Where is Grub Street?

an essay from Living Words

A literary reference frequently and often loosely bandied about is Grub Street (sometimes grubstreet). Since the reference isn't usually explained by the context, many readers must wonder what is really meant. How did it come to take on the meaning it has today? Is it a real or fictional place? And, if it is a real place, where is it?

Taking the last of these questions first, Grub Street certainly is, or at least was, a very real place. It was in fact one of the streets of the medieval City of London, running just to the north of the Roman wall. It ran from Fore Street roughly in parallel with two existent streets, White Cross Street and Moor Street, and the now underground River Wallbrook.

The story of the way in which this unassuming little street came to be of such importance in the world of letters is a fascinating one. In the medieval city, members of the various trades and professions tended to reside in particular streets and areas. For example, Candlewick Street was the focus of candle- and soap-making, Billiter (from Bell Yettre) Lane was the place where bell-makers practised their craft, and Lombard Street housed a colony of the Italian merchants who were the antecedents of today's bankers.

Grub Street was part of this general pattern. In medieval times it was the home of fletchers, bowyers, and the makers of bow-strings. However, the development of gunpowder and artillery led to a decline in those trades, and a down-turn in Grub Street's fortunes. John Stow, one of London's very first antiquarians, wrote in 1598 that 'Grub Street [is] now little occupied; archery giving place to a number of bowling-alleys and dicing-houses, which in all places are increased, and too much frequented'.

It was also at that time beginning to be colonised by writers of various kinds. One of the earliest inhabitants was John Foxe, author of the Book of Martyrs. Foxe was probably living in Grub Street in 1570, when he gave his famous Easter sermon 'Of Christ Crucified' at Paul's Cross in the churchyard of the old St. Paul's Cathedral.

The first literary reference to Grub Street came in the works of John Taylor, called 'the water poet' because he earned part of his living as a Thames waterman - an important calling in the days when there was only one narrow bridge over the river. Taylor was a humourist, popular in the Royal court and enjoying the patronage of Ben Jonson, among others.

Among his adventures were a tramp from London to Braemar in the Grampian Mountains (recorded in his best-known prose work, The Penniless Pilgrim, and an attempted voyage from London to Queenborough at the mouth of the River Medway, in a boat made from brown paper. Needless to say, the boat sank, and Taylor was almost drowned, but he did gain material for his idiosyncratic brand of writing.

His prose style is not easily accessible to us today, as witness his 1630 reference to Grub Street: 'When strait I might descry, The Quintesence of Grubstreet, well distil'd Through Cripplegate in a contagious Map'. Nevertheless, John Taylor deserves to be remembered as an early incarnation of the spirit of Grub Street.

Grub Street became well established as a residence and gathering place for writers as the 17th century progressed. References to it appear in the writings of Andrew Marvell and Thomas Shadwell, among others, during this time. By the turn of the century, the term 'Grubstreet news' had come into use, carrying connotations of unreliability, even falsity. This notoriety was put to good use by the publishers of The Grub Street Journal, a weekly literary newspaper, satirical in tone, and associated with Alexander Pope in a shadowy way (the publishers and contributors preferred anonymity).

The street did not have an entirely negative image. In 1710, we have John Arbuthnot, described by Dr. Johnson as 'the most universal genius', singing its praises in The History of John Bull: 'O Grubstreet! thou fruitful Nursery of tow'ring Genius's!' while a century later Byron wrote 'Long, long beneath that hospitable roof Shall Grub-street dine, while duns are kept aloof.'

Mention of Dr. Johnson introduces the literary name most closely associated with Grub Street. As far as we know, Samuel Johnson never lived in the street. His best-known London address, preserved today as a literary museum, was 17, Gough Square, just off that other famous 'street of ink', Fleet Street.

Johnson would, however, have been a frequenter of Grub Street's coffee shops and was well acquainted with those who gathered or lodged in the street. One of these was Richard Savage, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of Lady Macclesfield. Johnson met Savage soon after arriving in London in 1737 and took him as one of his closest friends. So close were they that when Savage left with the avowed intention of retiring to Swansea, the great man was in tears. (In fact, to the dismay of Pope and other literary friends who had made a subscription for the retirement, Savage didn't quite make it to Swansea).

By the time that he met Johnson, Savage had established a reputation as a romantic outsider in the world of Grub Street. He had done this more by his wild exploits than by his writing. Most notoriously, these included a murder committed during a tavern brawl. He received a pardon for this crime, and even earned a pension of £50 by writing an annual bithday ode to Queen Caroline, but continued his dissolute ways.

Johnson was fascinated by Savage. He appears in an early Johnson poem, London, in the guise of Thales, and there is a veiled reference to the nocturnal ramblings they shared at this time in the lines 'Prepare for death, if here at night you roam,/ And sign your will before you sup from home.' Although Johnson was at this time struggling to make a living from his writing, he found time to write the sympathetic Life of Mr. Savage, published in 1744, a year after Savage's death in Bristol Newgate, a debtor's prison.

It was soon after this that Johnson started work on his A Dictionary of the English Language. It is this work that has provided the most lasting image of Grub Street. In one of his more playful definitions, Johnson writes that it was 'originally the name of a street near Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet.'

In modern times, 'Grub Street' is synonomous with 'in the way of literary hack work', but I hope that you will agree that this short history reveals an important part of our literary heritage beneath the dismissive modern usage. Earlier, I said that Grub Street was a real place and, in a geographic sense, we sadly do have to speak of it in the past tense. In the 1820s, the famous old street was renamed Milton Street. This was not an attempt to honour the poet: the Milton in question was merely the owner of the building lease (in much the same way the street was originally named for a medieval land owner named Grub or Grubbe).

There was much rebuilding in the area following war damage, and since the 1960s the pedestrian seeking to turn into Milton Street from Fore Street is faced with a solid block of buildings. The coffee shops and mean lodgings have long gone, and we will surely not meet Johnson and Savage on their late night wanderings. No matter: as long as there are writers in the land, Grub Street lives on.

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