St. Sepulchre's and its neighbourhood

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

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'St. Sepulchre's and its neighbourhood', in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) pp. 477-491. British History Online [accessed 25 April 2024]

In this section



The Early History of St. Sepulchre's—Its Destruction in 1666—The Exterior and Interior—The Early Popularity of the Church—Interments here—Roger Ascham, the Author of the "Schoolmaster"—Captain John Smith, and his Romantic Adventures—Saved by an Indian Girl— St. Sepulchre's Churchyard—Accommodation for a Murderess—The Martyr Rogers—An Odd Circumstance—Good Company for the Dead—A Leap from the Tower—A Warning Bell and a Last Admonition—Nosegays for the Condemned—The Route to the Gallows-tree— The Deeds of the Charitable—The "Saracen's Head"—Description by Dickens—Giltspur Street—Giltspur Street Compter—A Disreputable Condition—Pie Corner—Hosier Lane—A Spurious Relic—The Conduit on Snow Hill—A Ladies' Charity School—Turnagain Lane—Poor Betty!—A Schoolmistress Censured—Skinner Street—Unpropitious Fortune—William Godwin—An Original Married Life.

Many interesting associations—Principally, however, connected with the annals of crime and the execution of the laws of England—belong to the Church of St. Sepulchre, or St. 'Pulchre. This sacred edifice—anciently known as St. Sepulchre's in the Bailey, or by Chamberlain Gate (now Newgate)—stands at the eastern end of the slight acclivity of Snow Hill, and between Smithfield and the Old Bailey. The genuine materials for its early history are scanty enough. It was probably founded about the commencement of the twelfth century, but of the exact date and circumstances of its origin there is no record whatever. Its name is derived from the Holy Sepulchre of our Saviour at Jerusalem, to the memory of which it was first dedicated.

The earliest authentic notice of the church, according to Maitland, is of the year 1178, at which date it was given by Roger, Bishop of Sarum, to the Prior and Canons of St. Bartholomew. These held the right of advowson until the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII., and from that time until 1610 it remained in the hands of the Crown. James I., however, then granted "the rectory and its appurtenances, with the advowson of the vicarage," to Francis Phillips and others. The next stage in its history is that the rectory was purchased by the parishioners, to be held in fee-farm of the Crown, and the advowson was obtained by the President and Fellows of St. John the Baptist College, at Oxford.

The church was rebuilt about the middle of the fifteenth century, when one of the Popham family, who had been Chancellor of Normandy and Treasurer of the King's Household, with distinguished liberality erected a handsome chapel on the south side of the choir, and the very beautiful porch still remaining at the south-west corner of the building. "His image," Stow says, "fair graven in stone, was fixed over the said porch."

The dreadful fire of 1666 almost destroyed St. Sepulchre's, but the parishioners set energetically to work, and it was "rebuilt and beautified both within and without." The general reparation was under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren, and nothing but the walls of the old building, and these not entirely, were suffered to remain. The work was done rapidly, and the whole was completed within four years.

"The tower," says Mr. Godwin, "retained its original aspect, and the body of the church, after its restoration, presented a series of windows between buttresses, with pointed heads filled with tracery, crowned by a string-course and battlements. In this form it remained till the year 1790, when it appears the whole fabric was found to be in a state of great decay, and it was resolved to repair it throughout. Accordingly the walls of the church were cased with Portland stone, and all the windows were taken out and replaced by others with plain semi-circular heads, as now seen—certainly agreeing but badly with the tower and porch of the building, but according with the then prevailing spirit of economy. The battlements, too, were taken down, and a plain stone parapet was substituted, so that at this time (with the exception of the roof, which was wagon-headed, and presented on the outside an unsightly swell, visible above the parapet) the church assumed its present appearance." The ungainly roof was removed, and an entirely new one erected, about 1836.

At each corner of the tower—"one of the most ancient," says the author of "Londinium Redivivum," "in the outline of the circuit of London" —there are spires, and on the spires there are weathercocks. These have been made use of by Howell to point a moral: "Unreasonable people," says he, "are as hard to reconcile as the vanes of St. Sepulchre's tower, which never look all four upon one point of the heavens." Nothing can be said with certainty as to the date of the tower, but it is not without the bounds of probability that it formed part of the original building. The belfry is reached by a small winding staircase in the south-west angle, and a similar staircase in an opposite angle leads to the summit. The spires at the corners, and some of the tower windows, have very recently undergone several alterations, which have added much to the picturesqueness and beauty of the church.

The chief entrance to St. Sepulchre's is by a porch of singular beauty, projecting from the south side of the tower, at the western end of the church. The groining of the ceiling of this porch, it has been pointed out, takes an almost unique form; the ribs are carved in bold relief, and the bosses at the intersections represent angels' heads, shields, roses, &c., in great variety.

Coming now to the interior of the church, we find it divided into three aisles, by two ranges of Tuscan columns. The aisles are of unequal widths, that in the centre being the widest, that to the south the narrowest. Semi-circular arches connect the columns on either side, springing directly from their capitals, without the interposition of an entablature, and support a large dental cornice, extending round the church. The ceiling of the middle aisle is divided into seven compartments, by horizontal bands, the middle compartment being formed into a small dome.

The aisles have groined ceilings, ornamented at the angles with doves, &c., and beneath every division of the groining are small windows, to admit light to the galleries. Over each of the aisles there is a gallery, very clumsily introduced, which dates from the time when the church was built by Wren, and extends the whole length, excepting at the chancel. The front of the gallery, which is of oak, is described by Mr. Godwin as carved into scrolls, branches, &c., in the centre panel, on either side, with the initials "C. R.," enriched with carvings of laurel, which have, however, he says, "but little merit."

At the east end of the church there are three semicircular-headed windows. Beneath the centre one is a large Corinthian altar-piece of oak, displaying columns, entablatures, &c., elaborately carved and gilded.

The length of the church, exclusive of the ambulatory, is said to be 126 feet, the breadth 68 feet, and the height of the tower 140 feet.

