Sven Karsten: Staple Inn and its inhabitants

Be­hind the most an­cient part of Hol­born, Lon­don, where cer­tain gabled hous­es some cen­turies of age still stand look­ing on the pub­lic way, as if dis­con­so­late­ly look­ing for the Old Bourne that has long run dry, is a lit­tle nook com­posed of two ir­reg­u­lar quad­ran­gles, called Sta­ple Inn. It is one of those nooks, the turn­ing into which out of the clash­ing street, im­parts to the re­lieved pedes­tri­an the sen­sa­tion of hav­ing put cot­ton in his ears, and vel­vet soles on his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky spar­rows twit­ter in smoky trees, as though they called to one an­oth­er, 'Let us play at coun­try,' and where a few feet of gar­den-mould and a few yards of grav­el en­able them to do that re­fresh­ing vi­o­lence to their tiny un­der­stand­ings.

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ERE in this par­tic­u­lar ar­ti­cle you will find nei­ther shock­ing dis­clo­sures, nor hor­ri­fy­ing mur­ders or ev­i­dence in­ves­ti­ga­tion. My sim­ple wish was to un­fold my mere imag­i­na­tion, as if I were a free bird, a tiny spar­row of Sta­ple Inn res­i­dence, hav­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ty to ob­serve peo­ple of the Vic­to­ri­an Era, in­hab­i­tants of Lon­don in gen­er­al and Sta­ple Inn in par­tic­u­lar. Let’s rewind 164 years back to the streets of Hol­born fol­low­ing Rosa into Sta­ple Inn gate­way (I just want­ed to say ‘Sta­ple Inn gates wide open for a hos­pitable re­cep­tion’, how­ev­er the gate­way was shut by night at Rosa’s ar­rival).

'Hiram Grew­gious, Es­quire, Sta­ple Inn, Lon­don.' This was all Rosa knew of her des­ti­na­tion; but it was enough to send her rat­tling away again in a cab, through deserts of grit­ty streets, where many peo­ple crowd­ed at the cor­ner of courts and by­ways to get some air, and where many other peo­ple walked with a mis­er­ably monotonous noise of shuf­fling of feet on hot paving-stones, and where all the peo­ple and all their sur­round­ings were so grit­ty and so shab­by!

Her jin­gling con­veyance stopped at last at a fast-closed gate­way, which ap­peared to be­long to some­body who had gone to bed very early, and was much afraid of house­break­ers; Rosa, dis­charg­ing her con­veyance, timid­ly knocked at this gate­way, and was let in, very lit­tle bag and all, by a watch­man.

A watch­man didn’t have to open the Church gate­way to let Rosa in, since there was a small guest en­trance for such oc­ca­sion. The watch­man was usu­al­ly re­ward­ed by gen­tle­men re­turn­ing from music halls and the­atres with a pence or two, but since he vol­un­teered him­self he would not de­mand any pay­ment from the lady.

The Sta­ple Inn gate­way was open through­out the day, yet the watch­man sat down under an arch. His main du­ties were to pre­vent mer­chants in cheap rags, chil­dren and hors­es from en­ter­ing. On the left, there was a water pump with a cou­ple of taps and a han­dle right after an iron lat­tice, though the water was in­tend­ed for Sta­ple Inn in­hab­i­tants, but not for just any thirsty man out there. There was no plumb­ing or what­so­ev­er, which is com­mon for build­ings of the XVI cen­tu­ry, there­fore Tar­tar had to carry water in buck­ets for his so-called ‘bath­room’ and prob­a­bly heat it in a caul­dron in his chim­ney.

'Does Mr. Grew­gious live here?'

'Mr. Grew­gious lives there, Miss,' said the watch­man, point­ing fur­ther in.

Sta­ple Inn, com­posed of two ir­reg­u­lar quad­ran­gles con­nect­ed with a path through one of the nooks, was cov­ered with paving blocks (quite ex­pen­sive in­deed). There were also few lanes made of flat slabs, de­signed in order to avoid noise of mer­chant car­riages clut­ter­ing over heavy stones, lead­ing from the gate­way to the very en­trance of Sta­ple Inn. There were scant­ly trees, but a lit­tle soil still left un­touched for the sake of spar­rows.

