Crusoe, Friday Street, and the Bank of England

Crusoe and Friday
19th-century depiction of Crusoe and Friday

This day in London’s history: on 2 February 1709, British sailor Alexander Selkirk is rescued after being marooned on a desert island for five years. He was the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s most famous work, the novel Robinson Crusoe. In Mitcham, near Tooting, there is a Friday Road commemorating, along with Crusoe and Island roads, the fact that Daniel Defoe lived in the area.

Friday appears to be the only day of the week represented in London street names, and there are a few of them, including Friday Street in the City of London. This may have taken its name from Frigdaeges, an Old English name, but most people plump for John Stow’s theory that it was “so called of fishmongers dwelling there and serving Friday’s market”.

In Catholic England, meat would have been forbidden on Friday – in fact, one man was burnt to death on Tower Hill in 1430 for eating meat on Friday. Fish stalls would, therefore, have been popular for the shoppers buying their groceries along the lanes of Cheapside.

Mermaid Tavern engraving
17th-century engraving supposedly showing the Mermaid Tavern sign

There was a famous tavern that stood in Bread Street but had a side entrance on Friday Street: the Mermaid tavern. It was here, tradition holds, that Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) instituted the Mermaid Club, the “Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen’, which met, appropriately, on the first Friday of every month.

Grave doubts have been cast, from many quarters, on the truth of the club’s existence, the assertion that Raleigh formed such a club, and that the club included Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare among its members. Leaving aside such wet-blanketism, it is certain that Jonson was an habitué of the Mermaid, and at least possible that he was joined on occasion by Shakespeare.

Sir William Paterson
Sir William Paterson

There was a contrastingly named Wednesday Club, formed in Friday Street by William Paterson, a 17th-century Scottish merchant famous for being the founder of the Bank of England – and infamous for originating the Darien scheme (or Darien Disaster). This was an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to become a world trading nation by establishing a colony called Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s.

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The great storm and Defoe’s sad end

This day in London’s history: on 25 November the Great Storm of 1703 reached its peak of intensity. The lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey and Queen Anne had to shelter in a cellar at St. James’s Palace to avoid collapsing chimneys and part of the roof. On the Thames, around 700 ships were heaped together in the Pool of London, the section downstream from London Bridge.

Defoe The Storm

The storm, the worst in British history, ripped through the country, killing people and livestock and wreaking havoc. Daniel Defoe, who travelled the country afterwards assessing the damage and wrote what is called the first substantial work of modern journalism, called it “The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time”.

Defoe reported that men and animals were lifted off their feet and carried for yards through the air and that lead roofs were ripped from one hundred churches.

Although Defoe went on (in 1719) to write one of the most famous English language novels – Robinson Crusoe – he died penniless and intestate in lodgings in Ropemaker Street, and was buried without ceremony in Bunhill Fields. The final insult was that the local bureaucracy couldn’t even get his name right: he was registered in death as ‘Mr Dubowe, Cripplegate”.