Episode 6: Hockley in the Hole Clerkenwell

Episode 6: Lost London – Hockley in the Hole

Welcome one, welcome all to Hockley in the Hole!

Join our London tour guide Hazel Baker as we discuss the history of the Hockley in the Hole, a once famed Bear Garden In Clerkenwell, London.

The area lies in the valley of the once free flowing river fleet, which in rainy seasons overflowed, transforming the area into a water clogged Hockley hole.

It was a once famed bear garden on Rag Street, but Rag Street doesn’t exist either, but Ray Street does.

Recommended Reading:


Lost London – Hockley in the Hole

Show Notes:

Hazel: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

Welcome one, welcome all to Hockley in the Hole. Most of you, I’m sure won’t know exactly where Hockley in the Hole is, or should I say was, because of course, this area no longer exists. Well, it is Lost London, after all. It was a once famed bear garden on Rag Street, but Rag Street doesn’t exist either, but Ray Street does. The area lies in the valley of the once free flowing river fleet, which in rainy seasons overflowed, transforming the area into a water clogged Hockley hole. And of course, Hockley is old English and it means muddy field, and hole is dirt and leaves is a pasture or muddy dirty field. So, this is a dirty hole. So, as the name suggests, it sort of had the same kind of reputation. And of course, don’t let the name Ray Street fool you either. So, Ray Street is the modern-day name in Clerkenwell for the street that was called Ray Street, and the Victorians renamed that, and Rag Street only appears in 1774. Before that, it was named Hockley in the Hole, and it was named that for hundreds of years. 


Hockley in the Hole Map

 Now, quite sadly this whole affair is hardly more than a nominal existence now, it has been used in the filming of the movie Paddington, for a few seconds at least. But really not much else is there, other than the late Victorian pub, which is now called the Coach. But prior to that, for hundreds of years, there was a pub called the Coach and Horses. In 1661, the year of Charles II’s coronation, there were 21 houses rated to the poor here, and its conditions certainly doesn’t seem to change in the next hundred years. In 1756, the old London newspaper, the public advisor, describes the neglected state that Hockley in the Hole is not only very narrow, ruinous and full of great holes, but the old houses joining the roadside in Hockley for once of inhabitants or owners, are daily tumbling down. So, the area seems to have been very well named indeed; it was both physically and morally low conditioned area. 

 A local poet by the name of Ned Ward ironically mentions sweet St. James’s Clerkenwell in 1717. “All that stinks that rise together from Hockley Hole in sultry weather.”. In Butner’s first edition of Huda Brom in 1663, this is an English mock, heroic, narrative poem. Ralph and the Squire are taken and placed in stocks, where they argue on religion, “In Hockley in the Hole their bangs and durance to condole.”. This was all of an account of them trying to stop bear baiting, something Hockley in the Hole was famous for, and they saw as very anti Christian. This neighbourhood was famous for generations for sheltering thieves, pickpockets, and breeding bulldogs. It’s easy to see why Charles Dickens uses this for scenes that require darkness and deprivation, including both Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Hockley in the Hole even makes it into opera. Oh yes, “You must go to Hockley in the Hole and Marylebone child to learn valour.”, says Mrs. Peacham to Filch in the Beggar’s Opera.

Alexander Pope is regarded as one of the greatest English poets and the foremost poets in the 18th century, and he refers to the area in his Dunciad in 1726, “This mess tossed up of Hockley Hole and Whites, where Dukes and butchers to reef my crown at once the bear and fiddle of the town.”. Hockley in the Hole seems to have had its own language too, as demonstrated by Dr. Samuel Johnson, in a letter to Mrs. Israel about their dear friend Boswell who suffered from deep bouts of depression, “He shrinks from the Baltic expedition, which I think is the best scheme in our power. In the phrase of Hockley in the Hole, it is a pity he has not a better bottom.”, and of course bottom meaning the undersigned of a boat. Dr. Johnson was familiar with Hockley in the Hole and certainly Clerkenwell, because his first writing job was for the gentleman’s magazine, which published his creative retelling of MP speeches at a time when parliamentary reporting was banned. And he did that at St. John’s gate in Clerkenwell. 