A singularly ugly sounding-board, extending over the preacher, used to stand at the back of the pulpit, at the east end of the church. It was in the shape of a large parabolic reflector, about twelve feet in diameter, and was composed of ribs of mahogany.

At the west end of the church there is a large organ, said to be the oldest and one of the finest in London. It was built in 1677, and has been greatly enlarged. Its reed-stops (hautboy, clarinet, &c.) are supposed to be unrivalled. In Newcourt's time the church was taken notice of as "remarkable for possessing an exceedingly fine organ, and the playing is thought so beautiful, that large congregations are attracted, though some of the parishioners object to the mode of performing divine service."

On the north side of the church, Mr. Godwin mentions, is a large apartment known as "St. Stephen's Chapel." This building evidently formed a somewhat important part of the old church, and was probably appropriated to the votaries of the saint whose name it bears.

Between the exterior and the interior of the church there is little harmony. "For example," says Mr. Godwin, "the columns which form the south aisle face, in some instances, the centre of the large windows which occur in the external wall of the church, and in others the centre of the piers, indifferently." This discordance may likely enough have arisen from the fact that when the church was rebuilt, or rather restored, after the Great Fire, the works were done without much attention from Sir Christopher Wren.

St. Sepulchre's appears to have enjoyed considerable popularity from the earliest period of its history, if one is to judge from the various sums left by well-disposed persons for the support of certain fraternities founded in the church—namely, those of St. Katherine, St. Michael, St. Anne, and Our Lady—and by others, for the maintenance of chantry priests to celebrate masses at stated intervals for the good of their souls. One of the fraternities just named—that of St. Katherine— originated, according to Stow, in the devotion of some poor persons in the parish, and was in honour of the conception of the Virgin Mary. They met in the church on the day of the Conception, and there had the mass of the day, and offered to the same, and provided a certain chaplain daily to celebrate divine service, and to set up wax lights before the image belonging to the fraternity, on all festival days.

The most famous of all who have been interred in St. Sepulchre's is Roger Ascham, the author of the "Schoolmaster," and the instructor of Queen Elizabeth in Greek and Latin. This learned old worthy was born in 1515, near Northallerton, in Yorkshire. He was educated at Cambridge University, and in time rose to be the university orator, being notably zealous in promoting what was then a novelty in England—the study of the Greek language. To divert himself after the fatigue of severe study, he used to devote himself to archery. This drew down upon him the censure of the all-work-and-no-play school; and in defence of himself, Ascham, in 1545, published "Toxophilus," a treatise on his favourite sport. This book is even yet well worthy of perusal, for its enthusiasm, and for its curious descriptions of the personal appearance and manners of the principal persons whom the author had seen and conversed with. Henry VIII. rewarded him with a pension of £10 per annum, a considerable sum in those days. In 1548, Ascham, on the death of William Grindall, who had been his pupil, was appointed instructor in the learned languages to Lady Elizabeth, afterwards the good Queen Bess. At the end of two years he had some dispute with, or took a disgust at, Lady Elizabeth's attendants, resigned his situation, and returned to his college. Soon after this he was employed as secretary to the English ambassador at the court of Charles V. of Germany, and remained abroad till the death of Edward VI. During his absence he had been appointed Latin secretary to King Edward. Strangely enough, though Queen Mary and her ministers were Papists, and Ascham a Protestant, he was retained in his office of Latin secretary, his pension was increased to £20, and he was allowed to retain his fellowship and his situation as university orator. In 1554 he married a lady of good family, by whom he had a considerable fortune, and of whom, in writing to a friend, he gives, as might perhaps be expected, an excellent character. On the accession of Queen Elizabeth, in 1558, she not only required his services as Latin secretary, but as her instructor in Greek, and he resided at Court during the remainder of his life. He died in consequence of his endeavours to complete a Latin poem which he intended to present to the queen on the New Year's Day of 1569. He breathed his last two days before 1568 ran out, and was interred, according to his own directions, in the most private manner, in St. Sepulchre's Church, his funeral sermon being preached by Dr. Andrew Nowell, Dean of St. Paul's. He was universally lamented; and even the queen herself not only showed great concern, but was pleased to say that she would rather have lost ten thousand pounds than her tutor Ascham, which, from that somewhat closehanded sovereign, was truly an expression of high regard.

Ascham, like most men, had his little weaknesses. He had too great a propensity to dice and cock-fighting. Bishop Nicholson would try to convince us that this is an unfounded calumny, but, as it is mentioned by Camden, and other contemporary writers, it seems impossible to deny it. He died, from all accounts, in indifferent circumstances. "Whether," says Dr. Johnson, referring to this, "Ascham was poor by his own fault, or the fault of others, cannot now be decided; but it is certain that many have been rich with less merit. His philological learning would have gained him honour in any country; and among us it may justly call for that reverence which all nations owe to those who first rouse them from ignorance, and kindle among them the light of literature." His most valuable work, "The Schoolmaster," was published by his widow. The nature of this celebrated performance may be gathered from the title: "The Schoolmaster; or a plain and perfite way of teaching children to understand, write, and speak the Latin tongue. … And commodious also for all such as have forgot the Latin tongue, and would by themselves, without a schoolmaster, in short time, and with small pains, recover a sufficient habilitie to understand, write, and speak Latin: by Roger Ascham, ann. 1570. At London, printed by John Daye, dwelling over Aldersgate," a printer, by the way, already mentioned by us a few chapters back (see page 208), as having printed several noted works of the sixteenth century.


Dr. Johnson remarks that the instruction recommended in "The Schoolmaster" is perhaps the best ever given for the study of languages.

