A woodcut from the title page of Astrologaster or the figure casterby John Melton; Londoners were notoriously fearful and superstitious so astrologers and seers of every variety were readily available. Many astrologers congregated in lodgings around Seven Dials.
And in this dark city, whom or what would we expect to see? In 1189 Richard of Devizes records that “a sacrifice of the Jews to their father the devil was commenced in the city of London, and so long was the duration of this famous mystery, that the holocaust could scarcely be accomplished the ensuing day.” But then it truly became a city of devils as the citizens fell upon, and slaughtered, the innocent inhabitants of old Jewry.
In London, the home of pride and wealth, the devil was always greatly feared. In 1221, according to the Chronicles of London, “that ys to say vpon seynt Lukys Day, ther Blewe a grete Wynde out off the North Est, that ouerthrewe many an house and also Turrettes and Chirches, and fferde ffoule with the Woddes and Mennys orcherdes. And also fyrye Dragons Wykked Spyrites weren many seyn, merveyllously ffleynge in the eyre.” A similar vision of flying fiends was vouchsafed at a much later date in London’s history in Stopford Brooke’s Diary: “Oct. 19, 1904. England was in sunshine till we came to the skirts of London, and there the smoke lay thick. I looked down to the streets below, filled with the restless crowd of men and cars. It was like looking into the alleys of Pandemonium, and I thought I saw thousands of winged devils rushing to and fro among the mad movement of the host. I grew sick as I looked upon it.”
In medieval London many noble personages were buried within the precincts of Blackfriars, suitably robed, because it was believed that to be interred in the habit of a Dominican monk was a certain means of warding off the devil. Yet there were some who were so far beaten down by the city that they identified with the fiend. When one London thief and beggar was taunted for his infamy on his way to the Tyburn gallows he replied: “What would the Devil do for company, if it was not for such as I?” “A Straunge Sighted Traueller,” of 1608, coming to London in a poem by Samuel Rowlands, visited the whores of Shoreditch and the statue of King Lud, “and swore in London he had seene the Deuill.” A real devil was supposed to have appeared at a performance of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in the Belle Sauvage Inn on Ludgate Hill.
Yet when the devil does emerge in London he is often, according to folklore, gulled and outwitted by the cheating citizens who are more than his match in dishonesty and double-dealing. In Jonson’s The Devil Is an Ass, the foul fiend is first shown the city as a kind of inferno:
Child of hell, this is nothing! I will fetch thee a leap
From the top of Paul’s steeple, to the Standard in Cheap.
But within twenty-four hours “he has been cheated, robbed, cudgelled, thrown into prison and condemned to be hanged.”
The devil can be found everywhere and anywhere in London, ranging far and wide from his own street, Devil’s Lane in Lower Holloway which has since been renamed. Richard Brothers, the self-styled prophet, claimed to have met him “walking leisurely up Tottenham Court Road.” Some claim to have seen him near the stake of the martyrs—“Thou art the seat of the Beast, O Smithfield”—and, at midnight in the streets of Victorian London, where “The devil puts a diamond ring on his taloned finger, sticks a pin in his shirt, and takes his walks abroad.” In ancient fashion Punch tells Old Nick that “I know you have a deal of business when you come to London.” One of the devil’s duties is to wander through the prisons. Coleridge and Southey envisaged him touring the notorious Coldbath Prison, and admiring the interior of the cell set aside for solitary confinement. Byron called London the “Devil’s drawing-room.”
He has his guests, and his familiars. There is a tradition of witches in London, with the names of Old Mother Red Cap and Old Mother Black Cap still used upon shops and signs. Perhaps the most notorious was Mother Damnable of Camden Town, whose cottage lay at a fork in the road where the Underground station is now to be found. In the mid-seventeenth century she was known as a healer and fortune-teller with “her forehead wrinkled, her mouth wide, and her looks sullen and unmoved.” Her story is told in The Ghosts of London by J.A. Brooks. On the day of her death “Hundreds of men, women and children were witnesses of the devil entering her house in his very appearance and state, and … although his return was narrowly watched for, he was not seen again … Mother Damnable was found dead on the following morning, sitting before the fire place, holding a crutch over it, with a tea-pot full of herbs, drugs, liquid.” And what a sight that must have been, the devil making his way through Camden Town.
