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   Chapter 19 No.19

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 10198

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

You have seen how the wall surrounded Roman London. The same wall which defended and limited Augusta defended and limited Plantagenet London. Outside the wall on the east there continued to extend wide marshes along the river; moorlands and forest on the north; marshes with rising ground on the west; marshes on the south. Wapping was called Wapping in the Wose (Wash or Ouze), meaning in the Marsh: Bermondsey was Bermond's Island, standing in the marsh: Battersea was Batter's Island, or perhaps Island of Boats: Chelsea was the Island of Chesel or Shingle: Westminster Abbey was built on the Isle of Thorns. The monasteries standing outside the wall attracted a certain number of serving people who built houses round them: some of the riverside folk-boat-builders, lightermen, and so forth-were living in the precinct of St. Katharine, just outside the Tower: all along the Strand were great men's houses, one of which, the Somerset House, still stands in altered form, and another, Northumberland House, was only pulled down a few years ago. Southwark had a single main street with a few branches east and west: it also contained several great houses, and was provided with many Inns for the use of those who brought their goods from Kent and Surrey to London Market. It was also admitted as a ward. On either side of the High Street lay marshes. The river was banked-hence the name Bank Side-but it is not known at what time.

That part of the wall fronting the river had long been pulled down, but the stairs were guarded with iron chains, and there was a river police which rowed about among the shipping at night.


The streets and lanes of London within the walls were very nearly the same as they are at present, except for the great thoroughfares constructed within the last thirty years. That is to say, when one entered at Lud Gate and passed through Paul's Churchyard, he found himself in the broad street, the market place of the City, known as Chepe. This continued to the place where the Royal Exchange now stands, where it broke off into two branches, Cornhill and Lombard Street. These respectively led into Leadenhall Street and Fenchurch Street, which united again before Aldgate. Another leading thoroughfare crossed the City from London Bridge to Bishopsgate, and another, Thames Street, by far the most important, because here the merchant adventurers-those who had ships and imported goods-met for the transaction of business. The rough cobbled pavement of Thames Street was the Exchange of Whittington and the merchants of his time, who all had their houses on the rising ground, among the narrow lanes north of the street. You have seen what splendid houses a London merchant loved to build. What kind of house did the retailer and the craftsman occupy? It was of stone in the lower parts, but the upper storey was generally of wood, and the roof was too often thatched. The window was glazed in the upper part, but had open work and shutter for the lower half: this half, with the door, stood open during the greater part of the year. The lower room was the living room, and sometimes the work room of the occupant. The upper floor contained the bed rooms. There was but one fireplace in the house-that in the living room. At the back of the house was generally a small garden. But, besides these houses, there were courts dark, narrow, noisome, where the huts were still 'wattle and daub,' that is, built with posts, the sides filled in with branches or sticks and clay or mud, the fire in the middle of the floor, the chimney overhead. And still, as in Saxon times, the great danger to the City was from fire.

Men of the same trade still congregated together for convenience. When all lived together the output would be regulated, prices maintained, and wages agreed upon. Nothing was more hateful to the medi?val trader than forestalling and regrating. To forestall was to buy things before they arrived at market with intent to sell at a higher price. To regrate was to buy up in the market and sell again in the same market at an advanced price. To undersell your neighbour was then also an unpardonable crime. You discover, therefore, that trade in Plantagenet London was not like trade in Victorian London. Then, all men of the same trade stood by each other and were brothers: now, too often, men of the same trade are enemies.

The names of streets show the nature of the trades carried on in them. Turners and makers of wooden cups and platters, Wood Street: ironmongers, in their Lane: poultry sellers, the Poultry: bakers, Bread Street: and so on. Chepe was the great retail market of the City. It was built over gradually, but in early times it was a broad market covered with stalls, like the market-place of Norwich, for instance; these stalls were ranged in lines and streets: churches stood about among the lines. Then the stalls, which had been temporary wooden structures, were changed into permanent shops, which were also the houses of the tenants: the living room and kitchen were behind the shop: the ma

ster and his family slept above, and the prentices slept under the counter.


