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The Chiswell Street Chronicles

Come with me on a walk through Moorfields

The year is 1775. London is bursting at the seams. It has breached the confines of its ancient Roman blueprint to become the largest city in Europe. Though most Londoners live within walking distance of open countryside, Moorfields is one of the last remaining plots of open land in the city. It straddles the wall, with lower Moorfields sitting ‘within’ as it is called, and built on it is Bethlem hospital, or Bedlam, as it is known. Under the trees to the fore, you might see women taking their exercise, acting as if oblivious to the incurables inside.

Until a decade ago, here stood Moorgate, built so that Londoners might access the fields for their recreation and the militia could pass on their way to the Royal Artillery Ground. After the Great Fire, the land became home to some of the 100,000 who were left destitute, a shanty town of ‘miserable huts and hovels’ built from wreckage salvaged from elegant homes. Many chose to settle in the area, a warren of small streets, narrow alleyways and cobbled courtyards. To this day, a handful of huts and makeshift shops remain.

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London is, and always has been, a city of stark contrasts. Those who have and those who have not. On Mondays maids use the fields to peg out their laundry. Used as an unofficial market-place, a stall here might be a makeshift table, a hand-cart, a wooden tray worn on a strap around a neck, offering everything from knife-grinding to cure-alls labelled Sintelaer’s Royal Ointment or Lady Moor’s Drops, suggesting noble patronage. They are the site of sporadic shows, auctions, and wrestling. But after dark Moorfields is downright dangerous, with a reputation for harbouring highwaymen and others on the run from the law.

Perhaps because we are not short of sinners, it became the favourite haunt of open-air preachers. At five in the morning and seven in the evening, John Wesley used to attract crowds of up to 50,000 people. Here in Moorfields his men raised a large shed they called The Tabernacle for use as a chapel. He has since moved into what was a Foundry for casting brass cannons.

To the west of upper Moorfields lies Chiswell Street, home to several notable occupants.

The Dance family of architects live here. George Dance jr. set off on his Grand Tour aged 17 and then studied architecture in Rome. Mesmerised by the Temple of Juniper and later the Temple of Vesta, he returned to London clutching a gold medal for his neoclassical design of a Public Gallery. Since then, he has had his eye on Moorfields. The City planning committee recently approved his designs for an ‘oval amphitheatre’. Soon those who have for the last century called it home and traded under the free heavens will be evicted. A handsome quadrangle of brick-built houses is what he has in mind. Just what London needs, more luxury housing with balconettes of delicate ironwork at the first-floor windows! Where is the working man to live, I ask you? The labourers, the blacksmiths, the cobblers, the knife-grinders, the millers.

At number 26 is Caslon’s Type Foundry. The late William Caslon first turned his attention to type-founding when the Christian Knowledge Society engaged him to produce Arabic type fonts for an edition of the Psalms and New Testament in that language. Word spread and before long the excellence of Caslon’s hand-cut punches drove Dutch type fonts from the English market. Now the motto of every English publishers is, ‘If in doubt, use Caslon.’ All those years, his wife Elizabeth worked alongside him. Now widowed, she runs the foundry as Elizabeth Caslon & Sons and ships her husband’s famed fonts the world over.

A little further down the road we find Whitbread’s brewery. Samuel Whitbread took as his motto: ‘From small beginnings and with fair and honest dealings.’ With this he’s risen to become the largest producer of beer in all of London – and let me assure you, Londoners drink a lot of beer. Its water will leave you feeling sick as a dog. Yet Whitbread is thought of as something of an odd-ball, deeply pious and appearing at the Corn Exchange in plain clothes and a white apron. Whitbread’s is famed for its porter and stout, which takes time to mature – and that means storage. His great building project is underway and will guarantee Whitbread’s status as one of the wonders of industry. The roof of his new fermenting room will measure 60 feet across and 165 feet long, larger even than Westminster Palace.

The scene is set. Opposite the brewery, at number 46 is where our story begins.