Today (December 18) in London History – Poet pummelled

December 19th, 1679 – the day the Poet Laureate was set upon by thugs and beaten to within an inch of his life. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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And counting. 

To use a baseball idiom, London grooved one for me today. A story that braids together English literature and London street life, that’s an all my birthdays come at once item.

So let’s get back. It’s Friday, December 19th, 1679. We’re at No. 1 Bow Street. Better known as Wills Coffee House. And what’s Wills Coffee House known as? Glad you asked. It’s known as Wits’ Coffee House. It’s renowned for its literary patrons. And the big hitter in that regard is John Dryden, the poet laureate. He’s the man. Poet, playwright, critic, translator – he’s the alpha male of Restoration literary London. He had his own chair in Will’s. In the winter it was always in the warmest nook by the fire. That’s where it is tonight, it’s mid-December after all. In the summer Dryden’s chair will come out onto the balcony. And there’s always a scrum to get near Dryden’s chair. John Dryden holds court in Will. But part of the fun is that an evening at Will’s with Dryden isn’t just non-stop sycophancy. No question but lots of people are there to curry favour with him. But he doesn’t have it all his own way. Wits – as they were known – also go to Will’s to criticise Dryden’s latest plays.

Anyway, shortly before 8 pm Dryden decides to up stakes and head home. Where’s home? Well, you know something, where’s home for John Dryden in 1679 is something we don’t know. We know he was from Northamptonshire, born in 1631, came to London in 1660. So that night in Rose Alley – there, I’ve let that slip out – he was 48 years old. We know that he lived at 44 Gerrard Street in Soho from 1687 until his death in 1700. But 1679 – we don’t know. But Soho – maybe even Gerrard Street – is probably a pretty fair guess. Because of the direction he took that night. He left Will’s in Bow Street and heads West. I’m guessing he walked through the Covent Garden Piazza, then along King Street. And then he gets to Rose Alley. He’s making his way along Rose Alley. It’s narrow. It’s confined. It’s off the beaten path. It must have been a cut-through for him, making his way toward Leicester Fields – Leicester Square we’d say today – and, again this is an educated guess – onto Soho and perhaps indeed Gerrard.

So, yes, Rose Alley, narrow, confined, off the beaten path. And very dark. Remember there’s no street lighting to speak of in Restoration London. 

Turning into Rose Alley is a mistake. We don’t know whether they were waiting for him there – if so, they knew that was the route he regularly took when he walked home from Wills. Or perhaps they followed him. Anyway, in Rose Alley, the most eminent literary man of the day is set upon by three thugs and beaten to within an inch of his life. 

We don’t know who they were. Or who put them up to it. Best guess is it was the Earl of Rochester, who thought Dryden had written the anonymous Essay on Satire, which had a good go – excoriated them – at Rochester and Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth. Which, if you think about it, doesn’t quite stand up. After all, Dryden was the Poet Laureate. Charless II was his paymaster. Why would you bite the hand that feeds you?

Anyway, all of that – with the exception of my puzzlement about the non-sequitur of Dryden being the author of those scurrilous verses – all of that is second-hand. So far. And as far as it goes it’s pretty much all well and good. But I think we can go further. I think we want to go further. In this instance, we want to read something that all of London read at the time – but hasn’t been read by anybody for over 340 years. Yup, I did it. I unearthed a couple of contemporary newspaper accounts.

Here you go. And what you’ll notice right off the bat is it’s almost a game of Chinese whispers. They get the date wrong. Both of these newspaper accounts were published on December 23rd. They both give the date of the attack as the 17th. It wasn’t, it was the 18th.

Here’s the first one:  

Upon the 17th instant in the evening Mr. Dryden the great Poet was set upon in Rose Street in Covent Garden, by three persons, who calling him rogue, and Son of a whore, knockt him down and dangerously wounded him, but upon his crying out murther, they made their escape; it is conceived that they had their pay beforehand, and designed not to rob him but to execute on him some Feminine, if not Popish vengeance. 

It’s extraordinary, that adjective feminine. What could feminine vengeance have been. 


The second one is shorter. It reads as follows:

Mr. Dryden (the Kings Poet Laureat) coming out of a Coffee-house on Thursday night last, was set upon by three men, who did beat him so severely, that ’tis thought he will hardly recover it.”

