Literary Relics at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

I have expanded my essay, An Account of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, with a lot of new text and images. But I thought the photographs deserved a post of their own. Here are some corners of the Cheese that were most familiar to Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith.

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The regular seats of Dr Johnson (beneath his portrait) and Charles Dickens (in front of the red curtain) at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
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A sea-coal fire warming the barroom
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Oliver Goldsmith’s door knocker in the cellar bar

See also: An Account of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

Poe at the Northern Dispensary

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At the triple intersection of Christopher Street, Grove Street, and Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, stands a three-story Federal Style brick building. It is oddly triangular in shape, due its placement on an island of land cut out by the surrounding streets. This is the Northern Dispensary.

Tom Miller, author of Seeking New York, and the superlative Daytonian in Manhattan blog, writes,

The City of New York established a Dispensary for the treatment of the poor in 1791 in the neighborhood of City Hall. But as the city grew it quickly became apparent that the single infirmary was insufficient. In 1824 citizens pushed for a provincial branch far to the north in Greenwich Village. After working from a few temporary locations, the nonprofit Northern Dispensary organization was given the peculiar triangle of land formed where the Y-shaped Waverly Place runs into Grove and Christopher Streets.

In handing over the plot, the City placed a stipulation on the property: it was to be used solely for the purpose of treating the indigent who could not afford hospital care.

Built by a mason, John Tucker, and a carpenter, Henry Bayard, it was completed in 1831.

A ceremonial cornerstone, still to be found on the building’s façade, reads, “Northern Dispensary. Instituted 1827. Built 1831. Heal The Sick.” Indeed, the sick were treated here for over one hundred and fifty years. The Northern Dispensary closed in 1989. The building was purchased the following year by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which never used it, and sold it to a real estate developer in 1998. It has stood empty ever since. The original stipulation attached to the deed, that the building can only be used to provide medical care for the “worthy poor,” is still in effect.

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According to the records of the dispensary, Edgar Allan Poe was treated here for a severe cold in the winter of 1837, when he was living nearby on Waverly Place. He was given medicine, presumably laudanum, or some other opiate-based cough suppressant, and recovered in due course. This makes the Northern Dispensary one of the few remaining sites in Manhattan with a known Poe connection, although the charming labyrinth of streets in the West Village remains virtually unchanged since Poe’s day.

See also: A Lost House of Edgar Allan Poe and Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre.

A Synchronicity of Plum Puddings

Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe events that are linked by meaning but not causality. A synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence. To illustrate the point Jung related an anecdote from the memoirs of Émile Deschamps. He writes:

A certain M. Deschamps, when a boy in Orléans, was once given a piece of plum-pudding by a M. de Fortgibu. Ten years later he discovered another plum-pudding in a Paris restaurant, and asked if he could have a piece. It turned out, however, that the plum-pudding was already ordered—by M. de Fortgibu. Many years afterwards M. Deschamps was invited to partake of a plum-pudding as a special rarity. While he was eating it he remarked that the only thing lacking was M. de Fortgibu. At that moment the door opened and an old, old man in the last stages of disorientation walked in: M. de Fortgibu, who had got hold of the wrong address and burst in on the party by mistake.

The Hangman’s Elm in Greenwich Village

The oldest tree in Manhattan is an English elm at the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. It is at least 300 years old. A local legend attends to this tree. It is known as the “Hangman’s Elm” and was reputedly a place of execution in the early decades of the republic.

This may or may not be true. In all likelihood, not. A slave named Rose Butler was hanged at Washington Square in 1820, but a gallows was erected for the occasion. There are no records of any other executions. A lore persists nevertheless. Many books repeat the story that General Lafayette viewed the hanging of twenty highwaymen either from the tree or a gallows near the spot during his tour of America in 1824. This is almost certainly a fiction. The earliest references appear in the twentieth century. Elderly residents of the neighborhood still living in the 1890s remembered the execution of Rose Butler. Surely they would have remembered the far more dramatic hanging of twenty men in the presence of an international celebrity had it actually occurred.

