home
intro b4kxstp
b4kxstp1.0
dunghill or game
an absolute rake
suburban wits
charles dickens
the banality of the sublime
maps b4kxstp
links
rural middlesex
beyondkxstp

The Suburban wits; or, taverns, coffee houses, fleet & grub st (feat. the infernal origins of celebrity)

A Macaroni mashup; or, luxury fashion and the fancy (feat.  Prophet Dan and the bubble; or virtual people, virtual money & the search for Eldorado)

Greater expectations: innocence, experience & reform (feat. the new jerusalem digital remix)


to be published in epub and kindle formats

suburban wits

“I have a great mind to be in Print; but above all, I would fain be an Original, and that is a true Comical Thought: When all the Learned Men in the World are but Translators, is it not a Pleasant Jest that you should strive to be an Original! You should have observed your Time, and have come into the World with the Ancient Greeks for that purpose; for the Latins themselves are but Copies... Is it true then that there is such an Embargo laid upon Invention, that no Man can produce anything that is perfectly New, and entirely his own?” Thomas Brown, Amusements serious and comical (1700)

The Oxford University dropout, rakehell and Grubb Street hack Thomas Brown proclaimed himself to be “one of the first of the Suburban class” to make a living entirely from his writing, without having to seek the patronage of a Great Man.

It had taken a quarter of a millennium since Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press into Europe for writers to subsist solely from the productions of their pens, including women: Brown’s muse and possible lover the novelist and playwright Aphra Behn can be considered the first professional woman writer.

The introduction of the presses had inaugurated the Information Age, printing one of the earliest mechanised industries to mass produce its wares, its machinery adapted from wine presses. But with verse and the theatre traditionally the principle media for creative endeavour, real gentlemen for long believed it beneath their dignity to publish, let alone be paid for their scribbles, which might be passed around privately in manuscript form.

Most non gentlemen were forced to subsidise their literary ambitions by resort to an honest trade such as teaching. But by 1774, the man of letters Dr Samuel Johnson had pronounced that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”. Writing had become a profession, although only a particularly talented and fortunate few would truly prosper from its art and mystery.

For most it remained a form of ill-paid drudgery.

Grub Street was an actual place, running northwards from beneath the London City walls (sub urb: below the city). Renamed Milton St EC2, it is now a concrete, steel and glass business canyon lying to the east of the Barbican.

In his Dictionary (1755) Johnson describes the toilers of Grub Street as “writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet”. The denizens of the street were a human machinery, for many of whom grubbing a living from arranging words in a sensible order was no more than a penance for a pittance, with a pension of poor-health and poverty, and for some a descent into destitution and madness.

Many of the City’s licensed print works were to be found on Fleet Street,  the shop and hostelry-lined highway running westwards from the Lud Gate, the City’s westernmost entrance, and connecting it with the City of Westminster at the Temple Bar. It was on this street that the offices of a proliferating number of daily, weekly and evening news papers congregated following the relaxation of censorship laws in 1695.

Near to the Bar, in the Middle Temple Gate, Nandos coffee house was a popular resort of lawyers and the new breed of populist writers, journalists and booksellers, having in the 1690s come into part-ownership of the parish of St Pancras in the Fields.

It was here and in the ‘public space’ of the many other coffee houses and taverns of Fleet Street (and its continuation in Westminster as The Strand) that the modern media industry was born, with also establishments in the nearby theatre districts of Drury Lane, Haymarket and Lincoln’s Inn Fields playing host to creative industry types of every stamp.

And it was the increasing purchasing power of the rising middle classes that enabled writers such as Brown and Behn to make a living from their quills.

The Suburban Wits of the book’s title were a motley collection of pens for hire. Some work was to be found in translations from French, Spanish or Italian, or the Classics, or maybe in the heartfelt or hack production of a political tract, or something lewd or seditious... the particularly talented, or opportunist, might strike it lucky with a play which caught the theatre goers’ fancy for a few nights.

