Hackney Marshes and Highwaymen

Map of present day Hackney Marshes

Map © OpenStreetMap contributors CC BY-SA

I chose to set the Widow Gunn’s Woebegone Cottage in the heart of the Hackney Marshes, which—even by 1850s standards—was a desolate, sparsely inhabited place. It’s quite a large area of land that was once a proper marsh, at least until it was drained in medieval times.

The River Lea, photo by Northmetpit

The River Lea photo by Northmetpit [PD]

The River Lea, which flows from north to south through the heart of it, once formed a natural boundary between the Saxon kingdoms of Essex and Middlesex; to the east lies Temple Mills, where the Knights Templar had—well, as you might have guessed—a mill or two. When I came to research the Hackney Marshes, my heart skipped a beat; for there, on Wikipedia, was a paragraph that read:

“In the Marshes towards Hackney Wick were low public houses, the haunt of highwaymen and their Dulcineas. Dick Turpin was a constant guest at the “White House,” or “Tyler’s Ferry,” near Joe Sowter’s cock-pit at Temple Mills; and few police-officers were bold enough to approach the spot.”—The northern suburbs: Haggerston and Hackney, Old and New London: Volume 5 (1878), pp. 505-24.

The White House Inn

The White House Inn [PD]

Highwaymen! Highwaymen! How fantastic is that? But far, far too good to be true, I’m afraid, at least where Dick Turpin is concerned. The trouble is, the article suffers from the 19th century taste for romanticizing Turpin and his ilk. There is no evidence to suggest that Turpin ever frequented pubs on the Hackney Marshes. But neither is there any evidence to suggest that other highwaymen did not. It’s certainly a remote and lonely enough a spot for gangs to gather.

The real Dick Turpin was a butcher by trade, and later on a publican (possibly at Clay Hill in Enfield, on the outskirts of north London). He had close connections to the Essex Gang, a gang that specialized in…highway robbery? Nothing of the sort! They poached deer from gentlemen landowners. Turpin was most probably the gang’s butcher. Lest I give too light an impression of Turpin’s crimes, I would hasten to point out that he and his gang were charged with committing a number of home invasions that allegedly involved both rape and torture.


Rookwood [PD]

Much of Turpin’s story as we know it is a work of pure fiction—quite literally, in this case—due in no small part to the author William Harrison Ainsworth, whose 1834 novel, Rookwood, turned Turpin into a roguish hero. His famed midnight flight to York on his mare Black Bess? Complete invention on Ainsworth’s part, as is, in all likelihood, his protagonist’s predilection for bursting into song. Here he is, going under the alias of Jack Sheppard (in real life Turpin used the alias Jack Palmer), discussing the demise of the highwayman Claude Duval with his friend Titus and a recently-made (and clearly respectable) acquaintance, Mr Coates:

‘Poor Du-Val! he was seized at the Hole-in-the-Wall in Chandos-street by the bailiff of Westminster, when dead drunk, his liquor having been drugged by his dells—and was shortly afterwards hanged at Tyburn.’
‘It was thousand pities,’ said Mr. Coates, with a sneer, ‘that so fine a gentleman should come to so ignominious an end!’
‘Quite the contrary,’ returned Jack. ‘As his biographer, Doctor Pope, properly remarks, “Who is there worthy of the name of man, that would not prefer such a death before a mean, solitary, inglorious life?” By-the-by, Titus, as we’re upon the subject, if you like I’ll sing you a song about highwaymen.’
‘I should like it of all things,’ replied Titus, who entertained a very favourable opinion of Jack’s vocal powers, and was by no means an indifferent performer; ‘only let it be in a minor key.’
Jack required no further encouragement, but disregarding the hints and looks of Coates, sang with much unction the following ballad to a good old tune, then very popular—the merit of which “nobody can deny”:

The Chapter of Highwaymen

Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind!
Which nobody can deny.

But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all
For lute, coranto, and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude Du-Val!
Which nobody can deny.

And Tobygloak never a coach could rob,
Could lighten a pocket, or empty a fob,
With a neater hand than Old Mob, Old Mob!
Which nobody can deny.

Nor did housebreaker ever deal harder knocks
On the stubborn lid of a good strong box,
Than that prince of good fellows, Tom Cox, Tom Cox!
Which nobody can deny.

A blither fellow on broad highway,
Did never with oath bid traveller stay,
Than devil-may-care Will Holloway!
Which nobody can deny.

