Today (August 14) in London History – “I love everything that’s old”

On August 14th, 1675 a cheque was made out to Mr Samuel Howard. It can be cashed at Thomas Fowles, Goldsmith, at his shop “between the two Temple Gates.” It was one of the very first cheques in this country. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Cheques. Cheque books. Chequing accounts. Remember those? Well, they’re just about hanging around – but fast going the way of the dodo. I wouldn’t give them another ten years. The time will come when the mention of a cheque in a novel – that’s assuming that novels don’t also go on the scrap heap of history – anyway, the time will come when the mention of a cheque will have to be accompanied with an asterisk flagging up a history-lesson-footnote down below that explains what a cheque was.

Funny how things that once seemed like fixtures – those extremely lightweight blue aerogrammes, black bakelite dial telephones, cassette players, hula hoops, pocket calculators, VHS tapes, flash bulbs, carbon paper, phone books, slide rules, typewriters, etc. turned out to be so much ephemera. 

One day grandparents will be explaining to their grandchildren – indeed guides will probably be shedding light on the mystery the way we do today with link extinguishers and foot-scrapers and blind windows and how you can date a house by paying attention to window frames – anyway, grandparents and guides will doubtless be explaining to their charges, “now if you look at the front door of this old house you can see that rectangular bit of metal there that’s got a flap of sorts, that’s a mail slot. They used to have these things called letters. Sort of like your texts except they were written on a piece of paper which was put in something called an envelope and they’d write your address on the envelope and affix something to the envelope called a stamp and then there was a chap called a postman and he’d deliver the letter to your house and push it through that slot.

“A very long time ago there were between six and twelve deliveries every day. But by the end of the 20th-century it was down to two deliveries a day and then it was just one and then none. That service was provided by something called the post office. And if you look up our street, up there on the corner, that old round, red barrel-like thing, that’s an old post box. If you were sending a letter to your friend you’d drop it in there and then the postman would collect it and the other letters and deliver them. They’re all disappearing now, the post boxes. They’re collectors’ items. People buy them and put them in their garden as conversation pieces and garden furniture. Just like the red telephone boxes that we talked about the other day.”

Anyway, yes, cheques and cheque books. Going, going nearly gone.

Won’t be worth the paper they’re written on. 

Still, they had a pretty good innings. A good three and a half centuries. 

They used to think that the first ever cheque was written on this day, August 14th, 1675. In fact, the Bank of England’s done some digging and has come up with a cheque that’s dated December 8th, 1660.  

It’s for a sum of £200. That’d be about £38,000 in today’s money. 

That 1660 date is interesting. The year of the Restoration. Everything changing. Including these new-fangled financial instruments. 

But let’s get back to our August 14th, 1675 oldie but goodie. The one that got overtaken. Get back to it because I’ve got it in front of me. Well, I have a reproduction of it in front of me. And because for me it’s a springboard. I learned something from it. The old cheque is written by hand of course. It’s drawn by one Edmond  Warcupp. He’s instructing Mr Thomas Fowles, Goldsmith, at his shop between the two Temple Gates, to pay Mr Samuel Howard nine pounds, sixteen shillings and sixpence.

I want these podcasts – like my walks – to meet the same standard that’s set out in that traditional rhyme about what a bride should wear on her wedding day:

Something old,

something new,

something borrowed,

something blue,

and a [silver] sixpence in her shoe.

And don’t leave it at that. Go one better than that. Make connections.

It’s all about making connections.

So for something old, well, we’ve got our very old cheque. 

How did Oliver Goldsmith put it, 

“I love everything that’s old – old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine.”

And there’s your connection – Oliver Goldsmith lived and died and indeed is buried just a stone’s throw away from where that cheque would have been cashed. 

Though, needless to say, the cheque got there first. By about a century. 

For the record, the great Anglo-Irish poet and playwright lived at 3 King’s Bench Walk in the Temple and 2 Brick Court, Middle Temple, and is buried in the cemetery outside Temple Church. 