Thomas Brown was the most accomplished of the translators, a classically trained scholar who chose to live on the margins, rejecting opportunities for lucrative patronage to which his talents might easily have laid claim while also writing poems, essays and plays. An instictive Tory, he was of the Ancients’ persuasion, all too aware of rapidly changing social conditions but rejecting the very idea of an ascendant Modernity, of cultural Progress, in deference to an idealised past as revealed in the relics of Classical culture.

Jonathan Swift epitomised the controversy in the Battle of the Books (circulated in manuscript form ca1697, published 1704), giving “a full and true account of the battle fought last Friday between the ancient and the modern books in St James’s Library”; ie, the King’s Library, then located in St James’s Palace, Westminster.

With various royal book collections gathered together at the palace during the Commonwealth era, neglected and pilfered the volumes have become jumbled up on the shelves, minor disputes developing between reluctant neighbours growing unchecked until war is declared between the two camps:

“Now, it must be here understood that Ink is the great missive Weapon in all Battles of the Learned, which, conveyed thro’ a sort of Engine, call’d a Quill, infinite Numbers of these are darted at the Enemy, by the Valiant on each side,  with equal Skill and Violence, as  if it were an Engagement of Porcupines”.

The original library was absorbed into the British Museum when it was founded in 1753. The King’s Library currently on display inside a four-storey smoked glass-walled central tower at the British Library at St Pancras (created as a separate institution in 1973 and opened at its new premises a quarter of a century later) is George III’s personal library, donated in 1823 to the museum by his son George IV, the monarch memorialised a few years later by the construction of the King’s Cross.

It was Brown’s involvement in a group effort at the translation into colloquial English of the complete works of the C1AD Greco-Roman satirist Lucian (translated from Greek into Latin two centuries earlier by Sir Thomas Moore and Erasmus) that led to his ‘rediscovery’ of Brandiopolis.

The city was a simulacrum of the Middlesex suburbs in the afterlife, ruled by Pluto and for a few decades during the early-C18 the destination of a popular satirical trope adopted by several other writers: there was gossip about its immortal inhabitants to relate and celebrate, including recently deceased friends and enemies.

He was unapologetic about his retro-speculative approach, writing in the introduction to Letters from the dead to the living (Brown et al, 1702):

“I am not insensible, Gentlemen, that Homer, Virgil, Dante, Don Quevedo, and many more before me, have given an Account of these Subterranean Dominions, for which reason it may look like Affectation or Vanity in me to meddle with a Subject so often handled; but if new Travels into Italy, Spain, and Germany are daily read with Approbation, because new Matters of Enquiry and Observation perpetually arise, I don’t see why the present State of the Plutonian Kingdoms may not be acceptable, there having been as great Changes and Alterations in these Infernal Regions, as in any other Part of the Universe whatever”.

Tory wits like Brown drank wine, and lots of it, best claret when they could afford to. But a more sober Whigish breed of penman might prefer small beer or coffee and, encouraged by a royally-inspired campaign to reform manners, produce books and periodicals designed to instruct their readers in useful and well-tempered knowledge, and how to conduct themselves with decorum.

Such writing reached its apogee in the eloquent prose of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s the Spectator and the Tatler, while the High Tory pens of the Scriblerus Club (the Augustans Swift, Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and John Gay) created brilliant and cruel satires on the emerging modernity.

But just as the early-C17 had witnessed the first permanent settlement of the New World by Puritan migrants seeking freedom of worship, accompanied by the adventurous, the dispossessed and the outlawed seeking new opportunities, less than two decades after the death of the sceptical Thomas Brown the early-C18 saw the colonisation of a new ‘Continent of the Imagination’.

Inhabited by mythical, legendary and fabulous natives, and previously visited only by European explorers from the traditions of folktales, myth, religion, the drama, romance and novella, Daniel Defoe’s castaway Robinson Crusoe (1719) is the first recognizably modern Englishman to settle on its shore, followed by a growing population comprising all the passengers shipping out as colonists on the good ships Defoe, Haywood, Swift, Sterne, Richardson, Fielding, Goldsmith, Austen, The Brontes Dickens, Elliot &c, &c.

