Shakespeare400: Shakespeare’s London/Beaumont’s London – Guildhall Library

The other day I went to a talk at Guildhall Library given by by Dr Lucy Munro from King’s College London. The talk was about the London of Shakespeare and Beaumont, marking the 400th anniversary of the death of both writers. William Shakespeare of course died on 23 April 1616, but Francis Beaumont also died that year (on 6 March, aged only 31): he has been rather overshadowed by Shakespeare over the past four centuries, but his life is worth celebrating too.

Munro began her talk by showing us a 1572 map of London, revealing a much smaller-scale city than the one we are familiar with today. Playhouses were growing up all over London. One of the first such houses Shakespeare wrote for was “The Theatre” – not such an unimaginative name as it sounds, as the term “theatre” was usually used for private indoor spaces. The name harks back to the classical world of Greek and Roman drama.

Shakespeare lived on Silver Street for a time; he also, in 1613, bought a gatehouse on Blackfriars (the road on which another playhouse for which he wrote was located). Beaumont was born in Leicestershire in 1584, his father a judge, his mother a recusant Catholic. His wife may have been Roman Catholic too, which would have marked out Beaumont as an outsider. He entered the Inner Temple in 1600 after studying at Oxford, and began his collaboration with the writer John Fletcher in 1605.

The pair’s first play The Woman Hater was written for the Children of St Paul’s, though the pair also wrote for the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Blackfriars Theatre. Beaumont and Fletcher lodged together on Bankside: an anecdote from John Aubrey, found in his Brief Lives, suggests the closeness of their relationship, as they lived together and shared everything. When Beaumont died he was buried in London, in Westminster Abbey.

Whereas Shakespeare set most of his plays in fairly exotic locations (excepting the histories, which mention such landmarks as the Tower of London, Westminster, and the Boar’s Head Tavern at Eastcheap), Francis Beaumont wrote regularly about specific London locations including the Mermaid Tavern (mentioned in a poem to Ben Jonson). A painting by the nineteenth-century artist John Ford imagines what poets’ meetings at the Mermaid might have looked like, although it is not particularly accurate: it is not known that Shakespeare was involved in these meetings, but he has a central place in Ford’s painting.

Beaumont’s writing makes reference to the London streets, their smells and sights; locations reflect the social, moral and economic circumstances of the characters. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, his significant solo play, mentions London locations, transforming them from real-life places into fantastical locations for his knight’s Quixotic journey.

I really enjoyed this talk: I think Beaumont is a vastly underrated writer (The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which I saw at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is a masterpiece) and I enjoyed learning about how he uses London in his work and his relationship to the city.

The Lost World of the Georgian Chocolate House – Guildhall Library

I love history and I love chocolate, so deciding to attend The Lost World of the Georgian Chocolate House was a no-brainer. This talk, which took place at Guildhall Library, was delivered by Dr Matthew Green, whose book London: A Travel Guide Through Time was released before Christmas and whose company, Unreal City Audio, organises immersive historical tours around London.

The talk covered the beginnings of chocolate’s popularity in the Western world: Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes found hot, spicy chocolate being drunk by South Americans and the popularity of the drink extended to Baroque Spain, and later Italy. Cosimo de Medici, an Italian nobleman, was possibly the first chocoholic, and the drink retained its aristocratic connotations as it travelled first to France, then to England. Chocolate at this time contained several unfamiliar ingredients: in South America it was often mixed with blood, but luckily this practice did not survive the journey across the ocean. In Europe, it often contained musk or ambergris; sometimes even gold.

Chocolate houses in London were heavily influenced by coffee houses and tobacco houses – in fact the first chocolate was sold in coffee houses. The first chocolate house in London was established either in Vine Court, Holborn, in 1652 (as evidenced in a contemporary tract, Chocolate, or An Indian Drinke) or on Bishopsgate Street in June 1657 (as advertised in the Publick Advertiser).

The popularity of chocolate in London is largely tied up with the St James area. St James’s Square was laid out by Henry Jermyn, and several chocolate houses were located there or nearby: Cocoa Tree, Ozinda’s and White’s. Chocolate houses became associated with gambling, with aristocrats losing fortunes in games of Hazard. Hogarth’s Rake’s Progess contains a scene in a chocolate house, showing the artist’s disapproval of such dissolute practices. There is an account of a man who collapsed in the street outside of White’s chocolate house: he was taken inside, but instead of seeking medical help, the chocolate drinkers began to place bets on whether he was dead or alive. Betting on all sorts of outcomes was common in chocolate houses: this period sees the beginnings of life insurance, as people would bet on how long they – and others – had left to live. Chocolate houses were largely the preserve of men: women would send their children into the houses to seek out their husbands and tell them to come home, but this backfired on at least one occasion, when a small child ran into the chocolate house, fell into a vat of chocolate, and drowned.

Like coffee houses, chocolate houses were connected with political activity. Cocoa Tree in particular was known as a Tory stronghold and a Jacobite centre. It was often raided, and even had an underground passage to a Piccadilly tavern to allow members to escape. Ozinda’s was known for its art auctions, but White’s, the most famous chocolate house, was the most notorious. It burned down in 1733, and White’s Club is now on the site. From the middle of the eighteenth century, most chocolate houses did evolve into private members’ clubs. To date, most British prime ministers have been members.

After our talk, we were given a chance to sample some eighteenth-century style chocolate. I’m not sure exactly what ingredients were used (although I’m pretty certain blood wasn’t one of them), but the chocolate was delicious, if not quite sweet enough for my taste, being thick, rich and full of flavour.

The talk was fascinating and I definitely want to go on the Chocolate House Tour, as well as other tours organised by Unreal City Audio!




