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After the Fire

Two plans of a London reconstructed after the Great Fire of 1666, one by Christopher Wren and the other by John Evelyn. Their theoretical and hypothetical city had no chance against the twin forces of tradition and commerce which obstinately recreated London in its former image.


A London Address

The Great Fire had stopped by Fetter Lane which, for most of its existence, has been border territory. It runs from Fleet Street to Holborn, and the ancient route is now lined with twentieth-century air-conditioned office-blocks and some nineteenth-century survivals. In the stretch of Fetter Lane which leads directly out of Fleet Street, with, on the respective corners, a bookshop and a computer supplier, is Clifford’s Inn, the oldest Inn of Chancery and once the most important edifice in the street. Rebuilt now, and partitioned into offices and apartments, it is situated beside a modern restaurant, the Café Rouge, and opposite a new drinking establishment called the Hogshead. The judicial air of the lane has not entirely disappeared, however, since beside Clifford’s Inn is a building which contains the “Technology and Construction Court.” This stretch of the lane is continually busy with traffic, in particular with taxis decanting into Fleet Street.

Upward from this site, towards Holborn, the lane divides and the eastern fork is turned into New Fetter Lane. But the old Fetter Lane still pursues its course northward, albeit now with difficulty. Its whole eastern side has been demolished, as the foundations of taller and greater buildings are sunk within the ever receptive London earth. The former Public Record Office is still visible, to the west of the statue of John Wilkes down Rolls Buildings, while closer to Holborn the Mucky Duck and the Printer’s Devil have survived as public houses. Three mid-nineteenth-century houses remain, as if they were some ancient terrace preserving the memory of the street, and their ground floors are now occupied by coffee shops and sandwich bars.

And where did Fetter Lane get its name? John Stow, who knew it well, believed that “Fetter” was “so called of fewters (or idle people) lying there, as in a way leading to gardens.” Others, however, have suggested that the word is derived from the Norman defaytor “defaulter.” Some prefer another French origin in foutre, “blackguard.” But there are other possibilities. Fetter may derive from the feuriers, or felt-makers, who are deemed to have inhabited the street in the fifteenth century. Or it may spring from the name of the landlord Viteri or Viter who lived there a century earlier. More ingenious antiquarians have in turn suggested that the name sprang from fetor or “offensive smell,” on the face of it unlikely in an area surrounded by gardens and orchards—unless the fewters, or foutres, or defaytors, were in some way responsible for the stink. Another connection has been made with frater, “brother,” which was a characteristic address between the men of law who frequented the area. A more simple connection has been made with the workshops of the street which manufactured fetters or lance vests for the Knights Templar who also congregated in the vicinity. The confusion and speculation will never be resolved, and the obscurity of Fetter Lane’s derivation serves only to demonstrate the unknowability of many London names. It is as if the city was striving to conceal its origins. Yet, as G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “The narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention, the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon: every slate on the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate covered with addition and subtraction sums.” It might also be suggested that every object, every doorway, throws a light upon the ancient territory of which the present Fetter Lane is now the custodian.

A Roman urn filled with coins was found beneath the surface of the lane, confirming Stow’s observation that an old Roman road had been located in the immediate vicinity. There was a wooden bridge over the Fleet here, too, so the early inhabitants of Fetter Lane and its environs had the advantage of living beside a swiftly flowing river. A ninth-century sword handle was also discovered within the depths of the lane. Its manufacture and material were of fine quality, indicating that it was employed for ceremonial rather than sanguinary purposes. It may then have some connection with a charter of 959 by which King Edgar of Wessex granted the neighbouring land to the monks of Westminster Abbey, one boundary of which was marked by a line parallel to Fetter Lane.

Throughout its history Fetter Lane acted as a boundary, or has been recorded as frontier territory; it was where the Great Fire stopped, and it marks the area where the City’s influence ceases. It is also the area where two parishes, St. Andrew’s, Holborn, and St. Dunstan’s in the West, meet. We may find, in turn, that it has attracted those who live upon “the edge.”

