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by Charles Reade

from The jilt &c., and Good stories of man and other animals
Library edition

Originally from The jilt (1884)


A.D. 1616 -- The "Swan Inn," Knightsbridge, with a pightle of land and three acres of meadow skirting Hyde Park, was leased by the Freeholder, Agmondishain Muscamp, to Giles Broncham, of Knightsbridge, Winifred his wife, and Roger their son; rent £30 a year.

  A.D. 1634 -- The same Freeholder leased the above to Richard Callawaie and his son, for their lives; rent £30 a year.

  A.D. 1671 -- The above lease was surrendered, and a new one granted to Richard Callawaie, the younger, for forty-two years; rent £42.

  October 19 and 20, A.D. 1674 -- The then Freeholder, William Muscamp, Jane his wife, and Ambrose their son, sold the property, subject to Callawaie's lease and a mortgage of £200 to Richard Portress, Baker and Citizen of London, for £680.

  December 5, A.D. 1674 -- Portress sold to Robert Cole for a trifling profit.

  March 17, A.D. 1682 -- Cole mortgaged the property to Squire Howland, of Streathain, for £200, with forfeiture for ever if not redeemed by payment of £212 on or before September 18, 1682. This marks the tightness of money in those days, and the high interest paid on undeniable security. The terms of the forfeiture were rigorous, and the £212 was not paid; but the mortgagee showed forbearance. He even allowed Cole to divide the security, and sell the odd three acres, in 1684, to Richard Callawaie, for £180. For this sum was then conveyed the site of all the buildings now abutting on Hyde Park, from the "Corner" to opposite Sloane Street, and including, inter alia, nearly the whole of Lord Rosebery's site.

  July, A.D. 1686. -- Nicholas Burchade, Goldsmith and Citizen of London, purchased the "Swan" and pightle (subject to Iveson's lease for 21 years at £50 a year). He paid to Howland, the patient mortgagee, £239, 15s.; to Cole and his wife, £700.

  But in less than a year he sold to Edward Billing, Tobacconist, for £602, 10s.

  Billing may be assumed to have also purchased Callawaie's lot, for though no negotiation either with Burchade or Billing is disclosed in the recitals, Callawaie's interest in the property disappears between 1686 and 1719, and the heirs of Billing are found possessed of the whole property.

  A.D. 1701. -- Edward Billing made a will, leaving to his wife the "Swan" and pightle for her life, and this is the first document which defines that property precisely.

  July, A.D. 1719. -- James Billing, of Boston, Carpenter, and Mary his wife, sold to John Clarke, Baker, the entire property, for £675, subject to Anne Billing's life-interest in the "Swan."

  Some years later, Anne Billing sold her life-interest to Clarke for £29, 10s. per annum.

  John Clarke was the first to take a right view of this property and its capabilities.

  A.D. 1722. -- He granted a building lease, for sixty-one years, of the three acres, ground-rents £3 per house.

  His successor, Jonathan Clarke, followed suit, and, in

  A.D. 1776, condemned the "Swan," and granted the materials, the site, and the pightle, on building lease, to Ralph Mills, for a much shorter time than is general now-a-days, on condition of his building eighteen houses, one of which to be the Freeholder's, rent free, and Mills paying £59 a year for the other seventeen.

  Now in the will of Edward Billing, already referred to, and dated 1701, the "Swan" and its messuages, and its pightle, are described as "lying near the bridge, and bounded west by Sir Hugh Vaughan's lands, east by the Lazarcot, north by the wall of Hyde Park, and south by the King's Highway." I should have called it the Queen's Highway; but you must be born before you can be consulted in trifles. From this document, coupled with the building lease of 1776, we can trace the property to a square foot; the back slum now leading to four houses called "High Row," together with those houses, covers the area of the old "Swan Inn." The houses lately called "Albert Terrace," and numbered correctly, but now called "Albert Gate," and numbered prophetically, are, with their little gardens, the pightle.

  The "Swan Inn," condemned in 1776, was demolished in 1778, not 88, as the guide-books say, and the houses rose. The ground-leases were not a bad bargain for the builder, since in 1791 I find his tenants paid him £539 a year; but it was an excellent one for the Freeholdees family -- the ground-leases expired, and the last Clarke enjoyed both land and houses gratis. The three acres of meadow had got into Chancery, and were dispersed among little Clarkes and devoured by lawyers.

