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Charterhouse to Charnel House

The psycho-geography of Thomas Lovell Beddoes' London

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

In the summer of 1817, the poet-physician Thomas Lovell Beddoes was sent to the Charterhouse school in London, a former Carthusian monastery situated on the north side of Charterhouse Square, Smithfield. Suitably for the moody, death-fixated Beddoes, the school stood on the site of a medieval plague pit. During the reign of George III, Smithfield was a ghoulish and socially defiled area; it seems to have wormed its way into Beddoes’s darkly off-putting imagination and left fingerprints on his work. His much-anthologized poem ‘Dream-Pedlary’, written around 1830 under the spell of Shelley, remains one of the most sublimely tender if chilling lyrics in the English language:

If there were dreams to sell, 
    What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
    Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life’s fresh crown
Only a roseleaf down.

Few have written so exquisitely of life’s uncertainty or of supernatural coincidence. At his doleful best, Beddoes exudes a moony ghostliness (‘moony’ was his favourite adjective) and sardonic wit. Behind his nauseated vision of our mortality lay the darkness of mid-Georgian London, and the gibber and gloom of Smithfield.

Livestock had been sold at ‘Smooth Field’ since medieval times, but the market had grown monstrously by the time Beddoes went to school there. The Church of England condemned the area with its catgut factories, bladder-blowers and rabbit fur dressers as a ‘metropolitan abomination’. The open drains round the Charterhouse were routinely choked with animal effluvia, while Pissing Alley (now Passing Alley, off St John’s Street) was nearly ankle-deep in animal belly-blood, fat and foam. Not surprisingly the meat market’s proximity to St Bartholomew’s Hospital was reckoned insalubrious by Georgian town planners. William Thackeray, who went to Charterhouse in 1822, two years after Beddoes, spoke of his school as ‘The Slaughterhouse’.

According to the admission registers, the summer term 1817 began on Smithfield’s ‘sheep day’: June 5. The day before, ‘Mad King’ George III had celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday but the festivities had not reached this part of London. The sheep pens off Chick Lane (buried today beneath the concrete ziggurat of the Barbican Estate) were a shouting, clanging hell of drovers, bleating animals and rattling cart wheels. The sale of livestock in the heart of London must have been an extraordinary sight to the provincial Beddoes; Smithfield made real his fantasies of Stygian gloom and darkness, Jacobean to the bone.

Not quite fourteen, Beddoes had come up from his home in Somerset, where his eccentric chemist father Dr Thomas Beddoes had prescribed nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’) to the Romantic poets Coleridge and Southey. The boy Thomas was installed in a boarding house called Watkinson’s, close to the school itself on Wilderness Row (now Clerkenwell Road). Along this wasteland lurked the prostitutes, card sharps and other chancers who made Smithfield a shifty backwater. Vagrancy levels had increased dangerously in London at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, when discharged soldiers roamed the streets in search of food.

Beddoes’s school was founded in the early 17th century by the London philanthropist Thomas Sutton, a model for Ben Johnson’s foxy Volpone. Originally a charity for poor boys and ‘decaied gentlemen’, in Beddoes’s day the pupils were mostly fee-paying and destined for establishment careers in the church or army. The black-gowned pensioners, a motley of Battle of Trafalgar veterans, former servants and stable-keepers, were vastly outnumbered by the 238 pupils and often unpleasantly ribbed by them. When they could, the pensioners smuggled in pornography from nearby Holywell Street (known as ‘Booksellers’ Row’) and lifted bottles of porter from the wealthier boys’ trunks.

Beddoes was hungry for literary recognition. His knockabout novella, Scaroni: or the Mysterious Cave, was completed in Smithfield during his second year at the school, and groans with skeleton nuns, screech owls and other trappings from the late School of Terror. Beneath the sure-footed imitation of high Gothic was a young man already geared to darkness. The ‘Slaughterhouse’ might almost have reflected Beddoes’s view of life as an unsavoury snarl-up.

When not conjuring ghoulish rhymes on Wilderness Row he dined on Smithfield boiled beef (called by the pupils ‘boiled child’) and quantities of mutton broth. Matins took place at seven o’clock in the chapel, where Thomas Sutton’s marble sepulchre (1615) presented an imposing specimen of Jacobean funerary art. In the dark winter mornings, tallow-dips were stuck in ginger beer bottles and the founder’s tomb flickered eerily with chiselled scythes, hour glasses and skeletons enscrolled with Latin tags warning of life’s transitoriness. Beddoes’s magnificent verse-drama of 1829, Death’s Jest Book, is a grim sort of harlequinade that owes much to Jacobean funerary emblems and the glow-in-the-dark skulls of Jacobean melodrama.

