Jerusalem Passage, EC1
Just off the right of Aylesbury Street is to be found this passage, named after the St John of Jerusalem pub which, alas, was demolished in 1758 to make way for a school.
At the southern end of the passage is St John’s Square and the church of St John which was built in 1723, was badly damaged during the Second World War and rebuilt in 1958. The current church stood on the site of the Priory Church of St John of Jerusalem which was consecrated in 1185. Adjacent to the church was the Priory whose monks took a vow of chastity, obedience and poverty and whose modus operandi was to beg for food five days a week and to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Within 200 years the establishment was inordinately rich – so much for poverty!
In 1381 the priory was set alight by Wat Tyler and his merry men who were protesting against the poll tax imposed by the chancellor of the realm whose responsibility it was to collect it. Unfortunately for the priory the chancellor was also the prior, Robert Hales. Even more unfortunate for Hales he was seized by the mob, taken to Tower Hill and beheaded. However, the church and priory were rebuilt and were even more splendid than before. Further refurbishment took place between 1501 and 1527 under the auspices of Thomas Dowcra but following the reformation, the buildings were used to store Henry VIII’s personal effects and the church blown up in 1550 and the stone was used to construct Somerset House on the Strand.
The passage has a green plaque bearing the legend, “here stood the house of Thomas Britton (1644 – 1714) the musical coalman”. Britton was a fascinating character.. Originally from Higham Ferrers in Huntingdonshire, he was by day a charcoal merchant but at night immersed himself in antiquarian books and developed a taste for music. The portraits of him often include a coal sack in the background as well as his impressive library and collection of musical instruments.
Britton established a Thursday evening musical soiree which at the time became the place to go and be seen, a remarkable achievement for a grubby tradesman. The club met in a room described as long and narrow and “with a ceiling so low that a tall man could but just stand upright”. Visitors had to squeeze through the coal yard and climb a rickety set of stairs. But the hazardous journey was worth it. Handel and Pepusch, the arranger of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, played there and amongst the many illuminati who attended there were the musical historian, John Hawkins, and the Duchess of Queensbury. Admission was one penny for a saucer of coffee. One contemporary wrote, “we heard a noble concert of music, vocal and instrumental, the best in town”.
Britton died in tragi-comedic circumstances. A local blacksmith who practised ventriloquism was persuaded as a practical joke to throw his voice pretending to be a supernatural messenger. So realistic was the performance that Britton was scared to death. Not surprisingly with such neighbours Mrs Britton sold up on 24th January 1715. Amongst the artefacts catalogued were several books on black magic and an extensive stash of pornographic literature, including Young Lovers’ Guide, Comforts of Whoring, Rowland on Farting – must get a copy – and Petre on Venereal Disease. There was only one book on coal. Death reveals all, as they say.
The joy of exploring London’s nooks and crannies is that you never know what you will find.