James Partleton (1837-1876)
James Partleton was born on 05 May 1837, the eldest of nine kids born to his father James Partleton (1806-1873) and mother Mary Ann Palmer. James' mum and dad were never married - as far as we can tell. Why not? Well, Mary Ann Palmer was actually born Mary Ann Garrad - she had been married before - and it's possible her first husband might still have been alive! Divorce was very, very rare in the 1800's, just a few hundred per year, and was quite impossible for the working classes.
James' family is carried, haplessly, on the wave of the population explosion, mostly of the poor, which took place in London in the 1800's. This growth would test the old London way of life to its breaking point, and beyond, as we shall see richly illustrated by James' own experience.
He was born in Houghton Street, Clare Market, Strand, but we will come back to that later. We are going to start our story with his baptism, aged four, at the church of St Mary-Le-Strand:
Those of you who are familiar with this website will know that James' home address given at this Baptism, Feathers Court, a dismal yard off of Drury Lane, is the lowest of low-rent properties, a murder scene, a den of vice, prostitution, drunkenness, disease - you name it.
Feathers Court is near the junction of Drury Lane and The Strand, in the blue circle in the map of London below:
Below is a closer look at Feathers Court, at the southern end of Drury Lane, from Richard Horwood's map of 1799. It's in the green circle:
We've seen quite a bit of the area where James grew up on The Partleton Tree website, but there are always more pictures of these streets if you look hard enough, and I know our gentle readers never tire of looking at new pictures. Let's have a look at a map showing the whole of Drury Lane:
Feathers Court is not named in this map, which was published by Edward Stanford in 1862. It is the small courtyard branching off Drury Lane, circled in blue:
I'm going to explore the neighbourhood around James' birthplace, but I found so much stuff, too much stuff, so many images, that they became a serious obstacle to James' story. Consequently, I have put much of it in an addendum at the end of this narrative.
One of the things I found was this half-moon face. Our James as a little boy quite certainly, unquestionably, cast his eyes on it... you'll find out how I can be so sure, in the addendum to this story:
James Partleton's home, Feathers Court, was a squalid overcrowded slum. Here's a photo of Angel Court, just 30 yards away as the crow flies, seen from the red arrow, which will give us a pretty good idea what we should envision. This is what young James' home looked like from the outside:
But we can get closer to Feathers Court, with a reminder that it is circled blue in the map below:
Below is a new view of Drury Lane - new to this website anyhoo, but from a familiar viewpoint. We're standing within 5 yards of Feathers Court, looking south towards the church of St Mary-le-Strand from the dark brown arrow in the map.
James lived on this exact spot till he was 9 years old; it would be a highly familiar sight to him:
And here's a familiar engraving, from the same spot, but for the first time, we see it in colour:
This snapshot of life on Drury Lane, also from the brown arrow, slap-bang on our James' doorstep, was painted by artist John Wykeham Archer in the 1840's.
The streetscape of Drury Lane directly outside Feathers Court was almost overpoweringly picturesque... there's just something about it... paintings of the Cock and Magpie pub aka the Cock & Pie, on the right of the picture, proliferate throughout the 19th century. The earliest image I have found is from 1807, held in the British Museum:
Even in 1807, this building was described as 'ancient architecture'. This is a wonderfully evocative scene, drawn by S Rawle. The artist disapprovingly shows a mother, drunk, holding a glass in her hand, her baby in a cradle next to her. She is apparently being greeted by the man in the street. But Drury Lane was noted for prostitution - there may be more meaning in this picture which is not obvious to the modern observer.
I like the clothes hanging in the street ahead.
At a later date, workmen are digging up the road; probably for an innovation - sewers, something from which our James did not benefit. Feathers court had a cesspit which had to be cleared out at regular intervals... so long as there was someone willing and able to pay the cesspit digger.
The viewpoint is a few yards south of the brown arrow:
In October 1853 the Illustrated London News sent a reporter and an artist to Drury Lane to report on the poverty in those satanic courtyards which festered behind the cheerful shopfronts. They went to Coal-Yard, at the north end of Drury Lane; the point of the orange arrow in the map above.
