A.C.Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson, with J. Bluck, ‘Pillory, Charing Cross’ (1809)

Following on from the last post: Francis Place’s autobiography includes an appendix headed ‘The Street Charing Cross’ which appears to be a description of the district when he first went to live there in the 1790s. Place begins by describing the eastern side of the street, where he had his tailor’s shop, and where my 3 x great grandparents would be living in 1841:

The state of London may be somewhat guessed at, by a short description of the fine open street from the Statue at Charing Cross to the commencement of Parliament Street.

On the eastern side and not far from Northumberland House was Johnsons Court. There were 13 rooms in this court, all in a state of great dilapidation, in every room in every house excepting one only lived one or more common prostitutes of the most wretched discription – such as cannot now be seen in any place. The house excepted was a public house and Crimping house of the very worst sort. The place could not be outdone in infamy and indecency by any place in London. The manner in which many of the drunken filthy young prostitutes behaved is not describable nor would it be believed were it described.

A little lower down was the long celebrated Brothel the ‘Rummer Tavern’, it was a large back house, now occupied by Mr Clowes as a printing office and there were doors through the walls, at the back part of my house which communicated with the Rummer – They both had signs, and the large iron bolt which held them are still in my house, projecting from the wall. For some years after I took my house there was an immense wooden Rummer some five feet high fixed against the front of the next house, a silversmiths shop, behind which was the Rummer Tavern. Beneath my house were brick steps from the cellar to the street, The cellars to which those steps led were occupied as milk cellars. At the next house No. 17 was a small back house, to what access was gained by a very narrow passage – this was a crimping house and low brothel. Behind No 22 – was another such house occupied in the same way. Behind No 28 was another, this was an authorized crimping public house, and had a large union Jack standing out from the house in front. At No 19 – was a barbers shop with a striped Poll in front – below No 30 were some three or four houses with their gable ends towards the street. Their ground floors were about 6 steps below the foot pavement, they were very old and inhabited by very low dirty people.

No 24 was a dirty Gin Shop – as was also another house a few doors lower down, those were frequented by prostitutes and Soldiers I can remember the crimping house No 28 being gutted, and a drummer who was active in the Riot being hanged in front of the house in the open street.

…and so on down the street and back up the opposite side. Place concludes:

It seems almost incredible that such a street could be in the condition decribed, but so it was – people were not then as now offended with grossness – dirtiness – vulgarity – obscenity – and atrocious language.

I can myself remember every fact I have mentioned.

I need hardly notice how highly respectable the street is now.

A ‘rummer’ was a drinking glass. Crimping was the practice of decoying young men, usually with the aid of drink and prostitutes, into enlisting in the army. It was in Charing Cross that the ‘Crimp Riots’ of 1794 began, when a young journeyman baker was dragged into the Turk’s Head (Place’s ‘Rummer’). As John Barrell writes: ‘Believing he had been forcibly enlisted, a crowd gathered and a minor riot ensued’.

Barrell cautions us against taking Place’s description of Charing Cross at face value, arguing that his ‘partial’ and ‘highly coloured account’ is ‘written by a man to whom respectable living was always of the first importance, and who looks back in amazement at the period of his early youth from a vantage point in the nineteenth century when, he believes, social morality had undergone a remarkable change for the better’.

William Hogarth’s ‘Night’ from the ‘Four Times of Day’ (1738) offers an even less ‘respectable’ vision of Charing Cross than Place’s. The view is northwards towards the statue of Charles I, but (as Barrell points out) the engraving is a reverse image of the original painting: here, the Rummer (with the drinking glass on its sign) is mistakenly depicted on the western rather than eastern side of the street.