  A.D. 1830 -- The last Clarke died, and left "High Row" and the back slum, erst the "Swan Inn," and the eighteen houses built on the pightle -- in two undivided moieties -- to a Mr. Franklin, and to his own housekeeper, Anne Byford. Mrs. Byford was a worthy, prudent woman, from the county Durham, who had put by money, and kept it in an obsolete chimney more mulierum. But now, objecting, like most of us, to an undivided moiety, she swept her cold chimney, and with the help of her solicitor and trusty friend, Mr. Charles Hird, she borrowed the needful, and bought Franklin out, and became sole proprietor.

  The affair was not rosy at first; the leases were unexpired the rents low, the footway unpaved. She has told me herself -- for we were, for years, on very friendly terms -- that she had to trudge through the slush and dirt to apply for her quarterly rents, and often went home crying at the hostile reception or excuses she met, instead of her modest dues. But she held on; she could see the site was admirable; no other houses of this description had gardens running to Hyde Park. Intelligence was flowing westward. Men of substance began to take up every lease at a higher rent, and to lay out thousands of pounds in improvements.

  Between 1860 and 1865 ambitious speculators sought noble sites, especially for vast hotels; and one fine day the agent for an enterprising company walked into the office of Mrs. Byford's solicitor, Mr. Charles Hird, Portland Chambers, Titchfield Street, and offered five hundred thousand pounds for "High Row" and "Albert Terrace," with its gardens.

  In this offer the houses counted as débris: it was an offer for the site of the "Swan" and pightle, which between 1616, the year of Shakespeare's decease, and the date of this munificent offer, had been so leased, and re-leased, and sold, and bandied to and fro, generation after generation, for an old song.

  At the date of the above proposal Mrs. Byford's income from this historical property could not have exceeded £2500, and the bid was £20,000, per annum. But a profane Yorkshireman once said to me for my instruction, "Women are kittle cattle to drive;" and so it proved in this case. The property was sacred in that brave woman's heart. It had made her often sorrowful, often glad and hopeful. She had watched it grow, and looked to see it grow more and more. It was her child; and she declined half a million of money for it.

  A few years more, and a new customer stepped upon the scene -- Cupidity.

  A first-class builder had his eye upon Albert Terrace and its pretty little gardens running to Hyde Park. Said he to himself: "If I could but get hold of these, how. I would improve them! I'd pull down these irregular houses, cut up the gardens, and rear noble mansions' to command Hyde Park, and be occupied by rank and fashion, not by a scum of artists, authors, physicians, merchants, and mere ladies and gentlemen, who pay their rent and tradesmen, but do not drive four-in-hand."

  A circumstance favoured this generous design; the Government of the day had been petitioned sore by afflicted householders, to remove the barracks from Knigbtsbridge to some place with fewer cooks and nursemaids to be corrupted and kitchens pillaged.

  The Chancellor of the Exchequer loved economy and hated deficits; so this canny builder ear-wigged him. "If you," said he, "will give us the present site of the condemned barracks, and compulsory sale of 'Albert Terrace,' under a private Bill, we will build you new barracks for nothing on any site you choose to give us. It will be pro bono publico."

  This, as presented ex parte, was a great temptation to a public economist; and the statesman inclined his ear to it.

  The patriotic project leaked out and set the "Terrace" in a flutter. After-wit is everybody's wit; but ours had been the forethought to see the value of the sweetest site in London long before aristocrats, and plutocrats, and schemers, and builders; and were our mental inferiors to juggle us out of it on terms quite inadequate to us?

  We held meetings, passed resolutions, interested our powerful friends, and sent a deputation, dotted with M.P.s, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

  The deputation met with rather a chill reception, and at first buzzed, as deputations will, and took weak ground, and got laid on their backs more than once; but when they urged that the scheme had not occurred to the Government, but had been suggested by a trader -- cloaking lucre with public spirit -- and named the person, the statesman lost his temper, and they gained their cause. He rose like a tower, and disposed of them in one of those curt sentences that are often uttered by big men, seldom by little deputations. 'Enough, gentlemen; you have said all you can, and much more than you need have said, or ought to have said, to me; you keep yours, and we'll keep ours."