The scan is not particularly good, but the here's what the newspaper narrative says about the top picture, of The King's Arms Yard, Coal-Yard, Drury Lane:
'A worse sanitary state of things could not well be than in the neighbourhood of the Coal-Yard Drury-Lane. Here are lying sixteen to eighteen large families living in small inconvenient apartments, above cow-sheds, donkey- and horse-stables &c. Sometimes many cartloads of refuse are allowed to remain in the yard. The pavement is uneven, and filled here and there with stagnant water. It is shocking to see the squalid children attempting to play in such a place.'
Let's get a closer look in Horwood's map of 1799:
Houses in Richard Horwood's map are shaded with dots. Other buildings, including stables, are cross-hatched. King's-Arms Yard is in fact the southern court of Coal-Yard, and if we take another look at a slightly clearer copy of that 1853 engraving of King's Arms Yard, we can see where the artist stood; from the viewpoint of the green arrow in the map above:
I can smell this place from here, 500 miles away and into the second millennium! Notice the water pump, drawing drinking water right next to the two gratings where the animal waste - and, no doubt, human waste - would be drained. 185 people died in the Drury Lane area in the 1849 cholera outbreak.
I recently discovered an 1863 book by the Victorian architect, writer and social-reformer George Godwin titled Another Blow for Life, which campaigned for better sanitation and for reforms to help the poor. George, you must have known that at some time in the future, I would be striving to understand the conditions of life faced by my ancestors, because your book answered many questions which have bugged me for years.
George Godwin also went for a walk down Drury Lane. Ok, granted, it was 16 years after our James had left the area, but I'll wager that things haven't changed much in that time. Indeed, he also had a look at Coal Yard, ten years after the Illustrated London News had visited this hell-hole, so we need another look at that map of the north end of Drury Lane:
Here's our first illustration from Another Blow for Life. It's an unnamed court running out of Coal-Yard. And since it's not named, it's not possible to tell which one it is among the maze of alleys and rat-runs. However, because Richard Horwood's map is drawn with a strict eye for scale, and we are looking for a very narrow alley, the most likely candidate is Shaw's Court at the point of the red arrow in the map:
Left: (Fig. 27), Alleyway off Coal-Yard, Drury Lane
Here's what Mr Godwin had to say about this alley, which was just 2 feet 5 inches wide in places!
This takes us nicely on to Barley Court, which is also in Coal-Yard, but in this case, we can identify its exact location on the map as we'll see in a minute.
But firstly, let's see what Barley Court looks like: I have a strong inclination that it is very similar to Feathers Court, home of our James Partleton. The difference is that Feathers Court was four stories, not three:
Left: [Fig. 28], Barley Court
The characters in this scene seem to be playing some sort of gambling game. George Godwin's title for this picture is 'Who Sowed the Tares?', from the Biblical Parable of the Tares. Tares are weeds - sown by the Devil - growing in a cornfield, which the author uses as a pun on the name Barley Court... Why?...
Well, we see George Godwin's point, in his narrative, describing occupants of Drury Lane and Barley Court:
There are exactly four houses on each side of Barley Court, as you can see in the picture above, where the artist stood at the viewpoint of the yellow arrow below:
George Godwin told us that Barley Court is accessed from Smart's Buildings, and this, combined with engraving above, and the sublime perfectionism of Richard Horwood who drew every house in London on his map, shows us its exact place in the universe.
Just for confirmation, Barley Court is named in Lockie's Topography of London (1810):
So, what else can George Godwin's first-hand investigations tell us about James Partleton's charming childhood neighbourhood?
The Victorians had quite a liking for renaming streets and for making the historian's life difficult by using multiple names for the same location. Ashlin's Place is called Ragged Staff Court in the 1799 map, as we see it at the point of the blue arrow in the map below:
Here's how we can be sure that it's the right place; it's listed in A Topographical Dictionary of London by architect James Elmes (1831):
Ashlin's Place, unwholesome as it was in the 1800's, was claimed to be the starting-point of the Great Plague of London in 1665. Here's what it looked like in 1863, from the blue arrow:
George Godwin was led by his nose to a sickening smell emanating from this yard... no doubt the same smell experienced by a young James Partleton as he passed the same part of Drury Lane a few years earlier...
