" . . .a Statue, in the fore-front of your house
For euer ; like the picture of Dame Fortune
Before the Fortune play-house."
We may be pelted off, for ought we know,
With apples, eggs, or stones from thence below ;
In which weele craue your friendship, if we may,
And you shall haue a dance worth all the play."
Thomas Heywood, "English Traveller" (1633)
Happily, the history of this street is not pain, misery and disease. One of London’s first theatres; The Fortune Playhouse, opened at what came to be known as Playhouse Yard opposite what is now the Two Brewers pub.
Funded by the actor Edward Alleyn, famous for playing the title role in the original production Marlowe’s classic Faustus, and constructed in about 1600 by Peter Street, architect of the Globe, it became rapidly known as “the fairest play-house in the town”. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist recorded a visit and commented that he;
“found the musique better than we looked for and the acting not much worse, because I expected as bad as could be."
When it opened the theatre was a jewel in the crown of Elizabethan London, hosting receptions for foreign diplomats, and the box reserved for nobility to watch the shows was rarely empty.
However, the theatre soon began a slow and irreversible decline. It was customary after the show for the audience, their mood buoyed by alcohol and good spirits, to begin a drunken party, which the authorities at the time claimed led to murder, theft and violence. The ire of the governors of London was further raised by the fact that in 1613 a country farmer stabbed a city gentleman during one of these parties.
Around this period the infamous Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse aka ‘The Roaring Girl’ appeared on the stage. Mary Frith was an eccentric character; dressing almost exclusively in men’s clothing, she smoked heavily and constantly, stole and fenced goods and was apparently incredibly obscene in both her language and her conduct. She was known for appearing on the stage in a state of extreme drunkenness, singing dirty songs and bantering with the audience. This kind of genderbending ‘unwomanly’ behaviour would have been alien to the Elizabethan audience at the time, and it seems that Frith was tolerated simply because she bent societal norms so far that it became ludicrous. Regardless, she quickly became notorious, being mentioned in a lot of writing at the time as a unique London character. However, as useful as notoriety was to her, it did not serve the Fortune well, furthering its reputation as a place of ‘low’ behaviour, violence and depravity.
On the 9th of December 1621, the wooden theatre burned to the ground, leaving Alleyn in considerable financial trouble. The theatre reopened in 1623, although its reputation as a den of licentiousness and bawdy activity did not disappear with the new building.
In 1624 the well-known astrologer and abortionist ‘Dr’ John Lambe, who was apparently an expert in securing poor pre-adolescent virgins for sexual use by the rich was mobbed when coming out of the theatre and ‘hys braines were bashed out’. He aroused the ire of the crowd by raping and buggering an eleven year old virgin named Joan Seger. The offence was compounded when it was discovered he had infected her with venereal disease. He was found guilty, but the Duke of Buckingham intervened, and Lambe was set free. Many aristocrats were in Lambe’s debt, ostensibly for his astrological predictions, but actually because he won favour by performing numerous clandestine abortions among London high society. Following his vicious beating by the mob, he died soon after.
In 1626 a riot broke out, with sailors apparently smashing seats and violently brawling, seriously injuring a Constable. The Fortune Theatre’s name now seems to be becoming ironic, an outbreak of plague closed the theatre from 1636 – 1637, causing the owners of the theatre to fall into crippling debt. Again controversy struck, as the actors, having performed what was considered to be a religious ceremony on stage were fined £1000, an enormous sum of money.
Things came to a head in 1642. The new Puritan parliament ordered the closure of all theatres, seeing the performances as impure and ungodly. Laws were enacted threatening to imprison anyone using the now-disused theatre for performance work. It sounds like a pretty joyless time to live in London for theatre-lovers. The actors bravely tried to violate the edict, itis recorded that the theatre was raided and costumes and scenery seized, but the game was up. Soon, soldiers stormed the theatre, ripping up the seats, smashing the stage and laying waste to the building. The building was by now a ruin, partially collapsing under its own weight, a danger to anyone that would dare set foot within. The owners, finally seeing that there was no way back, sold what rubble and masonry remained for scrap.
Entertainment on the street was also present in a far more salacious form at the famous Six Windmills pub, later to be renamed the ‘Jack a Newberries Six Windmills’. This place was reknowned as an ‘ale-house of ill repute’. It was run by a woman named Priss Fotheringham, who, in John Garfield’s 1660 tome ‘the Wand’ring Whore’ (a guide to London’s prostitutes) is ranked the second-best in the city.
Priss Fotheringham, much whose life revolved around her pub/brothel on Whitecross Street, was a remarkable woman in many ways. She is first mentioned in the Middlesex Sessions in 1658 where she is sentenced to be hanged for theft. Fortunately, she is pardoned, and then soon after marries into the Fotheringham family, whose trade for many decades had been brothel keeping. Her new husband, the young Edmund Fotheringham, quickly became her pimp. She was not a beautiful woman, her face being scarred by the pock-marks of smallpox, so she concentrated on developing the erotic novelty act which made her name.
