Benjamin Partleton (1839-191)
Let's all go down the Strand - Have a banana!
Oh! What a happy land.
That's the place fer fun and noise,
All among the girls and boys.
So let's all go down to the Strand...
Benjamin Partleton would not have been particularly familiar with this cheeky-chappie-cockney music-hall song because it was not published until 1909, just one year before his death. But he would certainly be familiar with The Strand, or more correctly, simply, Strand, one of London's most ancient streets.
Benjamin was born on Tuesday 12 March 1839, by the light of candles, at "15 minutes before three a.m." at Houghton Street in the parish of St Mary-Le-Strand:
The unusual detail that someone took the trouble to record the exact time of Benjamin's birth is due to the fact that he was one of twin boys, the elder by ten minutes over his brother Charles.
In a family which is generally hard-up for cash in the 1800s, Benjamin's dad, James Partleton (1806-1873) is surely the poorest. James had grown up in relatively comfortable (though working class) surroundings in the vicinity of Piccadilly, in the green circle in the map below, but his family relocated to Lambeth, in the yellow circle,in the early 1820s due to circumstances beyond their control. At some point James headed off, apparently on his own, to live in the general area of The Strand, in the blue circle:
Here's the location of Houghton Street, the birthplace named on Benjamin's birth certificate:
From the viewpoint of the blue arrow in the map, below we see a picture [c1901] of New Inn Passage, an alleyway off Houghton Street. The house boarded up next to the corner shop at the right of the photo is 21 Houghton Street, the very house in which Benjamin was born:
Houghton Street - in the present day unrecognisable from how it looked in Benjamin's time - has been occupied by the London School of Economics since the early 1900s, and it is thanks to them that we have some pictures of what the street used to look like.
The photo of the west side of Houghton Street presented below is seen from the viewpoint of the yellow arrow in the map. It was taken in 1927, shortly before the demolition of this side of the road:
In the next picture, the artist Frederick Shepherd stood at the end of Houghton Street in 1873, looking towards the junction of Holles Street with Clare Market, seen from the purple arrow.
Clare Market sold cheap meat and vegetables. Illuminated at night by gaslight, the market sprawled in and around the white buildings straight ahead and in the narrow lanes in between. There is no question that Benjamin's mum - Mary Ann Garrad - on her tight budget, would have shopped here, assuming she has a few pennies in her purse [though there would have been many times when she didn't], so let's step into her shoes to get some cheap groceries for dinner.
Frederick Shepherd's 1873 painting of Clare Market is seen from the viewpoint of the purple arrow in the map below, and clearly is just how our Benjamin would have seen it. The turning on the left is Holles (Hollis) Street:
The market looks quite charming in Frederick Shepherd's painting, but if we consult Charles Dickens Jr's Dictionary of London of 1879, we learn more about it:
The 'quadrangle' implied by Charles Dickens Jr as among the worst and poorest in London is outlined as far as possible in yellow in the map below.
This also includes the district immediately adjacent to Houghton Street referred to by author Ebenezer Howard in 1898 as the 'notorious Clare Market Slum':
So, let's make a journey back to 1839 with Benjamin Partleton's mum, and battle our way through the jostling crowds with a meagre shopping budget in search of some cheap food.
We will need a strong constitution; the smell is terrible as the market is also a shambles - a place of slaughter - as the author of the following clip describes it as a 'nuisance' ... the unfortunate sheep and cows are brought alive to the site, and slaughtered there, right in the crowded heart of London:
The above clipping is from The Pictorial Handbook of London by John Weale, published in 1853.
Twenty-six years later, when Charles Dickens Jr visited the market, nothing has changed, and we get a real sense of what our shopping expedition with Benjamin's mum would be like:
OK, we've seen enough of Houghton Street and its dodgy neighbourhood - what's happening to our Benjamin?
Ben didn't live at Houghton Street very long because at age 2 he has a new address recorded at his baptism at the church of St Mary-Le-Strand [the church circled in green in the map above]:
Let's step into Benjamin's shoes for a minute... here's the interior of the church, unchanged since 1714 when it was built:
The ceremony was performed by the rector of St Mary-Le-Strand, the Reverend Joshua Frederick Denham, the author of this childrens' textbook:
Benjamin's address - 7 Feathers Court, Drury Lane, Strand - has been much discussed in these web pages and I have no hesitation to pursue this further and to lay it on thick from the new research I have done.