The big surprise is that the house at Ashlin's Court, in the heart of the bustling and overcrowded capital city of the world's biggest empire, has rather unusual tenants in the 1800's: A herd of cows.
If you think that perhaps Feathers Court, Drury Lane might be better than Coal-Yard, Drury Lane, check out what Victorian philanthropist Charles Booth had to say about Feathers Court for his famous Poverty Map of London:
'Dark, airless, "the worst in the subdivision"' was Charles Booth's view of our James' home.
If you read the web pages for James' little sister Sarah who went on to die of cholera aged five, his brother Benjamin, or his little baby sister Mary Ann who died in Feathers Court, aged four, of tuberculosis, where the misery is laid on really thick, and where you can read about the crimes and the drunkenness of their next-door neighbours, reported in the newspapers; you may be curious about what life was like for the Partleton family.
So, firstly, let's have a look at little James with his family in the 1841 census:
There is one family in every room at Feathers Court.
By May 1841, when his mum gives birth to a new baby, Mary Ann, our James is living in a single room 4 metres by 4 metres; it is home to two adults and four kids. This unfortunate building was never intended to be occupied this way, and George Godwin gives us some fabulous clues about what this entails:
So, when James' mum needed to cook a meal, she had to use the fireplace, obstructing the tiny chimney, and smoking into the room:
Next we can envisage the sleeping arrangements, though the Partletons have the relative luxury of having a mere six people sharing the single room. Here, George Godwin illustrates nine for us, though often it was many, many more:
Flushing toilets had been invented in Britain in the 1770's, but in 1841 London, they were still practically nonexistent, and in any case, there were no sewers, only cesspools, and when flushing toilets were introduced into such a situation, they only made things worse.
I'd often wondered exactly what cesspools were; how could a 'pool' be underground? In Another Blow for Life, we discover that they were usually underground brick structures with arched rooves, a bit like a sewer - except that they didn't lead anywhere, and would eventually overflow if not emptied, literally by digging them out with a shovel. Cesspools were in the yard, or under the house. Sometimes there would be a 'closet' or toilet as we would call it now, directly over the cesspool, usually outside the house. This would have no water trap, just a seat directly over the subterranean cistern of foetid waste. One can only imagine the smell. The alternative was to us a chamber pot in your room and empty it into the drain, which frankly sounds preferable to the 'closet'.
The Victorians certainly believed that many illnesses, including deadly scarlet fever and cholera, were carried by bad vapours from an unsanitary environment. George Godwin shared this view and illustrated it in a picture which he called Sickness in the Washhouse. The children are breathing the bad air seeping up through the floorboards from the cesspool, making them ill and ultimately killing them, whilst mum does the laundry:
In reality, it was direct contagion by other people for scarlet fever and tuberculosis, or contaminated drinking water in the case of cholera, which were spreading the disease.
James lost two little sisters, both aged 4, to terrifying diseases; Mary Ann in 1844 to TB, and Sarah in 1849 to cholera, and we know that the houses he lived in were among the absolutely poorest, so perhaps it's not such a stretch to imagine that his living conditions may not have been much better than those revealed by the Illustrated London News in 1853:
Since Mary Ann had tuberculosis, then all her brothers and sisters would have been exposed. TB is a disease which you can carry all your life, which may be significant for James.
But James' life can not all have been misery. Little children just aren't like that...
What we see above is titled 'Engaging Children for the Christmas Pantomime at Drury Lane Theatre'. The playbill on the wall 'Doge of Venice' dates this engraving to 1867. We are looking at the stage door exactly from the viewpoint of the darker green arrow in the map below, just 50 yards from James' house, circled blue:
The same colonnade is seen from the opposite direction in the modern photo below:
James' father James Partleton (1806-1873) had appeared on stage from his childhood through to at least 1825, acting, dancing, and singing. If he was like his brothers Henry and George, he probably also played musical instruments proficiently. He came from a multi-talented performing family. Would he have put his own children up, including our James, with their Oliver Twist cockerney-accents, love-a-duck, gorblimey, for these auditions? Or was he too busy just keeping the family out of the workhouse with his regular job, which was a house-painter? As you can see in the map, the theatre, also known as the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, is just a minute's walk from his front door.
