From Old and New London: A Narrative of Its History, Its People and Its Places by Walter Thornbury, 1881.
"Whitechapel," says Strype, "is a spacious fair street, for entrance into the City eastward, and somewhat long, reckoning from the laystall east until the bars west. It is a great thoroughfare, being the Essex road, and well resorted unto, which occasions it to be the better inhabited, and accommodated with good inns for the reception of travelers, and for horses, coaches, carts and wagons."
Whitechapel is mentioned by Beaumont and Fletcher, in their Knight of the Burning Pestle. "March fair, my hearts!" says Ralph. "Lieutenant, beat the rear up! Ancient, let your colours fly; but have a great care of the butchers' hooks at Whitechapel; they have been the death of many a fair ancient" (ensign).
"I lived," says Defoe, in his "Memoirs of the Plague," "without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechapel Bars, on the left-hand or north side of the street; and as the distemper had not reached to that side of the City, our neighbourhood continued very easy; but at the other end of the town the consternation was very great, and the richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the City, thronged out of town with their families and servants in an unusual manner; and this was more particularly seen in Whitechapel - that is to say, the broad street where I lived."
Although the church of St. Mary, Whitechapel, was at first only a chapel of ease to Stepney, it is of great antiquity, since there is record of Hugh de Fulbourne being rector there in the year 1329. As early as the 21st of Richard II., according to Stow, the parish was called Villa beatae Mariae de Matfellon, a name the strangeness of which has given rise to many Whtiechapel legends. According to Stow, the name of Matfellon was given it about the year 1428 (6th Henry VI.), from the following circumstance:- A devout widow of the parish had long time cherished and brought up of alms a certain Frenchman or Breton born, who most "unkindly and cruelly," by night, murdered the said widow as she slept in her bed, and afterwards flew with such jewels and other stuff of hers as he might carry; but was so freshly pursued, that for fear he took sanctuary in the church of St. George, Southwark, and challenging the privileges there, abjured the king's land. Then the constables in charge of him brought him into London to convey him eastward, but as soon as he was come into Whitechapel, the wives there cast upon him so many missiles and so much filth, that notwithstanding all the resistance of the constables, they slew him out of hand; and for this feat, it was said, the parish purchased the name of St. Mary Matfellon.
Now, that this event may have occurred in the reign of Henry VI is very probably; but as the parish was called Matfellon more than a hundred years before, it is very certain that the name of Matfellon did not arise from this particular felon. Strupe thinks that the word Matfellon is somehow or other derived from the Hebrew or Syriac word "Matfel," which signified a woman recently delivered of a son - that is, to the Virgin, recently delivered. Perhaps the church may have been dedicated to Mary matri et filio, which in time was corrupted into Matfellon. The name of the White Chapel was probably given the new chapel in admiration of its stateliness, or from the whitewash that even in the Middle Ages was frequently used by builders.
The inhabitants of this parish, says Strype, were anciently bound, annually, at the feast of Pentecost, to go in a solemn procession to the cathedral church of Sr. Paul's, in the City of London, to make their oblations, as a testimony of their obedience to the Mother Church; but upon the erection of the conventual church of St. Peter, Westminster, into a cathedral, and the county of Middlesex appropriated by Henry VIII for its diocese, of which this parish being a part, the inhabitants were obliged to repair annually to St. Peter's, as they formerly did to St. Paul's; which practice proving very troublesome, and of no service, Thomas Thirlby, birshop of the new see, upon their petition, agreed to ease them of that trouble, provided the rector and churchwardens would yearly, at the time accustomed, repair to his new cathedral, and there, in the time of Divine service, offer at the high altar the sum of fifteen pence, as a recognition of their obedience.
The street, or way, says Strype, leading from Aldgate to Whitechapel Church, remaining in its original unpaved state, it became thereby so very bad that the same was almost rendered impassable, not only for carriages, but likewise for horses; wherefore it, together with divers others on the west side of the City of London, were appointed to be paved by an Act of Parliament, in the year 1572.
In the year 1711 the advowson of Whitechapel was purchased by the principal and scholars of King's Hall and College, of Brasenose College, in Oxford.
