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Chapter 13. Mount Pleasant. - John Ashton 1888

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In connection with the Fleet, I have omitted to mention one locality, in this immediate neighbourhood, which certainly deserves notice from its associations, namely Laystall Street and Mount Pleasant; for here it was, that a fort to command Gray's Inn Road, was built, when the lines for the protection of the City were formed by order of Parliament in 1643--at the time when it was feared that Prince Rupert was coming to attack it. For nearly, if not quite, a hundred years those lines of defence were partially visible; and, certainly, among others, one was at Mount Pleasant. It is a somewhat curious thing that the names survive. A Laystall meant a dung or dust heap, and, after this artificial mound was utilized for the community its name was euphemised into Mount Pleasant, which it bears to this day.

This work of intrenchment was almost impressment, for we can hardly consider that it was voluntary, when we read in a newspaper of 1643, that, by order of the Parliament, "many thousands of men and women (good housekeepers), their children, and servants, went out of the several parishes of London with spades, shovels, pickaxes, and baskets, and drums and colours before them; some of the chief men of every parish marching before them, and so went into the fields, and worked hard all day in digging and making of trenches, from fort to fort, wherebie to intrench the citie round from one end to the other, on this side of the Thames; and late at night the company came back in like manner they went out, and the next day a many more went, and so they continued daily, with such cheerfulnesse that the whole will be finished ere many dayes." And so these works of fortification went on, encouraged by the presence of a member of the Common Council, and some of the Trained Bands (the City Militia of that time) and it was a work in which all classes joined--willingly, or not, I know not--but the latter, probably, as the City of London was generally loyal to its king, although on occasion, the dwellers therein, knew how to hold their own in defence of their prerogatives. But the fear of Prince Rupert, and his familiar spirit--the white poodle dog "Boy" (who was killed, after passing through many a battle-field unscathed, at Marston Moor, July 2, 1644), may possibly have had something to do with it. Of course we know that tailors and shoemakers, are mostly radicals, and socialists in politics, probably on account of their sedentary work, where political discussion is rife, and from their constant inter-association, not mixing much with the outer world; therefore we can scarcely wonder that on the 5th of June, 1643, that some five thousand or six thousand Tailors went out to help intrench the City against the redoubted Prince, and that, afterwards, the shoemakers followed their example. Two thousand porters also helped in the work. Most probably, a moral "shrewd privie nipp" was administered to most people by those then in power, and they were forced into taking an active part in raising the fortifications, irrespective of their being either _Cavaliers_ or _Roundheads_.

At all events, the fort at Mount Pleasant was raised, although never used, and it belongs to the history of the Fleet River--as, close by, a little affluent joined it. Gardens sloped down to its banks, notably those of the great Priory of St. John's Clerkenwell, and, like Bermondsey, with its "Cherry Gardens"--the names of "Vineyard Walk" and "Pear Tree Court" bear testimony to the fruitfulness of this part of London. There is also "Vine Street" in Saffron Hill, which latter name is extremely suggestive of the growth of a plant which, in old times, was much used both in medicine and cooking. It was called "The Liberty of Saffron Hill, Hatton Garden, and Ely Place"--which was in the Manor of Portpool.

Saffron Hill, nowadays, is the home of the Italian organ-grinder, who, although not unknown to the police, is undoubtedly a better citizen than previous dwellers therein. Specially was West Street, or Chick Lane, as it was formerly called, a neighbourhood to be avoided by all honest men. It ran both east and west of the Fleet, which it crossed by a bridge. Stow calls it Chicken Lane, but it certainly was not inhabited by young and innocent birds. It ran into Field Lane, of unsavoury memory, and now done away with.

This was the state of West Street, as exemplified by a cutting from the _Morning Herald_ of Feb. 11, 1834:

"Yesterday an inquest was held at the Horse Shoe and Magpie, Saffron Hill, before THOMAS STIRLING, Esq., Coroner, on the body of James Parkinson, aged 36, who came by his death under the following circumstances.

"The Jury proceeded to view the body of the deceased, which lay in the upper part of a low lodging-house for travellers, in West Street, Saffron Hill. It was in a high state of decomposition, and a report was generally circulated that he had come by his death by unfair means.

"Mary Wood being sworn, deposed that she was the landlady of the house in West Street, which she let out in lodgings. The deceased occasionally lodged with her, and he was a dealer in cat's meat. On Tuesday night last he came home and asked her for a light, and proceeded to his bedroom. On the Wednesday witness proceeded upstairs to make the beds, when she saw the deceased lying on his bed apparently asleep, but she did not speak to him. On the Thursday she proceeded to the upper part of the house for the same purpose, when she again saw the deceased lying as if asleep, but she did not disturb him, and he was ultimately discovered to be a corpse, and his face quite black.

"_Juror._ Pray, how many beds are there in the room where the deceased slept?

"_Witness._ Only eight, and please you, Sir.

"Indeed, and how many persons are in the habit of sleeping in the same apartment?--There are generally two or three in a bed, but the deceased had a bed to himself.

"Very comfortable truly. Is it not strange that none of his fellow lodgers ascertained that he was dead?--No, Sir, they go in and out without seeming to care for each other.

