Justice Walk and John Wesley’s flight from justice

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
John Wesley

This day in London’s history: on 8 February 1736 brothers John and Charles Wesley, considered to be the founders of Methodism, arrived in Savannah, Georgia. Wesley, though born in Lincolnshire, went to London at the age of 11 and has connections with many street names: one of these is, appropriately enough, Worship Street in Shoreditch, where Shakespeare is reputed to have once lived.

Appropriate though it may be, the name is nothing to do with religion, worship, or prayers. It takes its name from an Elizabeth merchant tailor, John Worsop, who owned over six acres of land in the area. It is more likely that the street was named for him, and then corrupted to its present form.

A plaque commemorating the Wesley brothers

There is, however, a Wesley and worship connection: the street was once home to a foundry, used for the casting of cannons during the Civil War, and later used by John Wesley as a place of worship.

Incidentally, the Savannah journey was not the most successful of trips as John’s involvement with a fellow trans-Atlantic traveller led to him eventually fleeing the US with a tarnished reputation. His courtship of Sophia Hopkey was unsuccessful; she married someone else, Wesley refused to give her communion, and she and her husband brought suit against Wesley for ecclesiastical irregularities.

Shakespeare, Curtain Road, and four theatres

Pre-Raphaelite R&J
Ford Madox Brown’s vision of Romeo and Juliet

This day in London history: on 29 January 1595 (according to some sources), Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet was probably staged for the first time. In any case, it would have been acted out on the stage of a theatre called, unimaginatively, the Theatre, the first purpose-built London theatre. Shakespeare and his company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were based there at the time.

The Theatre was located on what is now Curtain Road in Shoreditch and, though Curtain is a great name for a lane with a theatre, it was the land, belonging to the priory of Holywell, which was called the ‘Curtayne’. The origin of the name, apparently, is uncertain.

The Theatre
Map depicting the location of the Theatre

There was also a though a rival theatre, built nearby, that was called The Curtain. The location was considered a particularly good one for theatres: it was outside the jurisdiction of the City, where plays and suchlike were frowned upon, but close enough for the audience to travel there.

Back to the Theatre: it was established by James Burbage and his brother-in-law John Brayne around 1576. James’s son, and the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage,  would have taken the role of Romeo in that first performance, and Juliet would have been played by a young boy actor. It would be another 65 years before female roles were played on the stage by women; the first such role was Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello.

The two theatres provided entertainment for Londoners for several years, staging plays by Shakespeare and Jonson, among others. At the end of the 21-year lease, held by Burbage,there was an argument with the owner, Giles Allen, about renewing it. The Theatre was dismantled virtually overnight and the materials used to make another theatre – the Globe.

Photograph: Christine Matthews

The Globe was destroyed by fire in 1613, rebuilt a year later and then closed in 1642. Since then a modern reproduction of the Globe, close to the original site, was opened in 1997 following the efforts of Sam Wanamaker, who founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust to rebuild the Globe. Wanamaker, sadly, did not live to see the project reach fulfilment; he is commemorated in a plaque nearby.

Comets, harlots, and ditches

Edmond Halley

This day in London history: on 14 January 1742 the astronomer Edmond Halley died. In addition to his fame as an astronomer, Halley could be argued to have made one of the greatest indirect contributions to modern mathematics.

Following a discussion with Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, in which the three men asked themselves what the orbits of the planets would be under an inverse square law of attraction to the sun, Halley posed the question to Isaac Newton. As a result, Newton Newton renewed his earlier studies of orbits under an inverse square law attraction, and went on to write what is arguably his most famous work: the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.

By the age of 22, Halley’s work in astronomy led to him being elected to the Royal Society and being awarded an MA of Oxford by command of the king. He was later appointed as Astronomer Royal.

As well as the comet, Halley also gave his name to a lunar crater, a Martian crater, a research station in Antarctica, a method for solving equations, a surgical ward, and a South London pub. There are Halley streets, drives, and roads throughout the world, and a Rue Edmund Halley in Avignon, France, but – it would seem – no Halley anything in London, though he was born in Shoreditch.

Jane Shore penance
The penance of Jane Shore by William Blake

The name of Shoreditch is said by some to have once been called ‘Shore’s Ditch’, after Jane Shore, a mistress of Edward IV, one of his three favourite mistresses, whom he described as “”the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots”. She is supposed to have died or been buried in a ditch in the area. Jane was accused of conspiracy against the government of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, when he was Protector of the realm; he was later crowned King Richard III.

That’s all very well, but the truth, as ever, would appear to be far less colourful (albeit possibly smellier) than the theory. The area was known as ‘Soredich’ in the 12th century and variations thereof, including ‘Schoresdich’ in the 13th century (Jane was born in the 15th century). before Jane Shore was born; it could have been ‘ditch leading to the shore’ or ‘sewer ditch’.

Another theory is that the ‘Schore’ could have been from a name: there was once, apparently, a Sir John de Soerdich; that theory may fall down by virtue of the fact that Sir John was around in the 14th century.

St Leonards
St Leonard’s in the 18th century

St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch is on the site of a church dating back to the 13th century and one source reports that the church’s burial register records the death of one Thomas Cam who passed away on 22 January aged 207.  A correspondent for the Penny Magazine, a weekly magazine aimed at enlightening the working classed, wrote in 1833 that Cam must then have been born in the reign of Richard II and lived through the reigns of eleven more, up to Elizabeth I.

The reporter concluded, “Such an extreme duration of life is, however, contrary to all recorded experience; and unless the fact can be supported by other evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the entry in the register is inaccurate.”

Penny Magazine