At the beginning of the fourteenth century its present contours emerged. In 1306 it was known as the “neu strete” but in 1329 it is styled as “a new lane called Faiteres Lane.” The earliest records suggest, however, that it had already acquired an ambiguous reputation. There is a report on one “Emmade Brakkele, a harlot,” living in Fetter Lane. A keeper of a house harbouring “prostitutes and sodomites” was noted as living in “fayters lane.” Yet it must already have been a “mixed” neighbourhood in a thoroughly medieval spirit, since there is a tradition of an “Inne or Court” in “Fewter Lane” and the fact that Clifford’s Inn was established here in 1345 suggests that some original foundations may have been maintained here even before Fetter Lane appeared in the public records. The religious establishments in the immediate vicinity will also have provided some measure of extra-mural control with St. Dunstan’s to the south, St. Andrew’s and Ely Place to the north. In 1349, John Blakwell, “Cetizen of London,” purchased with his wife property in “Faytourslane,” and Henry VI is recorded as collecting rents from the dwellings there. This in itself is not necessarily a guarantee of respectability, but these bare records suggest that throughout the medieval period it was a well-known and well-documented “subarbe” of London. By the early fifteenth century there was a famous tavern on the corner of Fetter Lane with Holborn, known as Le Swan on Le Hope, which contained rooms for travellers. There were complaints about its overhanging roof, and some “barriers which had been erected outside the inn and so distracted the roadway,” but it survived until the middle of the eighteenth century under the revised name of the Black Swan. A few yards down the lane there now stands the Mucky Duck as a plaintive reminder of a more graceful presence.

On a mid-sixteenth-century map Fetter Lane is clearly marked with fifteen houses down its eastern side and twelve down its western; the topography may not be entirely accurate, but it is in contrast to “Liver Lane” (Leather Lane) to the north which proceeds among gardens and open fields. At the northern end of Fetter Lane Barnard’s Inn can be seen and, down towards Fleet Street, Clifford’s Inn is already visible; a stone archway spanning the lane, almost at its midway point, has also been marked. The map is less than accurate in one respect, however, since it does not convey the continual encroachment of new buildings in and around the lane itself; on land once owned by St. Bartholomew’s “ten tenements with gardens” were erected by 1555 and by 1580 a further thirteen “illegal new houses” had been constructed. Neither does the map reveal the narrow yards and alleys, like Fleur de Lys Alley and Crane Court, which ran off the main thoroughfare and which exist still.

Like other areas of London, it had its share in fires and executions. Both entries to the lane were in fact customary sites for the gallows. There are records of Catholic recusants, in 1590, being hanged and quartered at the Fleet Street end; it is, according to one Catholic history, Catholic London by W.D. Newton, “one of our sacred spots.” The melancholy Catholic composer John Dowland, who died in 1626, had been living in Fetter Lane. In 1643 two plotters against Parliament were hanged at the Holborn end, having arranged their conspiracy in a lodging in the lane, and for two centuries this spot was often a place of execution. It has been the site of death in more than one form, however. There was a distillery on the corner of Fetter Lane and Holborn in the mid-eighteenth century; it was on the site of the Black Swan, formerly Le Swan on Le Hope, and so had a long association with drink. During the most violent days of the Gordon Riots in 1780, with the mob’s cry of “No Popery!” rising through the streets, it was rumoured that the owner of the distillery was a Catholic. So it was ransacked and fired, with fatal results. “The gutters of the street, and every crack and fissure in the stones, ran with scorching spirit, which being dammed up by busy hands, overflowed the road and pavement, and formed a great pool, into which the people dropped down dead by dozens.” This account is written by Charles Dickens, who like many Londoners was obsessed with fiery death, but his version is authenticated by several contemporary sources. So by Fetter Lane “some stooped with their lips to the brink and never raised their heads again, others sprang up from their fiery draught, and danced, half in mad triumph, and half in the agony of suffocation, until they fell, and steeped their corpses in the liquor that had killed them.” Others, leaving the distillery with their clothes on fire, actually rolled in the spirit mistaking it for water until they “became themselves the dust and ashes of the flames they had kindled, and strewed the public streets of London.” They became part of Fetter Lane.