And in roguery naught could exceed the tricks
Of Gettings and Grey, and the five or six
Who trod in the steps of bold Neddy Wicks!
Which nobody can deny.

Nor could any so handily break a lock
As Sheppard, who stood on the Newgate dock,
And nicknamed the jailers around him “his flock!”
Which nobody can deny.

Nor did highwaymen ever before possess
For ease, for security, danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which nobody can deny.
—from Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth (1834).

Claude Duval, whom Ainsworth elsewhere characterizes as being able to “skip and twirl like a figurant, warble like an opera-singer, and play the flageolet better than any man of his day”, was in fact buried in the original St Paul’s Covent Garden (yes, the Actor’s Church where Miss Isabella Prynn’s memorial service is held), which burned down in 1795 and was rebuilt soon after. As John Timbs writes in Curiosities of London: “Du Val, the famous highwayman, executed at Tyburn, Jan. 21, 1669, after lying in state at the Tangier Tavern, St. Giles, was buried in the middle aisle of St. Paul’s; his funeral was attended with flambeaux, and a numerous train of mourners, including many of the fair sex.”

I also note with great satisfaction that Ainsworth begins the second chapter of Rookwood—entitled The Skeleton Hand—with this quote from The Duchess of Malfi:
Duchess: You are very cold. I fear you are not well after your travel. Ha! lights.—Oh horrible!
Ferdinand: Let her have lights enough.
Duchess: What witchcraft doth he practise, that he hath left a dead hand here?

Sports fields on the Hackney Marshes

Sports fields on the Hackney Marshes photo by Tarquin Binary [PD]

Till the mid-19th century London was comprised of the City of London, the City of Westminster to the west, the Pool of London with its docks and cheaper housing to the east, and Southwark with its equally cheap housing to the south. By and large the land surrounding this was agricultural land, given over to growing produce to feed the hungry capital. Due to the influx of economic and political refugees from Europe and Russia—and a decrease in infant mortality—from the 1850s onwards the population of London grew, doubling in size to approximately six million over the next five decades. People needed somewhere to live, so this surrounding land was re-purposed for housing as London spread outwards, forcing market gardeners ever further afield. Here is a pen portrait of one such market gardener from an article in the Cornhill Magazine; it is typically overly-sentimentalized and yet it still brings to light some fascinating points:

“He is nearly 70 years of age, but looks scarcely 50, and can remember the time when there were 10,000 acres of ground within four miles of Charing Cross under cultivation for vegetables, besides about 3,000 acres planted with fruit to supply the London consumption. He has lived to see the Deptford and Bermondsey gardens curtailed; the Hoxton and Hackney gardens covered with houses; the Essex plantations pushed further off; and the Brompton and Kensington nurseries—the home of vegetables for centuries—dug up and sown with International Exhibition temples, and Italian gardens that will never grow a pea or send a single cauliflower to market. He has lived to see Guernsey and Jersey, Cornwall, the Scilly Islands, Holland, Belgium, and Portugal with many other more distant places, competing with the remote outskirts of London…and has been staggered by seeing the market supplied with choice early peas from such an unexpected quarter as French Algeria.”—Cornhill Magazine, 1856

John Timbs illustrates the spread of London to just one of its former outlying districts, Islington:

“The increase of population in Islington has been enormous. By the census of 1851 it stood at 95,154: by that of 1861 it is seen to be 156,000, showing an increase in ten years of 60,846 persons. This is not entirely owing to the new buildings which have been erected there, great as the number of them is: the decadence of some of the streets must also be taken into account, many houses in which, formerly occupied by one family in each, now contain several. To meet these requirements at Islington, [there] have been erected, with a portion of the funds munificently presented by an American merchant, Mr. Peabody, to trustees for the poor of London, four blocks of buildings, to comprise in all 155 tenements, with ample accommodation for upwards of 650 persons…They are appropriately named Peabody Square.”—John Timbs, Curiosities of London, published by Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer (1868).

To a very large extent the Hackney Marshes managed to evade this urban sprawl, right up until the start of the 21st century, when the Olympics came to London and the land was given over to develop the site accordingly.

Building the Olympic Stadium on Hackney Marshes, photo by Supermoving

Building the Olympic Stadium on Hackney Marshes photo by Supermoving License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth (1834). Available as free download from Project Gutenberg.
Curiosities of London is available as a free download from Google Books. Simply follow the links.