Let's just re-acquaint ourselves with the exact location of Feathers Court, circled in blue in the map below:
If we look carefully at the map, we see that as Drury Lane curves eastward, the main thoroughfare changes its name to Wych Street, which we see below from the viewpoint of the red arrow, the spire of the church of St Clement Danes visible in the background.
Wych Street had survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, and these buildings with their overhanging gables pre-date the Fire. But by the time Benjamin is living nearby, the houses are severely neglected and have become overcrowded, unwholesome slums.
Compare the picture below with the previous one. It's taken from the viewpoint of the purple arrow and we can see that it's the same building with the prominent white gable seen in the photo above.
These photographs were taken in the late 1800s, and, although the Victorians and Edwardians recognised that these survivors of the Fire were "picturesque", important, and interesting, they still knocked them down as a part of the vast improvement scheme which took place in this area at the turn of the century, which we'll come to later.
I think we should take a walk from the bottom of Wych Street westwards towards Benjamin's house. Here's the view we see walking up Wych Street from the point of view of the pale green arrow:
And when we reach the end of Wych Street, here's its junction with Drury Lane, from the pale blue arrow. The building on the right was the Cock and Magpie pub, a well-known landmark on Drury Lane:
Turn right at the pale blue arrow into Drury Lane and we're nearly home now... though - take my word for it - you wouldn't want to be a house-guest at the residence of James Partleton esquire. Unless you want to contract tuberculosis or cholera.
This is as close as we can get... the street entrance to Feathers Court [a late Victorian picture] as seen from the dark blue arrow, picture courtesy of Richard Herbert. Unfortunately we can't see much of what is going on inside the courtyard, but we are welcomed by a prostitute who is hovering in the shadows under the arch. Shortly we will get inside Feathers Court, not in pictures, but in words:
If we now turn to the left and look south down Drury Lane, from the viewpoint of the orange arrow, we get the perfect image of the world in which Benjamin grew up, as published in 1851 by the artist John Wykeham:
The church we see in the distance is St Mary-Le-Strand, where Benjamin was baptised. More of this later.
The children are barefoot, and I'm quite sure that this would also be the case for Benjamin as he played at this exact spot in the street. That could easily be him, playing with his twin brother as the artist sketched... it's the exact right era.
Let's have another close look at the map. As mentioned before, the main thoroughfare of Drury Lane curves east and becomes Wych Street:
The narrow southern end of Drury Lane is not wide enough for traffic; it's suitable for pedestrians only. Here we see it looking south [c1875] from the viewpoint of the yellow arrow, from the junction with Wych street:
This narrow stub end of Drury Lane was sometimes called Drury Court or Little Drury Lane. The painting above is a perfect visualisation of the fantastic contradiction of this place. This ancient lane, despite its associations with crime, poverty, disease, prostitution, drunkenness, and every vice known to man, is totally human and oozes charm from every brick.
Here are two other views of it, both from near the green arrow, separated by 20 years. The left image is 1856, and the right 1875. It's interesting to observe the differences:
But Benjamin doesn't live on Drury Lane, which is actually a moderately respectable shopping street despite its reputation for prostitution. He lives in one of the dark airless courts which lurk behind the cheery shop fronts. He lives in Feathers Court, circled in blue in the map above.
Residing in Feathers Court signifies that Benjamin's family are very poor indeed. This place is constantly recorded as a location where people live - and die - as a last resort, when they have literally nowhere else to go, a hair's breadth from the Workhouse, and can only afford the very cheapest rent, whole families cramming into single rooms. But don't just take my word for it - here's what the Belfast News-Letter of the 1860s had to say about Feathers Court, when reporting a crime there:
What more can we say about Feathers Court? Ben lived there from 1840 to 1847. When he was 7 years old, in June 1846, an incident occurred at one of the neighbour's houses, 3 Feathers Court, as reported in The Times of 19 June 1846. Bear in mind that there are only 11 houses in Feathers Court...
In case we might think this is an isolated incident, two months later, a dispute arose between two other of Benjamin's neighbours, as reported in The Times of 01 September 1846:
Attempted murder is nothing new to Feathers Court; this is 03 September 1774:
And this tragic story is 17 June 1731:
And this one is 18 April 1838:
All this fuels our need to see what Feathers Court looked like close-up:
This masterful engraving of a Victorian London Court by the French artist Gustave Doré probably isn't Feathers Court, and it was drawn 25 years after Benjamin was a little boy, but it clearly shows what a typical Court looked like. The children dance barefoot around an organ grinder and his monkey, who will require a few pennies in exchange for his performance. This is something Benjamin would have experienced his childhood, so step into his shoes... well, actually, let's face it, he probably doesn't have shoes.