London Bear Garden Credit_Photos.com, Getty Images (2)

The bear garden was originally built as a blood sport arena. Bear and bull baiting were major spectator sports, and there were several purpose-built arenas in London and specifically designed to house these events. Perhaps the most famous one is by where the Shakespeare’s Globe is now on the South Bank. Now, bear baiting had been introduced to England during the medieval period of the 1200’s, nearly every town in Elizabethan England boasted of a bull and bear baiting ring, and then this continued for hundreds of years. Now, seeing at great sporting and gambling events, bull and bear baiting was patronised by all levels of society, including Queen Elizabeth, courtiers and foreign ambassadors. Mondays and Thursdays were the days for blood sports, however, theatrical performances during Elizabethan time proved to be so popular that in 1591, the growing popularity of these theatres led to a law closing all theatres on Thursdays so that the bull and bear baiting industries would not be neglected.

London Bear Garden Credit_Photos.com, Getty Images (2)

 So, what did a bear garden look like? I’ve not seen any illustrations of the bear garden in Hockley in the Hole, but I have seen those for the one on bank side in Sussex so, I imagine them to be quite similar. So, with them having neither a sun compared, but certainly a soil floor and then an amphitheatre surround to maximize their gross potential of earnings, and most of those of course come from the bets, the gambling. Now, my reason for saying this is because of course, the bear garden had originally been designed for large beasts such as bear and bull baiting, and also prize fighting. But also, it did grab the attention and the coffers of the elite in society as well as the everyday man, such as the butchers, from Smithfield across the river, and the drovers. And there are descriptions of the seats and those being set apart, decorated with tapestry hangings. Now, of course, this is first class that we’re talking about here, and the price– starting price for such an experience was half a crown, and no doubt there’ll be different prices for entry to match the pockets of different levels of society to watch these entertainments. Now, these seats are made out of wood. Now, how do I know that? Well, the bear garden becomes the victim of high winds, for which a ballad is born, “The force of the winds, who can withstand in ship or horse by sea or land? It’s power abroad had been much shown. Poor merchants have it too, well known, so low, so low, so wondrous low the bear gardens down, all passengers see it lay on the ground, the course which now the race hath run by force of wind may be undone. The ship which now the ocean rid, and now may in the sea be hid. The bulls and bears may now rejoice expressing mirth with merry voice, Aeolus, the God of winds lately has proved to them kind. The structure seemed to be rare with which few might compare, but now the winds have cast it down, the ruins lay flat on the ground.”. The Bulls and bears could only rejoice for a short while, as the bear garden being a profitable enterprise was rebuilt within the year, and so the name changed from the bear garden to the new bear garden. 

In order to drum up business for bull or bear baiting, it was customary to parade the animals through the streets of London. The poet grey in his trivia or the art of walking the streets of London describes it thus, “Went through the streets with slow and solemn air, led by the nostril, walks the muzzled bear, behind him moves majestically dull, the pride of Hockley Hole, the surely bull. Learn hence the periods of the week to name Mondays and Thursdays are the days of game.”. On the fourth of June 1701, the grand jury for the county of Middlesex heard complaints about the activities is of the so advised noble scene of self defence and being a public nuisance, “We having observed the late boldness of a sort of men that style themselves masters of the noble science of defence. Passing through the city with beat of drums, colours displayed, swords drawn, with a numerous company of people following them, dispersing their printed bills, thereby inviting persons to be spectators of those inhuman sights which are directly contrary to the practice and profession of the Christian religion, whereby barbarous principles are instilled in the minds of men. We think ourselves obliged to represent this matter that some method may be speedily taken to prevent their passage through the city in such a tumultuous manner, and on so unwarrantable a design.”.