Accounts of these novel characters and their descendants’ adventures have become so much a part of everyday private and cosmopolitan life, their production and reproduction so prolific, 300-years on the Empire of Fiction (and its various dependencies, its genres and new media, with also its dominions of PR and celebrity) has long since become entirely naturalised.

Imaginary heroes and antiheroes, villains and victims, the blessed, the lost and the damned, now inhabit the landscape of our minds and hearts as realistically as, if not more so than our own kith and kin; although the vessels upon which they have traditionally sailed, including the most recent high tech vehicles, are now rapidly transforming as the modern world rejected by Thomas Brown all those years ago itself transforms, from print, analogue and the metaphorical to digital and virtual delivery systems…

a macaroni mash up

“Fifty years ago, tea, coffee and chocolate were never tasted, except in great or rich families. But now the articles of tea and sugar are in common use. We send to the East and West Indies to furnish our poor with their breakfasts. The wives of day labourers and the very almshouse women drink tea twice a day. In some counties the gleaners have their tea at stated hours, in the open fields”. The Universal Magazine of Knowledge & Pleasure (1772)

But just as this pioneering colonisation of the imagination by virtual autonomous individuals commenced, a newly designed finance capitalism met its first great crisis with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble.

Daniel Defoe had celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of his fellow Englishmen, his Essay Upon Projects of 1697 describing a 'projecting monster' stalking the land written in the same decade as the launch of joint stock banking with the Bank of England, and in which the practices of modern insurance and stock brokering became firmly established in the coffee houses and alleyways around the Royal Exchange.

He remained a close critic of mercantile and early financial practices, his passionate belief in a moral capitalism encouraged by the example of a reputable few, but disappointed by what he saw as a far too general greed and corruption.

An account of these early days of modern capitalism is related in Prophet Dan and the bubble; or virtual people, virtual money & the search for Eldorado, featured in a broader account of the global trade in high value luxury commodities and the foundations of consumer society in the ebook A Macaroni mashup; or, luxury, fashion & the fancy.

The production/ trade in spices, silks and satins, furs, tobacco, African slaves, sugar, tea, coffee and chocolate were the original motors of economic relations and global migrations that have since entirely transformed the world, the very basis of modernity and whatever it is that now follows; a modernity that has constantly regenerated through the creation (and the always only partial satisfaction) of ever new desires.

Among the relatives of Cheshire-born St Pancras preacher/ vicar Randolph Yearwood (incumbent from 1655 until his death in 1687) were sugar planters and slave owners, early settlers of the first great English Caribbean colony of Barbados. Indeed, had he not secured his St Pancras living, as a young man the controversial Yearwood might very well himself have been forced to migrate.

As it was, his family line would soon disappear, while the family name spread across the New World, with during the C20 some of its bearers returning to the UK as part of the continuing flows of global migration.

Sugar production and trade had been the first great capitalist industry, its profits and those acquired from control of trade with the highly advance civilisations of the East financing an English fashion industry that would initiate the first, if tentative, mass consumer culture. Following on from the colourful but diffident Harlequin style, alluded to if not fully adopted by youthful apprentices with attitude in the early-C18, a more generally popular fashion debuted a half century later with the over-exuberant Macaroni style.

Its originators were first spotted by Horace Walpole about St James’s and Hyde Park in the winter of 1764, comprising “all the travelled young men who wear curls and spying glasses” (some of whom wore two pocket watches, “one to show what o’clock it is, and one to show what o’clock it isn’t”). The aim of their absurd behaviour and dress was to scandalise their staid and worthy fathers.

These immensely wealthy young men reached their “ne plus ultra” within a decade, restyling themselves the Scavoir Vivre, forming an exclusive club at the Star and Garter tavern in  Pall Mall and acquiring a new uniform of scarlet cloth with a velvet collar and sleeves of bleu celeste. This now left the field open to the lower classes to boldly go where no fashion had gone before, their having taken to spending whatever surplus pennies they could afford (or not!) to indulge in what would remain for some several years the first really popular fashion craze.