In the days when Clois­ter­ham took of­fence at the ex­is­tence of a rail­road afar off, as men­ac­ing that sen­si­tive con­sti­tu­tion, the prop­er­ty of us Britons: the odd for­tune of which sa­cred in­sti­tu­tion it is to be in ex­act­ly equal de­grees croaked about, trem­bled for, and boast­ed of, what­ev­er hap­pens to any­thing, any­where in the world: in those days no neigh­bour­ing ar­chi­tec­ture of lofty pro­por­tions had arisen to over­shad­ow Sta­ple Inn. The wes­t­er­ing sun be­stowed bright glances on it, and the south-west wind blew into it unim­ped­ed.

It could be guessed from the watch­man’s point­ing fur­ther in, that Mr. Grew­gious’s apart­ment was not an apart­ment with its front to­wards Hol­born Street (i.e. porch with­out gates), and wasn’t one of the apart­ments lo­cat­ed next to the house. There were only five such door­ways, ac­cord­ing to the Sta­ple Inn plan and only one of them match­es the de­scrip­tion: two door­ways on the same porch, one lead­ing to a clerk’s room with two chim­neys, the other lead­ing to the only sleep­ing-room with a sin­gle chim­ney. This is to be the sec­ond door­way to the right of the gate­way, it is usu­al­ly il­lus­trat­ed as PJT 1747.

The first floor was clerk’s room. Mr. Grew­gious used to as­sign a sub­sti­tute clerk, in case Baz­zard was ab­sent for some rea­son. Thus, his own of­fice might be lo­cat­ed on ei­ther sec­ond or the third floor, sec­ond is more prob­a­ble since we all re­mem­ber ‘a fly­ing wait­er’ bring­ing much of that Lon­don fog with him while car­ry­ing dish­es and bev­er­age all on his shoul­ders. It sure is un­like­ly for the fog to reach the third floor by a nar­row stair­case.

The win­dow of the sec­ond floor was very con­ve­nient for the pur­pose of Mr. Grew­gious’s hav­ing Jasper under his eye, who was also watch­ing over Neville from his sec­ond floor across the court­yard.

Now, let’s con­tin­ue our ex­plo­ration by fol­low­ing Rosa to Mr. Grew­gious’s room.

So Rosa went fur­ther in, and, when the clocks were strik­ing ten, stood on P. J. T.'s doorsteps, won­der­ing what P. J. T. had done with his street-door.

Guid­ed by the paint­ed name of Mr. Grew­gious, she went up-stairs and soft­ly tapped and tapped sev­er­al times.

Ac­cord­ing to Dick­ens’s por­tray­al there were two ad­ja­cent rooms in Grew­gious’s house, the first one was clerk’s room (13) where Baz­zard sat (with his built-in chim­ney be­tween two clos­ets), and Mr. Grew­gious’s room (14) was there be­hind a par­ti­tion (a wood­en par­ti­tion must be built later, there­fore not marked in the orig­i­nal plan). It’s rea­son­able to sep­a­rate a 16 sq. m. room with two chim­neys by a par­ti­tion.

So, “As Mr. Grew­gious sat and wrote by his fire that af­ter­noon, so did the clerk of Mr. Grew­gious sit and write by HIS fire.” Grew­gious’s chim­ney was stick­ing far out of the wall with a sharp angle, leav­ing a lit­tle space be­hind with a small piece of a win­dow, while the space to the other side of the chim­ney was Mr. Grew­gious’s sleep­ing-room. Grew­gious might have been sit­ting with his back fac­ing the chim­ney, while his left to the of­fice, thus the sun­light had a ben­e­fi­cial to him angle.