  Then he turned his back on them, and that was rude, and has all my sympathy; for is there a more galling, disgusting, unnatural, intolerable thing than to be forced by our own bosom traitors -- our justice, probity, our honour, and our conscience -- to hear reason against ourselves?

  The deputation went one way, and baffled cupidity another, lamenting the scarcity of patriotism, and the sacrifice of £100,000 to such bugbears as Meum. and Teum, and respect for the rights of the weak.

  Peace blessed the little Terrace for three or four years, and then,

"The mouthing patriot with an itching palm,"

rendered foxier by defeat, attacked the historical site with admirable craft and plausibility, and a new alley, seldom defeated in this country -- Flunkeyism.

  The first act of the new comedy was played by architects and surveyors. They called on us, and showed us their plans for building "noble mansions" eleven stories high, on the site of our houses and gardens, and hinted at a fair remuneration if we would consent and make way for our superiors. See Ahab's first proposal to Naboth.

  We declined, and the second act commenced. The architects, surveyors, and agents vanished entirely, and the leading actor appeared, with his drawn sword, a private Bill. He was a patriot peer, whose estates were in Yorkshire; from that far country came this benevolent being to confer a disinterested boon on the little village of Knightsbridge.

  The Bill was entitled

"Albert Terrace, Knightsbridge, Improvement Act."

It is a masterpiece in its way, and very instructive as a warning to all public men to look keenly and distrustfully below the surface of every private Bill.

  The Preamble stated that the new road, hereinafter described, from the high-road Knightsbridge into Hyde Park, would be of great public and local advantage.

  That the Right Honourable Henry Stapleton, Baron Beaumont (hereinafter called the undertaker), was willing to construct the said new road, at his own expense, if authorised to acquire certain lands, buildings, and property for that purpose.

  And that this could not be effected without the consent of Parliament.

  The Bill, amidst a number of colourless clauses, slily inserted that the undertaker of this road (which ought clearly to have been a continuation of Sloane Street straight as a bee-line) might deviate, not eastward into his own property and justice, but westward, like a ram's horn, into the bulk of Anne Byford's houses.

  And instead of asking for the unconstitutional power of compulsory purchase, clause 10 proposed that the power of compulsory purchase should not be exercised after three years from the passing of this Act.

  The abuse might be forced on them. Their only anxiety was to guard against the abuse of the abuse.

  Briefly, a cannier, more innocent-looking, yet subtle and treacherous composition, never emanated from a Machiavelian pen.

  It offered something to every class of society; a new public road into the Park, good for the people and the aristocracy; a few private houses that stood in the way, or nearly in the way, of the public road, to be turned into noble mansions, good for the plutocracy and the shopkeepers; and the projector a Peer, good for the national flunkeyism.

  For the first time I was seriously alarmed, and prepared to fight; for what says Sydney Smith, the wisest as well as wittiest man of his day. "Equal rights to unequal possessions, that is what Englishmen will come out and fight for."

  I fired my first shot; wrote on my front wall, in huge letters,


  The discharge produced a limited effiect. I had assumed too hastily that all the world was familiar with that ancient history of personal cupidity and spoliation pro bono publico, and would apply it to the modern situation, with which it had two leading features in common. The deportment of my neighbours surprised me. They stopped, read, scratched their heads, and went away bewildered. I observed their dumb play, and sent my people to catch their comments, if any. Alas! these made it very clear that Knightsbridge thumbs not the archives of Samaria.

  One old Clo' smiled supercilious, and we always suspected him of applying my text; but it was only suspicion, and counterbalanced by native naïveté; a little tradesman was bustling eastward to make money, saw the inscription, stopped a moment, and said to his companion, "Nabob's vinegar! Why, it looks like a gentleman's house."

  However, as a Sphinx's riddle, set, by a popular maniac, on a wall, it roused a little of that mysterious interest which still waits upon the unknown, and awakened vague expectation.

  Then I prepared my petition to the House, and took grave objection to the Bill, with an obsequious sobriety as fictitious as the patriotism of the Bill.