Stranger still is the case of “Spring-Heeled Jack.” He appeared in the streets during the 1830s and was soon known as “the terror of London.” One statement, given by Jane Alsop at Lambeth Street Police Office, describes how the unfortunate girl encountered him on her doorstep. “She returned into the house and brought a candle and handed it to the person, who appeared enveloped in a large cloak, and whom she at first believed to be a policeman. The instant she had done so, however, he threw off his outer garment, and applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth and his eyes resembled red balls of fire.” This may seem the merest fantasy, and yet the particulars are confirmed in an account of another attack by “a tall thin man, enveloped in a long black cloak. In front of him he was carrying what looked like a bull’s eye lantern. With one bound he was in front of her, and before she had a chance to move, he belched blue flames from his mouth into her face.” The entire grotesque history is narrated by Peter Haining in The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack.
Jane Alsop’s testimony had other, equally disturbing elements. From “the hasty glance which her fright enabled her to get at the person, she observed that he wore a large helmet; and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed to her to resemble white oilskin. Without uttering a sentence he darted at her, and catching her part by the dress and the back part of her neck, placed her head under one of his arms, and commenced tearing her gown with his claws, which she was certain were of some metallic substance.” She screamed aloud, and her sister came to the door. But in her police statement that sister, Mary Alsop, admitted that although she “saw a figure as already described … She was so alarmed at his appearance, that she was afraid to approach or render any assistance.” A third sister then ran down and dragged Jane away from the terrible assailant, yet his grip was so strong that “a quantity of her hair was torn away.” She slammed shut the door but “notwithstanding the outrage he had committed, he knocked loudly two or three times at the door.” This knocking at the door, so strange that it could scarcely have been invented, is perhaps the most alarming moment in an entire alarming episode. It is as if to say—Let me in, I have not finished with you yet.
It is not at all surprising that in the popular urban imagination “Spring-Heeled Jack” was identified as the offspring of the devil, and described by witnesses as possessing horns and cloven feet. In February 1838 he was reported to have been seen in Limehouse with blue flames issuing from his mouth, and in the same year was said to have thrown a prostitute into the water at Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey. Peter Haining has suggested that the perpetrator was a fire-eater who wore a helmet or mask to protect his face. The great leaps and bounds that were also ascribed to him were perhaps the effect of springs concealed in the heels of his shoes. The metallic “claws” have yet to be fully explained. Yet the point is that “Spring-Heeled Jack” became a true London myth because he was so fantastic and artificial a monster. With his helmet and “white oilskin suit,” breathing fire like a circus performer, he is a London devil curiously resembling the fiends portrayed in the Clerkenwell mystery plays. Accounts of his appearance and behaviour spread very rapidly all over the city; he was seen, or was reported to have been seen, in various locations. It is almost as if this bizarre figure emerged from the streets themselves, like a “golem” which is supposed to be made from the mud and dust of a certain vicinity. The fact that “Jack,” like a later and more notorious “Jack,” was never apprehended serves only to deepen that sense of anonymity which suggests the monstrous figure to be some token or representation of London itself.
For the city is seen, by many, to be a kind of hell. It became a cliché in the poetry of the nineteenth century; its citizens resembled a “Satanic throng” while the atmosphere was that of a “brown Plutonian gloom.” The sulphurous smell of coal dust and smoke provoked images of Satan, while the manifold and manifest vices of the city represented all the works of the devil incarnate.
Images of Babel and Sodom abound, therefore, yet there is a more profound sense in which the city represents hell. It is the ultimate place of degradation and despair, where solitude is sought as an escape from the exactions of pity or compassion and where the only fellowship found is the fellowship of misery. Of all writers perhaps George Orwell possessed that sense of the city most strongly and, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, surveying the brightness of Piccadilly Circus in 1936, remarks that “The lights down in hell will look just like that.” Often “The fantasy returned to him that he was a damned soul in hell … Ravines of cold evil-coloured fire, with darkness all above. But in hell there would be torment. Was this torment?”
There are still, in this city, places where suffering seems to linger. On a small garden or patch of waste ground, near the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Howland Street, solitary people sit in postures of despair. It was close by, at 36 Howland Street, that Verlaine composed his wonderful poem “Il pleure dans mon coeur/Comme il pleut sur la ville.” “It weeps in my heart just as it rains upon the city,” all the loneliness and sorrow of London are caught in this image of the grey and falling rain. The cemetery garden behind the Hawksmoor church of St. George’s-in-the-East, beside Wapping, attracts the lonely and the unhappy. The garden of another church, Christ Church, Spitalfields, by chance by the same architect, was for many years a resting place for the vagrant and the deranged; it was known as “Itchy Park.” There was a famous area known as “Poverty Corner” along the Waterloo Road, by the corner of York Road; here out-of-work actors, artistes and music-hall “turns” used to wait in the generally forlorn hope of being seen or chosen by the music-hall agents. That corner has remained an anonymous and transient locale, between the bridge and the station, with its own peculiar sense of desolation.