"Do you mean to say, if a poor man was to take a lodging at your house, you would let him lie for upwards of 48 hours without inquiring whether he required nourishment?--Why, Sir, I have known some of my lodgers, who have been out _upon the spree_ to _lay_ in bed for three and four days together, without a bit or a sup, and then they have gone out to their work as well and as hearty as ever they _was_ in their lives; I have known it often to have been done. There was plenty of _grub_ in the house if he liked to have asked for it; but I thought if I asked him to have victuals he would be offended, as he might receive it as a hint for the few nights' lodging that he owed me.

"Mr. Appleby, the parish surgeon, proved that the deceased died a natural death, and the Jury returned a verdict of 'Died by the visitation of God.'"

There was an old house in West Street, pulled down in April, 1840, which tradition affirmed to have been the residence of the infamous Jonathan Wild, and, when destroyed, its age was considered to be about three hundred years. At one time it was the Red Lion Inn; but for a hundred years prior to its demolition it was a low lodging-house. Owing to the numerous facilities for secretion and escape, it was the haunt of coiners, secret distillers, thieves, and perhaps worse. There were trap doors connected with the Fleet River through which booty might be thrown, or a man get away, if hard pressed; a secret door in a garret led to the next house, and there were many hiding places--in one of which a chimney sweep named Jones, who had escaped from Newgate, lay hidden for about six weeks, although the house was repeatedly searched by the police.

And there was Field Lane too, which was the house of the "Fence," or receiver of stolen goods. It was from this interesting locality that Charles Dickens drew that wonderful study of Fagin--who was a real character. Cruikshank has made him as immortal, but Kenny Meadows tried to delineate him in a clever series which appeared in _Bell's Life in London_, under the title of "Gallery of Comicalities."


"Welcome, Old Star, of Saffron hill. Of villainy a sample bright, Awake to Prigs, and plunder still, Thou merry, ancient Israelite!

Thy face is rough, with matted shag, Foul is thy form, old shrivell'd wretch. How cunningly you eye the swag, Harden'd purveyor to Jack Ketch!

Incrusted with continued crime, Your hopeful pupils still employ-- Thou wert indeed a Tutor prime To Oliver, the Workhouse Boy.

Poor Lad! condemn'd to fate's hard stripes, To herd with Fagin's plundering pack; And learn the art of filching wipes, From Charley Bates, and Dawkins Jack.

To hear 'The Dodger' patter slang, With knowing wink, and accent glib, Or learn from 'Sikes's' ruffian gang, In slap up style to crack a crib.

Hail, Fagin! Patriarch of the whole! Kind Patron of these knowing ones-- In thee we trace a kindred soul Of honest Ikey Solomon's!

We leave you to your courses vile, For conscience you have none, old Codger! And in our next we'll trace in style, The mug of Jack, the _artful dodger_."



The artistic merit of this poetry is _nil_, and my only excuse is the introduction of a forgotten sketch by a dead artist, who, in his day was popular and famous. Who, for instance, remembering Leech's pictures in _Punch_, would think that this illustration ever came from his pencil? but it did, and from _Bell's Life in London_; and so did another, of two children fighting in Chick Lane, whilst their parents, the father with a broken nose, and the mother with a black eye, look on approvingly.

"FIELD LANE NEGOTIATIONS; OR, A SPECIMEN OF 'FINE DRAWING.' Thish ish vot I callsh 'caushe and effect;' caushe if vee thidn't buy, no bothy vood shell, and if vee thidn't shell, nobothy vood buy; and vot's more, if peoplesh thidn't have foglesh, vy, nobothy could prig em" (_See_ Abrahams on the "Economy of Wipes").

Those were the days of large and valuable silk Bandana handkerchiefs, and the story used to be told that you might have your pocket picked of your handkerchief at one end of Field Lane, and buy it again at the other end, with the marking taken out.

Long before Fagin's time, however, there was a school for young thieves in this neighbourhood, _vide Gentleman's Magazine_ (1765), vol. xxxv. p. 145.

"Four boys, detected in picking pockets, were examined before the Lord Mayor, when one was admitted as evidence, who gave an account, that a man who kept a public-house near _Fleet Market_, had a club of boys, whom he instructed in picking pockets, and other iniquitous practices; beginning first with teaching them to pick a handchief out of his own pocket, and next his watch; so that, at last, the evidence was so great an adept, that he got the publican's watch four times in one evening, when he swore he was as perfect as one of twenty years' practice. The pilfering out of shops was his next art; his instructions to his pupils were, that as many chandlers, or other shops, as had hatches,[65] one boy was to knock for admittance for some trifle, whilst another was lying on his belly, close to the hatch, who when the boy came out, the hatch on jar, and the owner withdrawn, was to crawl in, on all fours, and take the tills or anything else he could meet with, and to retire in the same manner. Breaking into shops by night was another article which was to be effected thus: as walls of brick under shop windows are very thin, two of them were to lie under a window as destitute beggars, asleep to passers by, but, when alone, were provided with pickers to pick the mortar out of the bricks, and so on till they had opened a hole big enough to go in, when one was to lie, as if asleep, before the breach, till the other accomplished his purpose."

[Footnote 65: Dwarf doors.]