As well as the more famous pleasure gardens at Vauxhall and Ranelagh, the chosen venues for the non-Ton to display their new found finery were Bagnigge Wells (off what is presently Kings Cross Road) and the White Conduit Gardens on Pentonville Hill, with also a brief flourish at the New Pantheon on the site of the Italian basilica-style church of Our Most Holy Redeemer on Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell and frequent resort to nearby and still flourishing Sadler's Wells Theatre.

While the hacks of popular literature in Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (1728-42) had dived for prizes in the filth and stench of the Fleet Ditch (little more than an open sewer), growing opportunities meant that writers might now aim higher... but not always too high.

The Rev Charles Churchill, for example, (a penniless parish priest who had subsidised his rural living running an alehouse) secured his finances with his satirist’s quill, moving to the capital after publishing The Rosciad in 1761 and over the following years coming to know far too many of the intimate secrets of the beaux and belles of Baggnige Wells than might be considered proper for a man of the cloth.

In that same period, the altogether more saintly Oliver Goldsmith chose the less depraved pleasures of the tea room and skittle alley at White Conduit House on the hill overlooking Battle Bridge, mixing with a literary and theatrical crowd who might be considered (or at least might have consider themselves) a newly rising populist cultural vanguard.

Both venues, in fact, had similarly questionable reputations. But because the Wells had the larger premises, as the day wore on and its rival venue became overcrowded the more racy elements from the hilltop house and grounds gravitated down to the more extensive and well-tended gardens on the valley floor.

Here they supplanted the citizen families who, having finished their treats of a pot of tea, fresh bread and butter and maybe cream buns, were departing for home. The new arrivals now joined the company of any remaining rakes and prostitutes, the occasional flamboyant highwayman, the thrill-seeking servants and apprentices, the ‘particulars’ and the more extreme of the newly empowered popular fashionistas.

The male of this species had adopted and adapted the Macaroni’s earliest attire of a tight, wide-lapelled high-wasted coat with vast buttons and deep pockets, long waistcoat and satin breeches, scarlet stockings, high-heeled and extravagantly buckled shoes and a reticule (handbag) hung over the shoulder.

This vision of absurd loveliness had clutched a lengthy walking-stick with long tassels and was topped with a large club wig (a sort of heavily powdered, horse hair dreadlock) upon which perched a little hat. The female of the species distinguished herself with ever more ornately constructed hairdos and voluminous bustles.

A generational rebellion had become a cultural and social revolution; a celebration of prosperity and individualism, but one of limited individual opportunities, for as the country industrialised this was also becoming a time of poverty and hunger for many and of strikes, riots and the first mass political protests.

greater expectations

“Jack ass race to be run for on Monday next at the White Hart at Battle Bridge at Pancras, for a laced hat and band; no ass to enter that has run a King’s plate this season. Also a smock to be run for by women, to start at 3, all to enter free. Eggs and potatoes on the table at 2, with plenty of Wilkes’s eye water. It is expected that there will be numerous appearances of Friends of Liberty and the Lumber Troop. Several hundred pound bets are depending upon Alexander Dunplin and Wilkes”. Lloyd’s Evening Post, 13-15 October1773

The individual who perhaps best represented the gathering populist spirit of the times was the Middlesex MP and Lord Mayor of London (and also libertine, duellist and pornographer) John Wilkes. Supported by the improving associations and the mob alike, his ‘patriotic’ demagogy was celebrated by the ratepayers of Battle Bridge in the name of the main street of their new village, Britannia Street, laid out in the Battle Bridge East Field in 1767 at the height of the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ disturbances.

Wilkes stood for the little man against a corrupt client administration in which, he maintained, the North Britons (Scots) held too much influence. Or at least he claimed to represent them, with public affairs for many very much a zero game of naked self-interest, the hero of the day making up his political platform and his sartorial sensibilities as he proceeded.