Pennant, always vivacious and amusing, tells a story of a libelous picture of the Last Supper placed above the altar in this church, in the reign of Queen Anne, by the then High Church rector. Dr. White Kennet, at that time Dean of Peterborough, had given great offence to the Jacobites, by writing in defence of the Hanoverian succession, and in revenge the rector introduced the dean among the Apostles in the character of Judas. He clad him in a black robe, between cloak and gown, and a short wig, and, to brand him beyond mistake, put a black velvet patch on his forehead, such as the dean wore to hide a dreadful injury received in his youth; beneath was written, "Judas, the traytor." The dean generously treated the matter with contemptuous silence; but the Bishop of London interfered, and caused the obnoxious picture to be removed. It was afterwards replaced, but the libelous likeness was expunged.
The register of St. Mary Matfellon, Whitechapel, records the burial of two remarkable persons - Brandon, the supposed executioner of Charles I., and Parker, the leader of the Mutiny at the Nore. Brandon was a ragman, in Rosemary Lane. The entry is - "1649. June 2. Richard Brandon, a man out of Rosemary Lane." And to this is added the following memorandum: "This R. Brandon is supposed to have cut off the head of Charles I." This man is said to have confessed that he had £30 for his work, and that it was paid him (why, we know not) in half-crowns, within an hour after the axe fell. He took an orange, stuck with cloves, and a handkerchief, out of the king's pocket, when the body was removed from the scaffold. For the orange he was offered twenty shillings by a gentleman in Whitehall, but he refused the sum, and afterwards sold the orange for ten shillings, in Rosemary Lane. This Brandon was the son of Gregory Brandon, and claimed the headman's axe by inheritance. The first person he had beheaded was the Earl of Strafford; but, after all, there is still doubts as to who struck the death blow at King Charles, and some say it was that Cornet Joyce who once arrested the king. There is as much, perhaps, to be said for Brandon, of Rosemary Lane, as any one.
Rosemary Lane, now re-christened Royal Mint Street, is described by Mr. Mayhew as chiefly inhabited by dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpers, &c., as well as the slop-workers and "sweaters" employed in the Minories.
"One side of the lane," says Mayhew, in his "London Labour," "is covered with old boots and shoes; old clothes, both men's, women's, and children's, new lace, for edgings, and a variety of cheap prints and muslins, and often of the commonest kinds (also new); hats and bonnets; pots; tins; old knives and forks, old scissors, and old metal articles generally; here and there is a stall of cheap bread or American cheese, or what is announced as American; old glass; different descriptions of second-hand furniture, of the smaller size, such as children's chairs, bellows, &c. Mixed with these, but only very scantily, are a few bright-looking swag-barrows, with china ornaments, toys, &c. Some of the wares are spread on the ground, on wrappers, or pieces of matting or carpet; and some, as the pots, are occasionally placed on straw. The cotton prints are often heaped on the ground, where are also ranges or heaps of boots and shoes, and piles of old clothes, or hats or umbrellas. Other trades place their goods on stalls or barrows, or over an old chair or clothes-horse. And amidst all this motley display the buyers and sellers smoke, and shout, and doze, and bargain, and wrangle, and eat, and drink tea and coffee, and sometimes beer."
Rag Fair, or Rosemary Lane, Wellclose Square, is mentioned in a note to Pope's "Dunciad," as "a place near the Tower of London, where old clothes and frippery are sold." Pennant gives a humorous picture of the barter going on there, and says, "The articles of commerce by no means belie the name. There is no expressing the poverty of the goods, nor yet their cheapness. A distinguished merchant engaged with a purchaser observing me look on him with great attention, called out to me, as his customer was going off with his bargain, to observe that man, 'for', says he, 'I have actually clothed him for fourteen pence.'" It was here, we believe, that purchasers were allowed to dip in a sack for old wigs - a penny the dip. Noblemen's suits come here at last, after undergoing many vicissitudes.