Here also lies buried Captain John Smith, a conspicuous soldier of fortune, whose romantic adventures and daring exploits have rarely been surpassed. He died on the 21st of June, 1631. This valiant captain was born at Willoughby, in the county of Lincoln, and helped by his doings to enliven the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. He had a share in the wars of Hungary in 1602, and in three single combats overcame three Turks, and cut off their heads. For this, and other equally brave deeds, Sigismund, Duke of Transylvania, gave him his picture set in gold, with a pension of three hundred ducats; and allowed him to bear three Turks' heads proper as his shield of arms. He afterwards went to America, where he had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Indians. He escaped from them, however, at last, and resumed his brilliant career by hazarding his life in naval engagements with pirates and Spanish men-of-war. The most important act of his life was the share he had in civilising the natives of New England, and reducing that province to obedience to Great Britain. In connection with his tomb in St. Sepulchre's, he is mentioned by Stow, in his "Survey," as "some time Governor of Virginia and Admiral of New England."

ST. SEPULCHRE'S CHURCH IN 1737. (From a View by Toms.)

Certainly the most interesting events of his chequered career were his capture by the Indians, and the saving of his life by the Indian girl Pocahontas, a story of adventure that charms as often as it is told. Bancroft, the historian of the United States, relates how, during the early settlement of Virginia, Smith left the infant colony on an exploring expedition, and not only ascended the river Chickahominy, but struck into the interior. His companions disobeyed his instructions, and being surprised by the Indians, were put to death. Smith preserved his own life by calmness and self-possession. Displaying a pocket-compass, he amused the savages by an explanation of its power, and increased their admiration of his superior genius by imparting to them some vague conceptions of the form of the earth, and the nature of the planetary system. To the Indians, who retained him as their prisoner, his captivity was a more strange event than anything of which the traditions of their tribes preserved the memory. He was allowed to send a letter to the fort at Jamestown, and the savage wonder was increased, for he seemed by some magic to endow the paper with the gift of intelligence. It was evident that their captive was a being of a high order, and then the question arose, Was his nature beneficent, or was he to be dreaded as a dangerous enemy? Their minds were bewildered, and the decision of his fate was referred to the chief Powhatan, and before Powhatan Smith was brought. "The fears of the feeble aborigines," says Bancroft, "were about to prevail, and his immediate death, already repeatedly threatened and repeatedly delayed, would have been inevitable, but for the timely intercession of Pocahontas, a girl twelve years old, the daughter of Powhatan, whose confiding fondness Smith had easily won, and who firmly clung to his neck, as his head was bowed down to receive the stroke of the tomahawks. His fearlessness, and her entreaties, persuaded the council to spare the agreeable stranger, who could make hatchets for her father, and rattles and strings of beads for herself, the favourite child. The barbarians, whose decision had long been held in suspense by the mysterious awe which Smith had inspired, now resolved to receive him as a friend, and to make him a partner of their councils. They tempted him to join their bands, and lend assistance in an attack upon the white men at Jamestown; and when his decision of character succeeded in changing the current of their thoughts, they dismissed him with mutual promises of friendship and benevolence. Thus the captivity of Smith did itself become a benefit to the colony; for he had not only observed with care the country between the James and the Potomac, and had gained some knowledge of the language and manners of the natives, but he now established a peaceful intercourse between the English and the tribes of Powhatan."

On the monument erected to Smith in St. Sepulchre's Church, the following quaint lines were formerly inscribed:—

"Here lies one conquered that hath conquered kings,
Subdued large territories, and done things
Which to the world impossible would seem,
But that the truth is held in more esteem.
Shall I report his former service done,
In honour of his God, and Christendom?
How that he did divide, from pagans three,
Their heads and lives, types of his chivalry?—
For which great service, in that climate done,
Brave Sigismundus, King of Hungarion,
Did give him, as a coat of arms, to wear
These conquered heads, got by his sword and spear.
Or shall I tell of his adventures since
Done in Virginia, that large continent?
How that he subdued kings unto his yoke,
And made those heathens flee, as wind doth smoke;
And made their land, being so large a station,
An habitation for our Christian nation,
Where God is glorified, their wants supplied;
Which else for necessaries, must have died.
But what avails his conquests, now he lies
Interred in earth, a prey to worms and flies?
Oh! may his soul in sweet Elysium sleep,
Until the Keeper, that all souls doth keep,
Return to judgment; and that after thence
With angels he may have his recompense."

Sir Robert Peake, the engraver, also found a last resting-place here. He is known as the master of William Faithorne—the famous English engraver of the seventeenth century—and governor of Basing House for the king during the Civil War under Charles I. He died in 1667. Here also was interred the body of Dr. Bell, grandfather of the originator of a well-known system of education.

"The churchyard of St. Sepulchre's," we learn from Maitland, "at one time extended so far into the street on the south side of the church, as to render the passage-way dangerously narrow. In 1760 the churchyard was, in consequence, levelled, and thrown open to the public. But this led to much inconvenience, and it was re-enclosed in 1802."

Sarah Malcolm, the murderess, was buried in the churchyard of St. Sepulchre's in 1733. This coldhearted and keen-eyed monster in human form has had her story told by us already. The parishioners seem, on this occasion, to have had no such scruples as had been exhibited by their predecessors a hundred and fifty years previous at the burial of Awfield, a traitor. We shall see presently that in those more remote days they were desirous of having at least respectable company for their deceased relatives and friends in the churchyard.

"For a long period," says Mr. Godwin (1838), "the church was surrounded by low mean buildings, by which its general appearance was hidden; but these having been cleared away, and the neighbourhood made considerably more open, St. Sepulchre's now forms a somewhat pleasing object, notwithstanding that the tower and a part of the porch are so entirely dissimilar in style to the remainder of the building." And since Godwin's writing the surroundings of the church have been so improved that perhaps few buildings in the metropolis stand more prominently before the public eye.