His political resolve and passionate support for individual liberties did, nevertheless, influence rising dissatisfaction here and on the other side of the Atlantic and the English Channel, securing an unprecedented and until now safely guarded pre-Leveson freedom of the press while heavily influencing the framing of the First Amendment to the American Constitution. He also introduced the very first Bill for parliamentary reform to the House of Commons.

Continuing local support for their radical MP is reflected in a somewhat cryptic announcement in Lloyd’s Evening Post in October 1773, of a public gathering that appears to have been intended as a political meeting (see prologue, above). It was promoted by George Mills, the landlord of the White Hart tavern standing at the crossroads in the fork of the New Road and Bagnigge Wash (the site of the ‘Lighthouse Building’).

Indeed, the following edition of the same newspaper reports that “yesterday the High Constable and several other constables attended at Battle Bridge to put a stop to the intended ass race, which they executed without any disturbance”.

Besides its own dynamics, English political radicalism was feeding into and gathering momentum from both the American and French Revolutions, with vast public meetings in the fields on the skirts of the capital taking place over the following decades. And this was also the period when London’s public and popular cultures became properly established as an integral part of the industrial and social revolutions that were turning “all that is solid into air”.

By the end of the century a radical avante garde was associated with Somers Town, meeting at the home of the philosophical anarchist and atheist writer William Godwin who lived in the Polygon, a 16-sided development of terraced houses on the edge of the fields.

In 1797, Godwin married the ur-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecroft, who just five years earlier had published her masterpiece the Vindication of the Rights of Women. She moved in with him but died shortly afterwards, giving birth to their daughter Mary, the future teenage bride of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The first inklings of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus will have formed when visiting her mother’s grave in St Pancras churchyard, not 300 metres across the fields from her intellectual hot house childhood home. Later, the family having moved to Snow Hill on the edge of the butchers shambles serving Smithfield live meat market, and neighbouring the Newgate Prison where vast crowds attended the secluded executions of criminals behind its forbidding walls, she regularly attended her mother’s grave with her husband to be, the couple having fallen in love at the graveside.

A time of accelerating development of the fields for housing, the new suburbs accommodated a rapidly expanding population of variously skilled workers, including many servicing the growing print and entertainment industries on whose products the new suburban classes might spend a good portion of their wages. And in and around Battle Bridge a number of ‘nuisance manufactories’ such as knackers and bone yards, dye, blue and soap factories, and sweatshops prospered, with also often women-run laundry businesses. 

The larger story is to be told in Greater expectations: innocence, experience & reform (feat. the New Jerusalem digital remix), but for a taster of the cultural forces at work around rural Battle Bridge as it transformed into suburban Kings Cross, we might look at the premises of a globally popular burger chain on the corner of York Way and Pentonville Road, to the east of Kings Cross station and immediately north of the site of the original Kings Cross monument.

The American corporation’s ‘golden arches’ logo has a weird, if not visionary and mystical resonance in the possible and imaginary histories of Kings Cross St Pancras.

Anciently named Maiden Lane (and long neglected, before the C19 it was little more than a drovers track), York Way runs north from the Battle Bridge cross-roads, for nearly a century directly opposite a great dust heap where before its clearance sometime before 1830 (to make way for the original Kings Cross development, although there is some confusion about the exact date) parochially-appointed scavengers had contracted to deposit the wastes of London, from which local brick-makers salvaged hearth cinders (‘spanish’) for strengthening their bricks.

A small army of scavengers (human and porcine) salvaged whatever they might form the rest of the wastes, the heap featured in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), among others of his works.

On the corner with Pentonville Hill there stood an old inn, the Maidenhead, which a couple of years previous to the removal of the hog-inhabited, man-made hillock had been taken over by William Walborne, a retired actor. His most famous role was the dancing dustman ‘Dusty Bob’ in the 1821 smash hit stage adaption of Pierce Egan’s Tom and Jerry, or Life in London at the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand.

Egan had first come to notice as a sports journalist, known for his reporting on ‘The Fancy’, the ‘bucks and bruisers’ whose chief delights included pugilism, cock-fighting and horse-racing; and, of course, flash dress, drink, gambling and a rude and ready slang.