There have been other fires and explosions over the centuries. Curiously enough, one upon 10 April 1679 was believed to be the consequence of a “Papist Plot”; the hanging of the recusants, and the firing of the distillery, then become part of a morbid Catholic trinity. Then again, in 1583, just after the neighbouring church of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, had been “new glazed” to remove all signs of popish superstition, a large explosion of gunpowder in Fetter Lane caused all its windows to shatter and fall. By use of gunpowder, too, the Great Fire was “quenched” in the vicinity. The Fire Court, established to adjudicate claims of ownership, sat in Clifford’s Inn itself. So Fetter Lane became a famous boundary.

With its legal Inns beside its taverns, and its churches beside the houses of pimps, it always possessed an intermediary status. The more dubious healers lived here: in the seventeenth century one Bromfield at the Blue Balls in Plow Yard, Fetter Lane, advertised “Pills against all Diseases.” Samuel Johnson’s friend, a poor apothecary named Levett, met “a woman of bad character” by a coal-shed in Fetter Lane and was duped into marrying her. He was then nearly imprisoned for her debts, the whole story according to Johnson being “as marvellous as any page of the Arabian Nights.” The lane was also the haunt of pawn-brokers, to which reference is made in one seventeenth-century drama, Barry’s Ram-Alley:

Take thou these books

Go both to the broker’s in Fetter Lane.

The allusion to books is appropriate in another sense since Fetter Lane has become associated with several London writers. Henry Peacham, the author of The Art of Living in London, dwelled here. Michael Drayton, the author of Poly-Olbion, lived at No. 184. Thomas Hobbes, according to John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, “lived most part in Fetter-lane where he writ, or finished, his book De Porpore, in Latin and then in English.” He preferred his Fetter Lane life to any in the country where “the want of learned conversation was a great inconvenience.” John Dryden lived at the corner of Fetter Lane and Fleur-de-lys Court, in one of the houses newly fashioned after the Fire; he remained here for nine years, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, and for a while his neighbour across the street was another dramatist, Thomas Otway, who died of drink in an adjacent tavern. Charles Lamb attended school in an alley off the lane. Coleridge lectured in the lane and, at different times, Samuel Butler, Lionel Johnson and Virginia Woolf lived in Clifford’s Inn. Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Swift’s novel, is also recorded as having dwelled in Fetter Lane.

One of the most notorious, if now least known, residents of Fetter Lane was Isaac Praisegod Barebone; he pursued his trade as a leather-seller on the corner of Fleet Street which by some atavistic remembrance may have prompted George Eliot, in the nineteenth century, to remark that Fetter Lane “had something about it that goes with the smell of leather.” But Bare-bone was also a fiery and assiduous Anabaptist preacher who in the 1640s stirred up various tumults in the neighbourhood with his “disorderly preachment, pratings and prattlings.” At Oliver Cromwell’s instigation he entered Parliament as a member for the City of London; even though it was christened by its enemies as “Barebone’s parliament,” he did not speak in the chamber. He was imprisoned after the Restoration but, on his release, returned to his old parish; his burial is registered in St. Andrew’s, Holborn, the church to the north of Fetter Lane.

But Barebone’s presence was not the only element of dissent in that street. A group of sixteenth-century Puritans met in a carpenter’s yard midway down the eastern side of the lane; during the reign of Mary, their persecutor, they prayed in a simple saw-pit, and in later years an anonymous pamphlet, Our Oldest Chapel, declared that the site was regarded by Dissenters “with feelings akin to veneration.” It contrasts strangely with the “sacred spot” of Catholic veneration a few yards further south, where the gallows was situated on the corner of Fleet Street, and it is suggestive that one small London street can harbour contrasting spiritual memories.

