, culling such only as will bring no blush to the cheek of maidenhood, while we trust to tell the rest in a way which at least shall be pithy and racy. At all events, we will pass knowingly by no fact that is of interest, but do our best to blend together in one consistent whole all that Time can give us bearing on old and new Westminster. Street by street, we shall delve deep into the soil for stories illustrative of the spot on which we stand, despising no book, however humble, if only it throws some light on the topographical history of London, and its ancient and modern manners and customs.

Such is the brief outline of our plan; and it is with a good heart that we shall sally forth to realise it. We have before us a large variety of men and women, as well as of places, to portray. From the day when painted savages roamed about the forest now occupied by Hyde Park and Mayfair, down to the day when Queen Victoria drove from Paddington to Whitehall, and so through St. James's Park to Buckingham Palace, to introduce to the people of London and Westminster her new daughter-in-law from Russia, is indeed a long period over which to range. Nevertheless, we will endeavour to call up, by our wizard spells, the various generations of the human family who have had their haunts in and around Westminster, and the "Old Court Suburb," and see what we can find worth the telling about each in succession. Long lists of mere names, dull rows of dates, and dry rolls of pedigrees, we shall leave to the learned antiquary and the scientific historian, content if we can follow humbly in the steps of such chatty and gossiping chroniclers as dear old Herodotus and Livy were of old, and as Pepys and Evelyn, as Horace Walpole and Sir Nathaniel Wraxall have been in more recent and historic times. In a certain sense, too, it may be taken for granted, that the reminiscences of Westminster will prove it no way inferior to those of London proper, inasmuch as they are so closely interwoven with the histories of those successive dynasties of Tudor and Stuart sovereigns whom, in spite of all their faults and failings, and of our fealty to the crown of Victoria, we are too loyal to the past greatness of England to wish to see struck out from the history of our country.