Jane Austen, Oliver Cromwell, and a notorious pickpocket

16 December in London’s history: Jane Austen was born on this day in 1775. One of the most widely-read authors in English history, Austen spent her early life in Hampshire, moving to Bath and later Southampton with her family.

Austen did, however, visit London on occasion to visit her brother Henry, who was also her literary agent. One of the places she would have stayed was Henry’s residence in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. Hans Place was named after Hans Sloane, who founded the British Museum and also brought cocoa to England.

Also on this day in London’s history, Oliver Cromwell was appointed as appointed as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. There are many London associations with Cromwell, including Whitehall and Long Acre, where he lived; Cripplegate, where he was married; Tyburn, where his body underwent a mock execution on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I; and Red Lion Square, where his remains were reputed have been interred briefly before that mock execution.

Other Cromwell connections include Horseferry Road, where he is supposed to have taken the ferry; and Fleet Street, where the pickpocket Moll Cutpurse targeted Cromwell supporters.

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Madette, badette, and dangerous to know

Are bad girls as appealing as bad boys? Bad boys as in Byron – so described by Lady Caroline Lamb, with whom she had a affair that was ended by the poet – and most of Johnny Depp’s movie characters.The 21st century does seem to be the era of the ladette (those women who can outdrink, outswear, and generally out-bad-behave their male counterparts) and in recent months I’ve read two high-action thrillers in which there is at least one female character who is clearly a bad girl in many ways but who is equally clearly meant to be alluring, sexy and charismatic. (I won’t be giving any plots away if I say those two novels were No Men of God by Dwight Mathieu and I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.)

Anyway, after musing on the question I posed at the beginning of this blog – are bad girls as appealing as bad boys? – I thought it was a good time to revisit some of the bad girls and historical ladettes with strong London associations.

We have Phoebe Hessel, who gave her name to Amazon Street in London’s Whitechapel area. She served overseas as a man, having disguised her gender to follow her lover into battle, and was later a local character in Brighton, becoming a favourite of George IV, Price Regent and living to the ripe old age of 108.

Then there was Moll Cutpurse, one of London’s colourful (and shady) characters. Born Mary Frith, she lived and died in Fleet Street and was described by the Newgate Calendar as “A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663”. She is considered to have been, at least in part, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book Moll Flanders.

The adventuress Lola Montez was arrested for bigamy in Half Moon Street; she was allegedly the inspiration for the song ‘What Lola Wants, Lola Gets’ and had many rich and powerful lovers throughout Europe. She cost a king his throne and Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers author said of her, “She is fatal to any man who dares to love her.”

Holland Street in Southwark was named for a notorious procuress – the self-proclaimed Donna Britannia Hollandia. She rented the moated manor house of Paris Gardens, once owned by the Knights Templar, ran a brothel frequented by James I and his court, and inspired a play called Holland’s Leaguer.

Last, for now, and certainly by no means least, there is Lady Elizabeth Hatton, the toast of 17th-century London, who inspired one of the stories behind Bleeding Heart Yard. She supposedly sold her soul to the devil and was carried off by him after a party, dropping her shoe in Shoe Lane and her cloak in Cloak Lane. Elizabeth’s suitors were many and varied, including Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

Engineers, journalists, and Moll Cutpurse

Fleet StreetThis day in London history: 2 January 1818 saw the birth of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Three young engineers, Henry Robinson Palmer, James Jones, and Joshua Field, kicked off with a meeting in Fleet Street’s Kendal Coffee House. However, it was not until two years later, when Thomas Telford was appointed president, that the institution began to make a name for itself. Telford increased membership and obtained a Royal Charter for the ICE in 1828. He remained president until his death.

Fleet Street in 1890

Fleet Street has, over the years, been famous for many and varied reasons. For instance, London’s first public lavatory and pillar box were in Fleet Street and the pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, is a landmark in its own right. There has been a pub on that spot since 1538.

The street itself was named for the Fleet River, which has nothing to do with speed: it comes from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘fleot’ meaning a creek or tidal inlet. Although it still flows, the Fleet is now underground and is used as a sewer – a function that it has performed since 14th-century butchers used it for cleaning out entrails and others took up the habit by dumping refuse into the stream.

Fleet Street was one the heart of the newspaper trade, and the term is still used in that context, though it is a long time since newspaper offices were all headquartered there. The associations go back to Wynken de Worde (and is there a better name for a man who was a printer and publisher?), who worked with William Caxton, popularized the printing press in England, and had an office here in 1500.

EAS_4004There is a plaque, at the Ludgate Circus end of Fleet Street, which commemorates Edgar Wallace, Reporter, born London 1875, died Hollywood 1932: “Founder member of the Company of Newspaper Makers. He knew wealth and poverty yet had walked with kings and kept his bearings. Of his talents he gave lavishly to authorship but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.”

On the shadier side of the Fleet Street associations (though many may feel that journalism is shady enough), the street was once famous for its illegal marriages and for its prison, which dates back to the time of the Norman Conquest, was rebuilt several times, and was finally closed in 1842 and demolished in 1846.

Moll Cutpurse title page
Mary Frith depicted on the title page of The Roaring Girl

One of Fleet Street’s more colourful (and shady) characters was Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, who lived and died in Fleet Street. Born around 1584, she is described by the Newgate Calendar as “A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663”. She is considered to have been, at least in part, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book Moll Flanders. She was also the inspiration for two plays, only one of which survived: The Roaring Girl.

The young Mary, described as, basically, a tomboy, was bored with the traditional girls’ pastimes and occupations: “She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.” She would also fight with boys and as often as not beat them.

Trepanning engraving
A 16th-century depiction of trepanning

Her uncle, unable to restrain this undesirable behaviour, apparently planned to have her trepanned (where a hole is drilled in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain) aboard a ship bound for New England. She jumped ship and swam back to shore. Mary grew into a “lusty and sturdy wench” who often dressed in men’s clothing (though, unlike Phoebe Hessel, she made no attempt to pretend to be a man) and, eventually, “entered herself into the Society of Divers, otherwise called file clyers, cutpurses or pickpockets”.

As Moll Cutpurse the pickpocket, she was successful and made a great deal of money. Eventually, a spell in various prisons, and having her hand burned (a punishment for theft) four times, she took to highway robbery instead. A good Royalist, Moll targeted only followers of Oliver Cromwell. When she grew tired, or nervous about, stealing, Moll turned to a variety of activities, including fencing stolen goods and running a bawdy house or, as the Newgate Calendar puts it succinctly, “To get money, Moll would not stick out to bawd for either men or women; insomuch that her house became a double temple for Priapus and Venus, frequented by votaries of both sorts.”

Moll died of dropsy when she was in her seventies, was interred in St Bridget’s churchyard, and it is believed that John Milton wrote her epitaph, though the headstone was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.