In the glorious roll of martyrs who have suffered at the stake for their religious principles, a vicar of St. Sepulchre's, the Reverend John Rogers, occupies a conspicuous place. He was the first who was burned in the reign of the Bloody Mary. This eminent person had at one time been chaplain to the English merchants at Antwerp, and while residing in that city had aided Tindal and Coverdale in their great work of translating the Bible. He married a German lady of good position, by whom he had a large family, and was enabled, by means of her relations, to reside in peace and safety in Germany. It appeared to be his duty, however, to return to England, and there publicly profess and advocate his religious convictions, even at the risk of death. He crossed the sea; he took his place in the pulpit at St. Paul's Cross; he preached a fearless and animated sermon, reminding his astonished audience of the pure and wholesome doctrine which had been promulgated from that pulpit in the days of the good King Edward, and solemnly warning them against the pestilent idolatry and superstition of these new times. It was his last sermon. He was apprehended, tried, condemned, and burned at Smithfield. We described, when speaking of Smithfield, the manner in which he met his fate.

Connected with the martyrdom of Rogers an odd circumstance is quoted in the "Churches of London." It is stated that when the bishops had resolved to put to death Joan Bocher, a friend came to Rogers and earnestly entreated his influence that the poor woman's life might be spared, and other means taken to prevent the spread of her heterodox doctrines. Rogers, however, contended that she should be executed; and his friend then begged him to choose some other kind of death, which should be more agreeable to the gentleness and mercy prescribed in the gospel. "No," replied Rogers, "burning alive is not a cruel death, but easy enough." His friend hearing these words, expressive of so little regard for the sufferings of a fellow-creature, answered him with great vehemence, at the same time striking Rogers' hand, "Well, it may perhaps so happen that you yourself shall have your hands full of this mild burning." There is no record of Rogers among the papers belonging to St. Sepulchre's, but this may easily be accounted for by the fact that at the Great Fire of 1666 nearly all the registers and archives were destroyed.

A noteworthy incident in the history of St. Sepulchre's was connected with the execution, in 1585, of Awfield, for "sparcinge abrood certen lewed, sedicious, and traytorous bookes." "When he was executed," says Fleetwood, the Recorder, in a letter to Lord Burleigh, July 7th of that year, "his body was brought unto St. Pulcher's to be buryed, but the parishioners would not suffer a traytor's corpse to be laid in the earth where their parents, wives, children, kindred, masters, and old neighbours did rest; and so his carcass was returned to the burial-ground near Tyburn, and there I leave it."

Another event in the history of the church is a tale of suicide. On the 10th of April, 1600, a man named William Dorrington threw himself from the roof of the tower, leaving there a prayer for forgiveness.

We come now to speak of the connection of St. Sepulchre's with the neighbouring prison of Newgate. Being the nearest church to the prison, that connection naturally was intimate. Its clock served to give the time to the hangman when there was an execution in the Old Bailey, and many a poor wretch's last moments must it have regulated.

On the right-hand side of the altar a board with a list of charitable donations and gifts used to contain the following item:—"1605. Mr. Robert Dowe gave, for ringing the greatest bell in this church on the day the condemned prisoners are executed, and for other services, for ever, concerning such condemned prisoners, for which services the sexton is paid £16s. 8d.—£50.

It was formerly the practice for the clerk or bellman of St. Sepulchre's to go under Newgate, on the night preceding the execution of a criminal, ring his bell, and repeat the following wholesome advice:—

"All you that in the condemned hold do lie,
Prepare you, for to-morrow you shall die;
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre's bell to-morrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.
Past twelve o'clock!"

This practice is explained by a passage in Munday's edition of Stow, in which it is told that a Mr. John Dowe, citizen and merchant taylor of London, gave £50 to the parish church of St. Sepulchre's, under the following conditions:—After the several sessions of London, on the night before the execution of such as were condemned to death, the clerk of the church was to go in the night-time, and also early in the morning, to the window of the prison in which they were lying. He was there to ring "certain tolls with a hand-bell" appointed for the purpose, and was afterwards, in a most Christian manner, to put them in mind of their present condition and approaching end, and to exhort them to be prepared, as they ought to be, to die. When they were in the cart, and brought before the walls of the church, the clerk was to stand there ready with the same bell, and, after certain tolls, rehearse a prayer, desiring all the people there present to pray for the unfortunate criminals. The beadle, also, of Merchant Taylors' Hall was allowed an "honest stipend" to see that this ceremony was regularly performed.

The affecting admonition—"affectingly good," Pennant calls it—addressed to the prisoners in Newgate, on the night before execution, ran as follows:—

"You prisoners that are within,
Who, for wickedness and sin,

after many mercies shown you, are now appointed to die to-morrow in the forenoon; give ear and understand that, to-morrow morning, the greatest bell of St. Sepulchre's shall toll for you, in form and manner of a passing-bell, as used to be tolled for those that are at the point of death; to the end that all godly people, hearing that bell, and knowing it is for your going to your deaths, may be stirred up heartily to pray to God to bestow his grace and mercy upon you, whilst you live. I beseech you, for Jesus Christ's sake, to keep this night in watching and prayer, to the salvation of your own souls while there is yet time and place for mercy; as knowing to-morrow you must appear before the judgment-seat of your Creator, there to give an account of all things done in this life, and to suffer eternal torments for your sins committed against Him, unless, upon your hearty and unfeigned repentance, you find mercy through the merits, death, and passion of your only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ, who now sits at the right hand of God, to make intercession for as many of you as penitently return to Him."

And the following was the admonition to condemned criminals, as they were passing by St. Sepulchre's Church wall to execution:—" All good people, pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners, who are now going to their death, for whom this great bell doth toll.

"You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears; ask mercy of the Lord, for the salvation of your own souls, through the [merits, death, and passion of Jesus Christ, who now sits at the right hand of God, to make intercession for as many of you as penitently return unto Him.

"Lord have mercy upon you;
Christ have mercy upon you.
Lord have mercy upon you;
Christ have mercy upon you."

The charitable Mr. Dowe, who took such interest in the last moments of the occupants of the condemned cell, was buried in the church of St. Botolph, Aldgate.