Whole areas can in their turn seem woeful or haunted. Arthur Machen had a strange fascination with the streets north of Grays Inn Road—Frederick Street, Percy Street, Lloyd Baker Square—and those in which Camden Town melts into Holloway. They are not grand or imposing; nor are they squalid or desolate. Instead they seem to contain the grey soul of London, that slightly smoky and dingy quality which has hovered over the city for many hundreds of years. He observed “those worn and hallowed doorsteps,” even more worn and hallowed now, and “I see them signed with tears and desires, agony and lamentations.” London has always been the abode of strange and solitary people who close their doors upon their own secrets in the middle of the populous city; it has always been the home of “lodgings,” where the shabby and the transient can find a small room with a stained table and a narrow bed.
A true Londoner will tell you that there is no need to travel when you have the unexplored mysteries of the city all about you; a walk down Farringdon Road, or Leather Lane, will give you as much cause for wonder and surprise as any street in Paris or Rome. “I do not understand my own city,” you might say, “so why travel elsewhere in search of novelty?” There is always a sense of strangeness in London, to be experienced around unexpected corners and in unknown streets. As Arthur Machen said, “it is utterly true that he who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Grays Inn Road will never find those secrets elsewhere, not in the heart of Africa.”
It has often been observed that certain streets or neighbourhoods carry with them a particular atmosphere over many generations. An air of emptiness or ennui, for example, can be sensed along those thoroughfares that have been created by municipal edict and have taken away much of older London in their construction—Victoria Street and New Oxford Street, artificial creations of the nineteenth century, remain anonymous unhappy places. Kingsway, cut through ancient dwellings in the early twentieth century, is merely dull. The Essex Road and the unluckily named Balls Pond Road are areas of manifest greyness and misery. Another cold spot, over many years, has been Shepherd’s Bush Green; it was described as “bald, arid, detestable” at the beginning of the twentieth century and has remained thus ever since.
There were nineteenth-century alleys and courts which gave an immediate sensation of penury and wickedness. The air was “poisonous with miasma and nauseous with dank and dismal stenches,” remarked Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London. “Rags and brown paper substitute half the glass of the windows, and what is left is so crusted with dirt that it shuts out the light it was intended to admit.” Andrew Mearns, in his Bitter Cry of Outcast London, records that “You have to ascend rotten staircases, which threaten to give way beneath every step … You have to grope your way along dark and filthy passages swarming with vermin.” Who can say what mark such places leave upon the city? “In that close corner where the roofs shrink down and cower together as if to hide their secrets from the handsome street hard by, there are such dark crimes, such miseries and horrors, as could hardly be told in whispers.”
The area in the vicinity of prisons has a strangely oppressive and clandestine atmosphere. This is perhaps why the entire area of Southwark and the Borough has for centuries conveyed an impression of meanness and mournfulness. There have been many prisons in the vicinity, the Marshalsea and the King’s Bench among them, and “there is no place like this in the suburbs of London,” according to Walford’s Old and New London, “a spot that looks so murderous, so melancholy and so miserable … There is a smell of past ages about these ancient courts, like that which arises from decay—a murky closeness … and all old things had fallen and died just as they were blown together and left to perish.” And so it remains today, with an atmosphere quite unlike that of any other part of London. The area of East Acton, beside the prison of Wormwood Scrubs, is an example of a modern neighbourhood that is enveloped by the shadow of the gaol.
Death can cast its own shadow over a specific locale. Viaducts and crossroads can also be objects of inexplicable gloom. One young Londoner of the early twentieth century, Richard Church, recalled a crossroads south of the river near the Battersea Road, “a crossroads called The Latchmere, a sinister junction that always filled me with dread.”
There are other streets and areas that seem to emanate misery. Along the Embankment there have always been iron seats at regular intervals, and here in the evening or at night you will find solitary figures sitting and looking down at the river or up at the sky. In 1908 H.G. Wells walked beside them and noticed “a poor old woman with a shameful battered straw hat awry over her drowsing face, now a young clerk staring before him at despair; now a filthy tramp, and now a bearded frock-coated collarless respectability; I remember particularly one ghastly long white neck and white face that lopped backward, choked in some nightmare.” The tramps are still there but more disquieting are the young who often sit in some daze of not belonging anywhere. There are middle-aged men in respectable clothes so worn down that their compulsion to wear them provokes pity; and there are old women with their worldly possessions in plastic carrier bags. The Embankment is a haven for them all, and will no doubt continue to be so for many centuries.
