Amongst the pleasant recollections of old, vanished London that I possess, none is more agreeable than my memories of the old inns. I do not mean the inns which would now be called hostels — in an attempt to be older than the old — that is, the various Inns of Chancery, though of these I could tell a long tale. I remember well the joy of turning aside from the gaiety of the Strand when the Strand was the cheerfullest, most delightful street in all London, and, as I believe, in the world, and going up a little quiet way and so into Clement’s Inn, with its fine Hall, its lawns, its peace and quiet, and its Garden House, a red brick, mid-Georgian house in the middle of a green garden. Once when I turned thus aside, the Garden House was empty, and I asked the rent. It was only £120 a year; but it was slightly beyond my means. And then there was New Inn, as peaceful as Clement’s, which it adjoined, but not so green. There were some sad, broken fragments of it surviving off Aldwych up to two or three years ago, but I am afraid these are now gone. The main entrance to New Inn was in Wych Street.
“The gentleman next in esteem and authority among us is another Bachelor who is a member of the Inner Temple. He is an excellent Critic and the time of the Play is his hour of business; exactly at five he passes through New Inn, crosses through Russell Court, and takes a turn at Will’s till the play begins.”
Thus the Spectator, and thus, I think, we see one of the sources of the younger Dickens. Lyons’ Inn, where the old Globe Theatre stood, was gone long before my day. Barnard’s, which Pip in “Great Expectations” disliked so thoroughly, has been converted into the Mercer’s School, its hall happily intact; Clifford’s (one of the choicest specimens of the Inns of Chancery) survives in a fragmentary state, but, I am afraid, will not last much longer. Thavie’s Inn, the residence of Mr. Jellaby, still exists by Holborn, but looks exactly like a street. I suppose it was rebuilt soon after the Society of Lincoln’s Inn sold it in 1771. It was named after John Thavie, an armourer, who lived in the reign of Edward III. Thus do old, old names, even the names of lesser men, cling to our London byways.
But it is not of the inns of this sort that I am thinking, but rather of those inns of common, not of legal, entertainment. It is odd to note that the word is fast becoming — if it has not become — obsolete, together with tavern; the reason being, as I suppose, that the things themselves are gone, or almost gone. We have hotels and we have “pubs”; scarcely inns or taverns. One of the noblest of the old inns that I remember was the Bell, in Holborn, to which the Amersham coach used to run up to in 1880, or thereabouts. Facing the street, it was seen to be a late seventeenth century building of dim and yet warm old brick, with a fine coat of arms in terra-cotta set into it. But within, under the archway, it was, in my recollection, almost a replica of the White Hart Yard, as shown in the “Pickwick” plate, depicting the first appearance of Mr. Samuel Weller. There were two tiers of galleries leading to the bedrooms, running round three sides of the court. In a word, you turned from Holborn into the seventeenth century, as, by the way, you may still turn if you will take the trouble to walk under Gray’s Inn archway through South Square into Gray’s Inn Square. Then, near at hand, was Ridley’s Family Hotel, with bow windows bulging over the Holborn pavement; a sound, comfortable, snug-looking place, where I can see archdeacons reading the Times after breakfast. Of the taverns of former years my chief recollections cluster round the Cock, standing where a branch of the Bank of England now stands, near the corner of Chancery Lane. I had several chops in that old coffee-room of the Cock, where Tennyson called for his pint of port, of which he wrote one of the finest things in the lighter vein that have been written in English or in any other language. Thus to the head-waiter:
Live long, ere from thy topmost head
The thick-set hazel dies;
Long, ere the hateful crow shall tread
The comers of thine eyes;
Live long, nor feel in head or chest
Our changeful equinoxes,
Till mellow Death, like some late guest,
Shall call thee from the boxes.
My occasional visits to the old vanished tavern were paid in its last days, in ‘82 or ‘83. I do not know what I could have been reading, what eighteenth century stuff was in my head — I was twenty at the time — but I had a vague idea that I should meet “the wits” at the Cock, otherwise, “the most respectable authors of the day.” I should think I was about a hundred years too late. I met no wits at the Cock, and I found that the coffee-room began to empty soon after nine, when, according to my out-dated fancies, it should have begun to be brilliant. But the odd thing is that once upon a time the sort of thing that I expected to happen did really happen.
“I was about seventeen when I first came up to town, an odd-looking boy, with short rough hair, and that sort of awkwardness which one always brings up at first out of the country. However, in spite of my bashfulness and appearance, I used now and then to thrust myself into Will’s to have the pleasure of seeing the most celebrated wits of that time, who then resorted thither. The second time that ever I was there, Mr. Dryden was speaking of his own things, as he frequently did, especially of such as had been lately published. ‘If anything of mine is good,’ said he, ’tis MacFlecknoe; and I value myself the more upon it, because it is the first piece of ridicule written in Heroics!’ On hearing this, I plucked up my spirit so far as to say, in a voice just loud enough to be heard, ‘that MacFlecknoe was a very fine poem, but that I had not imagined it to be the first that ever was writ that way.’ On this, Dryden turned short upon me, as surprised at my interposing; asked me how long I had been a dealer in poetry; and added, with a smile, ‘Pray, sir, what is it that you did imagine to have been writ so before?’ I named Boileau’s Lutrin, and Tassoni’s Secchia Rapita, which I had read, and knew Dryden had borrowed some strokes from each. ‘’Tis true,’ said Dryden, ‘I had forgot them.’ A little after Dryden went out, and in going spoke to me again, and desired me to come and see him next day. I was delighted with the invitation; went to see him accordingly and was well acquainted with him after, as long as he lived.”
Thus it was at Will’s, the Great Coffee House in Covent Garden, as Pepys called it. It was No.1, Bow Street, on the west side at the corner of Russell Street, and was perhaps the most illustrious of London taverns, from the Restoration to early Hanoverian days. It was here that “old Swinney” described Dryden as holding court. He told Dr. Johnson that “at Will’s Coffee House Dryden had a particular chair for himself, which was set by the fire in winter, and was then called his winter-chair; and that it was carried out for him to the balcony in summer, and was then called his summer-chair.”
Decidedly, I was a little late in searching for the wits at the Cock.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53