With some of these very old newspaper stories it’s fascinating to go off piste. So with this one, the item immediately above the Dryden entry reads:

The Roads are so infested with Robbers that the Carriers are cautious of carrying Goods of any considerable value, unless the Owners will stand to the loss of them.

And then we get the Dryden item. And then after Dryden, this:

Upon Friday last were executed Seven persons, viz. five Men and two Women, one of them named Parker, a Watch-maker by Trade, suffering for Coining false Guinneys. The day before his Execution he was visited by two men of his acquaintance, whom he accused to be guilty of the same crime; upon which they were secured, in order to their further examination.”

Bet those two were sorry they dropped in on their friend in his hour of need. 

And then a little further down on the same news sheet – the rag was called The Domestick Intelligence or News Both from City and Country – a little further down on the same news sheet, we’re treated to this. It’s Sharia Law in London, right about the time of the American War of Independence. Or Saudi Arabia on Thames if you prefer.

The news-sheet story – it’s really just an item – reads:

“The Gentleman that was tried at the Kings-Bench-Bar the next day after the Term ended for killing another Gentleman at Whitehall-gate, and found guilty of Manslaughter, was on Thursday last to have been tried in the Verge of Westminster Hall for striking in the Kings Court (which crime is punishable with the loss of the hand that strikes) but some difficulties arising, is put off till the Sessions at the Old Bailey.”

Let’s let those three sink in.

The general point here is just how shockingly lawless and dangerous London was. Violence – both state violence and extralegal violence – rife. It was casual and it was commonplace. Reading those, if I had a time machine ticket for a trip back to 1679 I’d be ringing the travel agent right now to say, “you know what, you can cancel that trip to the London of 1679. I’ve changed my mind about going.”

But no question about it, you can learn a lot about bygone London from perusing those old news sheets. 

And one more. This one appeared in the Advertisements column of the

Domestic Intelligence or News Both from City and Country for Friday, December 26, 1679.

“Whereas on Thursday the 18th instant in the Evening, Mr. John Dryden was assaulted and wounded in Rose Street in Covent Garden by diverse men unknown: if any Person shall make discovery of the said Offenders, to the said Mr. Dryden, or to any Justice of the Peace for the Liberty of Westminster, he shall not only receive fifty pounds, which is deposited in the hands of Mr. Blanchard Goldsmith, next door to Temple Bar, for the said purpose, but if the discoverer be himself one of the Actors, he shall have the fifty pounds, without letting his name be known, or receiving the least trouble by any prosecution.”

That’s right. Dryden put up a reward. And a sizeable reward it was. Be just over £8000 in today’s money. 

And as long as we’re at it, something else that’s not seen the light of day for over 300 years. 

John Dryden died of gangrene on May 1st, 1700. He was buried the following day in St Anne’s Church, Soho. A few days later friends and patrons had second thoughts. They arranged a more appropriate funeral. On May 13th John Dryden was laid to rest in Chaucer’s grave in Westminster Abbey.

As funerals go, it was a spectacular. Here’s how a paper called the Post Man and the Historical Account covered the story.

Yesterday, the corpse of John Dryden, Esquire, who departed this life the 1st instant, was carried in great state to Westminster Abbey, from the College of Physicians, whither it was removed some days ago, and was attended by above one hundred Coaches of the Chief of our Nobility and Gentry, who showed on this occasion what respect they had for that excellent Poet; but before he was removed from the College, Dr Garth made an Eloquent Oration in Latin, in praise of the Deceased; and the Ode of Horace, set to Mournful Music, was sung there, with a concert of Trumpets Hautboys and other Instruments. There was a world of people, and his Highness the Duke of Gloucester was pleased to send one of his Coaches to attend the Funeral, which was performed at the charge of several persons of quality, lovers of Poetry.

That item, surely, is a core sample of the higher reaches of late Restoration society.

And a Today in London recommendation. Well how about putting in at the Lamb and Flag pub in Covent Garden. It’s at the top end of Rose street where the bully boys put the boot into Dryden. It’s the oldest pub in Covent Garden. Dates from 1623. It’s one of the few wooden framed buildings to survive in central London. I like to think that the covered passageway running along side it is where the three rogues did the dastardly deed. 

The pub used to be called the Bucket of Blood. How appropriate is that. 

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.

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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.

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And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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