Spiegelhalters, Norton Folgate and the Water Poet
By DAVID COLLARD
Earlier this year I blogged about a campaign to save the façade of an abandoned jeweller's shop, Spiegelhalters, in London's East End.
Property developers wanted to obliterate this plucky little structure and replace it with a glass atrium flanked by massive oxidized slabs, wiping out a century-old story and erasing what the great topographer Ian Nairn called "one of the best visual jokes in London". The campaign attracted thousands of supporters and widespread media coverage, perhaps because the stakes are immediately comprehensible – you don't have to be an architectural expert to see what happened here: a small family firm held out against bullying developers, and saw them off.
Six months after it was launched the campaign has now ended because the architects, Buckley Gray Yeoman, aware of public feeling (and perhaps belatedly realizing that they have a fascinating asset rather than a liability on their hands), have submitted revised proposals which incorporate the façade . . .
Spiegelhalters remains a potent symbol of bloody-minded opposition and contrariness, qualities that are much needed today, as London disappears in a wave of speculative developments. News of another victory suggests that conservationists are beginning to win the day.
About a mile to the west of Spiegelhalters lies the wonderful enclave known as Norton Folgate, an ungentrified backwater of cobbled streets and shabby warehouses, a stone's throw from Hawksmoor's mighty Christ Church, Spitalfields and the lovely silk weavers' houses in Fournier Street. The developers, British Land, planned a wholesale demolition, retaining some of the façades and erecting behind them the usual corporate glass and steel boxes. Thanks largely to a campaign organized by the Gentle Author (who blogs anonymously, daily, and inimitably, here), Tower Hamlets Council last month rejected the developers' proposals.
If you've never made a perambulation of the district, once home to Christopher Marlowe – well, you certainly should. From the Middle Ages until 1900 Norton Folgate was a self-governing "extra-parochial liberty" within the City of London – a district in which rights reserved to the king were devolved into private hands. The Liberty of Norton Folgate consisted of around eight acres, now reduced to Folgate Street, Spital Square, Elder Street, Fleur de Lis Street and Blossom Street.
On Folgate Street is a wonderful pub with an evocative name – the Water Poet. I went for a drink there recently to celebrate the Spiegelhalter victory and stayed for a couple more. The place is named after John Taylor (1578–1653), who was born in Gloucester but spent much of his life as a Thames waterman, a member of the guild of boatmen that ferried passengers across the River Thames (there was only one bridge at the time). Taylor rose in the hierarchy of the guild to serve as its clerk. In The True Cause of the Watermen's Suit Concerning Players (written c.1613), he wrote about the watermen's disputes with the riverside theatre companies which, in 1612, moved en masse from the south bank to the north, depriving the watermen of their income.
Taylor was a prolific writer with more than 150 publications in his lifetime, many of which were gathered into the compilation All the Workes of John Taylor the Water Poet (1630; with a facsimile reprint by Scholar Press in 1973). His prose is unpolished but his observations of seventeenth-century London will appeal to social historians.
He was something of a public prankster, undertaking a number of eccentric journeys that were, in effect, crowd-funded conceptual artworks. He travelled from London to Queenborough in Kent in a paper boat with two stockfish tied to canes for oars. In 1618, he walked to Scotland: he took no money with him, but later published an account of his travels in The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, alias the Kings Magesties Water-Poet; How He TRAVAILED on Foot from London to Edenborough in Scotland, Not Carrying any Money To or Fro, Neither Begging, Borrowing, or Asking Meate, Drinke, or Lodging. He had an impressive tally of 1,600 subscribers. When some of them failed to pay up he published A Kicksey Winsey, or, A Lerry Come-Twang, Wherein John Taylor hath satirically suited 800 of his bad debtors, that will not pay him for his return of his Journey from Scotland.
A final claim to fame: Taylor is among the earliest authors to whom a palindrome can be attributed: "Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel". (That ampersand will irritate the purist.) The London pub that bears his pen-name has a convivial walled beer garden, a perfect place to raise a glass to the shade of the man himself.