Washington Square has another very real and very poignant association with the dead. It was a potter’s field between 1797 and 1826. During that period as many as twenty thousand New Yorkers were interred here. A gravestone from 1799 was uncovered during restoration of the park in 2009. Burial vaults have been opened as recently as 2015.

Arthur Machen’s Bookplate

Over at Wormwoodiana, Boyd White writes an interesting piece about the ex libris of Arthur Machen, which Vincent Starrett called, “one of the great rarities in its field.”

There were four known examples of the bookplate, designed by Herbert Jones, who was chief librarian of Kensington around the fin de siècle. Recently, White tracked down a fifth at the British Library, in a copy of John Henry Parker’s An Introduction to the Study of Gothic Architecture, given to Machen as a Christmas present by his father.

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Relics of Medieval London in Carter Lane

Carter Lane in the City of London, so called because it was the major thoroughfare for horse-carts in the Middle Ages, limns the southern face of Ludgate Hill, between St Paul’s and the Thames. Although the buildings are from a much later date, the course of the narrow Medieval road remains unchanged.

A side street sloping down toward the river is called Addle Hill. “Addle” refers to the horse piss that would necessarily run off from Carter Lane down this hill.  A number of other little streets served a similar purpose. One would assume they were not the best real estate in Medieval London, and yet, at the height of his wealth and fame, William Shakespeare made his last London home at the bottom of Burgon Street. It was a stone’s throw from the Blackfriars Theatre, the indoor winter playhouse of his troupe, the King’s Men. A piece of stonemasonry behind an iron fence nearby in Ireland Yard is all that remains of the former Blackfriars monastery in which the theater was housed.

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Burgon Street, looking south from Carter Lane toward the Cockpit Tavern

Almost all of the half-timbered buildings in the City were destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, but Shakespeare’s cellar is apparently still used by the Cockpit Tavern, a Victorian-era pub that occupies the site of his house. A glimpse of pre-Fire lath and plaster work can be found on the wall of Carter Court, an alleyway off Carter Lane.

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A Medieval Legend of the Crown Jewels

The following entry appears in E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

Ring. It is said that Edward the Confessor was once asked for alms by an old man, and gave him his ring. In time some English pilgrims went to the Holy Land, and happened to meet the same old man, who told them he was John the Evangelist, and gave them the identical ring to take to “Saint” Edward. This ring was preserved in Westminster Abbey.

King Edward’s ring contained a sapphire. Somehow this gem survived the interregnum of the seventeenth century, when the rest of the Crown Jewels were lost. The present day Crown Jewels date from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Queen Victoria had the sapphire placed at the center of the cross at the top of the Imperial State Crown. It remains there to this day.

Rare Film of Algernon Blackwood

The English writer of the supernatural Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) made six short films with Rayant Pictures in 1949 under the series title, A Strange Experience. For many decades these were considered lost but two have recently surfaced courtesy of the British Film Institute. Lock Your Door and The Reformation of St Jules feature a casual Blackwood sitting fireside and telling his own stories apparently from memory.

Watch both films below.

The Only Known Recording of Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen (1863-1947) left a broad body of work. In addition to his superlative tales of the outré (The Great God Pan, The Hill of Dreams, “The White People,” et. al.), Machen was a prolific Fleet Street journalist. Given the length and breadth of his career it is somewhat surprising that almost no recordings of him exist. In 1934 he wrote to friend Montgomery Evans, “nor do I imagine that the B.B.C. has heard of me.”

He did eventually record at least one program for the BBC in March of 1937. A three-and-a-half minute fragment of the broadcast survives. It may be the only surviving record of Machen’s voice. On the program he discusses Charles Dickens, of whom he was a great admirer. It is a remarkable treasure for anyone who loves Machen as I do. Listen here.