Friday, June 17, 2011

The Boys from Clerkenwell

By John Adcock

James Malcolm Rymer, popular author of Varney the Vampyre and The String of Pearls, which introduced the monstrous Sweeney Todd to English mythology, grew up in Clerkenwell, the second son of Malcolm Rymer, engraver and print-seller, and Louisa Dixon, milliner. When Dickens wrote of Oliver Twist entering London he was describing the area James Malcolm knew well; the boundaries were between St. John’s Road and Saffron Hill.

As John Dawkins objected to their entering London before nightfall, it was nearly eleven o’clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. They crossed from the Angel into St. John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great; along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.
James Malcolm Rymer was born 1 Feb 1814 at Holborn, London, and his first known dwelling was on St. John’s Street abutting that part of Clerkenwell known as the “Cow-Cross” district -- a district full of prostitutes, burglars, gin-shops, poverty, and half-starved, half-naked, lice-infested juvenile delinquents. Police and Ragged-school workers were routinely assaulted, the women fought as viciously as the men and gin-shops remained open on Sunday.

The Illustrated London News described this part of Clerkenwell on May 22 1847 as a place where “amid the dingy, swarming alleys, crowded with tattered, sodden-looking women, and hulking unwashed men, clustering around the doors of low-browed public houses, or seated by dingy, un-windowed shops, frowsy with piles of dusty, rickety rubbish, or reeking with the odour of coarse food; lumps of carrion-like meat simmering in greasy pans, and brown crusty-looking morsels of fish, still gluey with the oil in which they have been fried.”

“The keeper of the “fence” loves to set up in business there -- low public houses abound where thieves drink and smoke -- Jew receivers lurk at corners -- brazen, ragged women scream and shout ribald repartees from window to window. The burglar has his “crib” in Clerkenwell -- the pickpocket has his mart -- the ragged Irish hodman vegetates in the filth of his three-pair back. It is the locality of dirt, and ignorance, and vice -- the recesses whereof are known but to the disguised policeman, as he gropes his way up rickety staircases toward the tracked housebreaker’s den; or the poor, shabby genteel City Missionary, as he kneels at midnight by the foul straw of some convulsed and dying outcast.”
James Malcolm Rymer’s family was probably better off than most. He must have worked in his father’s shop, Rymer & Sons, with his brothers Gavin, born 1812, and Chadwick Francis, born 1816. Gavin (see Peep Show print immediately below) and Chadwick were engravers by profession, and by tradition. The boys’ grandfather was James Rymer, an Edinburgh engraver who had a conflict with one of his apprentice’s in 1781 that was recorded in Scotland’s Decisions of the Court of Sessions from 1752-1808.

In May 1776 James Rymer had taken an eleven year old boy as an apprentice and the papers were witnessed by Gavin Rymer, shoemaker, and Adam Richardson, “ditto.” The witness was probably James’s brother or son, and the namesake of James Malcolm’s brother Gavin. James Malcolm's other siblings were Thomas, born 1815, Malcolm, born 1820, and Louisa, 1826. Chadwick Francis Rymer had some success as an artist who specialized in “cattle” scenes and exhibited five oil paintings in London between 1843 and 1848.

Clerkenwell was north and slightly uphill of the City of London and Smithfield. After the Napoleonic wars the population swelled and fine streets became slums filled with workshops, tenements, squalid alleys and courts, millinery sweatshops and Ragged Schools. The Fleet River was a stinking sewer, outbreaks of cholera were common, and the Smithfield cattle market was a health hazard until it was removed in 1855. Clerkenwell was a vital centre for radicalism largely due to the poverty, crime and overcrowding. In 1832 the new police and the unemployed had a bloody clash in Cold Bath Fields which led to the ‘Clerkenwell Riot.’ Clerkenwell Green was a popular meeting-place for Chartist orators.

