The London Spy visits Whitefriars

What happened to the sanctuaries after the passing of the 1697 act against “pretended privileged places” is a difficult question. In at least one case, a sanctuary survived it:  Southwark Mint continued to harbour debtors until 1722. Perhaps this was because there were a number of places in London known as ‘The Mint’; the legislation didn’t specify which was to be stripped of its rights. Also, the 1697 act was specifically aimed at the rights of debtors, the most important and immediate cause of consternation, but possibly not the only freedom offered by these areas. Clandestine marriages, for example, appear to have been carried out in many of the sanctuaries named in the act long after its passing.

The extracts below, by Ned Ward, contrast two sanctuaries named in the 1697 act. Despite their proximity, Salisbury Court has a nocturnal crew of villains of all types, whilst Whitefriars is sparsely populated, a “neglected asylum, so very thin of people, the windows broke, and the houses untenanted.” The debtors have abandoned it, only publishers (of pornography) remain.

Ned Ward was a prolific writer, one of the first ‘grub street hacks’, and enjoyable to read even if, frankly, he’s not very good. His prose is purple, the similies over-abundant and strained, and the moral indignation – that every one is debauched – repeated ad nauseum. There doesn’t seem to be a woman in London who is not a prostitute. Yet there’s a scabarous wit, scatalogical humour (then as now a crowd pleaser), and some entertaining turns of language. The texts below is taken from his ‘London Spy’ series, published in the later years of William III, via the edition published – somewhat bowdlerized – by the Folio Society edition of 1955. The first extract is from page 120-1, the second pp. 123-4.

Ward on Salisbury Court:

Being now landed upon terra firma, we steer’d our course to Salisbury Court, where every two or three steps we met some old figure or another that look’d as if the devil had rob’d ’em of all their natural beauty, and infus’d his own infernal spirit into their corrupt carcases, for nothing could be read but devilism in every feature. Theft, whoredom, homicide, and blasphemy, peep’d out at the very windows of their sous. Lying, perjury, fraud, impudence and misery, were the only graces of their countenance.

One with slip shoes, without stockings, and a dirty smock (visible thro’ a crepe petticoat) was stepping from the alehouse to her lodgings with a parcel of pipes in one hand, and a gallon pot of guzzle in the other, yet her head was dres’d up as to much advantage as if the members of her body were sacrific’d to all wickedness to keep her ill-look’d face in a little finery. Another, I suppose taken from the oyster tub and put into whore’s allurements, made a more cleanly appearance but became her ornaments as a sow a hunting saddle. Every now and then a fellow would bolt out and whip nimbly cross the way, beaing equally fearful, as I imagine, of both constable and serjeant, and look’d as if the dread of the gallows had drawn its picture in his countenance.

Said I to my friend, ‘What can these people be, who are so stigmatis’d in their looks that they may be known as well from the rest of mankind as Jews from Christians? They seem to be so unlike God’s creatures, that I cannot but fancy them a colony of hell-cats planted here by the Devil as a mischief to mankind.’ ‘Why truly,’ says my friend, ‘they are such an abominable race of degenerate reprobates that they admit of no comparison on this side [of] Hell’s dominions. All this part, quite up to the square, is a corporation of whores, coiners, highwaymen, pickpockets, and house-breakers. Like bats and owls they skulk in obscure holes by daylight, but wander in the night in search of opportunities wherein to exercise their villainy.’

Ward on Whitefriars:

We soon departed hence, my friend conducting me to a place called White Friars, which he told me was formerly of great service to the honest traders of the City, who, if they could by cant, flattery and dissimulation, procure large credit amongst their zealous fraternity, would slip in here with their effects, take sanctuary against the laws, compound their debts for a small matter, and oftentimes get a better estate by breaking than they could propose to do by trading. But now a late Act of Parliament has taken away its privilege, and since knaves can neither go broken with safety nor advantage, it is observ’d there are not a quarter so many shopkeepers play at bo-peep with their creditors as when they were encourag’d to be rogues by such cheating conveniences.

We thus enter’d the debtors’ garrison, where till of late, says my friend, Old Nick broach’d all his wicked inventions, making this place the very theatre of sin, where his most choice villainies were daily represented. As we pass’d thro’ the gateway, I observ’d a stall of books, and the first that I glanced my eye upon happen’d to be dignified and distinguish’d by this venerable title: The Comforts of Whoring and the Vanity of Chastity, together with a Poem in Praise of the Pox. Bless me! thought I, sure this book was printed in Hell and writ by the Devil, for what diabolical scribbler on earth could be the author of such unparalleled impudence? I was so supris’d with the title that I was quite thoughtless of inspecting into the matter, but march’d on until we came into the main street of this neglected asylum, so very thin of people, the windows broke, and the houses untenanted, as if the plague (or some like judgement from Heaven) as well as executions on earth had made a great slaughter amongst the poor inhabitants.

We met but very few persons within these melancholy precincts, and those by the airiness of their dresses, the forwardness of their looks, and the affectedness of their carriage, seem’d to be some neighbouring lemans, who lay conveniently to be squeez’d by the young fumblers of the law; who are apt to spend more time upon Phyllis and Chloris than upon Coke and Littleton.

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