In response, the proprietor Christopher Preston, obviously a keen businessman had advertised that these activities, the trials of skill would be performed without beat up drum. “His Majesty’s bear garden all clean in the oh. A trial of skill is to be performed tomorrow without beat of drum between these following masters, etc. No, there is lately built a pleasant call gallery for gentlemen.”. Eight years later, Christopher Preston was attacked by one of his own bears in the bear garden and, was almost devoured before his friends became aware of the danger, having pulled him away before dying of his injuries. It wasn’t just man and beasts who had the action, in 1722, two women had their turn too. One, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell challenged Hannah Highfield of New Gate Market for fisticuffs. “Hi, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, I’ve had some words with Hannah Highfield and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me on the stage and box with me for three guineas. Each woman, holding half a crown in each hand and the first woman that drops her money to lose the battle.”. And of course, holding half a crown in each hand was to prevent the women from scratching their opponents’ eyes out. And Hannah Highfield responded to Elizabeth Wilkinson’s invitation, “Hi, Hannah Highfield of New Gate Market, hearing of the resolution of Elizabeth will not fail to give her more blows than words, desiring own blows, and from her, no favour.”. And so, in June 1722, the two women were dressed for the purpose with closed jackets, short petticoats, Holland drawers, white stockings and pumps. They were ready to settle their differences.

According to the London journal, June 1722, they did indeed get onstage for the first time, they maintained the battle with great valour for a long time, and to no small satisfaction of the spectators. I’m sure men from every class enjoyed this spectacle, especially since these women are going against the accepted behaviour of the bearer of sex.

There was another popular blood sport at Hockley in the Hole in the 1700’s too, and that was cockfighting. It was announced in an advertisement in 1744, that there’d be a match of cockfighting for a large sale, and 10 pigs or to the value in money. Now, no cock was to exceed in weight of four pounds and a single ounce. Cockfighting was a hugely popular sport and, does seem to be a particularly English amusement. Travel in the 1700’s wasn’t the easiest, most enjoyable thing and it certainly was not cheap. However, one gentleman writes to his friend in Paris, and saying that it would be totally worth him coming to England if it was only to see an election and a cock pitch match. He says, there is a celestial spirit of anarchy and confusion in these two scenes that words cannot paint. I wonder if his friend did, he ever come to London and see it for himself. 

Remember I mentioned the Coach and Horses pub, which stood near to the bear garden? Well, several discoveries have been found at the old pub, which is now a late Victorian building. So, this is the earlier version. Mr. Reynolds, who was the father of the proprietor at the time, found a large brass colour with the engraving, “Mr. Francis Paul of Park hold Derbyshire of 1702.”. Now, Mr. Francis Paul was one of the greatest book collectors of the time, but the question has to be, what happened to the dog? Was it stolen and the collar taken off to prevent the dog being identified? Or did it die partaking in one of the blood sports there? Also found there by the same Mr. Reynolds was a leather portmanteau, which is basically like an overnight bag for solo horse travellers, and it was leather, but with wooden ends on either side. On the inside of the lid of this bag were the initials R. Turpin. Now, could this stand for Richard, aka Dick Turpin? The most famous highwayman in England? It wouldn’t surprise me knowing the reputation of this area for sheltering thieves and pickpockets. It seems an ideal place to hide. It is said that several of the buildings were believed to have had basements leading to the river in order for people to make a quick escape. 

The attractiveness of Hockley in the Hole declined after 1834 with the introduction of the large animals’ act, therefore preventing blood sports such as bull and bear baiting. Now, that wasn’t the end of Hockley in the Hole, it just took on a new lease of life. And what did that look like? Well, it was never going to be positive, you can hear more about the area from 1837 throughout the Victorian period on my Oliver Twist Walk where we venture back into 1837 and walk the route that Dickens describes in chapter eight. The Artful Dodger has now met Oliver Twist, and has invited him to introduce him to a gentleman who can provide him with food and lodgings and not want any rent. And so, we follow the route that little Oliver takes into the depths of London and of course, he has to go to Hockley in the Hole. 

Well, that’s all for today’s session on Lost London: Hockley in the Hole, I hope you found it informative and also enjoyable. Big thanks to all those who have sent me lovely messages of encouragement for doing this podcast. It is really, really appreciated. Don’t forget if you have any suggestions for future episodes, or you want to join me on a podcast, and share your memories or your knowledge of London, then please visit londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast and get in touch. And if you can’t wait until our next episode, we have literally hundreds of London centric blog posts on our blog, londonguidedwalks.co.uk/blog, and we’ll see you very soon.

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