Watkinson House was rarely locked, so Beddoes was free to explore Wilderness Row at night. Charterhouse parish alone contained 38 gin palaces and tippling houses. Its most densely populated neighbourhood – Golden Lane – was a hive of ‘pauperism, degeneracy and immorality’ hung with pig entrails and other shambles. Prostitutes solicited outside the Booths gin distillery on Turnmill Street (now the gleamingly modern Turk’s Head Yard office complex), while bacon hogs were driven squealing down Cowcross Street to their slaughter.

In the corridor-like streets behind St Bartholomew’s Hospital Beddoes chased the tavern talk and explored the mephitic localities of Burying Grove, Rope Walk and Thumb Yard (all long since disappeared from the map). In Three Pigeons Court he would have seen women kneading cat skins in bloody tubs, their faces smeared ‘red as a Cherokee Indian’. (Cheap muffs were fashioned from cat skin.) No doubt he kept a hawk eye on playbills for that great London saturnalia known as Bartholomew Fair, held annually on 24 August in the vicinity of his school.

Each year the Bartholomew fairground was a din of ‘Waterloo crackers’, squeaky toy trumpets and caged alpacas and other exotica ‘brought back from the rolling sands of Arabia’. Raree-show tents advertised human freaks: ‘A CHILD WITH TWO FACES’ or ‘THE ASTONISHING FAT CALEDONIAN YOUTH (or SCOTCH FAT BOY)’. In 1818, a Bartholomew farce introduced the pantomime characters King Maximo Rotundo, Jumble Juzzy and Doctor Bolus, names vaguely reminiscent of the title of Beddoes’s lost Charterhouse novel, Cynthio and Bugboo. For chain-rattling frightfulness nothing pleased Beddoes more than the sellout ‘HARLEQUIN FAUSTUS! (or THE DEVIL WILL HAVE HIS OWN)’, in which a diabolical Luciferno Daemon queened it in blood-red stockings, too-tight-shoes and a joke-book Spanish ruff.

In his last year at school, 1820, Beddoes completed his debut poetry collection, The Improvisatore, a volume of dirges and madrigals that artfully blended the sensuous with the loathly. For all its Jacobean morbidity the collection offered Arcadian images of dark thornless roses and jasmine posies. Perhaps the Cavalier poets Richard Crashaw and Richard Lovelace – both former Charterhouse pupils – had left their courtly imprint on Beddoes. The Improvisatore was published in 1821 by a small press behind St Paul’s churchyard, a little way up from the Wilderness. Beddoes had chosen to give his poems the Chatterton-like antiquarian term ‘fyttes’ (‘Fits indeed!’ protested one reviewer. ‘Hysterical decidedly’.) He was barely eighteen.

With his Dürer-like imagination, Beddoes was often depressed in later years and tempted by a Romantic notion of suicide. (‘After all’, croaks a character in Death’s Jest Book, ‘being dead’s not so bad once one’s got into the knack of it.’) In the summer of 1848, having graduated in anatomy from the University of Göttingen, Germany, he was rushed to hospital in Switzerland after drunkenly opening an artery in his leg. Gangrene set in and the limb was amputated below the knee.

Finally, on 26 January 1849, Beddoes ingested a draft of lethal poison. In his slow dying he was able to write from his Basle deathbed: ‘I am food for what I am good for — worms’. Beddoes was 42. He might have been amused to know that an outbreak of cholera was reported in Tooting, London, the day he died in far-distant Basle. TLB, the original Dr Death, had sometimes signed himself Theobold Grimbottle. He was not joking exactly. His Smithfield school days with their stench of animal slaughter had in some ways returned and led Beddoes to die in solitude, by his own hand.

Though no longer a school, the Smithfield Charterhouse still functions as an asylum for the elderly. Its most distinguished pensioner until he died there in 2001 was the writer Simon Raven, whose deliciously nasty novel sequence Alms for Oblivion teems with allusions to Beddoes and his Jacobean doom-moods. Today, however, Beddoes is largely unread. His gallows humour was said to have influenced Samuel Beckett, but when I wrote to Beckett in 1986, he replied tersely: ‘I have not read him. Sorry.’

Watkinson House has long since been pulled down, but the site of William Thackeray’s boarding house (Penny’s House) survives as the Sutton Arms pub on Carthusian Street. Hospital orderlies still drink there with Smithfield merchants, but the meat market is a shadow of its former self; cats and caretakers move about in the moony, cold-store ghostliness. Bartholomew Fair was abolished in 1855 (on grounds of immorality) but something of its Bacchanalia survives in the Notting Hill Carnival. Of Thomas Lovell Beddoes only a trace of his shadowy, mocking spirit survives in London: at the Smithfield ‘Slaughterhouse’. One day I shall write his biography, even if it spooks me rotten.

Ian Thomson is working on a book for Faber & Faber about his family’s roots in the Baltic during Word War II.

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