Another curious custom observed at St. Sepulchre's was the presentation of a nosegay to every criminal on his way to execution at Tyburn. No doubt the practice had its origin in some kindly feeling for the poor unfortunates who were so soon to bid farewell to all the beauties of earth. One of the last who received a nosegay from the steps of St. Sepulchre's was "Sixteen-string Jack," alias John Rann, who was hanged, in 1774, for robbing the Rev. Dr. Bell of his watch and eighteen pence in money, in Gunnersbury Lane, on the road to Brentford. Sixteen-string Jack wore the flowers in his button-hole as he rode dolefully to the gallows. This was witnessed by John Thomas Smith, who thus describes the scene in his admirable anecdotebook, "Nollekens and his Times:"—" I remember well, when I was in my eighth year, Mr. Nollekens calling at my father's house, in Great Portland Street, and taking us to Oxford Street, to see the notorious Jack Rann, commonly called Sixteenstring Jack, go to Tyburn to be hanged. … The criminal was dressed in a pea-green coat, with an immense nosegay in the button-hole, which had been presented to him at St. Sepulchre's steps; and his nankeen small-clothes, we were told, were tied at each knee with sixteen strings. After he had passed, and Mr. Nollekens was leading me home by the hand, I recollect his stooping down to me and observing, in a low tone of voice, 'Tom, now, my little man, if my father-in-law, Mr. Justice Welch, had been high constable, we could have walked by the side of the cart all the way to Tyburn.'"

When criminals were conveyed from Newgate to Tyburn, the cart passed up Giltspur Street, and through Smithfield, to Cow Lane. Skinner Street had not then been built, and the Crooked Lane which turned down by St. Sepulchre's, as well as Ozier Lane, did not afford sufficient width to admit of the cavalcade passing by either of them, with convenience, to Holborn Hill, or "the Heavy Hill," as it used to be called. The procession seems at no time to have had much of the solemn element about it. "The heroes of the day were often," says a popular writer, "on good terms with the mob, and jokes were exchanged between the men who were going to be hanged and the men who deserved to be."

"On St. Paul's Day," says Mr. Timbs (1868), "service is performed in St. Sepulchre's, in accordance with the will of Mr. Paul Jervis, who, in 1717, devised certain land in trust that a sermon should be preached in the church upon every Paul's Day upon the excellence of the liturgy o the Church of England; the preacher to receive 40s. for such sermon. Various sums are also bequeathed to the curate, the clerk, the treasurer, and masters of the parochial schools. To the poor of the parish he bequeathed 20s. a-piece to ten of the poorest householders within that part of the parish of St. Sepulchre commonly called Smithfield quarter, £4 to the treasurer of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and 6s. 8d. yearly to the clerk, who shall attend to receive the same. The residue of the yearly rents and profits is to be distributed unto and amongst such poor people of the parish of St. Sepulchre's, London, who shall attend the service and sermon. At the close of the service the vestry-clerk reads aloud an extract from the will, and then proceeds to the distribution of the money. In the evening the vicar, churchwardens, and common councilmen of the precinct dine together."

In 1749, a Mr. Drinkwater made a praiseworthy bequest. He left the parish of St. Sepulchre £500 to be lent in sums of £25 to industrious young tradesmen. No interest was to be charged, and the money was to be lent for four years.

Next to St. Sepulchre's, on Snow Hill, used to stand the famous old inn of the "Saracen's Head." It was only swept away within the last few years by the ruthless army of City improvers: a view of it in course of demolition was given on page 439. It was one of the oldest of the London inns which bore the "Saracen's Head" for a sign. One of Dick Tarlton's jests makes mention of the "Saracen's Head" without Newgate, and Stow, describing this neighbourhood, speaks particularly of "a fair large inn for receipt of travellers" that "hath to sign the 'Saracen's Head.'" The courtyard had, to the last, many of the characteristics of an old English inn; there were galleries all round leading to the bedrooms, and a spacious gateway through which the dusty mail-coaches used to rumble, the tired passengers creeping forth "thanking their stars in having escaped the highwaymen and the holes and sloughs of the road." Into that courtyard how many have come on their first arrival in London with hearts beating high with hope, some of whom have risen to be aldermen and sit in state as lord mayor, whilst others have gone the way of the idle apprentice and come to a sad end at Tyburn! It was at this inn that Nicholas Nickleby and his uncle waited upon the Yorkshire schoolmaster Squeers, of Dotheboys Hall. Mr. Dickens describes the tavern as it existed in the last days of mail-coaching, when it was a most important place for arrivals and departures in London:—

"Next to the jail, and by consequence near to Smithfield also, and the Compter and the bustle and noise of the City, and just on that particular part of Snow Hill where omnibus horses going eastwards seriously think of falling down on purpose, and where horses in hackney cabriolets going westwards not unfrequently fall by accident, is the coach-yard of the 'Saracen's Head' inn, its portals guarded by two Saracen's heads and shoulders, which it was once the pride and glory of the choice spirits of this metropolis to pull down at night, but which have for some time remained in undisturbed tranquillity, possibly because this species of humour is now confined to St. James's parish, where doorknockers are preferred as being more portable, and bell-wires esteemed as convenient tooth-picks. Whether this be the reason or not, there they are, frowning upon you from each side of the gateway; and the inn itself, garnished with another Saracen's head, frowns upon you from the top of the yard; while from the door of the hind-boot of all the red coaches that are standing therein, there glares a small Saracen's head with a twin expression to the large Saracen's head below, so that the general appearance of the pile is of the Saracenic order."

To explain the use of the Saracen's head as an inn sign various reasons have been given. "When our countrymen," says Selden, "came home from fighting with the Saracens and were beaten by them, they pictured them with huge, big, terrible faces (as you still see the 'Saracen's Head' is), when in truth they were like other men. But this they did to save their own credit." Or the sign may have been adopted by those who had visited the Holy Land either as pilgrims or to fight the Saracens. Others, again, hold that it was first set up in compliment to the mother of Thomas à Becket, who was the daughter of a Saracen. However this may be, it is certain that the use of the sign in former days was very general.