Clerkenwell’s grim House of Detention was built in 1616. Jack Sheppard and his mistress Edgeworth Bess were imprisoned there in 1724 but escaped by sawing through the bars. It was demolished in 1890. William Hepworth Dixon, writing in 1850 of The London Prisons, said that Clerkenwell “is low London of low London…”

“We take it for granted that Clerkenwell is known to every breakfast table in this Kingdom. To the careful reader of the police reports, the name of this district must be as familiar as the commonest household word… chief scene of violence and outrage which the capital has to boast. Although not so exclusively the haunt of thieves, burglars, prostitutes and vagabonds as St. Giles’s and the low neighbourhoods about the Broadway, Westminster, it is, nevertheless, far more remarkable for crimes of the darkest kind than either of those notorious localities. More murders and attempts at murder take place in Clerkenwell than in any other part of London….
…Threading his way from Newgate, through Smithfield market, along Cow-cross, and by Saffron-hill, into the heart of Clerkenwell, the pedestrian passes through some of the worst quarters of the great city… He traverses narrow dirty streets and courts, crowded and filthy as the by-places in Houndsditch, miserable and destitute of light, water, almost of air; he sees property dilapidated and falling to a mass of foul and ugly rubbish; children with pale and ghastly faces; forms hideous with premature disease, arising from the unnatural and unhealthy circumstances into which they are helplessly cast.”
In 1839 James Malcolm Rymer, a ‘civil engineer,’ was living in close proximity to the House of Detention at 7, Cobham Row. Mayhew and Binny described the area round the prison in The Great World of London (1862) as a place “where few people care to reside… it may account for the dingy and distressed appearance of the buildings that surround the jail in Coldbath Fields… in Cobham Row, the heavy white sashes to the casements, the curious iron-work, and the peculiar style of brick-work, strongly indicate the old-fashioned character of the buildings.”

Once past the prison Clerkenwell was described as “notoriously the hardest-working quarter of London,” filled with brass-founders, grocer’s canister-makers, brush-board makers, and undertakers. “Turning down Phoenix Place we see yards converted into saw-mills, and jets of steam bursting out of the midst of tiled sheds; and we hear too, the grating, hissing sound of machinery.” At the northern side of the prison wall was an unpaved ground where “boys have established their play-ground, and amuse themselves with pitch-in-the-hole, tossing for buttons, and games at marbles, or else they perform their gymnastic exercises on the thick rails and posts, placed across the broad rude pathway to obstruct the passage of cabs and cattle.”

James Malcolm lived in Clerkenwell until his marriage to Caroline Huttly in 1839 when he was 25 years old, then moved to Bloomsbury. Soon after, in 1842 he was to be found editing a sixpenny monthly, Queen’s Magazine: a Monthly Miscellany of Literature and Art. In 1843 he took up writing penny bloods for Edward Lloyd, starting with Ada the Betrayed; or, the Murder at the Old Smithy, which began as a serial in the first number of Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany and was then issued in penny numbers.

In an article titled “Popular Writing” Rymer wrote for Queen’s Magazine in 1842, shortly before he took his own advice, that “If an author then, wishes to become popular… he should, ere he begins to write, study well the animals for whom he is about to cater…

“But it may be said, How are we to account for the taste which maintained so long for works of terror and blood -- those romances which abounded with mysterious horrors, and reveled in the supernatural? Most easily. It is the privilege of the ignorant and the weak to love superstition. The only strong moral sensation they are capable of is fear. The dishes of horror served up by a Radcliffe, a Walker, or a Lewis, served as the piquant sauces to the plain meat, nicely done, of a Richardson, a Mackenzie, or a Burney. Is the superstitious terror of a nursery maid, who reads her allowance of rushlight with indescribable dismay, ‘The Blood Spangled Monk; or, the Inhuman Shreik,’ to be called a love of imaginative literature? As well we might accuse her of a sublime notion of the supernatural, when she threatens one of her infant charges with the immediate appearance of a mysterious personage, known in many establishments as ‘The Old Man,’ ‘Bogie,’ &c. The taste for the horrible is by no means surprising. It has been, and ever will be. There are millions of minds that have no resource between vapid sentimentality, and the ridiculous spectra of the nursery.”

*Edith the Captive; or, The Robbers of Epping Forest.* By James Malcolm Rymer,
Illustrated by C. F. Sargent and C. Bonner, 104 Nos. London: John Dicks. May 12, 1860.


  1. I didn't understand the phrase "the ragged Irish hodman vegetates in the filth of his three-pair back." Is a "three-pair back" some kind of housing arrangement?

    I read this fascinating article with mixed feelings. Even discounting the era's taste for florid writing, I'm struck by the self-righteous contempt that drips from the London News article. They might as well be describing some species of insect rather than fellow human beings.

    From his article it appears Rymer's experiences in the region did little to soften his attitude toward his ex-neighbors. The cold pragmatism of his exhortation to give the ignorant swine what they want remains one of the key principles of marketing.

  2. "three-pair back" I think is a reference to a shared accommodation. A lot of social pundits of the tabloids of the time feigned shock at mixed sexes of all ages sharing a single room.