Monday, December 15, 2008

Cleave's Coffins

The following appeared in Old And New London, Volume 1 :-

“Mr. Grant*, that veteran of the press, tells a capital story, in his “History of the Newspaper Press,” about one of the early vendors of unstamped newspapers in Shoe Lane :-

“Cleave’s Police Gazette consisted chiefly of reports of police cases. It certainly was a newspaper to all intents and purposes, and was ultimately so declared to be in a court of law by a jury. but in the meantime, while the action was pending, the police had instructions to arrest Mr. John Cleave, the proprietor, and seize all the copies of the paper as they came out of his office in Shoe Lane. He contrived for a time to elude their vigilance; and in order to prevent the seizure of his paper, he resorted to an expedient which was equally ingenious and laughable. Close by his little shop in Shoe Lane there was an undertaker, whose business, as might be inferred from the neighbourhood, as well as from his personal appearance and the homeliness of his shop, was exclusively among the lower and poorer classes of the community. With him Mr. Cleave made an arrangement to construct several coffins of the plainest and cheapest kind, for purposes which were fully explained. The ‘undertaker,’ whose ultra-republican principles were in perfect unison with those of Mr. Cleave, not only heartily undertook the work, but did so on terms so moderate that he would not ask for nor accept any profit. He, indeed, could imagine no higher nor holier duty than that of assisting in the dissemination of a paper which boldly and energetically preached the extinction of the aristocracy and the perfect equality in social position, and in property too, of all classes of the community. Accordingly the coffins, with a rudeness in make and material which were in perfect keeping with the purpose to which they were to be applied, were got ready; and Mr. Cleave, in the dead of night, got them filled with thousands of his Gazettes. It had been arranged beforehand that particular houses in various parts of the town should be in readiness to receive them with blinds down, as if some relative had been dead, and was about to be borne away to the house appointed for all living. The deal coffin was opened, and the contents were taken out, tied up in a parcel so as to conceal from the prying curiosity of any chance person that they were Cleave’s Police Gazettes, and then sent off to the railway stations most convenient for their transmission to the provinces. The coffins after this were returned in the middle of next night to the ‘undertaker’s’ in Shoe Lane, there to be in readiness to render a similar service to Mr. Cleave and the cause of red Republicanism when the next Gazette appeared.

“In this way Mr. Cleave contrived for some time to chide the vigilance of the police and to sell about 50,000 copies weekly of each impression of his paper. But the expedient, ingenious and eminently successful as it was for a time, failed at last. The people in Shoe Lane and the neighbourhood began to be surprised and alarmed at the number of funerals, as they believed them to be, which the departure of so many coffins from the ‘undertaker’s’ necessarily implied. The very natural conclusion to which they came was, that this supposed sudden and extensive number of deaths could only be accounted for on the assumption that some fatal epidemic had visited the neighbourhood, and there made itself a local habitation. The parochial authorities, responding to the prevailing alarm questioned the ‘undertaker’ friend and fellow-labourer of Mr. Cleave as to the causes of his sudden and extensive accession of business in the coffin-making way; and the result of the close questions put to him was the discovery of the whole affair. It need hardly be added that an immediate and complete collapse took place in Mr. Cleave’s business, so far as his Police Gazette was concerned. Not another number of the publication ever made its appearance, while the coffin-trade of the ‘undertaker’ all at once returned to its normal proportions.”

*James Grant

Top Robert Prowse Illustration from Blueskin : A Romance of the Last Century, By the author of “Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road” &c. Illustrated by Robert Prowse and others. Edward Harrison, Salisbury Square, Fleet Street, 1866. Authorship is attributed to Edward Viles but in my estimation the author was James Malcolm Rymer.

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