His novel Tom and Jerry (first issued in monthly parts from September 1820) brought him real fame, portraying a Regency lowlife uniting idle aristocrats with uncultured but street-wise hustlers (‘swells’ with ‘coves’) in their “Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis”: viz Ned Ward’s London Spy over a century earlier. 

The tale was a popular sensation, a phenomenon, celebrated in the branding of everything from song, pottery and games to beverages, fans and tea-trays. Theatrical adaptions became ubiquitous, in the UK and on the American stage. Performed first at Astley’s and then the Surrey, a highly successful version at Sadler’s Wells in 1822 ran for well over a hundred shows, featuring live pony races and over thirty scenes designed by Robert Cruishank, who with his brother George (both of whom would at times reside locally) had illustrated the original monthly parts.

George also painted the sign for Walborne’s Maidenhead pub, showing him in his most famous role. Previously an unremarkable house, the new sign attracted the custom of the hundreds of men and women employed on the dust heap opposite. But when shortly afterwards the mound was removed (it was said it was sold for the rebuilding of Moscow) Walbourne was soon bankrupted, his house later rebuilt and renamed the Victoria Hotel and for several decades now a MacDonalds.

In Egan’s original novel, ‘Dusty Bob’ was a coal-heaver, transformed for the stage into one of the most popular London stereotypes, the dustman, whose filthy and ubiquitous trade touched on the profoundest realities and mythologies of life in the newly industrialised metropolis.

And though the mound of dust had gone, a King’s Cross dustman would soon after come to represent the cultural aspirations of the newly created industrial proletariat:

Some folks may talk of sense, egad!
Vot holds a lofty station,
But, though a dustman, I have had
A liberal hedication.
And though I never went to school,
Like many of my betters
A turnpike man, vot ain’t no fool,
He larnt me all my letters.

(Chorus) They calls me Adam Bell, ’tis clear
As Adam was the first man,
And by a co-in-side-ance queer
Vy, I’m the fust of Dustmen.

“My dawning genus fust did peep,
Near Battle Bridge ‘tis plain, Sirs,
You recollect the cinder heap,
Vot stood in Gray’s-Inn-Lane, Sirs!
‘Twas there I studied pic-turesque,
Vhile I my bread vos yearnin’;
And there inhalin’ the fresh breeze.
I sifted out my larnin! (Chorus)…
The Literary Dustman
, anon (1832)

The Greater expectations ebook goes on to sketch the development of Battle Bridge, Somers Town and Pentonville following the erection of the King’s Cross monument to the mid-century construction of the two great rail terminals that still dominate the district today.

It was a time of progress and poverty, of great hopes and great disappointments. Situated on a fault line between two Londons (the East and the West Ends) the district’s fate was for long sealed by the building of the stations. But it is the broadness of association through the centuries that provides the bedrock on which Kings Cross St Pancras is now regenerating:

“The fields from Islington to Marybone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold;    
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Her Little Ones ran on the fields,
The Lamb of God among them seen,
And fair Jerusalem, His Bride,
Among the little meadows green.

Pancras and Kentish Town repose
Among her golden pillars high,             
Among her golden arches which
Shine upon the starry sky”.
Jerusalem
, chap 1 plate 27,
William Blake (1804-20)

For in the microcosm of King’s Cross St Pancras, in the story of the kin, kith and strangers and of the pleasures, crime and death in what were once the fields of London, can be found much of the origins of the ever expanding multiverses of our contemporary existence, and of future worlds beyond.

 

 





“Descending the hill, you will find yourself at Battlebridge, among a people as characteristic and looking as local as if the spot had been made for them... The ground on which the Battlebridge Dust-Heap stood, was sold to the Pandemonium Theatre Company. They built a theatre, where that cloud-kissing dust-heap had been. Come, I’ll enter. The interior is somewhat fantastic, but light and pretty too; and filled with Battlebridge beaux and belles. There was no trace of any dustman there.” The Mirror 1830, quoted in English Eccentrics, Edith Sitwell, 1933


Site Map