The History and Treasures of Guildhall Library


I’m a librarian by profession, and of the many things I like to do in London, one of the chief ones is to explore all the different libraries in the city. The Guildhall Library is a public reference library – though books cannot be borrowed, the collection is open to all – specialising in the history of London. It has a printed books collection of over 200,000 titles dating as far back as the fifteenth century, and also has items such as pamphlets, periodicals, trade directories, maps and poll books. The History and Treasures of Guildhall Library is a talk and tour that takes place every month or so. It is free and can be booked by individuals: you do not have to be part of a group. The Library is located at Aldermanbury in the City of London; the nearest tube station is St Paul’s. It is next to the Guildhall complex, but the Library itself was built in the 1970s.

We were given an introduction to the Library by one of the librarians. The first Guildhall Library was founded in 1425: this is recorded in John Stow’s Survey of London (1598). Known as the “Common Library” at Guildhall, its collections were mainly theological. Sadly, the Duke of Somerset stole borrowed the Library’s collections for his own house by the Thames during the sixteenth century. In the 1820s, the City of London Corporation decided to found another library: in 1828 there were around 1700 volumes, all concerning London, and the library was deemed very successful. By 1873, the “Old Library”, in the Guildhall complex, had 60,000 volumes. Sadly, 25,000 volumes were destroyed in only one night during the 1940 Blitz.

After the war, it was decided that another library should be built. The new building was opened on 21 October 1974. Today, the Guildhall Library focuses on the history of London, with a special collection relating to food and drink as well as three archive collections: the archives of London livery companies, the Stock Exchange archives, and the Lloyds Marine Collection. Below this library is the City Business Library, a valuable resource for anyone running a business.

We were shown some of the items from the collection, a fascinating and motley bunch. One volume, a Bible originally belonging to the Worshipful Company of Tilers and Bricklayers, was part of the original Library and ended up in the Duke of Somerset’s collection before finding its way back to the Guildhall. A third folio of Shakespeare’s works contains many plays no longer attributed to him. Nineteenth-century pictures of medieval floats from the Lord Mayor’s Pageant are fascinating, and a book with its original chain attached reminds us that books were so valuable hundreds of years ago that they had to be chained up to prevent theft.

Other items included a first example of a stocks and shares book, published in a coffee house; a collection of botanical illustrations; and, on a macabre note, a catalogue of the sale of items from Newgate. When the prison was closed in the early 1900s, the doors, fixtures and fittings were auctioned off: who knows where they have ended up?

We were then taken on a tour of the Library, observing the quiet reading room with easily-reachable reference works, freely browsable by readers. The books concern such wide-ranging subjects as gin, Jack the Ripper, and theatre. Other items can be requested from the basement, and are usually delivered within 15 minutes. We were able to tour the basement, complete with rolling stacks, and examine the riches stored within, including a collection of 21st century bound manuscripts, lavishly decorated, and editions of the Illustrated London News. The Food & Drink Collection, which is of national importance, contains some gems including Dinners for Beginners, Vegetables for the Epicurean, and Eat, Drink and be Wary.

The Guildhall Library is a fantastic resource and is well worth a visit. If I ever want to do some research about London, I know where to go.


Address: Aldermanbury, London, EC2V 7HH


Opening Hours: 9.30am-5pm Mon-Sat

Prices: Free (except for some special events – this one is free though)

Shakespeare in Print – Guildhall Library

I popped out in my lunch hour on Wednesday to visit the Shakespeare in Print exhibition at the Guildhall Library. This looks at the history of printing William Shakespeare’s plays, from late sixteenth century quartos to seventeenth century folios, the reworked versions of the eighteenth century and the rediscovery and popularity of the originals in the nineteenth. I wanted to go on a Wednesday as this was the only day of the week on which the Library’s original First Folio is displayed – a facsimile is on view at all other times. This First Folio was acquired around 1760 by William Petty Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, and purchased for the London Institution in 1806; it was transferred to the Guildhall Library in 1912. It is supposed to be one of the five finest copies in existence.

The First Folio dates from 1623; it contains almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. One exception is Pericles, which was only added to the Second Folio. In addition, several early copies of the First Folio do not contain Troilus and Cressida. The First Folio was the result of Shakespeare’s followers and admirers gathering together several years after his death to combine, edit and publish his plays. This is part of the reason Shakespeare’s works are so well known today: it was uncommon for plays to be printed in the sixteenth century, as it could damage the original company’s profits if another company got hold of a written text and started performing it. Shakespeare himself probably did not authorise any such publication in his lifetime. It’s just as well the First Folio was published, as it is the earliest printed version of around half of Shakespeare’s plays, including MacbethJulius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Without the First Folio, these plays may have been lost.

The First Folio was followed by the Second, Third and Fourth Folios as Shakespeare remained popular. As plays became accepted as serious literature, other works were published during this time, and the exhibition holds some examples of these, including The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (recently performed at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) and the works of Benjamin Johnson.

During the eighteenth century, Shakespeare was often adapted heavily to suit the tastes of the time. For instance, Macbeth was performed with songs (I would love to see this) and as a ‘travestie’ version – a spoof in two acts (I would also love to see this). During the Victorian era, Shakespeare began to take on the iconic status he still has today and theatre-makers began to go back to the original texts and study Shakespeare more seriously. ‘Variorum’ editions of the works – editions including all known variants of a text, including notes – began to be produced, and gift books, such as the ‘Library Shakespeare’ on display, were common.

The exhibition didn’t just contain books: there was also a dress worn by Juliet Rylance in the Globe’s 2005 production of  The Winter’s Tale, which was made by the Original Practices Clothing Archive. Overall, this was a small but fascinating free exhibition and I’m glad I made the effort to go, even though it meant a bit of a rush during lunch!