Running past the east end of St. Sepulchre's, from Newgate into West Smithfield, is Giltspur Street, anciently called Knightriders Street. This interesting thoroughfare derives its name from the knights with their gilt spurs having been accustomed to ride this way to the jousts and tournaments which in days of old were held in Smithfield.

In this street was Giltspur Street Compter, a debtors' prison and house of correction appertaining to the sheriffs of London and Middlesex. It stood over against St. Sepulchre's Church, and was removed hither from the east side of Wood Street, Cheapside, in 1791. At the time of its removal it was used as a place of imprisonment for debtors, but the yearly increasing demands upon the contracted space caused that department to be given up, and City debtors were sent to Whitecross Street. The architect was Dance, to whom we are also indebted for the grim pile of Newgate. The Compter was a dirty and appropriately convictlooking edifice. It was pulled down in 1855. Mr. Hepworth Dixon gave an interesting account of this City House of Correction, not long before its demolition, in his "London Prisons" (1850). "Entering," he says, "at the door facing St. Sepulchre's, the visitor suddenly finds himself in a low dark passage, leading into the offices of the gaol, and branching off into other passages, darker, closer, more replete with noxious smells, than even those of Newgate. This is the fitting prelude to what follows. The prison, it must be noticed, is divided into two principal divisions, the House of Correction and the Compter. The front in Giltspur Street, and the side nearest to Newgate Street, is called the Compter. In its wards are placed detenues of various kinds—remands, committals from the police-courts, and generally persons waiting for trial, and consequently still unconvicted. The other department, the House of Correction, occupies the back portion of the premises, abutting on Christ's Hospital. Curious it is to consider how thin a wall divides these widely-separate worlds! And sorrowful it is to think what a difference of destiny awaits the children—destiny inexorable, though often unearned in either case—who, on the one side of it or the other, receive an eleemosynary education! The collegian and the criminal! Who shall say how much mere accident— circumstances over which the child has little power —determines to a life of usefulness or mischief? From the yards of Giltspur Street prison almost the only objects visible, outside of the gaol itself, are the towers of Christ's Hospital; the only sounds audible, the shouts of the scholars at their play. The balls of the hospital boys often fall within the yards of the prison. Whether these sights and sounds ever cause the criminal to pause and reflect upon the courses of his life, we will not say, but the stranger visiting the place will be very apt to think for him. …


"In the department of the prison called the House of Correction, minor offenders within the City of London are imprisoned. No transports are sent hither, nor is any person whose sentence is above three years in length." This able writer then goes on to tell of the many crying evils connected with the institution—the want of air, the over-crowded state of the rooms, the absence of proper cellular accommodation, and the vicious intercourse carried on amongst the prisoners. The entire gaol, when he wrote, only contained thirty-six separate sleeping-rooms. Now by the highest prison calculation—and this, be it noted, proceeds on the assumption that three persons can sleep in small, miserable, unventilated cells, which are built for only one, and are too confined for that, being only about one-half the size of the model cell for one at Pentonville—it was only capable of accommodating 203 prisoners, yet by the returns issued at Michaelmas, 1850, it contained 246!


A large section of the prison used to be devoted to female delinquents, but lately it was almost entirely given up to male offenders.

"The House of Correction, and the Compter portion of the establishment," says Mr. Dixon, "are kept quite distinct, but it would be difficult to award the palm of empire in their respective facilities for demoralisation. We think the Compter rather the worse of the two. You are shown into a room, about the size of an apartment in an ordinary dwelling-house, which will be found crowded with from thirty to forty persons, young and old, and in their ordinary costume; the low thief in his filth and rags, and the member of the swell-mob with his bright buttons, flash finery, and false jewels. Here you notice the boy who has just been guilty of his first offence, and committed for trial, learning with a greedy mind a thousand criminal arts, and listening with the precocious instinct of guilty passions to stories and conversations the most depraved and disgusting. You regard him with a mixture of pity and loathing, for he knows that the eyes of his peers are upon him, and he stares at you with a familiar impudence, and exhibits a devil-may-care countenance, such as is only to be met with in the juvenile offender. Here, too, may be seen the young clerk, taken up on suspicion—perhaps innocent—who avoids you with a shy look of pain and uneasiness: what a hell must this prison be to him! How frightful it is to think of a person really untainted with crime, compelled to herd for ten or twenty days with these abandoned wretches!

"On the other, the House of Correction side of the gaol, similar rooms will be found, full of prisoners communicating with each other, laughing and shouting without hindrance. All this is so little in accordance with existing notions of prison discipline, that one is continually fancying these disgraceful scenes cannot be in the capital of England, and in the year of grace 1850. Very few of the prisoners attend school or receive any instruction; neither is any kind of employment afforded them, except oakum-picking, and the still more disgusting labour of the treadmill. When at work, an officer is in attendance to prevent disorderly conduct; but his presence is of no avail as a protection to the less depraved. Conversation still goes on; and every facility is afforded for making acquaintances, and for mutual contamination."

After having long been branded by intelligent inspectors as a disgrace to the metropolis, Giltspur Street Compter was condemned, closed in 1854, and subsequently taken down.

Nearly opposite what used to be the site of the Compter, and adjoining Cock Lane, is the spot called Pie Corner, near which terminated the Great Fire of 1666. The fire commenced at Pudding Lane, it will be remembered, so it was singularly appropriate that it should terminate at Pie Corner. Under the date of 4th September, 1666, Pepys, in his "Diary," records that "W. Hewer this day went to see how his mother did, and comes home late, telling us how he hath been forced to remove her to Islington, her house in Pye Corner being burned; so that the fire is got so far that way." The figure of a fat naked boy stands over a public house at the corner of the lane; it used to have the following warning inscription attached:— "This boy is in memory put up of the late fire of London, occasioned by the sin of gluttony, 1666." According to Stow, Pie Corner derived its name from the sign of a well-frequented hostelry, which anciently stood on the spot. Strype makes honourable mention of Pie Corner, as "noted chiefly for cooks' shops and pigs dressed there during Bartholomew Fair." Our old writers have many references—and not all, by the way, in the best taste—to its cookstalls and dressed pork. Shadwell, for instance, in the Woman Captain (1680) speaks of "meat dressed at Pie Corner by greasy scullions;" and Ben Jonson writes in the Alchemist (1612)—

"I shall put you in mind, sir, at Pie Corner,
Taking your meal of steam in from cooks' stalls."

