Behind the Lines 3

Philippa Lewis

George Coke, Topographical view, the wall and trees of London Smallpox Hospital, oldbath Fields, Clerkenwell, London, 1796. Pencil, black ink and grey wash on paper, 168 × 280 mm. DMC 1875.

“Lord, Fanny, I had such a very strange encounter this morning. It being a Friday, I was delivering muffins down to that mad Lady Lewson in Cold Bath Square – her maid says she never washes and is most provoking – and as I was walking along the wall by the old Smallpox Hospital – lawks, it was hot! – I noticed this handsome young fellow sitting by the side of the road, drawing the wall. Imagine wanting to draw a wall – especially of that horrible old place, there’s a distillery there now, what a stink. Mind you, my father says in his young day when it was the Sir John Oldcastle’s tavern there was all manner of music, capers and fireworks, even a canal full of carp in the gardens. But that was forty years, back before those smallpox people moved in. Such a perturbation that caused, Pa said people thought it would ruin the neighbourhood. I never liked walking along there – scared to death I’d catch it. Talking about death – well, she didn’t die, but do you remember that pretty Sarah Robson who lived in Laystall Street, family with the wheelwright business? She caught it – pock-marks all over her face now, I don’t think anyone one will ever offer for her. Still, I reckon that new House of Correction, as they call it, up the road is even worse, they say all sorts of felons, vagrants and debtors are in there. My brother Samuel better watch out; he’s fallen in with a bad lot, drinking down the Apple Tree every evening. What a sot. He’ll be in there too if he’s not down the workhouse at Hockley in the Hole, his wits are that gone with drink. Father says round here is not what it was, and we will be obliged to move the bakery up to Islington. There is a deal of new houses springing up there, and Ma favours the better air. Pray, don’t look so reproachful Fanny, it’s not far away and I’ll still come visiting. Anyway, back to this artist fellow I was telling you about. I was a bit early, and he – the artist that is – was sitting in the shade, so I stopped and enquired what in heaven’s name he was doing, drawing that old wall and trees, and while I was asking, what was his name and where had he come from. A bit bold, I was, but he took my fancy. Said his name was George Coke, come all the way from Derbyshire – such an amiable lad. Quality linen shirt, I noticed, and spoke very cordially. Would you credit it, he’d fallen for a girl. Cassandra was her name, he said, and she’d got smallpox, died there, just before they closed the hospital and moved up to St Pancras. That must have been two years ago. He said he was drawing the trees that she would have looked out at as she lay dying. I call that morbid, don’t you? Mind you, there are some lovely big trees there – screened off the view of the building with all its inoculations and sickness and goings-on – and he’d done a wondrous likeness of them. Anyway, he was looking all melancholy as he told me this, so I thought I’d change the subject, and asked him where he lodged. Then he asked me about the Cold Bath, if I’d ever been. Lord, I’ve got better things to spend my money on, I said. By the way, Fan, have you seen those coquelicot shawls at the mercer’s down in the Royal Exchange? Not that I will ever have that sort of money. Still, a girl can dream. Anyway, I said to him I wasn’t in the way of dropsy, palsy, fevers and flushings, nor did I have rheumaticks, and you would never catch me in that old place. Then I was getting late with my errands, thought I’d better hurry on, so I bid him farewell, told him I liked his drawing of the trees and asked if would he put me in his picture. He said he would. So diverting. I confess I did flirt with him a trifle…”

With grateful thanks to, and profound admiration for, The Survey of London, volume 47, Northern Clerkenwell and Pentonville, published London County Council, 2008. [West of Farringdon Road, pp. 22–51.]