The shape of the chim­ney was also men­tioned by Dick­ens: “Mr. Grew­gious came and stood him­self with his back to the other cor­ner of the fire, and his shoul­der-blades against the chim­ney­p­iece, and col­lect­ed his skirts for easy con­ver­sa­tion.” That means, Grew­gious was able to step be­hind the chim­ney, since its tri­an­gu­lar shape al­lowed him to do so. It is also like­ly that ‘an old-fash­ioned oc­ca­sion­al round table’ was brought out be­hind that chim­ney after busi­ness hours, ‘from a cor­ner where it else­wise re­mained turned up like a shin­ing ma­hogany shield’.

There is also a curved stair­case in the room with two chim­neys on Sta­ple Inn plan, lead­ing to some­what a gallery. How­ev­er, it should be no­ticed that those plans usu­al­ly in­clude first floors of build­ings, while Mr. Grew­gious resid­ed on the sec­ond. Per­haps, there was such a stair­case in the clerk’s room lead­ing ei­ther to a gallery or base­ment.

If Mr. Grew­gious ap­peared to pass a stair­case hall to un­lock the door of his of­fice he found him­self in a sleep­ing-room (12) with two and a half win­dows and a chim­ney. There is noth­ing to be said about that room, ex­cept that it was damp and cool, while the op­po­site room stayed dry and warm, not sur­pris­ing at all hav­ing two chim­neys in it.

We can view Rosa and Mr. Grew­gious in an il­lus­tra­tion by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, sit­ting be­hind a table in Grew­gious’s room; chim­ney, win­dow be­hind Rosa’s back and mess so pe­cu­liar to an old bach­e­lor it’s all there. It should be men­tioned, that Grew­gious’s of­fice, on the con­trary, was a place of im­mac­u­late order.

Win­dows of Mr. Grew­gious’s sleep­ing room (12) served a great ob­ser­va­tion post: he could watch over Jasper in his win­dow across (11), and Neville ex­pect­ing some­body at his door­way (1), and even could show Rosa or see him­self the Land­less­es room by hold­ing aside a win­dow-blind (i.e. at a very sharp angle). How­ev­er, lat­ter could be done by cran­ing out his neck, since Land­less­es resid­ed high above, just under the loft.

Find­ing the Land­less­es room is much big­ger of a deal, and it also should be at­tached to Tar­tar’s. Let’s re­view some of the de­scrip­tions:

“He [Crisparkle] took him­self to Sta­ple Inn, but not to P. J. T. and Mr. Grew­gious. Full many a creak­ing stair he climbed be­fore he reached some attic rooms in a cor­ner, turned the latch of their un­bolt­ed door, and stood be­side the table of Neville Land­less.

An air of re­treat and soli­tude hung about the rooms and about their in­hab­i­tant. He was much worn, and so were they. Their slop­ing ceil­ings, cum­brous rusty locks and grates, and heavy wood­en bins and beams, slow­ly moul­der­ing with­al, had a pris­onous look, and he had the hag­gard face of a pris­on­er. Yet the sun­light shone in at the ugly gar­ret-win­dow, which had a pent­house to it­self thrust out among the tiles; and on the cracked and smoke-black­ened para­pet be­yond, some of the de­lud­ed spar­rows of the place rheumat­i­cal­ly hopped, like lit­tle feath­ered crip­ples who had left their crutch­es in their nests; and there was a play of liv­ing leaves at hand that changed the air, and made an im­per­fect sort of music in it that would have been melody in the coun­try.”

“It was mid­night when he [Neville] re­turned from his soli­tary ex­pe­di­tion and climbed his stair­case. The night was hot, and the win­dows of the stair­case were all wide open. Com­ing to the top, it gave him a pass­ing chill of sur­prise (there being no rooms but his up there) to find a stranger sit­ting on the win­dow-sill, more after the man­ner of a ven­ture­some glazier than an am­a­teur or­di­nar­i­ly care­ful of his neck; in fact, so much more out­side the win­dow than in­side, as to sug­gest the thought that he must have come up by the wa­ter-spout in­stead of the stairs.”