In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) the Puritans were permitted to build a wooden temple on the site of the saw-pit; then the Presbyterians migrated to the location, and erected a brick chapel on the same spot. Their interest in Fetter Lane, like that of their nonconformist predecessors, lay in secrecy and seclusion. The chapel itself “could only be reached through a long narrow passage” known as Goldsmith or Goldsmith’s Court; a seventeenth-century map of Fetter Lane reveals that there were a number of such courts and small yards aligned to it, so that its irrepressible life seemed to flow in all directions. The chapel was also concealed “by the continuous row of houses which even at that early date fringed the east of Fetter Lane” while upon the other side “tall buildings to the west … effectually masked it from the notice of any passer-by.” So in the middle of London it was possible to find seclusion. Yet the London mob knew the byways of the city very well, and in 1710 the chapel was torched by rioters. It was rebuilt, but then adopted by the radical and sectarian Moravian Brethren who maintained their presence in the area for the next two centuries. The Wesleys worshipped here with the Brethren, and on the first day of 1739 John Wesley recorded that “the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground.” So the “sudden effusion of the holy Ghost” had touched a small court in Fetter Lane, from where a “Revival … spread into other parts of England.”

Other radicals and Dissenters were drawn to the same place. The con-venticler Richard Baxter gave lectures in Fetter Lane; there was a Baptist congregation in Black Raven Passage, and another Dissenters’ chapel in Elim Court between 104 and 107 Fetter Lane. A number of Moravians inhabited the area in “community houses,” in Nevill’s Court and elsewhere. They were living on the borders of orthodox faith, just as they were living on the borders of the city. Certain groups and people are undoubtedly attracted to a certain locality, the topography of which is strangely analogous to their own situation. That is why political, as well as religious, radicals were drawn to the same area. A “Jacobin” and member of the London Corresponding Society, Thomas Evans, established the centre of his operations in Plough Court, Fetter Lane. A public house in Fetter Lane, the Falcon, was also under surveillance as a centre for subversive political activity. Evans himself, who lived in Fetter Lane throughout the 1790s, laced his revolutionary zeal with strong drink, and financed his activities by selling ballads and pornography. In that, he was perfectly congruent with his equally ambiguous surroundings. He was elusive enough to have adopted numerous professions, among them pornographer, printer, coffee-house keeper and paint-colourer, all trades that were associated with Fetter Lane itself, so that in another sense he becomes as protean and as shiftless as the lane. Is it possible, then, that certain inhabitants acquire their identity, or temperament, from the circumstances of their immediate locale?

Other names can be enlisted in light of this radical connection. Tom Paine, whose Rights of Man became the unofficial bible of eighteenth-century radicalism, lived at No. 77 Fetter Lane. William Cobbett wrote and published his Political Register from No. 183 Fetter Lane. Keir Hardie lived at No. 14 Nevill’s Court, off Fetter Lane, at the beginning of the twentieth century. For 6s 6d a week he lodged in one of the oldest houses in London, a “late-medieval, half-timbered five-storey tenement building”; so he was inhabiting the history of Fetter Lane, although perhaps unaware that Cobbett and Paine had trod the same street before him. As if in implicit homage to that past, the statue of John Wilkes, the great London radical, now stands at the place where Fetter Lane and New Fetter Lane converge. It has the incidental merit of being the only cross-eyed statue in London, adding to the ambiguous status of its locale.

In the nineteenth century the lane suffered a fate similar to many other streets of the period; it was overwhelmed by the size of London, seeming somehow to become smaller and darker. “Those who live in Fetter Lane and the adjoining streets,” one church report stated, “are of the poorest and most irreligious class. The neighbourhood is simply a labyrinth of business premises.” This was the condition of many streets close to the ancient centre of London. The Inns were demolished; in their place were constructed a workhouse and a great General Records Office. Of the buildings which were to be destroyed by that Office, an anonymous surveyor commented that “Those in Fetter Lane are principally occupied by persons not concerned in lucrative business, and it is believed that none of the leases are for a longer period than 21 years.” It was always the character of Fetter Lane to have a migrant population. Except for the Moravian settlers, who knew that on this earth there is no abiding city, the pattern is one of transience.