The Drury Lane Theatre in James' times was the fourth to be built on the site (1813), and is still there today. The previous theatre, owned by the playwright Richard Sheridan, built in 1794, burned down on 24 February 1809. On being encountered drinking a glass of wine in the street while watching the fire, Sheridan was famously reported to have said: "A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside". That must be apocryphal, but nonetheless very funny and worthy of repeating.
The fire was a big one, the biggest in London for years, and could be seen for miles around. Below we see a lurid depiction of the conflagration  by artist Thomas Luny who witnessed the spectacle from across the Thames. But were the flames really 50 metres high?:
And below we see the result of the fire:
The artist stood at the end of Bow Street. The site is drawn from the viewpoint of the - I've run out of colours - peach-coloured arrow in the map below:
And in the watercolour below, we see the ruins from the pink arrow:
Immediately to the right of the artist, out of view, is Russell Court, which is outlined in turquoise in the map below:
Russell Court was really a special place to live because it enclosed its very own tiny medieval cemetery in the courtyard in the middle. The houses all had a lovely view of the avalanche of Victorian burials which took place daily, and the experience of the smell of decay emanating from the indecent accumulation of excessive and ever-increasing numbers of rotting bodies.
We see the location of the burial ground a bit more clearly in an older map, by John Rocque:
Indeed, if you lived on the ground floor at Russell Court, you got a closer look each day because the ground level was rising year on year due to the sheer volume of burials taking place.
James' little sister Mary Ann was buried here, when she died of 'Phthisis' [Tuberculosis] aged 4 on 18 September 1845; her death certificate signed with a cross by her mum.
Watch out for that diagnosis: Tuberculosis is highly contagious, but can be carried for years and years, even for a whole lifetime, and passed on to one's children, slowly consuming its victim without killing them, hence its common name - consumption. Mary Ann's brothers and sisters - living right on top of each other - are greatly at risk, as we will discover later in this history.
The burial took place a week later, on 25 September 1845, as we see in the Parish Register for St Mary-le-Strand:
James at this time was 8. The burial ground closed four years later, in 1849. You just couldn't get any more bodies in it.
We glimpse Russell Court, picked out by the turquoise arrow, in the engraving below. Building work on the new Drury Lane Theatre is well in progress:
Below we see the main entrance of the rebuilt Theatre Royal on Brydges Street, from the viewpoint of the pink arrow:
The show "Blue Beard" dates this drawing to Christmas 1901.
And here's the view today:
James lived in this neighbourhood until he was nine years old, so he'd remember it all very clearly. This gives me the excuse to clear the map of arrows and put up a whole bunch of new pictures:
The painting above is of The Strand, the major thoroughfare at the bottom of Drury Lane, and the church of St Mary-Le-Strand, where James was baptised. This picture was painted in 1836, the year before James was born, and so gives us a perfect view of his world. We are looking east up The Strand, from the end of Wellington Street - the viewpoint of the red arrow in the map below, possibly from an upstairs room in the Lyceum Theatre, the present version of which was built in 1834:
We must be aware, though, that The Strand may be close to our James' home, Feathers Court, as circled in blue in the map, but, as a working-class boy, it is not his natural habitat. It was the domain of the wealthy, lined with the residences of the rich and famous, and of grand public buildings.
One example of this is the large building on the right of the picture - Somerset House. Those of our readers who are British will probably recognise this name as the central repository which for many years held all birth certificates for the UK. By coincidence, this government department (the General Register Office) was established in Somerset House in 1837 - the very year our James was born, but registrations did not commence until the July quarter - just a few weeks after our James' birth, so he never had birth certificate, only his baptismal entry in the church register, which, as it happens, was held in the church of St Mary-le-Strand, 20 yards away! The GRO remained in Somerset House until the 1980's.
