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John Taylor, The Water Poet

September 6, 2018
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Writer Gillian Tindall first encountered John Taylor the Waterman-Poet when she was researching her book The House by the Thames a dozen years ago. Here she gives an account of the man behind the legend and the Spitalfields pub that bears his name.

Those who have enjoyed a drink at The Water Poet in Folgate St may have wondered about this unlikely-sounding figure so far from the water. Yet John Taylor (1578 – 1653), the seventeenth century Thames ferry-boat man, was a convivial fellow – unless he was waging a vendetta – who was very much at home in pubs. When not on one of his great walks round Britain, he lived most of his life in Bankside, which had many hostelries alongside the theatres and bear-pits. He also had relations who kept inns in Leicester, Abingdon and Norwich whom he sought out in his travels.

Taylor lived through times far more unnerving than ours. Born in Gloucester in the prosperous later days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, he came up to London to seek his fortune and was apprenticed to an oar-maker, before a spell in the Navy upon dangerous expeditions against Spain in Flores and Cadiz.

Once back in London, he lived through the increasingly turbulent times of the Stuart era, the Civil War and the social oppression of the Cromwellian period. A royalist yet with a liking for Puritan values, he worked as a waterman in the service of the king and was distressed when Charles I lost his head. Taylor was getting on in years by then, complaining bitterly that the Commonwealth had driven the theatres off the south bank and damaged the watermen’s trade, much of which had traditionally consisted of crossings between the City and Southwark. He died in his seventies before Charles II was restored to the throne.

Part subversive journalist, pamphleteer and satirical ballad-maker, part would-be poet and playwright, Taylor longed to join a literary society into which he had not been born. A ferryman by nature, he lived between two worlds socially. As hands-on oarsmen, watermen were tough, rough fellows of their time, competing vociferously for trade, but they met a remarkable range of customers many of whom valued and cultivated them. This was also an era when the Waterman’s Company was being established (with Taylor’s active involvement), fares were being set, intelligent men like him were becoming fully literate and the era of New Learning would soon dawn.

Taylor was a natural self-publicist, a collector of useful friends, but also a genuinely passionate believer in freedom of expression and the rights of the individual in every class. He became an  advocate for the destitute watermen who had lost their trade during the ferocious winter of 1620-21 when the Thames froze over for six weeks. He soon discovered that, in spite of all his efforts, there was not much money to be made from a literary life – a truth that still holds today – and developed ingenious means of raising cash. When in difficulty, he would take off on long journeys round Britain on foot for which, anticipating the modern way, he would get sponsorship from rich acquaintances. As a stunt, he once rowed down the Thames in a boat made of paper and later made a much publicised trip  - in a rather more solid craft – down the Rhine and the Elbe.

A good talker, Taylor cultivated the society of Bankside actors, advocating their cause against the rising tide of Puritanism. I imagine him as the archetypal cab-driver – “Had Will Shakespeare in the back of my boat the other day…  As my good friend Mr Henslowe said to me…” He fought back with some success against the Uber of his time – namely, the wheeled conveyances for hire that were beginning to appear on London’s cobbled streets and alleys as an alternative to the traditional way of travelling by river.

John Aubrey, diarist and man-about-town who was familiar with some of the cleverest men of his era, described John Taylor as `very facetious and diverting company’ and possessing `a good, quick look’. Thomas Decker, the Jacobean playwright, called him `the ferryman of heaven’, but there may have been a touch of irony in that.

Taylor’s poetry has not survived in the public mind, since perhaps it did not really deserve to, but his cheerful and inventive spirit has lived on to this day. He died in an inn in Covent Garden kept by his second wife, and lies buried somewhere behind St Martins in the Fields, where the graveyard of the old church lay, and where present-day travellers and aspirants to fame gather with their backpacks and their own travellers’ tales.

The Water Poet at the edge of Spitalfields and Norton Folgate is a recent berth for him, although there has been a tavern on the corner where Folgate St meets Blossom St for over two centuries and possibly an ale-house before that. The old name for the muddy pathway that became Folgate St was White Horse Lane, after the brewery situated there since Taylor’s own times. Even longer ago, what became White Horse Lane was formerly the north entrance to the religious house of St Mary Spital.

In the eighteenth century, the street was laid out in stages by a Sir Isaac Tillard, a man of Huguenot descent, who had acquired some of the old Mary Spital land. The earliest evidence of a purpose-built public house appears then and by 1805 it was registered as The Pewter Plate. Those in charge locally have always kept an eye on pubs and publicans, so it is easy to trace the Plate throughout the nineteenth century, the heyday of urban pubs, and into the twentieth. In 1904, when pubs all over the London were being enlarged and made grander, the Plate was rebuilt with the fancy brickwork and the tall, elaborate chimney that you see today.

