The Famous Legend respecting Shoreditch—Sir John de Soerditch—"The Duke of Shoreditch"—Archery Competitions of the Sixteenth
Century—St. Leonard's Church—Celebrated Men of Elizabeth's Time—The Fairchild Sermon—Holywell Lane—The "Curtain" Theatre.
This ancient and ill-used parish extends from
Norton Folgate to Old Street, and from part of
Finsbury to Bethnal Green. Originally a village
on the old Roman northern road, called by the
Saxons Old Street, it is now a continuation of
The old London tradition is that Shoreditch
derived its name from Jane Shore, the beautiful
mistress of Edward IV., who, worn out with poverty
and hunger, died miserably in a ditch in this unsavoury suburb. This legend, however, is entirely
erroneous, as we have shown in a previous chapter.
It does not seem to have been popular even so late
as 1587. Dr. Percy hit upon quite as erroneous a
derivation when he traced the name of the parish
to shore (sewer), a common drain. Shoreditch, or,
more correctly, Soerdich, really took its name from
the old family of the Soerdiches, Lords of the
Manor in the time of Edward III. Sir John de
Soerdich of that reign, an eminent warrior, lawyer,
statesman, and diplomatist, was, on one memorable
occasion, sent to Rome to protest before the Pope
against the greedy and tyrannical way in which
foreign priests were thrust into English benefices,
and it was all Sir John could do to get safe back
to the little island. The Soerdich family, Mr.
Timbs informs us, held the manor of Ickenham,
near Uxbridge, and resided there till our own time.
The last of the family, an engineer, died in 1865,
in the West Indies. In the reign of Richard II.
the manor of Shoreditch was granted to Edmund,
Duke of York, and his son, the Earl of Rutland,
which accounts for the fact that St. Leonard's
Church, Shoreditch, is full of the Manners family.
Stow mentions a house in Hackney called Shoreditch Place; and Strype notes the vulgar tradition
that Jane Shore once lived there, and was often
visited by her royal lover. This was probably the
old mansion of Sir John de Soerdich, who rode
against the French spears by the side of the Black
Prince, and with Manney and Chandos.
In the reign of Henry VIII., when Shoreditch
was still a mere waste of fields, dotted with windmills and probably, like Islington (fields, much
frequented by archers, for practising at roving
marks), the burly king conferred on an archer of
Shoreditch, named Barlow, who had pleased him
at some wondrous competition at Windsor, the
jocular title of Duke of Shoreditch. Happiest and
proudest of all London's archers must Barlow have
gloried at all civic processions, when, as captain, he
strode first to the Hoxton, Islington, or Newington
Butts. The duke's companions adopted such titles
as the Marquises of Hoxton, Islington, Pancras,
and Shacklewell, and other ludicrous appellations
of honour. In Elizabeth's reign the archers of
London numbered no fewer than 3,000, and on one
occasion we hear of one thousand of them, wearing
gold chains, going from the Merchant Taylors'
Hall to Smithfield, to try their skill, attended
by 4,000 billmen, besides pages. In Dryden's
time Shoreditch was a disreputable place, frequented by courtesans; and in Lillo's old ballad
of "George Barnwell," the apprentice hero of which
thrice robbed his master and murdered his uncle
in Ludlow, that wicked siren, Mrs. Millwood,
lives at Shoreditch, "next door unto the
The present St. Leonard's Church, Shoreditch,
occupies the site of a church at least as old as the
thirteenth century. The old church, which had
four gables and a low square tower, was taken
down in 1736, and the present ugly church built
by the elder Dance, in 1740, with a steeple to
imitate that of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, and a
fine peal of twelve bells. The chancel window, the
gift of Thomas Awsten, in 1634, and a tablet to
the Awstens, are the only relics left of the old
church. St. Leonard's is the actor's church of
London; for, in the days of Elizabeth and James,
the players of distinction from the Curtain, in
Holywell Lane, and from "The Theatre," as well
as those from the Blackfriars Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe, were fond of residing in this parish.