  But I consoled myself for this unnatural restraint by preparing a little Parliamentary Bill of my own, papered and printed and indorsed in exact imitation of the other Bill only worded on the reverse principle of calling things by their right names. The Bill was entitled, "Knightsbridge Spoliation Act," and described as follows:


  For other purposes, under the pretext of a new private carriage drive into the Park, to be called a public road.

The Preamble.

  Whereas the sites of certain houses and gardens, called Albert Terrace, Knightsbridge, are known to be of great value to building speculators, and attempts to appropriate them have been made from time to time, but have failed for want of the proper varnish; and whereas the owners of the said sites are merchants, physicians, authors, and commoners, and to transfer their property by force to a speculating lord and his builders would be a great advantage to the said speculators, and also of great local advantage -- to an estate in Yorkshire.

  And whereas the tradespeople who conceived this Bill are builders, architects, and agents, and their names might lack lustre, and even rouse suspicion, a nobleman, hereinafter described as the "Patriot Peer," will represent the shop, and is willing to relieve the rightful owners of the sites aforenamed, by compulsory purchase, and to build flats one hundred feet high, and let them to flats at £50 a room, and gain £200,000 clear profit, provided he may construct a new drive into the Park at the cost to himself of £80, or thereabouts, and bear ever after the style and title of "the Patriot Peer."

  And since great men no longer despoil their neighbours in the name of God, as in the days of King Ahab and Mr. Cromwell, but in the name of the public, it is expedient to dedicate this new carriage drive to the public; the said drive not to traverse the Park, and no cab, cart, or other vehicle such as the public uses, will be allowed to travel on it.

  The new drive and the foot-paths together shall be only forty-four feet wide, but whether the foot-paths shall be ten feet, twenty, or thirty, is to be left to the discretion of the private Lawgiver.

  As this carriage drive of unlimited narrowness is to be used only by the narrowest class in the kingdom, it shall be dedicated to all classes, and this phraseology shall be often repeated, since reiteration passes with many for truth. The drive, during construction, to be called "Patriot's Road," and when finished, "Oligarch Alley," or "Plutocrat Lane."

  And so on, with perfect justice, but a bitterness not worth reviving.

  Then for once I deviated from my habits, and appealed in person to leading men in both Houses, who are accessible to me, though I never intrude on them.

  Finding me so busy, some friends of the measure, out of good nature, advised me not to waste my valuable time, and proved to me that it was no use. Albert Terrace was an eyesore long recognised; all the tradespeople in the district and three hundred ladies and gentlemen of distinction -- dukes, earls, marquises, countesses, viscountesses, and ladies -- had promised to support the Bill with their signatures to a petition.

  Flunkeyism is mighty in this island. I knew, I trembled, I persisted.

  I sounded the nearest Tory member. He would not go into the merits, but said there was a serious objection to the Bill as it stood. It would interfere with the Queen's wall.

  Unfortunately this was a detail the projectors could alter, and yet trample on such comparative trifles as the law of England and the great rights of little people.

  Next I called upon a Liberal -- my neighbour Sir Henry James. I had a slight acquaintance with him through his beating me often at whist, and always at repartee, in a certain club. I now took a mean revenge by begging him to read my papers.

  He looked aghast, and hoped they were not long.

  "Not so long as your briefs," said I sourly.

  Then this master of fence looked away, and muttered, as if in soliloquy, I'm paid for reading that rubbish." He added, with a sigh, "There! leave them with me."

  The very next morning he invited me to call on him, and I found him completely master of the subject and every detail.

  He summed up by saying kindly, "Really I don't wonder at your being indignant, for it is a purely private speculation, and the road is a blind. I think you can defeat it in committee; but that would cost you a good deal of money."

  I asked him if it could not be stopped on the road to committee.

  He said that was always difficult with private Bills. "However," said he, "if the persons interested are disposed to confide the matter to me, I will see if I can do anything in so clear a case."

  You may guess whether I jumped at this or not.

  As a proof how these private Bills are smuggled through Parliament, it turned out that the Bill in question had already been read once, and none of us knew it, and the second reading was coming on in a few days.

  Sir Henry James lost no time either. He rose in the House and asked the member for Chelsea whether he was aware of a Bill called "Knightsbridge Improvement Acts," and had the Government looked into it.

