Corruption and prostitution in 17th Century Holborn

I have a copy of the Middlesex Sessions Records 1612-14 sat on my floor. I feel guilty for leaving it there, pick it up and open at random:



26 July, 11 James I [A.D. 1613].

Roger Williams [Williamson] alias Davies  of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, scrivener, and Margaret his wife, for being common barrators and disturbers of the peace at the same; and for keeping a common bawdy house at the same.

Both guilty. To be carted in a cart from the gaol to their own house, the said Margaret in a blue mantle like a bawd, and there to be openly set in the stocks, and afterwards to remain in prison till they find sureties for their good behaviour.

Prosecutors:- Giles Henley, William Dennis, Roger Usherwood, Christopher Archer, Nicholas Elmye, Robert Osborne.

Sureties for the said:- John Askewe of St. Gabriel’s, Fenchurch, gentleman, and William Roberts of St. Bartholomew’s-the-Great, tailor.



Roger and Margaret sound like a right pair – aside from keeping a brothel and generally creating a racket, barratry was the crime of “bringing a groundless lawsuit or lawsuits” or the corrupt practice of the “sale or purchase of positions in church or state.”

Nightwalking

In my head as I approach writing this blog just before midnight I have the Iggy Pop song, Nightclubbing bouncing around inside my skull – y’know, the track that shares a distinction with half of Scotland’s actors of being made famous by the film Trainspotting. What Iggy Pop and Trainspotting also shared in common was heroin addiction – maybe that’s why Iggy’s other tune on the soundtrack, Lust for Life, became the film’s anthem.

But I’m not writing about Iggy Pop or Trainspotting but a walk I took the other night from Queen Square Bloomsbury through the streets of old Holborn, for the sake of a wander, and also for my series of walking vlogs.

I don’t know a great deal about that area but somewhere in the gloom I saw the spirit of Thomas De Quincey shuffling ahead of me bound for the Penton Mound. De Quincey has become synonymous with London walking, the cult of the flaneur, and borrowed by psychogeographers to lend some notion of heritage to this strange habit of walking around unpromising corners of the city. In his most famous book, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he writes of walking at night “in Oxford Street by dreamy lamp-light”. He noted that, “being a peripatetic, or a walker of the streets” – he often found himself in the company of prostitutes. And as you’ll have deduced from the title of his book was also fond of heroin, like Iggy Pop.

As I found myself approaching the foothills of the Angel and contemplated descending into Black Mary’s Hole I remembered that Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to walk through this way to visit his friend Charles Lamb in Islington. De Quincey moved himself into Coleridge’s social circle and it was Coleridge who by one stage removed introduced De Quincey to opium:

“The powers of that great agent I first learned dimly to guess at from a remark made to me by a lady in London; then, and for some time previously, she had been hospitably entertaining Coleridge …. Consequently, she was familiarly acquainted with his opium habits”.

In Lamb’s Conduit Street I admired what I took for an old gas lamp but I don’t really know how to spot them. Geoffrey Fletcher was fond of these relics of old streetscape and sketched them for his books and pamphlets. In Offbeat in London he encourages the reader to take the 171 bus from Chancery Lane to Mount Pleasant and admire the old gas lamps – more or less the route of the walk I had taken. He also notes the lamps in Queen Square – the point I had started my walk and the first shot in the video.

The Duke Pub John Mews

I followed old tracks from the beginnings of this blog when I nightly walked from the South Bank to the top of Pentonville Road. I wanted to enjoy once more for the sake of my video the junction of John’s and Roger Streets spelling out my name if you carry the ‘s’ across to the end. I stopped to admire the fine block of art deco flats next door at Mytre Court, built in 1938 by Denis Edmond Harrington.

Perambulating down a dark Grays Inn Road Arthur Machen came to mind, I think he lived here, he certainly mentions it in his book The London Adventure, “what strange things I experienced in chambers in Grays Inn”. It also became his base camp for ventures further afield,

“But in writing this book of mine I was to dip rather into the later years; into the 1895-99 period when I first found out the wonders that lie to the eastward of the Gray’s Inn Road, when Islington and Barnsbury and Canonbury were discovered, when Pentonville ceased to be a mere geographical expression.”

 

Recovery walk

I needed a walk to help recover from a violent stomach bug – the kind that has you laid out for 3 days and still has me on a diet of cous-cous and boiled veg. Walking therapy works for me like no other remedy.
The plan was to revisit my old haunts from when I daily schlepped between the Angel and the South Bank, the warren of runs and ways I etched into my consciousness through repeated walking stretching from Bloomsbury across Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Islington and The City.

I start at Lincoln’s Inn Fields then move onto Fleet Street. I perch in St. Dunstan’s-in-the-West and listen to the choir practice. Up Fetter Lane then breach the border of High Holborn entering the mental realm of lower-Islington. Leather Lane is full of lunchtime bustle. Drop down Herbal Hill behind the Guardian offices then along to Back Hill where St. Martin’s students spread out along the curb munching and sunning themselves. I look through into Black Mary’s Hole, the majesty of Mount Pleasant Sorting Office looms above. I skirt the bomb-site (the last in London?) and then I’m tugged westwards along Calthorpe Street. I sit and reflect in St. Andrew’s Gardens. Push on along Grays Inn Road with a nod to the Calthorpe Project. Stop for a bagel and a coffee (always feels wrong to eat a ham bagel). Harrison Street heading west opens up another front of nostalgia, then along Sidmouth Street and into Tavistock Place. The magnetic force of Judd Street Books is too powerful to resist and I lose myself in there for some time.

I cut behind Camden Town Hall where I once argued with the registrars. Descend into Britannia Street the screech of tubes pulling into Kings Cross below, photo the flats I’m sure are in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. Lorenzo Street (missed Penton Rise) across Pentonville Road and down along Calshot Street. I’ve neglected to account for post viral fatigue, I’m dizzy, my legs go, I have to regain myself on the steps of the new Peabody Building for the final push. Suck on a Murray Mint. On up the mound. Duck into the old estate – no sign of Sam sitting out in front of his flat. Over to Chapel Market, the Salmon & Compasses having yet another refurb. The record shop I loved has gone – I’d planned to buy the Saint Etienne CD that has been playing in my head all day. Cash Converters has replaced the video shop and Woolies has become Waitrose in a bold statement of intent that the Angel is moving up in the world. Wind up in Borders browsing the stacks of 3 for 2s. End – No.56 bus home. I feel infinitely better.

Climbing St. Brides

I tried to climb the spire of Wren’s St Brides Church Fleet Street today and failed. I’d read in ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ by Iain Sinclair how he’d managed to find a small unlocked door that led up the spire, which is the second tallest after St Paul’s. Today the door was locked. I tried to speak to the church warden through an intercom but he simply said, “It isn’t safe”. So I was denied one of the great views of the city and headed down into the crypt instead.

I’m doing a vague mapping of the area using William Kent’s ‘Lost Treasures of London’ (1946) as my guide. Kent’s book is an inventory of World War II bomb damage to the city, a sad list of loss and destruction. It’s my aim to see what else has fallen to the peacetime blitz of urban planning.

I’ll be posting more here as I go along.

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