Books, more books, and sack posset

Anthony Askew
Anthony Askew, book collector extraordinaire

On World Book Day, two London street names with strong book connections: Askew Road in West London and Falcon Court, off Fleet Street.

Askew Road is named not because of any lack of symmetry, but for Anthony Askew, an 18th-century local landowner who studied medicine and had a good practice – serving as a physician in St Bartholomew’s and Christ’s hospitals and as registrar of the College of Physicians. He later became known more as a classical scholar rather than a doctor, helping to develop people’s tastes for curious manuscripts, rare editions, and well-preserved books.

Askew’s house was a bibliophile’s delight, piled high with books; after his death in 1774 the sale of his library lasted 20 days and fetched the princely sum of £3,993 (and sixpence) – around half a million pounds today. Among the keen buyers of his books were George III, Louis XV, and the British Museum.

The Stationers’ arms, with the sign of the falcon

Falcon Court takes its name from a 16th century shop sign, but which was is unclear. The falcon was a common symbol in heraldry; it appeared in the Stationers arms, and was thus popular with booksellers. According to some sources, Wynkyn de Worde had a shop in the court, though that is disputed.

Jan van Wynkyn (de Worde was a place name) was an apprentice to the printer William Caxton and on Caxton’s death in 1491 continued the business. He believed in mass production: success, he decided, lay in producing popular books for the general public rather than large, expensive folios for rich people. The output of his press was greater than any other pre-1600 printer, and included the second edition of the Morte d’Arthur and the third edition of the Canterbury Tales.

GorboducWhether or not he had a shop in Falcon Court, it is undisputed that the falcon appeared often in the book world. The first edition of Gorboduc, a play by Norton Thomas (who wrote the first three acts) and Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset, was “Imprinted at London in Flete Street at the sign of the Faucon by William Griffith”. Described as a “masterpiece of dullness” Gorboduc is considered to be both the first play in verse and the first regular English tragedy.

There was also a tavern that stood nearby by in Fleet Street; in 1547, along with four houses in Falcon Court, it was bequeathed to the Cordwainers Company by John Fisher. The reason for the bequest was gratitude – inspired, evidently, by the large number of excellent dinners that Fisher had enjoyed as a guest of the Company. In fairness to Mr Fisher, he had also decreed that the income from the property should provide the poor of the local parish with 12 pence per annum.

There was, however, a catch to this generosity: in return a sermon had to be preached every year, on 10 July, in the parish church of St Dunstan in the West. Luckily this obligation was not too much of a strain, as for many years sack posset (a drink of hot milk curdled with alcohol and flavoured with spices) was drunk to Fisher’s memory in the church vestry. This custom, alas, has been discontinued.

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