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William Henry Knapp’s Memoir

May 8, 2018
by the gentle author

Jeanette Crawley sent me her transcript of ten pages of a memoir written in 1935 by her great-grandfather William Henry Knapp (1872-1952), describing his early life working in the City of London for a Provisions Merchant at the end of the nineteenth century, of which it is my pleasure to publish these extracts today.

You might assume that the work of a City delivery boy was mundane, yet William delivered breakfasts to condemned prisoners at Newgate, tangled with Secret Service agents and attended executions. ‘Every day was of interest,’ he concluded retrospectively.

William Henry Knapp

I first saw the light on the 27th July 1872 at 73 Carter Lane, London EC2, formerly Shoemakers Row. My father was employed at the above address for forty-five years in the manufacture of tobacco etc and was resident for thirty-two years past, at the place where I grew and noted the ever-changing aspect of the City proper.

At that time, cabs plied for hire and buses made their regular call at such places as the Mansion House and other notable buildings. I also well remember the extra horse ridden by a boy to help pull the bus up Ludgate Hill – what a contrast to the present day.

I attended the local infant school and rose by gradual stages until it was time for lessons on a higher plane and I graduated to St Thomas Charterhouse, a school of sound teaching and hard and fast rules. I see today in my mind’s eye – fifty-four years after – the urbane and full-bearded headmaster, Mr Smith, who in turn was well supported by most efficient class masters Mr Wallace, Mr Cose etc. who were there to teach and no nonsense. I also well remember that a cane was provided but never shared. In my day, recreation consisted of just the bank holiday and two weeks in the summer – what a contrast. As regards the education then and now – well, I will not give it a voice but just think it.

Home life was very regimented and, as I see things today, distinctly correct and helpful to shaping of the lives, creating and fitting us as men and women for the life to be. Parents were eminent and ruled as parents should.

During my school days many great events happened. The Tay Bridge disaster, the Nile expedition, Boer War and later the African War, etc. etc. All very terrible in their way and I well remember seeing the return of some of the guards who fought in their regimentals in those days and were bespattered with blood and dust. In spite of leaving, still the war game goes on.

Now I get along to the age of fourteen years, the usual time for launching out to get one’s own living. I well remember, after a domestic episode in which my father and myself were the chief factors, he giving his dictum that I must find work inside two days or go back to school and, as I preferred the former, I got going and obtained a situation in a house which I served truly and well for over five years.

I can visualise the employer – my ideal of a real man – questioning me as to my own ability for work. Among the questions put was how much can you carry? So, sticking out my chest, I answered ‘Three quarters of a hundredweight, Sir,’ and from that day onward, during my junior capacity, I was well loaded each time I went delivering.

I would point out that we had no trollies, trucks or tricycles, but just a tray containing goods on which I carried the weight of which often totalled a hundredweight and had to be delivered in rotation to the numerous customers. The title of the firm was Sherwood & Vesper Provision Merchants, 45 Ludgate Hill, London EC2, that was controlled by George Beach Newman and to him I owe my knowledge of the Provision Trade.

My start in life was eight shillings per week for thirteen hours a day, and I recall my father’s question, ‘Where are your wages?’ I proudly placed same in front of him. He then decided that I would hand four shillings to my mother, place two shillings and sixpence in the bank and retain one shilling and sixpence for myself and buy my own clothes – what a proposition for a youth of today.

One of the duties, during my first years, was to take in the last breakfast of the condemned in Newgate Prison. That came about by the fact that we served the celebrated firm of Ring Brymer, the City Caterers, and through them it became my duty to deliver such necessaries.

During the five years with my first firm, many incidents occurred that have been imprinted on my mind, such men as Alderman Treelawn, Sir John Bennett and local characters like W. Straken, the Ludgate Hill Stationers, the sons of the latter were in everyday touch with me and his daughters had a smile for me. For, behold, I was by that time junior clerk and cashier and, as such, received the esteem of the above.

Leading up to those years was the memory of the Phoenix Park Murders and, after the trial, the chief culprit Brady and others were executed at Newgate. Carey the informer was acquitted, receiving a free pardon and I believe a solatium from the British government and free passage to Australia. A destination he failed to reach because he was followed on board the vessel and shot by a man named O’Donnell who was brought back to England and executed at Newgate. As a small boy at that time, I remember among the crowd outside was brother of O’Donnell who, when the black flag went up, excitedly shouted, ‘My brother died bravely’ and, but for the police protection, would have been roughly handled.