“I have no­ticed (ex­cuse me) that you shut your­self up a good deal, and that you seem to like my gar­den aloft here. If you would like a lit­tle more of it, I could throw out a few lines and stays be­tween my win­dows and yours, which the run­ners would take to di­rect­ly. And I have some boxes, both of mignonette and wall- flow­er, that I could shove on along the gut­ter (with a boathook I have by me) to your win­dows, and draw back again when they want­ed wa­ter­ing or gar­den­ing, and shove on again when they were ship- shape; so that they would cause you no trou­ble. I couldn't take this lib­er­ty with­out ask­ing your per­mis­sion, so I ven­ture to ask it. Tar­tar, cor­re­spond­ing set, next door.”

So: Neville’s room was the only room in the yard with win­dow to the roof, oth­er­wise how could Tar­tar pos­si­bly climb it? His of­fice is sit­u­at­ed right be­hind the door­way with win­dows fac­ing ei­ther West or North-West, oth­er­wise there would be sun­light dur­ing the day, but not in the evenings only. Neville’s and Tar­tar’s win­dows must be next to each other (“I could shove on along the gut­ter to your win­dows, and draw back again when they want­ed wa­ter­ing or gar­den­ing”), also they must be an­gled so that one could be viewed from the other. Here are few more ex­am­ples:

“When they had got through such stud­ies as they had in hand, they stood lean­ing on the win­dow-sill, and look­ing down upon the patch of gar­den.”

“‘I am very glad to take your win­dows in tow,’ said the Lieu­tenant. ‘From what I have seen of you when I have been gar­den­ing at mine, and you have been look­ing on, I have thought you (ex­cuse me) rather too stu­dious and del­i­cate.’”

“Mr. Grew­gious, his bed­room win­dow-blind held aside with his hand, hap­pened at the mo­ment to have Neville's cham­bers under his eye for the last time that night. For­tu­nate­ly his eye was on the front of the house and not the back, or this re­mark­able ap­pear­ance and dis­ap­pear­ance might have bro­ken his rest as a phe­nomenon.”

“My poor Neville is read­ing in his own room, the sun being so very bright on this side just now.”

Rooms match­ing these par­tic­u­lar de­scrip­tions are not am­bigu­ous on the plan — Neville’s room on top left of the gate­way and Tar­tar’s room is even lo­cat­ed in the other court­yard.

(The whole idea of find­ing book char­ac­ters’ apart­ments in real world seems all like a mir­a­cle of vi­su­al­iza­tion. Here they lived, there they walked on that pave­ment, there is tap, Helena col­lect­ed water from and that is the win­dow Jasper peeped out lift­ing its frame, for that was the only way to see Neville’s door­way under that angle.)

Thus, the Land­less­es apart­ment was two rooms with chim­neys in cor­ners, the small­est room (2) was about 6 sq. m. and a sleep­ing-room (3) about 14 sq. m. (also tak­ing into ac­count the slop­ing ceil­ings, which might cut the area out, while win­dows were placed in such nich­es). There were three win­dows in the sleep­ing-room fac­ing South, and there was a flow­er-gar­den below, not the Tar­tar’s gar­den, but one with hol­ly­hocks and even a foun­tain in the mid­dle. The total an­nu­al rent col­lect­ed from ten­ants of Sta­ple Inn made ap­prox­i­mate­ly two thou­sand and a half pounds — gar­den­ing ex­pens­es were not in­clud­ed in the sum.

Cal­cu­lat­ing the an­nu­al amount Neville paid for his rent might be very ex­cit­ing.

The win­dows of Neville’s reading room (2) were fac­ing North, mean­ing there was bare­ly sun­shine in his room, the room there­fore re­mained dark cold and damp. Being able to see Grew­gious’s door­way was not a great of con­so­la­tion.

There were nei­ther toi­lets nor kitchens in Sta­ple Inn apart­ments. Mr. Grew­gious usu­al­ly had lunch at Wood’s Hotel in Fur­ni­vall’s Inn. As for Neville, his meals were never men­tioned, he might be buy­ing some food on Hol­born Street which could be eas­i­ly pre­pared by the means of his chim­ney, like grilling a slice of fish or boil­ing a teapot (how­ev­er, Lon­don­ers pre­ferred beer); fried eggs and bacon doesn’t seem any pos­si­ble though. The way they used cham­ber pots doesn’t seem clear ei­ther.