The Somerset House which James would have seen in his lifetime had been built in 1796 by the government to house many departments. For historical interest, I'll show the original Somerset House, which is the large building with the arch on the right of the 1753 engraving below. At the point of the yellow arrow is the entrance to Drury Lane, the route James would take to navigate home from this point:
From the 15th century onwards, the south side of The Strand, with its easy access to the Thames, had became a favoured location for mansions of the nobility. The original Somerset House had been built between 1549 and 1552 by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who became Lord Protector of England with king-like powers when the boy-king Edward VI succeeded Henry VIII. The Duke of Somerset didn't need the building after 1552 because he was beheaded due to his dictatorial mismanagement of his powers.
Queen Elizabeth I occupied the old Somerset House as her residence for some time, as Princess Elizabeth, before she became queen.
The Thames access to Somerset House in our James' time can be seen in the painting below. No, it's not Venice, its London:
The artist stood on Waterloo Bridge [built 1817] from the viewpoint of the pale green arrow in the map below. The Thames at high tide lapped right up to the rear steps of the building and its watergate.
If we compare the map above  and the one below  we can see that, between these dates, the river was removed from the doorstep of Somerset House.
What happened was the creation of the Victoria Embankment which we see in construction below, in 1865, with Somerset House and the old Waterloo Bridge directly ahead. The viewpoint is somewhat off the map, from the direction of the purple arrow.
The impetus for this change was the need to provide London with a modern sewerage system. As mentioned earlier, there was no sewer in Feathers Court, just a cesspit.
Another major consideration was the relief of traffic on the Strand which was heavily congested.
Below we stand again at Waterloo Bridge, from the green arrow, in the present day, Somerset House on our left. The embankment is 40 metres wide. With similar works on the other side of the river, the Thames is at least 80 metres narrower than it was in James' time
If I search back to my own recollections of being nine years old - and I'm sure our young street-urchin James would have been no different - then the banks of the River Thames would have been an irresistible draw as a playground, ten minutes walk from his house. Check the map below - which route would he have taken to get down to the riverside?:
I reckon James' and his pals' obvious route would have taken them past the yellow arrow down Strand Lane, a survivor of the rebuilding of Somerset House:
In the above Victorian watercolour, we are looking south down Strand Lane, toward the Thames, from the yellow arrow in the map below. In the distance we see Burr Brothers Shot Tower on the opposite bank of the river, circled in green in the map below. You can just imagine James and his mates larking about on their way to the river.
The shot tower was a factory: molten lead was dripped like hot silvery raindrops inside the tower from the top. The droplets would cool and solidify on their way down, reaching the ground as small spheres of lead to be used in weaponry as lead shot.
If we turn around on the spot, as did our Victorian artist - John Crowther - we get the view looking north up Strand Lane from the dark blue arrow:
Left, 1880iiiiiRight, 1926
As you can see in the modern photo below, some of old Strand Lane remains today!
The small steps on the right, protected by a handrail, lead to a bath-house, believed by the Victorians to be Roman, but now reckoned to be Tudor, fed by a natural spring, which was open when James Partleton was a boy and which can be visited today as a National Trust property.
Below we see the interior of the baths in 1847 and, on the right, 1906:
In his 1850 novel, Charles Dickens has David Copperfield visit the baths:
By the mid-20th century the bath had fallen into neglect as we see in the 1948 photograph below left. Below right, we see the baths tidied up in 1964:
And below we see the bath in 2009, and its window to the street on the right.
A bit further north along Strand Lane, as its path dinks left and right - following the route of an ancient stream - we experience the charm of old buildings propping each other up.
And here's the exact same view in an earlier engraving. These houses were known as Golden Buildings.
Ok, we've probably seen enough of Strand Lane, but it's nice to see that some bits of Old London survive, other than churches and palaces. Here's what happens to Somerset House today; in the winter its courtyard is turned into a public skating rink:
In the next engraving, aaah, now we can see one of those perfect visions of the past. A credit to its author, George Cooke, who engraved it in about 1829:
Sadly, we can't step into young James' shoes to visit this building, 'cause it was knocked down just a few years before he was born, but his mum and dad would have seen it, and might have gone in, so let's slip into their shoes for a minute.