Ireland was a mass of trouble in those days and their next actions to voice their demand for Home Rule was the deputing of members of their secret Clan to blow up many important and Public buildings in and about London with dynamite. I well remember many members of the Clan were captured in a house in Nelson Sq, Blackfriars Rd, but, from that time and onwards, there was a reign of terrorism which put the authorities at their wits end.

And, while touching on this subject, I now come to the time when I, in the capacity of junior clerk at Ludgate Hill, was the unconscious messenger and bearer of news of great portent as between the celebrated Secret Service agent Major Le Caron and the British government. The Major was the chief of the Fenian organisation on the American side and his good work between the two countries helped in a large degree to stamp out the Fenian menace. But, from the time of his leaving America for England, he went in daily fear of his life and was guarded wherever he went, and what he could not openly do, I did through my employer Mr Newman.

The connection of the aforesaid was – as under my employ – my employer’s name was George Beach Newman, Le Caron’s real name was William Beach and they in turn were the cousins of the celebrated Jam Manufacturers T.W.Beach. So you see, by their aid, Le Baron was able to distribute his knowledge and not forced to be his own messenger.

His career as Secret Service man was very valuable and I had grown into manhood when next I saw him, by chance, seated in a carriage on his way to Hastings which also was my destination. I did hear, just a few years afterwards, of his death and, as his age was somewhere in his fifties, he died comparatively a young man.

My first working years were very interesting as well as being hard-working and, as a man today beyond the sixty mark, I can think of the romance attached to my first job necessitating my calling at some of the most important buildings, firms and institutions in the City. Some are demolished or out of date but just a few remain and I can recount from memory a few of the places and firms.

My old firm was on Ludgate Hill, next St Martin’s Court, which is bordered on one side by the well known City Stationers, W. Straken. While I have him in mind, I must tell you that his first start in life was sitting in a small window in the left hand corner of St Paul’s Church and printing visiting cards at so much per hundred while you wait. In his case, one can quote the old adage, ‘nothing succeeds like success.’ What a character he was, good features, curly grey hair, immaculately dressed. If he ever wore a hat, it was of the sombrero type worn at a rakish angle, with a silk coat, plush waistcoat and very pronounced black and white check trousers. In his spare time, on bright days, he would parade the pavement near or about his premises and people naturally asked, ‘Who’s that?’ He was a city character once seen could never be forgotten.

At the extreme end of St Martin’s Court stood what we boys called the old London Wall – a mass about forty feet by ten and possibly the position of the ancient Lud Gate, one of the many gates protecting the City. I well remember with the tools of those days it took considerable time to demolish it.

Harking back to my birthplace, the room above the factory in which I was born, stood on the old site of Blackfriars Priory and close handy was also the Church of St Anne’s Blackfriars, destroyed in the Great Fire of London but never rebuilt, where is a grand playhouse to this day and, upon that site, stood Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre. All that remains today of that particular site is the Old Apothecaries Hall, where I have seen the giant spit support a whole Bullock.

My early work took me to the halls of all the great City companies and I was always impressed by their stately grandeur, and many a tasty morsel has come the way of yours truly – for my work took me right into the kitchens to see his highness the Chef, who reigned supreme in all matters pertaining to food.

When the factory buildings adjacent  were demolished, the workers came across the old foundations of the priory and many interesting finds were made including some thousands of arm and leg bones and skulls. I think it was conjectured at the time that there were remains of old Friars or a collection of remains from the Great Fire.

We now retrace to Ludgate Circus where stands the King Lud public house, very famous in its day. On the opposite side, Q.Dells the Phrenologist who placated his windows with leaflets on his knowledge of the human brain and was also another of the City’s characters.

My firm found every public house of note to Temple Bar and – possibly the best house of all still remains – The Old Cheddar Cheese, in those days run by another notability, Beauford Moore. I had the honour of delivering the real Cheshire Cheese that stood on the public house bar for all and Sundry to taste.

In Cornhill stood the firm of Ring & Brymer, the most noted of all City Caterers, where Turtle Soup was made from real turtles. I have seen them myself delivered by the vanload and no other firm at that time knew better how to serve up and prepare a banquet than they. When I review those days bygone – what an account – one regular order alone was forty pounds of Harris’s bladders of lard and, during the year, an order for two hundred and fifty York Hams and always ten special hams for the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.

Their weekly order averaged about fifty pounds, payable every Friday morning. This would make the mouths water of tradesmen today. At that time, the Mansion House used to have its own kitchen and staff. The chef was supreme, his name sounded to us like ‘Shrubshole.’ The housekeeper on many occasions handed me some titbit with a kindly, ‘Would you like this, sonny?’ and sonny did, you bet!

