Grub Street in 1641

by mercuriuspoliticus

Imagine that it’s the very end of 1640. You are in your late twenties, and have lived in London since your late teens after starting an apprenticeship in 1629. You have been exposed to the social and intellectual ferment of the capital’s puritan lectureships, and possibly even to some of the more controversial ideas in circulation in the city’s godly underground. Your master’s stall is a stone’s throw from the heart of the London book trade around St Paul’s, from where you will acquire a critique of Catholicism published in the same year as you are made free from your apprenticeship. There have been running battles over the position of the altar table in your parish church of St Giles Cripplegate, and the vicar and vestry (one of whom had daubed a crucifix on the church wall) are at daggers drawn with other more godly members of the congregation. You’ve just come back to London after a year spent studying theology at Cambridge, and want to play your part in fighting the religious changes being introduced by Archbishop Laud. You decide you want to to write and sell puritan books. Where do you start?

This is the situation that the ironmonger Henry Walker found himself in at the end of 1640. The transition from ironmonger to clergyman and pamphleteer may seem unusual to us: contemporaries certainly commented on it, particularly Walker’s critics, for whom it was evidence of a base, uncultured intellect. But if we look at the geography of Walker’s career at this stage of his life, it becomes clear that his shift from ironmonger to bookseller and writer actually may not have been that difficult.

In the late 1630s, Walker was working as an ironmonger in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate. He lived there with his wife Mary, and from September 1639, his first daughter Anne. He seems to have lived in Butler’s Alley, in between Grub Street and Moor Street: at least, that is where a pamphlet sold by him in 1641 gave his address, and in the absence of any other evidence we can assume that is probably where he was trading from in the late 1630s too.

Even at this stage, Grub Street was starting to become synonymous with a certain part of the London book trade. By the time the Walker family moved to Cripplegate, the parish had already been a focal point of London’s book trade for over seventy years. Robert Crowley, for example, the parish’s vicar first from 1565 to 1568, then from 1578 to 1588, had earlier in his career been an underground printer who published some of the earliest Protestant propaganda. By the late 1630s, Grub Street and the surrounding courts and alleys were becoming home to printers who would play a comparable role in producing puritan and Parliamentarian propaganda during the civil wars and beyond.

I’ve plotted on the map below some of the printers with whom Walker cooperated during 1641 and beyond. The map is from John Strype’s Survey of London (1720) so is not contemporary: however, the fire of 1666 did not reach Cripplegate, so it is fairly safe to assume that the core of the street plan would have been the same 80 years beforehand.




It quickly becomes clear that Walker would not have had to go very far to find help with his ambition to print and sell books.

The Walkers’ house and premises was in at the Moor Lane end of Butler’s Alley, a narrow passage that met Grub Street at its other end. I’ve marked this with a red star.   A short walk down Butler’s Alley, taking a left turn at the end onto Grub Street past the sign of the Flying Horse, was Honeysuckle Court: site of the printing house of Bernard Alsop and Thomas Fawcett, close by the parish’s lower pump. I’ve marked this with a blue star.

Alsop was a veteran of the book trade, having begun printing in around 1616 with his former master, Thomas Creed. Fawcett in turn had become Alsop’s junior partner in around 1625. A state investigation into the book trade in 1634 concluded that Alsop was ‘unruly’, whereas his partner Fawcett was a ‘poor man’, but ‘the abler man and better workman and better governor’. Alsop and Fawcett printed the first (surviving) book that Walker wrote, and I have concluded from bibliographical analysis of other texts that he wrote and sold in 1641 that they played a role in printing a number of these, too.

A few minutes’ walk to the west, close to the church of St Giles, was Andrew and Jane Coe’s printing house. I have marked this with a green star. Andrew took up his freedom in 1638 and texts with his imprint begin to appear from 1642 onwards. It was to the Coes’ press that Walker took his first newsbook Perfect Occurrences to be printed.

A little further west, at the sign of the sugar loaf in Goldsmith’s Alley off Red Cross Street, was the press of Thomas Paine and Matthew Simmons. I’ve marked this with a yellow star. Like Alsop and Fawcett, this pair would find themselves in trouble with the authorities on a number of occasions in 1641 for illegal printing. Paine was the printer who produced Walker’s infamous petition of January 1642 titled To Your Tents, O Israel: Walker had allegedly borrowed a bible belonging to Thomas’s wife to consult when writing it. Faced with the prospect of serious charges – Walker himself only avoided execution after intervention from Charles I – Paine shopped Walker to the authorities, although by 1650 when the political climate was rather different, he received a gratuity of £20 from the Council of State to recognise the difficulties he had experienced during the trial.

We can assume that Walker’s connections with these printers had a commercial context. It is likely that Walker paid to have most of his pamphlets printed by them. There may also have been a religious or political side to them: Payne’s colloboration on To Your Tents, for example, may have been done in return for cash, but given the risks and the uproar throughout London over the attempted arrest of the five members that prompted Walker’s petition, it seems more likely that it was a plot hatched together. But mapping the geography of these connections makes clear that there was another side to them: these printers were also Walker’s neighbours. Walker would have passed them in the street and seen them in local alehouses. He worshipped alongside them every Sunday in Cripplegate church. He probably saw Thomas Fawcett’s daughter Sara buried in September 1636 after succumbing to the plague, followed by Bernard Alsop’s son Abraham a month later. They were probably acquaintances, perhaps even friends.

So Walker’s move into writing and selling books no longer looks quite such a leap. He was living in a parish full of printers and booksellers, and it would not have taken much to turn over at least part of his shop to book-selling. Ironmongers had relatively basic shops, needing little in the way of specialist equipment other than a table, steelyard balance and scales. There is evidence that a number or ironmongers in this period diversified into selling other items, including books. Whenever it was that Walker decided to begin selling books – whether in the late 1630s or only in 1641 after coming down from Cambridge – he did not have to look far for stock. And when, at the end of 1640, he had finished the manuscript of his first book, he only had to walk five minutes to discuss prices with Alsop and Fawcett.