Clearly, from the street-sign, we are standing at the end of Wellington Street, looking westwards down The Strand from the viewpoint of the orange arrow in the map below. The building we are looking at is the Exeter Exchange, usually abbreviated, at the time, to the Exeter 'Change. After its demolition and rebuilding it was called Exeter Hall, as we see it in the 1862 map below:
The Exeter 'Change was built in 1676 on the site of the former residence of the Earls of Exeter, the most famous of whom was William Burghley, chief advisor to Elizabeth I.
In 1773, the upper rooms were let to the Pidcock family, circus operators, who set up a menagerie inside:
As we can see in the painting of the interior of the Exeter 'Change, lions and tigers and many other animals were held captive in tiny cages. The roaring of the big cats could be heard in the street below, occasionally scaring horses that passed by in The Strand.
Jane Austen mentions the Exeter 'Change in her 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility:
Thanks to Heather Martyniuk [as whom anyone who knows me will be aware, is my daughter] for spotting that reference as she read Sense and Sensibility on the the train.
Back to the Exeter 'Change... unbelievably, as we see above, they had an elephant, kept on an upper floor! His name was Chunee, and he was a theatrical animal. He had appeared at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in pantomimes. One of the plays on his resumee was, by coincidence, Blue Beard - but a much earlier performance than the one we saw earlier in this narrative. Chunee was trained to take a sixpence from visitors to hold with his trunk before returning it. An entry in Lord Byron's journal records a visit to Exeter Exchange on 14 November 1813, when "The elephant took and gave me my money again — took off my hat — opened a door — trunked a whip — and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler."
This poor animal became dangerously violent towards the end of his life, his annual musth aggravated by a rotten tusk which gave him toothache. On 26 February 1826, while on his usual Sunday walk along the Strand, Chunee ran amok, killing one of his keepers. He became increasingly difficult to handle and it was decided that he was too dangerous to keep. The following Wednesday his keeper tried to feed him poison, but Chunee refused to eat it. Soldiers were summoned from Somerset House to shoot him with their muskets. Kneeling down to the command of his trusted keeper, Chunee was hit by 152 musket balls, but refused to die.
This distressing story ends with Chunee being finished off by his keeper with a harpoon or sword. But even in 1826, letters were printed in The Times protesting at the barbarity of the process, and the poor quality of the living conditions of the animals in the menagerie. The menagerie at Exeter Exchange declined in popularity after Chunee's death. The animals were moved to Surrey Zoological Gardens in 1828, and the building was demolished in 1829.
Ok, all of that was nothing to do with our James, but it illustrates the times, and we just can't resist a good story. And it also give us a chance to watch that corner of Wellington Street evolve from James' time to the present day in pictures...
Firstly, in that engraving of 1830 which we've already looked at:
Next (from English Heritage) we see the same corner on 22 April 1907:
Ooh, those Edwardians hadn't yet learned to control advertising and it's my observation that among the worst offenders in Edwardian photos are those purveyors of brown gloop, Oxo, who in this case slapped their new-fangled electrically-illuminated advert right where they wanted it with no heed to its offense to the eyeball.
The building looks architecturally different to the 1830 engraving; it's either been rebuilt or face-lifted during the 77 years which had passed.
In the modern photo below, there's no doubt. The 1907 building has been replaced by Wellington House, probably in the 1920's by my estimation:
We've dwelt long enough in the Strand, but let's have one last look, a nice picture to say farewell:
We are looking out through one of the upstairs windows of the church of St Mary-le-Strand, straight down the Strand, from the viewpoint of the pink arrow in the map below, Somerset House on our left. It's 40 years since James left the area - in fact he's long dead at this date - but I reckon for the most part, it's pretty much unchanged at this time.
In fact James Partleton finally left his childhood home of Feathers Court in 1846 when his parents moved south of the river to Lambeth to rejoin the rest of the Partleton clan.
They are moving from the blue circle to the yellow circle in the map below:
This was the end of an era for James, so, it seems a good point for us to break away from this web page which has become rather long.
Click here to continue with James to Lambeth for the rest of his life story.
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