Sunday, June 29, 2008

Frederick Rolfe the Cockney







I was in London today. Primarily I was there to visit The Guildhall Library and raid the archives of The Russia Company. This is part of my research into the Rev'd Edwin Emmanuel Bradford who, for a brief time, was assistant chaplain to the British residents of St Petersburg. The English churches in Russia, although under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of London were run by The Russia Company to all intents and purposes. Sadly it was one of those frustrating archive visits where nothing is quite as useful as you think it's going to be and it's safe to say that I learnt pretty much nothing new about Bradford. However...

...and here's a lesson about getting out of the archives for a while and into the open air... The Guildhall Library is just around the corner from Cheapside where Frederick Rolfe was born. More in hope than expectation I thought I would take a walk there. I knew that Rolfe's family piano business, was once housed at 112 Cheapside and, because of the diagram at the top of this post, from Tallis's 1839 London Street Views, I knew that was next to Honey Lane. I was quite expecting to find no trace of Honey Lane but was plesantly surprised to find it quite easily. Cheapside was fairly comprehensively trashed by the Luftwaffe and the buildings are pretty much all gone but the lane is still there and so, although the numbers have changed a bit it's possible to see at least the plot of the old no. 112. Rolfe himself was born at no. 61, on the opposite side of the road after one of the firm's periodic moves. Anyway, it it interesting that there were several things which struck me quite forcefully by being out and about in Cheapside that one would never have gotten from a book in a library.

For a start, I hadn't realised that Rolfe was about as much of a cockney as it is possible to get. He was born almost literally in the shadow of St Mary-le-Bow Church (with the sticking-out clock in the pictures), within the sounds of whose bells every true cockney is supposed to have been born. Also, with St Mary's almost next door, St Paul's Cathedral at the end of the road, St Mildred's in the other direction about 200 yards, a plethora of churches, it suddenly struck me that the one ecclesiastical fact we know from Rolfe's early days, that he worshipped a while at St Alban's Holborn, takes on a whole new sense of 'making a statement'. Of course, it was clearly a deliberate act - St Alban's was then a centre of traditional Anglo-catholicism to quite an extreme degree - but to be in Cheapside knowing that to visit St Alban's is to walk for 20 minutes or half-an-hour, with all this ecclesiastical splendour around near by, it has a new impact.

Another notion which I had thought before but hadn't fully appreciated was brought home by the blue plaque. Rolfe, during his ill-starred friendship with Robert Hugh Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pushed hard that they should, together, write a novel based on the life of St Thomas A Beckett. In the end Benson did write such a book but it was after the end of his friendship with Rolfe and Rolfe's contribution to it is thought to have been small. However, the plaque here pointing out that Beckett was born in a 'house near this spot' makes a little more sense of Rolfe's enthusiasm for the project, but actually being there and 'feeling' how close Rolfe's home is to Beckett's birth-place makes the point very forcefully that while Rolfe wouldn't have had the benefit of a blue plaque, he would certainly have known that he shared Cheapside with Beckett and I wouldn't put it past Rolfe's religious imagination to have created out of this some spiritual link between himself and Beckett.

So all in all not a bad day after all.

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