And in "The Great Boobee" ("Roxburgh Ballads"):

"Next day I through Pie Corner passed;
The roast meat on the stall
Invited me to take a taste;
My money was but small."

But Pie Corner seems to have been noted for more than eatables. A ballad from Tom D'Urfey's "Pills to Purge Melancholy," describing Bartholomew Fair, eleven years before the Fire of London, says:—

"At Pie-Corner end, mark well my good friend,
'Tis a very fine dirty place;
Where there's more arrows and bows. …
Than was handled at Chivy Chase."

We have already given a view of Pie Corner in our chapter on Smithfield, page 361.

Hosier Lane, running from Cow Lane to Smithfield, and almost parallel to Cock Lane, is described by "R. B.," in Strype, as a place not over-well built or inhabited. The houses were all old timber erections. Some of these—those standing at the south corner of the lane—were in the beginning of this century depicted by Mr. J. T. Smith, in his "Ancient Topography of London." He describes them as probably of the reign of James I. The rooms were small, with low, unornamented ceilings; the timber, oak, profusely used; the gables were plain, and the walls lath and plaster. They were taken down in 1809.

In the corner house, in Mr. Smith's time, there was a barber whose name was Catchpole; at least, so it was written over the door. He was rather an odd fellow, and possessed, according to his own account, a famous relic of antiquity. He would gravely show his customers a short-bladed instrument, as the identical dagger with which Walworth killed Wat Tyler.

Hosier Lane, like Pie Corner, used to be a great resort during the time of Bartholomew Fair, "all the houses," it is said in Strype, "generally being made public for tippling."

We return now from our excursion to the north of St. Sepulchre's, and continue our rambles to the west, and before speaking of what is, let us refer to what has been.

Turnagain Lane is not far from this. "Near unto this Seacoal Lane," remarks Stow, "in the turning towards Holborn Conduit, is Turnagain Lane, or rather, as in a record of the 5th of Edward III., Windagain Lane, for that it goeth down west to Fleet Dyke, from whence men must turn again the same way they came, but there it stopped." There used to be a proverb, "He must take him a house in Turnagain Lane."

A conduit formerly stood on Snow Hill, a little below the church. It is described as a building with four equal sides, ornamented with four columns and pediment, surmounted by a pyramid, on which stood a lamb—a rebus on the name of Lamb, from whose conduit in Red Lion Street the water came. There had been a conduit there, however, before Lamb's day, which was towards the close of the sixteenth century.

At No. 37, King Street, Snow Hill, there used to be a ladies' charity school, which was established in 1702, and remained in the parish 145 years. Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale were subscribers to this school, and Johnson drew from it his story of Betty Broom, in "The Idler." The world of domestic service, in Betty's days, seems to have been pretty much as now. Betty was a poor girl, bred in the country at a charity-school, maintained by the contributions of wealthy neighbours. The patronesses visited the school from time to time, to see how the pupils got on, and everything went well, till "at last, the chief of the subscribers having passed a winter in London, came down full of an opinion new and strange to the whole country. She held it little less than criminal to teach poor girls to read and write. They who are born to poverty, she said, are born to ignorance, and will work the harder the less they know. She told her friends that London was in confusion by the insolence of servants; that scarcely a girl could be got for all-work, since education had made such numbers of fine ladies, that nobody would now accept a lower title than that of a waiting-maid, or something that might qualify her to wear laced shoes and long ruffles, and to sit at work in the parlour window. But she was resolved, for her part, to spoil no more girls. Those who were to live by their hands should neither read nor write out of her pocket. The world was bad enough already, and she would have no part in making it worse.

"She was for a long time warmly opposed; but she persevered in her notions, and withdrew her subscription. Few listen, without a desire of conviction, to those who advise them to spare their money. Her example and her arguments gained ground daily; and in less than a year the whole parish was convinced that the nation would be ruined if the children of the poor were taught to read and write." So the school was dissolved, and Betty with the rest was turned adrift into the wide and cold world; and her adventures there any one may read in "The Idler" for himself.

There is an entry in the school minutes of 1763, to the effect that the ladies of the committee censured the schoolmistress for listening to the story of the Cock Lane ghost, and "desired her to keep her belief in the article to herself."

Skinner Street—now one of the names of the past—which ran by the south side of St. Sepulchre's, and formed the connecting link between Newgate Street and Holborn, received its name from Alderman Skinner, through whose exertions, about 1802, it was principally built. The following account of Skinner Street is from the picturesque pen of Mr. William Harvey ("Aleph"), whose long familiarity with the places he describes renders doubly valuable his many contributions to the history of London scenes and people:—"As a building speculation," he says, writing in 1863, "it was a failure. When the buildings were ready for occupation, tall and substantial as they really were, the high rents frightened intending shopkeepers. Tenants were not to be had; and in order to get over the money difficulty, a lottery, sanctioned by Parliament, was commenced. Lotteries were then common tricks of finance, and nobody wondered at the new venture; but even the most desperate fortune-hunters were slow to invest their capital, and the tickets hung sadly on hand. The day for the drawing was postponed several times, and when it came, there was little or no excitement on the subject, and whoever rejoiced in becoming a house-owner on such easy terms, the original projectors and builders were understood to have suffered considerably. The winners found the property in a very unfinished condition. Few of the dwellings were habitable, and as funds were often wanting, a majority of the houses remained empty, and the shops unopened. After two or three years things began to improve; the vast many-storeyed house which then covered the site of Commercial Place was converted into a warehousing depôt; a capital house opposite the 'Saracen's Head' was taken by a hosier of the name of Theobald, who, opening his shop with the determination of selling the best hosiery, and nothing else, was able to convince the citizens that his hose was first-rate, and, desiring only a living profit, succeeded, after thirty years of unwearied industry, in accumulating a large fortune. Theobald was possessed of literary tastes, and at the sale of Sir Walter Scott's manuscripts was a liberal purchaser. He also collected a library of exceedingly choice books, and when aristocratic customers purchased stockings of him, was soon able to interest them in matters of far higher interest…

