White Hart Court is on the west side of Bishopsgate, just south of Liverpool Street.
‘Next unto the parish church of St Buttolph is a fair inn for the receipt of travellers’. So says John Stow in his Survey of 1598.
He probably called in at the White Hart for a swift one while taking time out to catch up on his notes before going on to the ‘hospital of St Mary Bethelem’.
THIS WAS ONE of the two main London hospitals for ‘distracted people’ and occupied the site of the present Liverpool Street mainline station. It was founded by Simon Fitzmary, a sheriff of the City, in 1246 as a priory, the monks offering an open house to the Bishop of Bethlehem whenever he had business in London. Within 100 years of its foundation the priory was transformed into a hospital for lunatics and the monks, for most of their time, were engaged in begging money to support themselves and the inmates.
At that time everybody in London had heard of Bethlehem Hospital, it was the source of daily conversation and became shortened by some to Bethlem, but more in evidence was the corruption to Bedlam. This latter gives rise to the present day usage indicating a noisy disturbance. Stow would have had no difficulty in gaining access to the hospital, it was open to the public as an entertainment venue on payment of a small entrance fee. On Monday 8th May 1775 Johnson and Boswell, always eager to investigate the talk of the town, came to view the ‘mansions of Bedlam’. Referring to the visit Boswell noted in his journal ‘the general contemplation of insanity was very affecting.’ What they found at the hospital was quite obviously not a pleasing sight but to the majority, it was an amusement of great delight. Over 100 people at any time, each having paid their two pence entrance fee, could run riot up and down the wards tormenting the miserable inmates. For those who wanted an additional dose of excitement and an element of risk, on payment of an extra penny they could join the patients for dinner. Naturally, the management holds no responsibility for the frequent casualties.
The church of the original priory remained standing until the mid-16th century when it was pulled down and replaced by houses for Christ’s Hospital. As for Bethlehem Hospital, it survived on this site until 1676 when it moved a little way to the west on London Wall and then, in 1815, it was transferred to a new building in Lambeth Road providing accommodation for a thousand patients classified as mental. Bedlam building remained for few more years until the site was acquired by the Great Eastern Railway Company with plans to extend the line from the Shoreditch terminus into the heart of the City. Liverpool Street Station, occupying over ten acres of land, was opened in November 1874.
The White Hart Inn was conveniently situated first for pilgrims visiting the priory and in later years it was used as a night stay by those travelling a long distance to experience the spectacle of Bedlam. At the height of its popularity, in the 15th century, there would have been a daily turnaround of about 50 guests staying at the Inn. Not all of these were mad-house spectators; a large proportion would be travellers arriving either too late at night to enter the City, or those wishing to pass through the gate before curfew in order to make an early start the next morning. All of the City gates had the facility of accommodation outside the bounds of the wall and their landlords made rich pickings from frequently overcharging. To assess the magnitude of business passing through these establishments we only need to consider the profusion of inns in Southwark, largely established on the strength of traveller leaving and entering the City via London Bridge, which was also barred by curfew gates.
Of course, the White Hart of today is a modern pub, tarted up and brought into line with the expectations of the up-to-date fraternity of City workers. But the Inn has not forgotten its root, the very history in which its foundations lie, of priories, monks and pilgrims; of mad-houses, lunatics, and the crowds that came to revel at the expense of the unfortunate few. The history of the Inn goes back to at least the time of the foundation of Bethlehem Priory. It was then a much larger place with galleries surrounding the courtyard where during the summer months guests were treated to regular theatrical performances. All this has long gone but the Yard remains, much changed in character, but still as an accompaniment to the Inn and as a reminder of the days when over laden stage coaches rattled and rolled over its cobbles from early morning until dusk.
Featured image: White Hart Court by Baldwin Hamey (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) more information on the history of White Hart Court can be found at London Street Views.
Much of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.