Sunday 15 July 2012

Goldbeater's House, Manette Street W1

In Victorian times, the lane that runs down the side of Foyle's bookshop was occupied by sundry industries including an organ builder, a maker of coach trimmings (it was close by to Long Acre, where the coaches were made) and a goldbeater who used tremendous cast iron mallets to beat out ribbons of gold into gold leaf just a few atoms thick. This would have been supplied to the carriage trade also.
The scene was described by Dickens as the home of Dr Manette in A Tale of Two Cities:
There ought to have been a tranquil bark in such an anchorage, and there was. The Doctor occupied two floors of a large stiff house, where several callings purported to be pursued by day, but whereof little was audible any day, and which was shunned by all of them at night. In a building at the back, attainable by a courtyard where a plane-tree rustled its green leaves, church-organs claimed to be made, and silver to be chased, and likewise gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall of the front hall - as if he had beaten himself precious, and menaced a similar conversion of all visitors. Very little of these trades, or of a lonely lodger rumoured to live up-stairs, or of a dim coach-trimming maker asserted to have a counting-house below, was ever heard or seen. Occasionally, a stray workman putting his coat on, traversed the hall, or a stranger peered about there, or a distant clink was heard across the courtyard, or a thump from the golden giant. These, however, were only the exceptions required to prove the rule that the sparrows in the plane-tree behind the house, and the echoes in the corner before it, had their own way from Sunday morning unto Saturday night.
I remember visiting the House of St Barnabas in Soho Square many years ago and being buttonholed by an old gentleman who had been one of its officers. He was very proud of having convinced the Dickens Fellowship that the great novelist had based Dr Manette's house on the House of St Barnabas and not, as they had previously thought, the Duke of Monmouth's house on the other side of the square.
Not only had the House of St Barnabas got a garden with a plane tree (which still exists), but the road, then known as Rose Street, runs down the side of it. So when Dickens describes the people in the garden hear Sidney Carton's footsteps, then a silence, then the front door bell ringing, he was clearly running down Rose Street and under the arch of the Pillars of Hercules which would have muffled the sound.
Later, a little chapel was built on the garden and the organ builder made an organ for it. The old goldbeater's premises was knocked down for an extension to Foyle's, including flats for the Foyle family. The original sign was given to the Dickens museum in Doughty Street, where it is still on display, and this replica installed in its place.


Unknown said...

Just walked past here yesterday and the mallet and arm have been taken! I found your blog, so now I know that it's the replica that's gone but do you have any idea who may have nicked it? Feels like many great fragments of London are being stripped away at the moment......

mym said...

Removed for demolition, the block is now gone. Will probably reappear on the new building.