(The mainsail of the ship has the Beauchamp arms, and the streamer the bear and ragged staff. From the 'Life of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick,' by John Rous; drawn about 1485.)

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The story of Dick Whittington has been a favourite legend for many generations. The boy coming up to London poor and friendless; lying despairing on the green slope of Highgate; resolved to return to the country since he can find no work in London: the falling upon his ears of the bells of Bow, wafted across the fields by the south wind-every child knows all this. What did the bells say to him-the soft and mellow bells, calling to him across four miles of fields? 'Turn again, Whittington-Turn again, Whittington-Lord Mayor of London-Turn again, Whittington.' He did turn, as we know, and became not once, but four times Lord Mayor of London and entertained kings, and was the richest merchant of his time. And all through a cat-we know how the cat began his fortune.

That is the familiar legend. Now you shall learn the truth.

There was a Dick Whittington: and he was Lord Mayor of London-to be accurate, he was Mayor of London, for the title of Lord Mayor did not yet exist.

He was not a poor and friendless lad by any means. He belonged to a good family, his father, Sir William Whittington, Knight, being owner of an estate in Herefordshire called Soler's Hope, and one in Gloucestershire called Pauntley. The father was buried at Pauntley Church, where his shield may still be seen. Richard was the youngest of three sons of whom the eldest, William, died without children: and the second, Robert, had sons of whom one, Guy, fought at Agincourt. From the second son there are descendants to this day.

Richard, at the age of fourteen, was sent to London, where he had connections. Many country people had connections in London who were merchants. Remember that in those days it would be impossible for a boy to rise from poverty to wealth and distinction by trade. Such a lad might rise in the church, or even, but I know not of any instance, by distinguished valour on the field of battle. Most certainly, he would be prenticed to a craft and a craftsman he would remain all his life. Whittington was a gentleman: that was the first and necessary condition to promotion: he came to London, not to learn a craft at all, but to be apprenticed to his cousin Sir John Fitzwarren, Mercer and Merchant Adventurer. The Mercers were the richest and most important company in London: the merchant adventurers were those-the foremost among the Mercers-who owned ships which they despatched abroad with exports and with which they imported stuffs and merchandise to the Port of London. Whittington's master may have had a shop or stall in Chepe-but he was a great importer of silks, satins, cloth of gold, velvets, embroideries, precious stones, and all splendid materials required for an age of splendid costume.


(From the 'Life of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick'; drawn by John Rous about 1485.)

What is the meaning of the 'cat' story? Immediately after Whittington's death the story was spread about. When his executors repaired Newgate they placed a carven cat on the outside: when Whittington's nephews, a few years later, built a house in Gloucester they placed a carven cat over the door in recognition of the story. All sorts of explanations have been offered. First, that there never was any cat at all. Next, that by a 'cat' is meant a kind of ship, a collier. Thirdly, that the cat is symbolical and means something else. Why need we go out of our way at all? A cat at that time was a valuable animal: not by any means common: in certain countries where rats were a nuisance a cat was very valuable indeed. Why should not the lad entrust a kitten to one of his master's skippers with instructions to sell it for him in any Levantine port at which the vessel might touch? Then he would naturally ever afterwards refer to the sale of the cat, the first venture of his own, as the beginning and foundation of his fortune. But you must believe about the cat whatever you please. The story has been told of other men. There was a Portuguese sailor, named Alphonso, who was wrecked on the Coast of Guinea. He carried a cat safely ashore and sold her to the King for her weight in gold: with this for his first capital he rapidly made a large fortune. Again, one Diego Almagro, a companion of Pizarro, bought the first cat ever taken to South America for 600 pieces of eight. And the story is found in Persia and in Denmark, and I dare say all over the world. Yet I believe in its literal truth.

In the year 1378 Whittington's name first appears in the City papers. He was then perhaps twenty-one-but the date of his birth is uncertain-and was already in trade, not, as yet, very far advanced, for his assessment shows that as yet he was in the lowest and poorest class of the wholesale Mercers.

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