The small streets beside Drury Lane were renowned for their misery. Summer Gardens, in winter, was a picture of urban desolation with its gutters filled with frozen dirt. It was the abode of costers, and the narrow road was littered with paper wrappings from the oranges upon their barrows. Charles Booth noted that “In one street is the body of a dead dog and near by two dead cats which lie as though they had slain each other. All three had been crushed flat by the traffic which has gone over them and they, like everything else, are frozen and harmless.” There was also a great quantity of scraps and bread crumbs strewn over the road which, according to Booth, is “the surest sign of extreme poverty all over London.”
There was also the notorious Whitecross Street, once Whitecross Place, with its gaol blighting the vicinity. “It is said, God made everything. I don’t believe it; He never made Whitecross Place.” And if God did not, who did? Who is the “author of filthy lanes and death-breeding alleys?” Of Clifford’s Inn, in Chancery Lane, long known for its legal obfuscation and delay, Walford states: “I should say that more misery has emanated from this small spot than from any one of the most populous counties in England.” Only a gate and passage now remain; some flats were built over the ancient quadrangle which, in 1913, Virginia and Leonard Woolf found to be “incredibly draughty and dirty … and all night long there fell a slow gentle rain of smuts so that, if you sat writing by an open window, a thin veil of smuts covered the paper before you had finished a page.”
The vicinity of Old St. Pancras, with the graveyard as its centre, has been an area of dereliction for many centuries. Norden, in the sixteenth century, cautioned “Not to walk there late”; in the early years of the twenty-first century it is encompassed by railway arches within which small garages and car repairers have set up their trades. Much of it remains waste ground. Swain’s Lane, leading down to the great mound known as “Parliament Hill” on Hampstead Heath from the walls of Highgate Cemetery, is considered to be unfortunate. The local press and local historians have investigated the condition of the place without notable success, except for certain inexplicable or at least unexplained “sightings”: “I have seen what appeared to be a ghost like figure inside the gates at the top of Swains Lane.” In the weeks after this report appeared in the Hampstead and Highgate Express, in February 1970, other local correspondents conveyed their apprehension: “My fiancee and I spotted a most unusual form about a year ago. It just seemed to glide across the path. I am glad somebody also has spotted it … To my knowledge the ghost always takes the form of a pale figure and has been appearing for several years … a tall man in a hat who walks across Swains Lane … Suddenly from the corner of my eye I saw something move … which seemed to be walking towards us from the gates, sent us running up Swains Lane as fast as we could … I have also had a strange happening at the lower end of Swains Lane … My advice is to avoid Swains Lane during dark evenings, if at all possible.”
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Yet there are also areas of peacefulness and care. The old Foundling Hospital in Coram Fields has long been demolished, but on the perimeter of its site is now the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. Wakley Street, a short and narrow thoroughfare between Goswell Road and the City Road, has on one side the headquarters of the National Children’s Bureau and on the other the National Canine Defence League.
In another context it is perhaps encouraging to note that the pitches of puppet-shows were set upon a fixed local abode for decades, and that together they form a kind of charmed circle around the centre of London—Holborn Bridge, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Covent Garden, Charing Cross, Salisbury Change and the Fleet Bridge.
On the perimeter of this circle lies Fountain Court, amid the buildings of the Temple; there has been a small fountain there for three hundred years, commemorated by writers as diverse as Dickens and Verlaine, while the softness and serenity of this small spot have been experienced by many generations. The fountain and its pool were once square-fenced with palisades, then encircled by iron railings, but now stand unbarred; whether in a square, or a round, or open on all sides, the fountain plays on, and its atmosphere has remained constantly evocative. One Londoner came here as a schoolboy, with no knowledge of its history or its associations, and immediately fell under the spell of its enchantment; it was as if innumerable good acts or kind words had emerged here as calmly and as quietly as the little fountain itself. At last, in these pages, he has the chance of recording his debt.
If persistence through time can create harmony and charity, then the church of St. Bride’s—only a few yards from Fountain Court—has some claim to good fortune. A prehistoric ritual site, as well as evidence of a Roman temple and wooden Saxon church, have been found within its grounds. So the various forms of divinity have been venerated on one spot for many thousands of years. London is blessed as well as cursed.