As for blue, that’d be the base of Temple Bar – it’s blue Guernsey granite.

A sixpence in my shoe. Well, you never know. Robin Williams fessed up that when he put that padded Mrs Doubtfire suit on he felt in touch with his inner self. So if you catch me fluttering my eyelashes at you that’ll be the sixpence working its magic. Same goes if I’m limping – you can chalk that up to the sixpence.

As for something borrowed, how about this wonderfully evocative and indeed, until now, long-lost description of that tiny corner of London where that old cheque will be drawn. 

Goes like this. “Let us take a walk up Fleet Street. Not the Fleet Street of to-day, nor of Dr Johnson’s day, but of the days of Good Queen Bess and the first Stuart. We might go back to the days of the Plantagenets and still find it a busy, shop-lined thoroughfare, when the Strand was only a grassy high road leading from the city to the village of Charing. But at the opening of the 17th-century the world-famous street was in all its glory. There is ancient St Dunstan’s Church, thrusting itself right across the roadway, and the bells are giving forth a merry peal. The shops are only open, windowless booths, like the stalls at a fair, and over each gaily painted signboard hangs a flag, for every tradesman has a sign; men buy their hosiery at the Lamb, their boots at the Jolly Tanners, and so on. Pavement there is none; road and footpath are not divided, are full of ruts, and an open gutter or sewer runs down the centre; the gable ends of the picturesque houses, which are entirely of wood, with their overhanging storeys, stand out against a bright blue sky. There is no dense throng of people, no vehicles, yet the scene is full of animation; splendidly dressed cavaliers are riding to and fro between the city and Whitehall, and every variety of costume is to be seen among the pedestrians. Here comes an Alsatian of Whitefriars, whom we have met at St Paul’s, his ragged cloak fluttering in the breeze as he clanks along fiercely twirling the ends of his moustache and glaring at every peaceful citizen; here are a party of Mercutios and Gratianos, just come out of the Blackfriars Theatre, and on their way to the Devil Tavern, where they will meet Ben Jonson and Will Shakespeare and Dick Burbage. In contrast to these splendid butterflies is the sober cit. in sad-coloured suit, with perhaps a pretty daughter in prim grey and with a neat little ruff encircling her throat, who demurely gazes from under her lowered eyelids at Mercutio or Gratiano as he passes. Now and again the black shadow of an evil-visaged Puritan falls like a blighting cloud upon the sunshine.” 

It’s my secret weapon that old Victorian book. I guard its identity the way Coca-Cola guards its recipe. I knew it was for me when I read its title page epigraph: “Truly the universe is full of ghosts; not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change and change again forever.”
And finally, something new.

And this is really the important part for me personally. I want to learn something from every podcast. And indeed, whenever possible, from every walk.

So this time, it was that address where the cheque could be cashed. Thomas Fowles, Goldsmith, at his shop between the two Temple Gates.

“The two Temple Gates” – that threw me. I’d never heard that before. Temple Bar, yes. And the Temple of course. But “the two Temple Gates” – what in the world was that? And then it dawned on me: there are four ways into the Temple from the North side. The two middle entrances are right there, hard by Temple Bar. The westernmost of the two of them leads into Middle Temple Lane. The easternmost gives onto a pathway that runs down to Temple Church. And, yes, there are a couple of shops between them. So, SNAP, when Thomas Fowles Goldsmith was there – accepting and honouring those new-fangled contrivances, cheques, 350 years ago – both those entrances would have been gated. It was a way of getting your bearings, maybe making an assignation in Restoration London – meet you between the two Temple Gates. Didn’t know that before. Glad to know it. Something new for me. Mission accomplished. 

Ok, a Today in London recommendation. We’re on Fleet Street so it’s a no-brainer, really. Betake yourself to St Bride’s Crypt, known as the Museum of Fleet Street. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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