The more sensitively minded of you may want to skip the few paragraphs, as it shall be proved that 17th Century Londoners took as much pleasure in bizarre and kinky sex acts as they do today. Priss decided to bring back an act that was last historically popular in the time of the Romans known as ‘chucking’. Chucking, Priss-style, involved her standing on her head with two men holding her legs apart. Customers in the tavern would then insert coins into her ‘commoditie’. It is recorded that she was able to fit sixteen half-crowns into her ‘commoditie’, and to close the act, a gentleman would pour a bottle of red wine down the hatch. Priss is reported as saying that she did not mind the coins so much, but became annoyed when cheap wine was used as “it smarted”. A half-crown was a considerable sum at the time, and John Garfield gleefully exclaims upon seeing the act that “a Cunny is the dearest piece of flesh in the world!”
Naturally this performance was a hit, and her corner of Whitecross Street began to attract clientele from far and wide seeking to watch the spectacle, which she performed several times a day. But, of course, where there is success, there soon tends to be competition, and Priss soon found an adversary. A ‘Mrs. Cupid’ took up residence in the tavern, and it is recorded in ‘the Wand’ring Whore’ that;
“one evening French dollars, a pair of Spanish pistols and English Half-Crowns were chuck’d in as plentifully poured the Rhenish wine.. the Half Crowns chuckt into her Commoditie doing lesser harm than the Wine … for its searing and burning quality.”
And so it went that larger and more bizarre objects began to be used in a kind of vaginal arms race. ‘Mrs. Cupid’ fades out of the historical record at this point, so it can be assumed that Priss maintained her title as ‘Queen of the Chuckers’.
This kind of career does not have any long-term prospects, and as the years advanced Priss moved into the managerial side of brothel running, becoming a kind of matron for the younger girls. She was a physically fit woman, she would have had to be to keep the chucking game up as long as she did, but in her later years she was afflicted by disease. John Garfield writes in 1663 that she was “now overgrown with age and overworn with her former all-to-frequent embraces”. Her husband died soon after, “rotten with syphilis” and in 1668 Priss, now in her mid-fifties succumbed too. She died wealthy, leaving a notorious house of ill-repute behind her. In some ways, as a successful entrepreneur and business owner in her own right, Priss can be seen almost as a precursor of women’s liberation, although admittedly I would imagine that standing on her head with a drunken Londoner about to dispense a bottle of cheap wine into her, she may not have felt particularly liberated. Nonetheless, she stands as an interesting insight into what Londoners considered top-flight erotic entertainment.
More mainstream theatre did make its way back to Whitecross Street in the 19th century, albeit in an unrefined and crude manner. There is recorded as being a ‘penny gaff’ on Whitecross St. These were extremely informal stage affairs, almost a precursor of the later music-hall era. Performances ranged from re-enactments of famous highway robberies, to musical and variety acts.
“It is one thing to read about the flashing and slashing of steel blades, and of the gleam of pistol barrels, and the whiz of bullets, and of the bold highwayman’s defiant “ha! ha!” as he cracks the skull of the coach-guard, preparatory to robbing the affrighted passengers; but to be satisfactory the marrow and essence of the blood-stirring tragedy can only be conveyed to him in bodily shape. There are many elements of a sanguinary drama that may not well be expressed in words. As, for instance, when Bill Bludjon, after having cut the throat of the gentleman passen¬ger, proceeds to rob his daughter, and finding her in possession of a locket with some grey hair in it, he returns it to her with the observation, “Nay, fair lady, Bill Bludjon may be a thief: in stern defence of self he may occasionally shed blood, but, Perish the Liar who says of him that he respects not the grey hairs of honourable age!”
- James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869
These penny gaffs, described by Greenwood as “abominable” nonetheless provided the poor of London at least a modicum of entertainment in their otherwise hard, painful and frequently short lives. The theatrical tradition of Whitecross Street would seem to have come to a halt with the advent of the cinema. The street by then was a fairly run-down area with a poor reputation. No-one would build a cinema on the street, and audiences for theatrical performances would have been hard to attract here. However, after the wholesale destruction of much of the street by German bombs, it was decided that a massive social housing project would be started, encompassing modern living areas, communal facilities and green spaces for the use of the residents. This was christened the Barbican Complex. It was decreed that as part of the Barbican, an arts centre would be built, which occupies what was once the southern end of Whitecross Street.
Opened in 1982 and presenting a diverse range of theatre, cinema, music and art, the Barbican Centre is the largest performing arts centre in Europe. Contained within is one of the most comprehensive libraries in the centre of London, with an extensive musical library of scores. The library is the home of the ‘London Collection’ – a historical collection of books and resources, some dating back 300 years. Designed in the brutalist style, the architecture has come under extensive criticism, being described as "London's ugliest building" in a Grey London poll in September 2003. The structure of the building is a concrete ziggurat, it is difficult from the exterior to have any idea what the building is like inside, giving is a strange quality, almost sealed off from the outside world. It’s not the easiest place to find either. The Barbican complex is a multi-level concrete maze, traversing it can feel like you’re stuck in some thriller set in a dystopian future.
There are few who realise that when visiting the cinemas or theatre here that they are participating in a 400 year old tradition, on much the same ground they are treading in the footsteps of those Elizabethan audiences that flocked to see Marlowe’s initial productions of Faustus. But then, such is the nature of London.
Continued in Part 5