A wry view of life for the world-weary

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I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty Eight

The Ivy Lane Club

This was a relatively short-lived club, founded in the 1740s, the brain child of Samuel Johnson who wanted to fill his leisure hours with good conversation and a forum in which to impress his comrades with the breadth of his knowledge and acerbity of his tongue. The assembled company met on Tuesday evenings at the King’s Head, a tavern and beefsteak house which was to be found in the eponymous Ivy Lane, off to the left of Paternoster Row, if you were looking down it from the west, under the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

As well as the good Doctor, its members included his good friend, Dr Richard Bathurst, the author John Hawkesworth, the publisher John Payne, John Hawkins, an attorney, and the Archdeacon of Norwich, Dr Samuel Salter. Evenings were engaged in literary discussions, Johnson often using the occasion to try out his latest theories or road test his compositions. Inevitably, food and drink were partaken.

Occasionally, the club would move venue, as it did upon Johnson’s suggestion to celebrate the publication of the first book by one of his literary proteges, Charlotte Lennox, The Life of Harriott Stewart, Written by Herself. Although the idea was hatched at the Ivy Lane the club members together with Charlotte and her husband assembled at the Devil Tavern in Fleet Street at 8 o’clock. There were twenty there in all. Johnson had arranged for a magnificent hot apple pie to be baked in Lennox’s honour, topped with bay leaves symbolising the fact that she was now an authoress. Invoking the Muses with all due ceremony, Johnson placed a crown of laurel leaves on the astonished woman’s head.

Sir John Hawkins picked up the story. “The night passed, as must be imagined, in pleasant conversation and harmless mirth, intermingled, at different periods, with the refreshments of tea and coffee”. About five in the morning, Johnson was beaming, although he had only imbibed lemonade. The restraint shown by Johnson was not replicated by his companions who were with difficulty persuaded to forsake the delights of Bacchus for another round of coffee. When it came to getting the bill, there was another difficulty. “The waiters were so overcome with sleep, that it was two hours before we could get a bill, and it was not till near eight that the creaking of the street-door gave the signal for our departure.”

One of the benefits of being a member of a club is the connections one makes. John Payne was looking to establish a literary magazine, the Adventurer, which, although running from 1752 to 1754, was one of the most influential periodicals of the 17th century. He appointed his fellow Ivy Lane clubman, John Hawkesworth, who was then a jobbing journalist. But Hawkesworth had learned at the feet of Johnson and he learned to emulate the moral and literary voice of his master, so much so that readers were scarcely able to determine what was Johnson’s and what had been written by Hawkesworth. In many ways, the Ivy Lane club was Hawkesworth’s finishing school.

Alas, though, things didn’t last. Hawkesworth was said to have made much of his close association with Johnson which pissed the Doctor off and they fell out in 1756. The club disbanded and when Johnson in 1783, a year before his death, tried to reassemble as many of the old crew as were left, he found that the old landlord of the King’s Head was dead and the pub shut down. And that was the end of that.


The Streets Of London – Part Thirty Four


Abchurch Lane, EC3

Running between Lombard Street and Cannon Street, Abchurch Lane is cut into two by King William Street. The lane is first mentioned in records in 1291 as Abbechurche Lane, the church being at the southern or Cannon Street end. It is thought that the name derived from aa corruption of Upchurch as the church is on a slight incline. An alternative theory is that the original church was dedicated to one Abbe or Abbo, but this is probably unlikely. Given its location the lane has a long pedigree – excavations for a sewer in 1855 there revealed a stretch of Roman ragstone wall eleven metres long.

At its corner with Lombard Street stood Mr Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop which had relocated from Tower Street in around 1691. The nascent insurance industry and the brokers and traders it attracted ensured that the lane had a plentiful supply of coffee shops.

Over the centuries the lane was the place to go to eat. Early in the 18th century its principal attraction, at least according to John Webster’s Northward Hoe of 1607, were the cakes sold by Mother Wells from her shop there. A century later you would find the esteemed French eating house, Pontack’s, which was patronised by the likes of John Evelyn, Christopher Wren and Jonathan Swift. The hallmark of the restaurant was good food and wine at reasonable prices which the patron, Monsieur Pontack, was not shy in pointing out to guests as Swift relates in his Journal to Stella, “I was this day in the City, and dined at Pontack’s ..Pontack told us, although his wine was so good, he sold it cheaper than others; he took but seven shillings a flask. Are these not pretty rates?” Pontack’s hosted dinners of the Royal Society until 1746 when they moved to the Devil Tavern in Temple Bar.

And if you didn’t want to eat you could buy a cure for worms in the form of a powder made and sold by John Moore who lived in the street. Moore was on the receiving end of Alexander Pope’s wit and satire but at least the lane got a namecheck, “Oh learned friend of Abchurch Lane/ Who sett’st our entrails free/ Vain is thy art, thy powder vain/ Since worms will eat e’en thee”.

But the real jewel in the lane’s crown is to be found at the Cannon Street end where you will find the marvellous Wren church of St Mary Abchurch. The original church was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 but was rebuilt under Wren’s supervision between 1681 and 1686. It is built of red brick with a four storey 51 foot tower with leaded spire. Inside the ceiling is a dome pierced by four windows, decorated with stunning paintings by William Snow culminating in a centrepiece with a golden glow and the name of God in Hebrew script.


The piece de resistance, though, for me is the wonderful altar piece by my favourite wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, pace St Paul’s, the only example of the craftsman’s art to be found in a London church. The original high box pews on three sides of the church are also worth seeing. The church was hit during the Blitz, the dome taking most of the blast, but, thankfully, it has been restored to its former glory.