In the Public Advertiser of Feb. 17, 1756, there is an account of one Mary Jenkins, a dealer in old clothes in Rag Fair, selling a pair of breeches to a poor woman for sevenpence and a pint of beer. While the two were drinking together at a public-house, the lucky purchasers found, on unripping the clothes, eleven guineas of gold quilted in the waist-band (eleven Queen Anne guineas), and a £30 bank-note, dated 1729, of which note the purchaser did not learn the value till she had sold it for a gallon of twopenny purl.
Petticoat Lane, according to Stow, was formerly called Hog Lane. It is now called Middlesex Street. The old historian gives a pleasant picture of it as it was forty years before he wrote. "This Hog Lan stretcheth north towards St. Mary Spittle," he says, "without Bishopsgate, and within these forty years it had on both sides fair hedge-rows of elm-trees, with bridges, and easy stiles to pass over into the pleasant fields, very commodious for citizens therein to walk about, and otherwise to recreate and refresh their dull spirits in the sweet and wholesome air which is now within a few years made a continual building throughout of garden-houses and small cottages; and the fields on either side be turned into garden-plots, tenter-yards, bowling-alleys and such like."
Strype says that some gentlemen of the Court and City built their houses here for the sake of the fresh air. At the west of the lane, the sam historian mentions, there was a house called, in Strype's boyhood, the Spanish ambassador's, who in the reign of James I. dwelt there, probably the famous Gondomar. A little way from this, down a paved alley on the east side, Strype's father lived, in a fair large house with a good garden before it, where Hans Jacobson, King James's jeweler, had dwelt. After that, French Protestant silk-weavers settled in the part of the lane towards Spittlefields, and it soon became a continuous row of buildings on both sides of the way.
"Petticoat Lane," says Mr. Mayhew, "is essentially the old clothes' district. Embracing the streets and alleys adjacent to Petticoat Lane, and including the rows of old boots and shoes on the ground, there is, perhaps, between two and three miles of old clothes. Petticoat Lane proper is long and narrow, and to look down it is to look down a vista of many-coloured garments, alike on the sides and on the ground. The effect sometimes is very striking, from the variety of hues, and the constant flitting or gathering of the crowd into little groups of bargainers. Gowns of every shade and every pattern are hanging up, but none, perhaps, look either bright or white; it is a vista of dinginess, but many-coloured dinginess, as regards female attire. Dress-coats, frock-coats, great-coats, livery and gameskeepers' coats, paletots, tunics, trowsers, knee-breeches, waistcoats, capes, pilot coats, working jackets, plaids, hats, dressing-gowns, shirts, Guernsey frocks, are all displayed. The predominant colours are black and blue, but there is every colour; the light drab of some aristocratic livery, the dull brown-green of velveteen, the deep blue of a pilot-jacket, the variegated figures of the shawl dressing-gown, the glossy black of the restored garments, the shine of newly-turpentined black satin waistcoats, the scarlet and green of some flaming tartan - these things, mixed with the hues of the women's garments, spotted and striped, certainly present a scene which cannot be beheld in any other part of the greatest City in the world, nor in any other portion of the world itself.
"The ground has also its array of colours. It is covered with lines of boots and shoes, their shining black relived here and there by the admixture of females' boots, with drag, green, plum, or lavender-coloured 'legs,' as the upper part of the boot is always called in the trade. There is, too, an admixture of men's 'button-boots' with drab-cloth legs; and of a few red, yellow, and russet-coloured slippers; and of children's coloured morocco boots and shoes. Handkerchiefs, sometimes of a gaudy orange patterns, and heaped on a chair. Lace and muslins occupy small stands, or are spread on the ground. Black and drab and straw hats are hung up, or piled one upon another, and kept from falling by means of strings; while incessantly threading their way through all this intricacy is a mass of people, some of whose dresses speak of a recent purchase in the lane."