The ab­sence of any wardrobes and valet stands is pe­cu­liar to Vic­to­ri­an Era. Peo­ple ar­ranged their clothes stacked on shelves or hang­ing on nails stick­ing out of walls, clothes might be as well lumped in a pile on draw­ers. Tar­tar the Sailor had things ar­ranged in a slight bet­ter, than the Land­less­es way: he had some kind of a garder­obe in his nook (in­clud­ing half of his neigh­bour’s win­dow), which he turned into a bath-room (8), look­ing more like a ‘dairy’. Why dairy? Maybe be­cause there were cou­ple of white enam­el buck­ets, re­mind­ing of cows and milk­ing, a jug on a tri­pod and a basin, no more than this could be fit­ted in such a lim­it­ed space.

A room with four win­dows, was prob­a­bly di­vid­ed with a thin par­ti­tion in half into sym­bol­ic sit­ting-room (6) and a sleep­ing-cham­ber (7). There was a chim­ney in the sleep­ing-cham­ber fac­ing the door to the sit­ting-room, so both rooms could be kept warm. Both the sun­rise and the sun­set could be ob­served from Tar­tar’s win­dows, thus the whole cham­ber was bright through­out the day.

Just like in the Land­less­es cham­bers, there were wood­en beams be­neath the ceil­ing sup­port­ing the roof in Tar­tar’s sleep­ing-room; un­like Neville’s cre­at­ing the co­zi­est look, rather than pris­onous, Tar­tar’s cham­bers were ‘the neat­est, the clean­est, and the best- or­dered cham­bers ever seen under the sun, moon, and stars.’ Maybe it was dif­fer­ent sim­ply be­cause the beams were dyed and fin­ished. Tar­tar used those beams to in­stall a sailor ham­mock with two rings screwed in and an ad­di­tion­al rope to hide the ham­mock up under the ceil­ing, gain­ing thus more space in the day­time.

Be­hind the wall of Tar­tar’s sleep­ing-cham­ber (as well as Neville’s sleep­ing-room) there was an un­in­hab­it­ed room (could be con­clud­ed by the ab­sence of win­dows on slopes), which seemed to be a loft (4). The dif­fer­ence was that Tar­tar had a chim­ney in that wall, while Neville had noth­ing, there­fore the wall was al­ways cold, since the loft was never heat­ed. There was an­oth­er bare­ly heat­ed room be­yond the op­po­site wall — Sta­ple Inn Hall.

“More­over, it is one of those nooks which are legal nooks; and it con­tains a lit­tle Hall, with a lit­tle lantern in its roof: to what ob­struc­tive pur­pos­es de­vot­ed, and at whose ex­pense, this his­to­ry knoweth not.”

That is Sta­ple Inn, as­cetic but cozy shel­ter for its in­hab­i­tants — Grew­gious, Baz­zard, Tar­tar, Neville and Helena Land­less­es.

* * *

I would worth find­ing on the map of an­oth­er apart­ment — Southamp­ton Street, Blooms­bury Square (now Southamp­ton Place). It sure is pos­si­ble. The near­est to Blooms­bury Square apart­ment is 28, Southamp­ton Place. The build­ing has ev­ery­thing re­quired to match Bil­lickin’s apart­ment: a bed­room and Mrs. Bil­lickin’s back par­lour, then the first floor with a sit­ting-room and wide win­dows, the sec­ond floor for Mrs. Twin­kle­ton and also at­ten­dant’s loft. And may the light­ning strike me dead, if the brass door-plate doesn’t say the sin­gle name ‘BIL­LICKIN’ on it any longer!

“This lady's name, stat­ed in un­com­pro­mis­ing cap­i­tals of con­sid­er­able size on a brass door-plate, and yet not lu­cid­ly as to sex or con­di­tion, was BIL­LICKIN.”

Translated by Lucius Tellus