  The honourable member replied that they had, and he would go so far as to say did not approve it.

  "Shall you oppose it?" asked Sir Henry James. And as the other did not reply, "Because, if not, we shall." He then gave notice that before this Bill was allowed to go into committee he wished to put certain questions to the promoters, and named next Thursday.

  Then I lent my humble co-operation by a letter to the Daily Telegraph entitled "Private Bills and Public Wrongs."

  One unfair advantage of private Bills is that their opponents can't get one-tenth part of the House of Commons to be there and discuss them; so this letter of mine was intended as a whip to secure a House at that early hour, when there never is a House, but only a handful, chiefly partisans of the oppressive measure. It had an effect; there were a good many independent members present when Sir Henry James rose to question the promoters of the Knightsbridge Improvement Bill.

  He was met in a way that contrasted curiously with the advice I had received -- not to run my head against a stone wall, with three hundred noble signatures written on it. A member, instructed by the promoters, popped up and anticipated all Sir James's questions with one prudent reply, The Bill is withdrawn.

  Thus fell, by the mere wind of a good lawyer's sword, that pregnable edifice of patriotic spoliation; and Anne Byford, who in this business represented the virtues of the nation, the self-denial and economy which purchase from a willing vendor, with Abraham for a precedent, Moses for a guide, and the law of England for a title, and the fortitude which retains, in hard times, till value increases, and cupidity burns to reap where it never sowed, was not juggled out of her child for one-tenth part of the sum she had refused from a straightforward bidder.

  So much for the past history of the "Swan" and pightle. There is more to come, and soon. The projectors of the defeated Bill had made large purchases of land close by Albert Terrace, and this was thrown upon their hands at a heavy loss for years. But now, I am happy to say, they have sold it to the Earl of Rosebery for £120,000, so says report.

  Even if they have, what has been will be; in fifty years' time this transaction will be called buying the best site in London for an old song.

  Meantime, siege and blockade having failed, a mine is due by all the laws of war. So a new Metropolitan Company proposes this very year to run under the unfortunate terrace, propel the trains with a patent that, like all recent patents, will often be out of order, and stop them with another patent that will seldom be in order. Item, to stifle and smash the public a good deal more than they are smashed and stifled at present (which seems superfluous); the motive, public spirit, as before; the instrument, a private Bill -- Anathema sit in sæcula sæculorum.

  While the moles are at work below, Lord Rosebery will rear "a noble mansion;" by that expression every builder and every snob in London means a pile of stucco, huge and hideous.

  Then flunkeyism will say, "Are a Peer and his palace to be shouldered by cribs?" and cupidity will demand a line of "noble mansions," and no garden, in place of Albert Terrace and its pretty gardens -- a rus in urbe a thousand times more beautiful and a hundred thousand times more rare, whatever idiots, snobs, builders, and beasts may think, than monotonous piles of stucco -- and that engine of worse than Oriental despotism, the private Bill, will be ready to hand. The rest is in the womb of time.

  But my pages are devoted to the past, not to the doubtful future. What I have related is the documentary, pecuniary, political, and private history of the "Swan" and pightle. Now many places have a long prosaic history, and a short romantic one. The chronic history of Waterloo field is to be ploughed, and sowed, and reaped, and mowed; yet once in a way these acts of husbandry were diversified with a great battle, where hosts decided the fate of Empires. After that, agriculture resumed its sullen sway, and even heroes submitted, and fattened the field their valour had glorified.

  Second-rate horses compete, every year, on Egham turf, and will while the turf endures. But one day the competing horses on that sward were a King and his Barons, and they contended over the constitution, and the Cup was Magna Charta. This double history belongs to small places as well as great, to Culloden and Agincourt, and to the narrow steps leading from Berkeley Street to Curzon Street, Mayfair, down which, with head lowered to his saddle bow the desperate Turpin spurred his horse, with the Bow Street runners on each side; but no man ever did it before, nor will again.

  Even so, amidst all these prosaic pamphlets and papers, leases and releases, mortgages, conveyances, and testaments, ignoring so calmly every incident not bearing on title, there happened within the area of the "Swan" and its pightle a romantic story, which I hope will reward my friends who have waded through my prose; for, besides some minor attractions, it is a tale of Blood.


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