Bethnal Green

Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'Bethnal Green', Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878), pp. 146-149. British History Online [accessed 16 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "Bethnal Green", in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) 146-149. British History Online, accessed June 16, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "Bethnal Green", Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878). 146-149. British History Online. Web. 16 June 2024,

In this section



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 East-end admirers.

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 pick-a-back.

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 purposes."

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 people."

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.