"Whitechapel," says Mr. Hollingshead, in his "Ragged London," in 1861, "may not be the worst of the many districts in this quarter, but it is undoubtedly bad enough. Taking the broad road from Aldgate Church to Old Whitechapel Church - a thoroughfare in some parts like the high street of an old-fashioned country town - you may pass on either side about twenty narrow avenues, leading to thousands of closely-packed nests, full to overflowing with dirt, misery and rags." Inkhorn Court is an Irish colony, with several families in one room. Tewkesbury Buildings is a colony of Dutch Jews. George Yard contains about one hundred English families; the inhabitants are chiefly dock labourers. The other half of the residents are thieves, costermongers, stallkeepers, professional beggars, rag-dealers, brokers, and small tradesmen. The Jewish poor are independent and self-supporting, and keep up the ceremonies of their nation under the most adverse circumstances. In one black miserable hut in Castle Alley a poor Jewess was found burning "the twelve months' lamp" for her deceased mother, although it was only a glimmering wick in a saucerful of rank oil.
The London Hospital, situated in Whitechapel, and founded in 1740, is one of the most useful and extensive charities of the kind in the metropolis. The building was erected in 1752, from the designs of Mr. B. Mainwaring, and originally contained only thirty-five wards and 439 beds. The amount of fixed income was £12,000, derived from funded property, voluntary donations, legacies, &c.
The British and Foreign Sailors' Church, formerly called the Danish Church, Whitechapel, was built in 1696 by Caius Gabriel Cibber, the sculptor, at the expense of Christian V., King of Denmark, for the use of the Danish merchants and sailors of London. Opposite to the pulpit is the royal pew, where Christian VII. sat when he visited London in 1768. Attached to the pulpit is a handsome brass frame, with four sand-glasses. Both Caius Cibber and his more celebrated son, Colley Cibber, Pope's enemy, are buried here. The church was opened as a British and Foreign Sailors' Church in 1845.
The Royalty Theatre, Wells Street, Wellclose Square (named from Goodman's Fields' Well, 1735), was opened in 1787, when Braham first appeared on the stage as "Cupid," and John Palmer was manager. Lee, Lewis, Bates, Holland, and Mrs. Gibbs were of the company. It was purchased in 1820 by Mr. Peter Moore, M.P., and was burned down in 1826. In 1828 a new theatre was run up in seven months on the same site. The roof was a ponderous one of iron. During the rehearsal of Guy Mannering, a few days after opening, the roof fell in, crushing to death Mr. Maurice, one of the proprietors, and twelve other persons, and wounding twenty more.
The original Goodman's Field Theatre, originally a throwster's shop, in Leman Street, or Argyll Street, Goodman's Fields, was built in 1729, by Thomas Odell, a dramatic author, and the first licensee of the stage under Walpole's Licensing Act. A sermon preached at St. Botolph's Church, Aldgate, against the new theatre, frightened Odell, who sold the property to a Mr. Henry Giffard, who opened the new house in the year 1732. He, however, was soon scared away, and removed, in 1735, to Lincoln's Inn Fields; but he managed to return in 1741, bringing with him David Garrick, who had appeared in private at St. John's Gate, and now essayed the character of "Richard III." with enormous success. Horace Walpole writes his friend Mann about him, but says, "I see nothing wonderful in it. The Duke of Argyll says he is superior to Betterton." Gray the poet, in an extant letter, says, "Did I tell you about Mr. Garrick, the town are gone mad after? There are a dozen dukes of a night at Goodman's Fields, sometimes, and yet I am still in the opposition."
This theatre was pulled down, says Cunningham, about 1746; a second theatre was burnt down in 1802.
Goodman's Fields were originally part of a farm belonging to the Abbey of the Nuns of St. Clair. "At the which farm, " says Stow, "I myself, in my youth, have fetched many a halfpenny-worth of milk, and never had less than three ale-pints for a halfpenny in summer, nor less than one ale-quart for a halfpenny in winter, always hot from the kine, as the same was milked and strained. One Trolop, and afterwards Goodman, were the farmers there, and had thirty or forty kine to the pail."
In 1720 Strype describes the streets as chiefly inhabited by thriving Jews. There were also tenters for clothworkers, and a cart-way out of Whitechapel into Well Close. The initials of the streets, Pescod or Prescott, Ayliffe, Leman and Maunsell, formed the word "palm." In 1678 a great many Roman funeral urns, with bars and silver money, and a copper urn, were found here, proving Goodman's Fields to have been a Roman burial-place.