In the background we see two very fancy gaslamps illuminating the street. This generous gesture of free public lighting usually signals the welcoming embrace of a pub, the grand spectacular versions of which were known as gin palaces or a gin shops, a major feature of the Drury Lane area, so let's take a little diversion to explore this aspect of Benjamin's charming neighbourhood...
In 1836 Charles Dickens wrote an essay based on his research into Drury Lane 'gin shops', which gives us some wonderful detailed insight into the micro-universe in which our Benjamin orbits:
Of course, Dickens takes us inside the pub and describes the dazzle of the bright lighting, the elegantly carved French mahogany bar, the richly gilded fixtures and fittings, but he quickly brings the reader round to the reality of drunkenness, vice and the crushing of the human spirit engendered by the gin house.
Gin was cheap and provided an obvious if temporary escape from the misery of the life of poverty. It was popularly known in Victorian times as "mother's ruin", and its effects were captured for all eternity in an earlier era by the master artist and satirist William Hogarth:
The intoxicated mother, with her ulcerated legs, is taking snuff while she drops her baby. A carpenter is pawning his tools and his wife is pawning her cooking pots in order to get money for drink. On the right we see another mother feeding her baby gin to keep it quiet. People brawl in the street and fight with dogs for bones, houses collapse for neglect, a man has hung himself in an upstairs room, a corpse is propped upright on the steps still holding his gin bottle, and the busy process of burial of the dead proceeds in the distance.
While we are on the subject of Hogarth, it is no coincidence that he places the setting of his famous Harlot's Progress, a series of six paintings depicting the corruption and ruin of an innocent country-girl who comes to London and becomes a prostitute, in Drury Lane. Drury Lane was divided into jealously-watched 'territories' controlled by the madames of the brothels.
Below we see the third of the six paintings; Nell, the victim, in her boudoir on Drury Lane, about to be arrested. She's holding a watch which she may have stolen from a customer:
William Hogarth used to meet with a club of artists at the Bull's Head tavern in Clare Market, which gives us an echo of Benjamin's residence on Houghton Street.
Anyhoo, we have no reason to think that crime or drunkenness played any part in the lives of Benjamin's family at Feathers Court. They were simply poor. For all we know, Benjamin's parents may have been teetotal. But their neighbours most certainly weren't. In every case reported in the newspapers about terrible events in Feathers Court - and there are many - alcohol is nearly always mentioned, even if, as in the story below, it was merely to note, with apparent surprise, that alcohol wasn't involved, and that the couple were not drunk on Saturday, Sunday or Monday:
I'm sure you'll agree, gentle readers, that this is an awful lot of violence and murder for one small courtyard of just 11 houses. I like the statement that "Richard Maddison... heard cries of "Murder"... but but did not take much notice of that as it was a matter of very frequent occurrence." !!!
Was there a pub in Feathers Court? Indeed there was - The Blue Anchor - as recorded in The Era newspaper of 05 November 1848:
What a charming homely story that was.
We seem to losing Benjamin amongst all these terrible stories about his neighbourhood. But there's no escaping it, life is tough. In March 1845 Benjamin's mum gives birth to a daughter, Sarah. The twins, their big brother James, their three little sisters Mary Ann, Catherine and Sarah, and their parents - eight people in all - are all living in just one room which we know is just 17 feet square. No toilet, only a chamber pot. No oven, only the fire to cook on. For furniture, we can only guess, but it must have involved a lot of bed-sharing. As for clothes-washing, that must have been primitive, almost impossible. As for privacy, the mind boggles.
So it is no surprise that the number of people living in the room reduces soon afterwards to seven, when Benjamin's little sister Mary Ann dies in September 1845 of tuberculosis [phthisis], her death certificate signed with a cross by her mum.
Mary Ann was buried in Russell Court Burial Ground, a tiny damp, fetid mediaeval cemetery, totally enclosed by houses, smelling of death, hopelessly overloaded with tens of thousands of Victorian burials. A new interment necessarily involved digging up the remains of older burials, and the ground level actually rose seriously year on year. Did Benjamin, aged 6, attend the burial?
