As a new book enlightens us on the history of night-walking in London, Andre Paine explores the nocturnal excursions of local authors – including Dickens and Dr Johnson – and Clerkenwell’s former place of detention for vagrants wandering our streets after dark.
“Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night,” wrote the poet Rupert Brooke. It’s one of many apposite quotations in Nightwalking, an illuminating new book about nocturnal London. Matthew Beaumont’s literary exploration of the night in the age before electricity describes a netherworld of wanderers, vagrants and poets – outsiders from society.
From the 13th century, the ‘common nightwalker’ was classed as a criminal, though in more recent centuries night-walking was also the habit of writers and thinkers. It seems the bohemian and homeless coexisted after dark. Night-walking was first associated with the city’s prostitutes and vagabonds in need of shelter. Some homeless people even slept near livestock in Smithfield for warmth. The death penalty for vagrancy was only abolished in 1597.
The Bridewell, on the banks of the Fleet, was used for vagrants and homeless children, as well as for the punishment of petty offenders and “disorderly women”. In 1615, Clerkenwell Bridewell was added (by what is now Sans Walk) to relieve the Bridewell to the south.
“It was built to house the rogues, vagabonds and prostitutes of Middlesex, and The New View of London (1708) describes it as a place ‘where idle loose persons in the county are set to work, and those guilty of lewdness, night-walking, picking of pockets, &c., are corrected,’” Matthew Beaumont tells The Post. “It was effectively replaced by Coldbath Fields Prison. So Clerkenwell was the county of Middlesex’s depot for night-walkers.”
By the late 17th century, the first public lighting created the conditions for a burgeoning nightlife. John Dunton’s The Night-Walker was a 1696 periodical that crusaded against prostitution. Dunton wandered the streets of Farringdon, Fleet Street and Holborn for evidence.
Ned Ward, a more hedonistic character, published a periodical about city life (day and night) called The London Spy from 1698 to 1700. In later years, he opened a pub near Clerkenwell Green.
Several of the writers who roamed the streets after dark were associated with Clerkenwell. In the late 1730s, Dr Johnson had grown distant from his wife because of his guilt about living off her money. During this difficult period, he used to enjoy midnight rambles with the dissolute poet Richard Savage – and some nights they may even have slept rough after their late-night walks. The pair had met at The Gentleman’s Magazine office in St John’s Gate.
When he compiled his famous dictionary years later, Johnson included a definition for night-walker: “one who roves in the night upon ill designs”.
William Blake, who’s buried in EC1’s Bunhill Fields, was a dedicated walker. But on the evening of 6 June, 1780 he was unwittingly caught up in the Gordon Riots. He was swept along as the culprits destroyed Newgate Prison.
The Irish poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith was homeless when he first arrived in the capital in 1756. He found lodgings in Green Arbour Court, near Snow Hill, and often went out at night because he was too shabby for daytime society. A few years later he published an essay, A City Night Piece, which expresses solidarity with vagabonds and prostitutes. He’s buried at Temple Church, off Fleet Street.
Charles Dickens was also known for his sympathy for the destitute. Night Walks, his haunting essay of 1860, was about his experience of insomnia some years earlier. His prescription was to walk the streets, and he describes “the restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep”.
Dickens lived near Clerkenwell in the late 1830s and set some of his novels here. Several years later, he wrote an article recalling a visit to the Ragged School Dormitory off Farringdon Street, which provided basic shelter to “thieves, cadgers, trampers, vagrants, common outcasts of all sorts”.
Beaumont, a senior lecturer at UCL, is writing a follow-up about night- walking in the modern era. As well as London, he says it will explore European and US cities and the different traditions of “writers and bohemians taking to the streets in order to lose and find themselves”.
“Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London” (Verso), by Matthew Beaumont, is published in paperback on 12 April.