At some point, probably between the wars, when Spitalfields was becoming ever sootier and more neglected, as its more prosperous citizens took themselves off to greener suburbs, the building was a pub no longer. By the seventies, the erstwhile pub along with two other adjacent properties, became commercial premises owned by`R.Bardigger.’

By and by, the pub was restored to its proper use and the name The Water Poet dates from the current owner’s acquisition in 2003. He undertook the wonderful transformation of the old back yard into a green-leafed garden with fairy lights. It is this area, along with several large rooms created out of a former warehouse, that is threatened by British Land’s scheme to redevelop Norton Folgate behind bogus facades in the teeth of local opposition. For the moment, all is quiet on that front and the planning permission airily bestowed by the previous and unregretted Mayor of London is shortly to expire. John Taylor the water-poet, I believe, would be with us in this struggle. Let us give thanks and continue to hope.

John Taylor the Water Poet

“All sorts of men, work all the means they can,
To make a Thief of every waterman:
And as it were in one consent they join,
To trot by land i’ th’ dirt, and save their coin.
Carroaches, coaches, jades, and Flanders mares,
Do rob us of our shares, our wares, our fares:
Against the ground, we stand and knock our heels,
Whilst all our profit runs away on wheels;
And, whosoever but observes and notes,
The great increase of coaches and of boats,
Shall find their number more than e’er they were,
By half and more, within these thirty years.
Then watermen at sea had service still,
And those that staid at home had work at will:
Then upstart Hell-cart-coaches were to seek,
A man could scarce see twenty in a week;
But now I think a man may daily see,
More than the wherrys on the Thames can be.
When Queen Elizabeth came to the crown,
A coach in England then was scarcely known,
Then ’twas as rare to see one, as to spy
A Tradesman that had never told a lie.”

From An Arrant Thief, 1622

John Taylor’s A Swarm of Sectaries & Schismatiques published 1641

Engraving of John Taylor by Thomas Cockson, 1630

The Water Poet in Folgate St (Photograph by Richard Lansdowne)

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Claire permalink
    September 6, 2018

    Marvellous , thank you so much for this GA and Gillian.

  2. Adrienne Rowe permalink
    September 6, 2018

    We had an excellent family dinner at The Water Poet earlier this week. We asked our waiter about the history of the pub. He said he had been told that it had once been a menagerie and that the staff quarters downstairs had been a ‘hospital’. It would be interesting to know if the writer, Ms Tindall, had heard these stories and discounted them. We were imagining scenes from Jamrach’s Menagerie!!

  3. John Barrett permalink
    September 6, 2018

    Thanks Gillian for this brilliant expose I am a fan. Am always happy when a poet passes through these pages. Poet John Barrett Poetry Soc & Bus Pass Poets Shirehampton Bristol

  4. Lou permalink
    September 6, 2018

    The disparaging comment about the value of Taylor’s verse seems a little sweeping. Make up your own mind by reading his complete works at http://ota.ox.ac.uk/tcp/headers/A13/A13415.html

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    September 6, 2018

    Although he was a royalist I wonder if the reference to Flanders Mares ( Anne of Cleves ) be a subtle jibe in the direction of working people being robbed of their rightful share or was he just referring to the horses . If it was it was very clever

  6. Jonathon Greeen permalink
    September 6, 2018

    I am a huge fan of John Taylor (after spending many years foolishly assuming that ‘Water Poet’ must equal ‘Romantics’ and thus not for me. If I might offer a footnote to Gillian Tindall’s piece (and how can I have never visited the pub?), I wrote about Taylor as a ‘Hero of Slang’ (he is a very prolific user of the counter-lanaguage) a few years ago: `https://bit.ly/2Q8rjaL

  7. Dick Hobbs permalink
    September 6, 2018

    Terrific article. I remember the site that is now the Water Poet as a thriving furriers workshop.

  8. Gillian Tindall (responding) permalink
    September 7, 2018

    I am pleased to hear that someone remembers the pub premises as a furriers, since I have picked this up myself from a 1970s photo and was a bit surprised.

    As for the tale about the place having been a menagerie, this is a garbled
    reference to the dreadful fire that engulfed a nearby but different premises in Blossom street in June 1884, in which lions, monkeys and a bear were burnt to death.

    The `hospital’ theory similarly relates to another nearby premises, nearer to Norton Folgate itself, which was at one time the head-quarters of a charity offering help to mothers and children.

  9. Debra Matheney permalink
    September 7, 2018

    Thanks for the great story. I wondered where the name of the pub came from and now I know!

  10. Amanda Root permalink
    September 12, 2018

    Lovely, had long wondered at the pub’s name, and now I know!

    On watery topics there is a plan afoot to mechanically dredge kelp (a seaweed) from the Scottish West Coast. I feel sure John Taylor would have opposed this move, please sign to oppose

    Please, if you haven’t already signed this petition, do so now, and share widely:

    https://chn.ge/2wPLzpk

    Thanks.

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