In the map below, we see the location of Russell Court Burial Ground, and the artist's viewpoint, from the yellow arrow, slap-bang behind the famous Drury Lane Theatre:
The graveyard is only 100 yards from Benjamin's home.
This practice of piling bodies on bodies obviously could not be sustained indefinitely, and, as reported below in 1849, the burial ground was closed, causing new problems for the poor inhabitants of Feathers Court; what to do with a dead body when you have no money to pay for a funeral and nowhere to bury it? Answer; you leave the corpse in the courtyard, right on your doorstep:
The Victorians eventually solved the problem by requiring burials to be outside of the city in large purpose-built cemeteries in the wide open spaces, by paying for pauper's funerals from the poor-rates, and by allowing cremations. Russell Court Burial Ground was eventually totally cleared in the late 1800s and all the vast pile of unidentifiable remains were taken to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, which is probably where 4-year-old Mary Ann Partleton's bones rest now. The site of the old cemetery now lies under the houses on Tavistock Street. But you probably already know that if you live on Tavistock Street.
Well now, this web page has taken a dark turn, hasn't it?
But Benjamin Partleton at age 7 is probably not aware that his family are poor; he doesn't know things could be any different; he doesn't know about the suicides and murders, attempted and actual, and he's probably just living life to the full, running and playing with his twin brother Charles and his friends in the streets in the sunshine, so let's take a little time to have a look at his larger neighbourhood: The Strand.
Here's a beautiful map of London in about 1560, that's 280 years before Benjamin was born:
In 1560, and until the 1700s, the City of London (circled yellow above) and the City of Westminster (circled blue) were completely separate entities. Two different cities. Westminster was the political and religious centre, with the parliament houses and Westminster Abbey. The City of London, contained within its roman city walls, was where the people lived and was the business centre, just as is is today.
Connecting the two cities was The Strand [the word 'strand' meaning shore], a soggy, muddy, rocky mess, much complained-about, very hard to get a carriage along, circled in red above and pointed out by the red arrow in the close-up view below:
Also in this picture we see some of the other ancient streets; Drury Lane (purple arrow), leading to Wych Street (yellow arrow) which we saw pictures of above. Indeed the whole lane had once been called Wych Street. At this time there is no Houghton Street, no Feathers Court. We also see the original twin churches in the middle of the Strand: green arrow - St Mary-Le-Strand (which was rebuilt in 1714) and blue arrow - St Clement Danes (rebuilt in 1682).
So let's fast-forward to 1842, when Benjamin lived in the area, and we have a great view of The Strand, and the Church of St Mary-Le-Strand painted by the artist TS Boys. This is just three years after Ben was christened in this church, so we get a great view of what Strand life was like... for those who could afford it:
We are looking eastwards along The Strand, the triplet of churches marching up the road: St Mary-Le-Strand, St Clement Danes directly behind it, and St Dunstan's in Fleet Street in the distance. There's no modern traffic noise, so let's step into Benjamin's shoes and imagine all the bells pealing out on a Sunday...
Below we see an identical view, but this time in a photograph of 1850. With the road up for repair, it doesn't look quite so glamorous:
Here's where the photographer stood to take this picture, from the blue arrow in the map below:
And from the point of view of the red arrow, on the Strand, right at the bottom of Drury Lane, thirty years on, we see a group of 'Sandwich Men' taking a break outside the railings of St Mary-Le-Strand. One of the boards is advertising 'Doré's Last Great Picture' which is a coincidence because this is lamenting the death of Gustave Doré, famous for his pictures of the dark underbelly of London, who drew the engraving of the Organ Grinder which we saw at the top of this web page:
Just two more pictures for you to contrast and then we can move on with Benjamin's life. What would the residents of The Strand of 1824 (left) made of the giant bomb crater of the blitz of 1940?
Ok, it's time for us to say goodbye to The Strand, because in 1847, after at least 6 years living in the human hell-hole that is Feathers Court, James Partleton takes Benjamin and the rest of his family away to Lambeth.
But before we follow Benjamin south of the river to his new abode - which is, to put it bluntly, just another stinking hovel - let's take a small diversion to find out what eventually happened to his childhood homes homes at Feathers Court and Houghton Street.
By the turn of the 20th century the state of the the overcrowded courts around the south end of Drury Lane had become insufferable, and at the same time, a pressing requirement was growing for a major road to connect The Strand to Holborn in the north.