Perhaps nowhere in all London have rooms echoed
oftener with Shakespeare's name than those of
The parish register, within a period of sixty years,
says Cunningham, records the interment at St.
Leonard's of the following celebrated characters:—"Will. Somers, Henry VIII.'s jester (d. 1560);
Richard Tarlton, the famous clown of Queen Elizabeth's time (d. 1588); James Burbage (d. 1596)
and his more celebrated son, Richard Burbage
(d. 1618–19); Gabriel Spenser, the player, who fell,
in 1598, in a duel with Ben Jonson; William Sly
and Richard Cowley, two original performers in
Shakespeare's plays; the Countess of Rutland, the
only child of the famous Sir Philip Sydney; Fortunatus Greene, the unfortunate offspring of Robert
Greene, the poet and player (d. 1593). Another
original performer in Shakespeare's plays, who
lived in Holywell Street, in this parish, was
Nicholas Wilkinson, alias Tooley, whose name is
recorded in gilt letters on the north side of the
altar, as a yearly benefactor of £6 10s., which sum
is still distributed in bread every year to the
poor inhabitants of the parish, to whom it was
In the burial register, January 22nd, 1588, is the
following entry: "Aged 207 years. Holywell
Street. Thomas Cam." The 2 should probably
be 1. A correspondent of the Penny Magazine,
writing in 1833, notices this entry as the most remarkable record of longevity in existence, and
adds: "It thus appears that Cam was born in the
year 1381, in the fourth of Richard II., living
through the reign of that monarch, and through
those of the whole of the following sovereigns—viz., Henry IV., Henry V., Henry VI., Edward IV.,
Edward V., Richard III., Henry VII., Henry VIII.,
Edward VI., Mary, and to the thirtieth of Elizabeth. Such an extreme duration of life is, however, contrary to all recorded experience; and
unless the fact can be supported by other evidence,
it is reasonable to conclude that the entry in the
register is inaccurate."
At St. Leonard's, every Whit Tuesday, is preached
a sermon on the "Wonderful Works of God in the
Creation," or "On the Certainty of the Resurrection of the Dead, proved by certain changes of
the Animal and Vegetable Parts of the Creation."
The money, £25 in all, left for this purpose to the
preacher was bequeathed, in 1728, by Mr. Thomas
Fairchild, a gardener, whose gardens (Selby's Gardens) then extended from the west end of Ivy
Lane to the New North Road. The sum originally
bequeathed was afterwards increased by sundry
contributions. It used to be the custom for the
President and Fellows of the Royal Society to
attend these sermons.
Holywell Lane (west side of Shoreditch) was so
called, says Stow, from a sweet, wholesome, and
clear well, spoiled, in that writer's time, by the
manure-heaps of the nursery gardens. Here formerly, till the dissolution, stood a Benedictine
nunnery of St. John the Baptist, founded by some
forgotten Bishop of London; and in this street
lived and died Richard Burbage, the tragedian, and
friend and companion of Shakespeare. Near St.
Leonard's Church stood two of the earliest London
theatres—the "Curtain" and "The Theatre." The
site of the first of these is still marked by Curtain
"The Theatre," on the site of Holywell Priory,
was remarkable as being, according to Malone, the
first theatre erected in London. It is noticed in
a sermon preached at Paul's Cross, in 1578, as
the "gorgeous playing-place erected in the Fields."
In 1598 this wooden theatre was taken down,
and the timber of it was used for enlarging the
The "Curtain" is mentioned as early as 1577
(before Shakespeare came to London), and by
Stubbs, in his "Anatomie of Abuses," in 1583. In
1622 it was occupied by Prince Charles's actors.
Aubrey, in 1678, calls it the "Green Curtain," and
terms it "a kind of nursery, or obscure playhouse."
It gradually, like many of the smaller theatres, sank
into a sparring-room. Maitland, in his "London"
(1772), mentions some remains of the "Curtain"
as recently standing. It is supposed to have got
its name from having been the first house that used
the green curtain.