And yet, in the city, there are always other patterns within the general pattern. In a street directory of 1828 there are no fewer than nine taverns listed; the relatively large number in so relatively short a street is an indication of early nineteenth-century London, but it also suggests elements of a mobile and perhaps anonymous population. In the commercial directory of 1841 there is a preponderance of printers, publishers, stationers, engravers and booksellers—some nineteen altogether—rivalled only by the proprietors of coffee houses, hotels and eating-houses. These are all trades reliant upon passing taste and what might be considered “news.” It might be imagined, therefore, that Fetter Lane was not a stable or a settled place but one which participated in the City’s usual uproar.

In a street directory of 1817 no fewer than three “oil and colour men” are listed. In the Post Office directory of 1845 are two painters and an “oil & colorman” and in 1856 an “oil and colour warehouse” appears; in one of his sketches, Charles Dickens describes a certain “Mr. Augustus Cooper, of Fetter-lane” as “in the oil and colour line.” Dickens may have discerned a remarkable coincidence of trade. Alternatively he was somehow divining the spirit of the lane in his usual fashion. He also mentions that “over the way” from Augustus Cooper was “the gas-fitters”; curiously enough in the directory for 1865 appears a “brass finisher & gasfitter.” In that charmed urban space where reality and imagination mingle it may also be noted that, in a street where Lemuel Gulliver was a surgeon, two other surgeons are listed in the 1845 directory.

A sketch of 1900, showing the west side of Fetter Lane, reveals that many houses were of seventeenth-century date; but it is also clear that the thoroughfare was lined with ground-floor shops. One representative section, in a street directory of 1905, manifested in sequence a butcher, a dairy, an ironmonger, a tool-maker, a watch-maker, an electric bell manufacturer, a pub, a baker, a printer, a coffee house, another pub, another coffee house, a hairdresser and a map-mounter. Yet down the courts and alleys—Blewitt’s Buildings, Bartlett’s Buildings, Churchyard Alley and many others—there were tenants and lodgers who were often registered as “Poor,” “Can’t Pay” or “Won’t Pay” in the local rate books. In Nevill’s Court, where Keir Hardie lodged, once spacious houses were divided into tenements. Some predated the Great Fire, while others were built immediately after the conflagration, but they were characterised by small front gardens. In a report for the London Topographical Society, in 1928, Walter Bell noted how well tended these gardens were and suggested that “it is the poor man who keeps intact for us this fragment of London’s older self.” In that sense the vicinity was reclaiming its sixteenth-century identity, as a place of straggling courts and gardens. But in the early twentieth century “You rub your eyes and wonder. Can this really be the City—this hidden place, where people live their lives, and tend their flowers, and die? It is false that no one dies in the City.”

In Fetter Lane they do not die; they move on. It is clear from the records of the parish and the post office that businesses remained only for a short period and then dissolved. At No. 83, over a period of seventy years, there was in turn a razor-maker, an eating-house, a beer retailer, a coffee room, a printer and a dairy man, all passing away into the fabric and texture of the street. In the dwelling today, on the ground floor, can be found Tucker’s Sandwich Bar.

The pattern of small businesses persisted until the Second World War, when in 1941 firebombs razed the area. When it arose again, Fetter Lane reasserted itself as a street of stationers, printers and cafés. But all the inhabitants had gone. Now the remaining courts and alleys are lined with office accommodation and business premises, while in the lane itself the sandwich bars are a present reminder of the coffee rooms and eating-houses which were once so familiar a presence. But the principal sights, and sounds, are those of demolition and rebuilding in this lane of perpetual change.

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