The London County Council drew up a grand plan for improvements to The Strand, the demolition of the slums, the creation of a new road north, to be called The Kingsway, and a huge crescent-shaped building development called The Aldwych [after Wych Street].
Remember how we took a walk up Wych Street in 1846, with its Elizabethan gables? Here's a photograph of the demolition of Wych Street, looking west. The date; 24 May 1903:
In the background we see one of our landmarks; the spire of St Mary-Le-Strand Church. This photograph is taken from the viewpoint of the the yellow arrow in the map below:
"What then, became of Feathers Court?" I hear you ask. I couldn't let this lie unresolved, so I have overlaid the modern map on the Victorian Street plan, and this is what we get:
Feathers court was demolished in 1903, and good riddance to it. The remains of this tenement where Benjamin had survived his formative years now lie directly underneath the road surface of the Aldwych, as we see it circled in blue in the overlay map above.
Below we are looking west down the Aldwych. Drury Lane is the turning on the right. The exact former location of Feathers Court is outlined in blue, directly outside the front door of the Aldwych Theatre:
Much sadder architectural and cultural losses to posterity were the whole of Wych Street engulfed by the new development, Little Drury Lane, and also Holywell Street. Holywell street, running parallel south of Wych Street, was known as "Booksellers Row" - but it was known for a rather specialised under-the-counter book market, according to Encyclopedia Britannica...
'By the time that Queen Victoria came to the throne in Great Britain in 1837, there were more than 50 pornographic shops on Holywell Street.'
Above we see these three ancient streets slated for destruction, with reference to the map below; Wych Street from the blue arrow in 1901 very soon before its demolition; Drury Court from the red arrow as painted by the artist Louise Rayner; and Holywell Street with its x-rated bookshops from the yellow arrow, 10 years before its demolition, sketched by Frank L'Emanuel in 1892.
Here's the end result of all this demolition in a modern aerial photograph. Grand but sterile. The only things left standing are the churches:
In the picture taken in Drury Lane below, of the 1920s, Feathers Court is under the tarmac in the middle of the road immediately round the corner to the right.
The large white building straight ahead is Bush House, the main feature of the Aldwych, built and financed by American industrialist Irving T Bush.
Bush House is famous as the headquarters of the BBC World Service radio station. It stands no more that 50 yards from the site of Feathers Court.
As for the northern part of Drury Lane, although it remained, much of it was redeveloped with rather dull apartment blocks, as we see in the modern photograph below, looking south towards Bush House in the distance. It might as well be renamed Dreary Lane.
Ok, Ok, we need to get back to Benjamin. Let's have a look at what became of the house where he was born, Houghton Street, circled red below:
As we can see in the overlay map above, Houghton Street joins at the junction of Aldwych and Kingsway, and survived the redevelopment works. It lies behind the large sign and the buildings on the right of this 1905 photograph below, looking straight north up the new Kingsway from the Aldwych. A lot of houses fell to make way for this new street, the widest in London:
The west side of Houghton Street lay unchanged until 1927. These houses are all part of a demolition scheme of the west side of the street to make way for a new main building for the London School of Economics:
The houses below are Nos 3 and 4 Houghton Street, on the west side, directly opposite Benjamin's birthplace. Demolished in 1927 for expansion of the LSE facilities:
I think it's fair to say that the LSE is a left-wing institution, influential in Labour Party policies over the years. Below we see a student demo in 1970 in Houghton Street, a very common phenomenon in that era, choreographed for the press whom we see in the foreground. Where are the students standing?... The main entrance to the LSE which we see in the photo is right on the spot where the signwriter's shop stood in the photo above. This heaving mass of bearded adolescent rage is slap-bang on Benjamin's (long-gone) doorstep, which is immediately behind the photographers!
This particular demo was all about too much traffic in London. 30 years later - under Labour London Mayor Ken Livingstone, and the introduction of congestion charges, the students got their way!
Here's how Houghton Street looks today, from the purple arrow in the adjoining satellite photo. The yellow arrow shows the site of Benjamin's birthplace, and the elevated walkway which can be seen in the picture crosses Houghton Street at the exact crossing point of New Inn Passage! Amazing.
Hurrah. Now we can move on with Benjamin's life.
But hold on; this page is already enormous. Your computers will give up on the whole thing if it gets any bigger, so I will continue the story of Benjamin's move to Lambeth, and the rest of his life, on a new page:
Click Here To Continue with the Story of Benjamin Partleton 1839-1910
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