"The most remarkable shop—but it was on the left-hand side, at a corner house—was that established for the sale of children's books. It boasted an immense extent of window-front, extending from the entrance into Snow Hill, and towards Fleet Market. Many a time have I lingered with loving eyes over those fascinating story-books, so rich in gaily-coloured prints; such careful editions of the marvellous old histories, 'Puss in Boots,' 'Cock Robin,' 'Cinderella,' and the like. Fortunately the front was kept low, so as exactly to suit the capacity of a childish admirer. . . . . But Skinner Street did not prosper much, and never could compete with even the dullest portions of Holborn. I have spoken of some reputable shops; but you know the proverb, 'One swallow will not make a summer,' and it was a declining neighbourhood almost before it could be called new. In 1810 the commercial depôt, which had been erected at a cost of £25,000, and was the chief prize in the lottery, was destroyed by fire, never to be rebuilt—a heavy blow and discouragement to Skinner Street, from which it never rallied. Perhaps the periodical hanging-days exercised an unfavourable influence, collecting, as they frequently did, all the thieves and vagabonds of London. I never sympathised with Pepys or Charles Fox in their passion for public executions, and made it a point to avoid those ghastly sights; but early of a Monday morning, when I had just reached the end of Giltspur Street, a miserable wretch had just been turned off from the platform of the debtors' door, and I was made the unwilling witness of his last struggles. That scene haunted me for months, and I often used to ask myself, 'Who that could help it would live in Skinner Street?' The next unpropitious event in these parts was the unexpected closing of the child's library. What could it mean? Such a well-to-do establishment shut up? Yes, the whole army of shutters looked blankly on the inquirer, and forbade even a single glance at 'Sinbad' or 'Robinson Crusoe.' It would soon be re-opened, we naturally thought; but the shutters never came down again. The whole house was deserted; not even a messenger in bankruptcy, or an ancient Charley, was found to regard the playful double knocks of the neighbouring juveniles. Gradually the glass of all the windows got broken in, a heavy cloud of black dust, solidifying into inches thick, gathered on sills and doors and brickwork, till the whole frontage grew as gloomy as Giant Despair's Castle. Not long after, the adjoining houses shared the same fate, and they remained from year to year without the slightest sign of life—absolute scarecrows, darkening with their uncomfortable shadows the busy streets. Within half a mile, in Stamford Street, Blackfriars, there are (1863) seven houses in a similar predicament— window-glass demolished, doors cracked from top to bottom, spiders' webs hanging from every projecting sill or parapet. What can it mean? The loss in the article of rents alone must be over £1,000 annually. If the real owners are at feud with imaginary owners, surely the property might be rendered valuable, and the proceeds invested. Even the lawyers can derive no profit from such hopeless abandonment. I am told the whole mischief arose out of a Chancery suit. Can it be the famous 'Jarndyce v. Jarndyce' case? And have all the heirs starved each other out? If so, what hinders our lady the Queen from taking possession? Any change would be an improvement, for these dead houses make the streets they cumber as dispiriting and comfortless as graveyards. Busy fancy will sometimes people them, and fill the dreary rooms with strange guests. Do the victims of guilt congregate in these dark dens? Do wretches 'unfriended by the world or the world's law,' seek refuge in these deserted nooks, mourning in the silence of despair over their former lives, and anticipating the future in unappeasable agony? Such things have been—the silence and desolation of these doomed dwellings make them the more suitable for such tenants."

A street is nothing without a mystery, so a mystery let these old tumble-down houses remain, whilst we go on to tell that, in front of No. 58, the sailor Cashman was hung in 1817, as we have already mentioned, for plundering a gunsmith's shop there. William Godwin, the author of "Caleb Williams," kept a bookseller's shop for several years in Skinner Street, at No. 41, and published school-books in the name of Edward Baldwin. On the wall there was a stone carving of Æsop reciting one of his fables to children.

The most noteworthy event of the life of Godwin was his marriage with the celebrated Mary Wollstonecraft, authoress of a "Vindication of the Rights of Women," whose congenial mind, in politics and morals, he ardently admired. Godwin's account of the way in which they got on together is worth reading:—"Ours," he writes, "was not an idle happiness, a paradise of selfish and transitory pleasures. It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to mention, that influenced by ideas I had long entertained, I engaged an apartment about twenty doors from our house, in the Polygon, Somers Town, which I designed for the purpose of my study and literary occupations. Trifles, however, will be interesting to some readers, when they relate to the last period of the life of such a person as Mary. I will add, therefore, that we were both of us of opinion, that it was possible for two persons to be too uniformly in each other's society. Influenced by that opinion, it was my practice to repair to the apartment I have mentioned as soon as I rose, and frequently not to make my appearance in the Polygon till the hour of dinner. We agreed in condemning the notion, prevalent in many situations in life, that a man and his wife cannot visit in mixed society but in company with each other, and we rather sought occasions of deviating from than of complying with this rule. By this means, though, for the most part, we spent the latter half of each day in one another's society, yet we were in no danger of satiety. We seemed to combine, in a considerable degree, the novelty and lively sensation of a visit with the more delicious and heartfelt pleasure of a domestic life."

This philosophic union, to Godwin's inexpressible affliction, did not last more than eighteen months, at the end of which time Mrs. Godwin died, leaving an only daughter, who in the course of time became the second wife of the poet Shelley, and was the author of the wild and extraordinary tale of "Frankenstein."