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Sebastian Harding, Illustrator & Modelmaker

November 4, 2012
by the gentle author

Come and see Sebastian Harding’s model of Nicholas Culpeper’s House at The Artists of Spitalfields Life opening at Ben Pentreath Ltd on Wednesday 7th November.

“I’ve been in London for three years,” illustrator Sebastian Harding told me, “and I’m bored by the usual guides because there’s a lot of London you’re not encouraged to visit – such as Holborn, Smithfield and the City, but there’s been industry and life there for two thousand years.” So, Sebastian set out to create his own guidebook to Smithfield and evoke the vanished sights by constructing these characterful models of buildings that disappeared long ago and publishing them himself, accompanied by their stories, in a book. “Working as an illustrator in three dimensions, I wanted to make them more tangible and bring history alive.” he explained modestly.

Many guidebooks talk of opening hours and prices, of queues and “must sees.” You need not worry about any of that with this tour, for all you are about to read about is gone. This book is for the intrepid traveller who is prepared to imagine as well as see. You will look in vain for a blue plaque, for this is a walk of lost lives and forgotten buildings. There is no necessary order in which to see these sights but all are within ten minutes of each other.

I hope you enjoy wandering among the ghosts of Smithfield’s dark and sordid past, and remember – the most gripping true stories have always contained an element of fiction.

The Fortunes Of War Public Tavern, Cock Lane - A Sinister Sidetrade.

Smithfield Market’s proximity to St Bartholomew’s Hospital betrays a lot about the British public’s distrust of the medical trade. It is fitting therefore to focus on one building that catered to both trades – The Fortunes Of War Public Tavern.

Let us place ourselves in the eighteenth century as we watch a student of anatomy making his way into the tavern. He is here, not as you would expect for his leisure, but for his studies. He is led by the landlord down dank mouldering stairs to the cellar. Rows of sacks give off a pungent smell of rotting meat, yet these are not the carcasses of swine or cattle but the bodies of recently dead Smithfield residents.

This was the secret trade of the Body Snatchers or Resurrectionists that supplied students and professors of anatomy with fresh corpses. For a God-fearing public, it was immoral and barbarous in the extreme, for this was a time when many believed a soul would only be granted into heaven if their corporeal body was intact, while being dissected meant an eternity in purgatory.

John Aston’s House, Charterhouse Lane - An Unfair Execution

John Aston was a priest in the parish of Smithfield, arrested at the same time as the influential protestant leader John Rogers. Queen Mary’s secret police randomly inspected any priests who had been advocates of protestantism before her ascension to the throne in 1553.

Unsurprisingly, the inspections would usually find a protestant bible or a mass being held. Typically, the raids were held on Sundays and John Aston’s misfortune was to be found eating meat in one of these raids. The tyrannical catholic religion of the sixteenth century forbade any consumption of meat on Sunday and he was burnt at the stake for this trifling pretence.

20 Cock Lane - Poltergeists in the Panelling.

The name of this street can be traced to its proximity to the market, where poultry would once have been traded, but it also serves also as a risqué innuendo, since for hundreds of years it was the preferred haunt of prostitutes. It was on this street that fraud, haunting, murder and sex were all intertwined in one story.

Late one November night in 1760,William Kent was away on business in Norfolk. His wife Fanny, wishing to alleviate the loneliness of her nights alone, invited Betty the youngest daughter of the Parsons – the landlord’s family – to sleep in her bed. In the night, Fanny was disturbed by scratching sounds like claws on wood and lay frozen with fear. On appealing to Mr & Mrs Parsons, she was told a shoemaker lived next door and her fears were assuaged. But the next night was Sunday when no good Christian would ever work, yet the scratching came again, brought to a terrifying end by a loud bang.

After William Kent returned the next night the sounds were not heard again. Then, two months’ later, after a furious row, Mr Parsons threw the Kents’ possessions out onto the street,  even though William had not received a penny of the money he had loaned to his landlord the previous year. Subsequently, Fanny succumbed to smallpox and died on February 2nd 1761.

Some time later, the Parsons family began to hear the same scratching again and made sure it became a talking point for superstitious members of the community. The methodist preacher John Moore held a séance and ,when he asked if a spirit was present, a knock rang out. A second question followed – “Was the spirit that of the late Fanny?” Another knock. “Was Fanny murdered by her husband?” the reverend asked and then followed the loudest banging the party had heard.

Subsequently, William Kent was hanged, but afterwards the events were revealed as a fraud motivated by the feud between Mr Parsons and his tenant over the loan. Parsons was sentenced to three years in prison and three days in pillory, but later became regarded as something of a celebrity.

Mother Clapp’s Molly House, Field Lane - An Unusual Coffee House.

This was not a coffee house as we would know it, but rather a private club for gay gentlemen, where they could meet and form relationships without fear of discovery. The discretion of fellow members was crucial and entry was only permitted to those who knew a password. There were even gay marriage ceremonies conducted in locked rooms between men, with one donning a bride’s dress and the other a groom’s jacket. Mother Clapp herself presided over all, only leaving to get refreshments from the pub across the street.

Everything we know about this secret sub-culture stems from the raid by The Society For The Reformation Of Manners which had placed secret police inside the house. One man, a milkman, was hung for being found in the act of sodomy and Mother Clapp was sentenced to a day in the pillory. The crowd was so furious that they ripped the pillory from the ground and trampled it, and Mother Clapp died from the injuries sustained.

Sebastian Harding

The architectural legacy of the body snatchers can be seen in the watch houses that were built adjacent to most parish churches. An example of this may be seen at the church of St Sepulcre’s in Smithfield.

Illustrations copyright © Sebastian Harding

A limited number of copies of Sebastian Harding’s Smithfield: A Selective History are available for sale at £7 and may be purchased from the show or by emailing  seb.harding1@gmail.com

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