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Chapter 18. Whitefriars. - John Ashton 1888

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Bordering upon Bridewell, and almost part and parcel of it, was Whitefriars, which, westward, ran to the Temple, and eastward to the Fleet. It is so-called from a Carmelite monastery, established here in the reign of Edward I. Within its precincts was the right of sanctuary, and, like the Jewish Cities of Refuge, offenders against the law might flee thither, and be protected from arrest. Naturally, the very scum of London floated thither, to the Mint in Southwark, and the precincts of the Savoy in the Strand, in none of which the King's warrant ran, unless backed by a force sufficient to overawe the lawless denizens of these localities. Whitefriars we may take as its original name, but there was given it a nick-name, "Alsatia," from Alsace, or Elsass, on the frontier between France and Germany, which was always a battle-field between the two nations; and so, from the incessant fighting that went on in this unruly neighbourhood, it acquired its cognomen.

Sir Walter Scott, in "The Fortunes of Nigel," gives a vivid description of the utter lawlessness and debauchery of this quarter of the town, but his was second-hand. Perhaps one of the most graphic pictures of this sink of iniquity is given in Shadwell's "Squire of Alsatia," acted in 1688, and which was so popular, that it had a run of _thirteen_ nights. Here we get at the manners and customs of the natives, without any glossing over; and, just to give an example of the real state of the district at that time, I make two or three extracts, showing how the denizens were banded together in mutual defence.

"_Cheatly._ So long as you forbear all Violence, you are safe; but, if you strike here, we command the _Fryers_, and will raise the _Posse_....

[_A Noise of Tumult without, and blowing a Horn._]

_Cheatly._ What is this I hear?

_Shamwell._ They are up in the Friers; Pray Heav'n the Sheriff's Officers be not come.

_Cheatly._ 'Slife, 'tis so! 'Squire, let me conduct you----This is your wicked Father with Officers.


[_Cry without, the Tip-Staff! an Arrest! an Arrest! and the horn blows._]

[_Enter Sir William Belfond, and a Tip-Staff, with the Constable, and his Watchmen; and, against them, the Posse of the Friers drawn up, Bankrupts hurrying to escape._]

_Sir Will._ Are you mad, to resist the Tip-Staff, the King's Authority?

[_They cry out, An Arrest! several flock to 'em with all sorts of Weapons, Women with Fire-Forks, Spits, Paring Shovels, &c._]

* * * * *

_Tip-Staff._ I charge you, in the King's Name, all to assist me.

_Rabble._ Fall on.

[_Rabble beat the Constable, and the rest run into the Temple. Tip-Staff runs away._]."

So that we see how an ordinary sheriff's officer and the civil authorities were treated when they attempted to execute the law; but, further on in the play, we find a Lord Chief Justice's warrant, backed up by a military force--and then we see the difference.

"_Truman._ What do all these Rabble here?

_Constable._ Fire amongst 'em.

_Sergeant._ Present.

[_The Debtors run up and dozen, some without their Breeches, others without their Coats; some out of Balconies; some crying out, Oars! Oars! Sculler! Five Pounds for a Boat! The Inhabitants all come out arm'd as before; but as soon as they see the Musqueteers, they run, and every one shifts for himself._]

And almost at the close of the play one of the characters, _Sir Edward Belfond_, moralizes thus:

"Was ever such Impudence suffer'd in a Government? _Ireland's_ conquer'd; _Wales_ subdued; _Scotland_ united: But there are some few Spots of Ground in _London_, just in the Face of the Government, unconquer'd yet, that hold in Rebellion still. Methinks 'tis strange, that Places so near the King's Palace should be no Parts of his Dominions. 'Tis a Shame to the Societies of the Law, to countenance such Practices: Should any Place be shut against the King's Writ, or Posse Comitatus?"

This right of sanctuary was taken from Whitefriars by William III., the nest of rogues, vagabonds, and thieves broken up, the occupants dispersed, and law reigned supreme in that once defiant place.

We have now traced the Fleet River to its junction with the Thames. Poor little river! its life began pure enough, but men so befouled it, that their evil deeds rose against themselves, and the river retaliated in such kind, as to become a malodorous and offensive nuisance, dangerous to the health of those men who would not leave it in its purity. So it was covered over, about 1764 (for it took some time to do it), and the present Bridge Street is over its foul stream, which was curbed, and bricked in, forming a portion of our vast and wonderful system of sewers. It has taken its toll of human life, in its time, though but few instances are recorded. In the _Gentleman's Magazine_, January 11, 1763, we read: "A man was found in the Fleet Ditch standing upright, and frozen to death. He appears to have been a barber at Bromley, in Kent; had come to town to see his children, and had, unfortunately, mistaken his way in the night, and slipt into the ditch; and, being in liquor, could not disentangle himself."

_Bell's Weekly Messenger_, August 2, 1835: "Some workmen have been for a few days past engaged in making a new sewer, communicating with the foulest of all streams, the Fleet Ditch. In consequence of the rain the men had left off work; and, soon afterwards, a young man named Macarthy, a bricklayer, proceeded to the sewer for the purpose of bringing away a ladder, when, owing to the slippery state of the works, he fell down the Sewer, but in his descent, caught hold of the ladder he was in search of, to which he hung for nearly a quarter of an hour, calling loudly all the time for assistance, though from some extraordinary cause or other, no person was able to afford him any. At length some of the labourers arrived--but too late; he had just before fallen into the Sewer, and was carried into the Fleet Ditch; and owing to its having been swollen by the heavy shower, floated along as far as the mouth of the Fleet Ditch, at Blackfriars, where his body was found, covered with the filth of the sewer, which the unfortunate man had met with in his progress to the Thames."

And the _Times_ of October 3, 1839, records another fatal accident during some repairs.

Naturally, this River was celebrated in verse. There was a very foolish and dull poem by Arthur Murphy in 1761 called "Ode to the Naiads of Fleet Ditch;" and, previously, it had been sung by Ben Jonson, "On the famous Voyage," which will be found among his epigrams. This voyage was from Bridewell to Holborn, and describes very graphically the then state of the river. Too graphic, indeed, is it for the reading of the modern public, so I transcribe but a very small portion of it, showing its then state.

"But hold my torch, while I describe the entry To this dire passage. Say, thou stop thy nose; 'Tis but light pains: indeed, this dock's no rose. In the first jaws appear'd that ugly monster Y'cleped mud, which, when their oars did once stir, Belched forth an air as hot, as at the muster Of all your night tubs, when the carts do cluster, Who shall discharge first his merd-urinous load; Through her womb they make their famous road."

[Illustration: 1768. THE ARREST. (Drawn from a late real scene.)]

"Sir Fopling Flutter through his Glass Inspects the ladies as they pass, Yet still the Coxcomb lacks the Wit To guard against the Bailiff's Writ."