There is one more episode of my early days on Ludgate Hill and that was the coming to my old firm – just before Christmas time – of fine grand elderly gentlemen who were the principals of Courage’s, the Brewers which at that time was termed ‘Tomkins, Courage Cracknel & Co.’ Those five gents used to select and taste from two hundred and fifty to three hundred Stilton Cheeses to give away as Christmas presents. Each and every one of them had to be packed there and then, under their watchful eye, and labelled to Mr or Mr so-and-so. There they sat around an improvised table, tasting cheese, drinking some celebrated Courage’s Stout and munching Bath Water Biscuits. A sight for the Gods, and I doubt if it will ever occur again in the Provision Trade. These reminiscences are as good as a tonic to me. In spite of hard work and long hours, every day was of interest.

Photographs of Ludgate Hill courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

13 Responses leave one →
  1. May 8, 2018

    A wonderful account which took me back to times gone by! Valerie

  2. Annelise Goodsir permalink
    May 8, 2018

    This is simply wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  3. Malcolm permalink
    May 8, 2018

    We forget that the City of London was once a place where many people lived, rather than the hollowed-out financial district it is today. There was a thriving community of people living within the old City walls, some of which still stood, as the memoir states. There were houses, flats, tenements, schools, hospitals, markets and local shops, small businesses by the score and no building taller than St. Pauls. I remember it this way, before the skyline was ruined by monstrous carbuncles of money-makers and the sky was still visible. I remember the King Lud pub on the Corner of Ludgate Hill and Farringdon Road, one of the many pubs that have now disappeared from the City. It was a magnificent Victorian edifice with beautiful interiors of mahogany furniture, brass fittings, stained glass and decorative plaster ceilings – all stained brown from cigarette smoke of course. The City of London today is no longer a living community, there are no families within its ancient boundaries so there are no schools, no more markets, no more communities and the Churches are little more than tourist attractions with no congregations to serve. I’m glad that I have at least some memory of how London and the City used to be but this is leavened by the knowledge that it has gone forever. This lovely memoir shows us how things have changed.

  4. Adele permalink
    May 8, 2018

    What a vivid picture of Central London at that time! Have a very clear picture in my mind of the frontage of The Old Cheshire Cheese pub as I worked across the street for a solicitors and passed it daily. The name fascinated me, and I had no idea til reading this that
    a wheel of cheese sat on the counter. Oh for a plowman’s lunch here in NYC!

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    May 8, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a delightful memoir of William Henry Knapp and his escapades as a young man as a provisions agent in the City. Loved the part about his upbringing and education that prepared him so well for the real world of work which he embraced with enthusiasm. Every day was an adventure. No doubt, his boyish charm endeared him to those working in the kitchens that he service. And the real turtle soup!

    My sense is that William was quite a reader in his spare time, as evidenced by his sketch of Mr. Straker, the stationer on Ludgate Hill. Such recollections are truly to be treasured…

  6. Michelle permalink
    May 8, 2018

    A fascinating and enjoyable read. Mr Knapp’s personality really comes through. I wish he had written more of his memories down!

  7. Gary Arber permalink
    May 8, 2018

    Fantastic ! A record of history as it was lived. Historians serve us as well as possible but an example of history seen through the human eye is much more vivid. Thank you for showing us this rare account GA..

  8. James Crowe permalink
    May 8, 2018

    How lovely. A portal into a bygone era. Old photos and accounts like this are a very important way for us to understand and appreciate the way things were before the inevitable onset of modernisation.

  9. Chris Webb permalink
    May 8, 2018

    Is the rest of this enough for a book? If so I would definitely buy it. The stationers was Straker, not Straker. They had several branches in London up to perhaps 20 years ago, and Spike Milligan used to work for them. I have some idea they were taken over by Rymans.

    I don’t know anything about the Phoenix Park Murders; that’s the tiny park round the back of Charing Cross Road isn’t it?

  10. Terri permalink
    May 8, 2018

    I so enjoyed reading this. But oh! how casually he mentions the demolition of an ancient bit of old City wall!

  11. Brenda Wordsworth permalink
    May 12, 2018

    Chris Webb according to Wikipedia The Phoenix Park Murders were the fatal stabbings of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke in Phoenix Park in Dublin on 6 May 1882.

  12. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 14, 2018

    A beautifully written account. Fascinating.

  13. Dr Brian Edwards permalink
    June 3, 2020

    A wonderful taste of cockney life. My parents lived in Catford and my Dad worked at Bricklayers Yard in Old Kent Road. He often talked of his time there just before and after Second World War but never wrote it down. But we have Henry Knapp’s account as a consolation.

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