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American Origins-Mostly Southern

Outside the high gate of Bunhill Fields, we could do no more than read the great names lettered on the gate-posts, and peer through the iron barriers at the thickly clustered headstones within. But over against the cemetery we had access to the chapel where John Wesley preached for thirty years, and behind which he is buried. He laid the corner-stone in 1777 amid such a multitude of spectators that he could scarcely get through to the foundation, Cunningham says. Before the chapel is an excellent statue of the great preacher, and the glance at the interior which we suffered ourselves showed a large congregation listening to the doctrine which he preached there so long, and which he carried beyond seas himself to ourselves, to found among us the great spiritual commonwealth which is still more populous than any of those dividing our country.

The scene of his labors here was related for me by an obscure association to such a doctrinally different place as Finsbury Chapel, hard by, where my old friend, Dr. Moncure D. Conway preached for twenty years. Whatever manner of metaphysician he has ended, he began Methodist, and as a Virginian he had a right to a share of my interest in that home of Wesleyism, for it was in Virginia, so much vaster then than now, that Wesleyism spread widest and deepest. If any part of Wesley's mission tended to modify or abolish slavery, then a devotion to freedom so constant and generous as Conway's should link their names by an irrefragable, however subtle, filament of common piety. I wished to look into Finsbury Chapel for my old friend's sake, but it seemed to me that we had intruded on worshippers enough that morning, and I satisfied my longing by a glimpse of the interior through the pane of glass let into the inner door. It was past the time for singing the poem of Tennyson which "Tom Brown" Hughes used to say they always gave out instead of a hymn in Finsbury Chapel; and some one else was preaching in Conway's pulpit, or at his desk. I do not know what weird influence of sermonizing seen but not heard took the sense of reality from the experience, but I came away feeling as if I had looked upon something visionary.

It was no bad preparation for coming presently to the church of All Hallows in the Wall, where a bit of the old Roman masonry shows in the foundations of the later defences, of which indeed, no much greater length remains. The church, which is so uninterestingly ugly as not to compete with the relic of Roman wall, stands at the base of a little triangle planted with young elms that made a green quiet, and murmured to the silence with their stiffening leaves. It was an effect possible only to that wonderful London which towers so massively into the present that you are dumb before the evidences of its vast antiquity. There must have been a time when there was no London, but you cannot think it any more than you can think the time when there shall be none. I make so sure of these reflections that I hope there was no mistake about those modest breadths of Roman masonry; its rubble laid in concrete, was strong enough to support the weightiest consideration.

I am the more anxious about this because my friend, the genealogist, here differed with the great Cunningham, and was leading me by that morsel of Roman London to St. Peter's Lane, where he said Fox died, and not to White Hart Court, where my other authority declares that he made an end two days after preaching in the Friends' Meeting-house there. The ignorant disciple of both may have his choice; perhaps in the process of time the two places may have become one and the same. At any rate we were able that morning to repair our error concerning St. Catherine Cree's, which we had unwittingly seen before, and now consciously saw, for Sir Nicholas Throgmorton's sake. It had the look of very high church in the service which was celebrating, and I am afraid my mind was taken less by the monument of Sir Nicholas than by the black-robed figure of the young man who knelt with bowed head at the back of the church and rapt me with the memory of the many sacerdotal shapes which I used to see doing the like in Latin sanctuaries. It is one of the few advantages of living long that all experiences become more or less contemporaneous, and that at certain moments you cannot be distinctly aware just when and where you are.

There was little of this mystical question when our mission took us to Whitechapel, for there was nothing there to suggest former times or other places. I did, indeed, recall the thick-breathed sweltering Sunday morning when I had visited the region in July; but it is all now so absolutely and sordidly modern that one has no difficulty in believing that it was altogether different when so many Southern and especially Virginian emigrations began there. How many settlers in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland also were recruited from it, I know not; but the reader may have it at second-hand from me, as I had it at firsthand from my genealogist, that some Virginian names of the first quality originated in Whitechapel, which, in the colonizing times, was a region of high respectability, and not for generations afterwards the perlieu it became, and has now again somewhat ceased to be.

The first exiles from it were not self-banished for conscience' sake, like those at a later date when the Puritans went both to Massachusetts where they revolted further, and to Virginia where they ultimately conformed. The earlier out-goers, though they might be come-outers, were part of the commercial enterprise which began to plant colonies north and south. The Plymouth Company which had the right to the country as far northward as Nova Scotia and westward as far as the Pacific, and the London Company which had as great scope westward and southward as far as Cape Fear, had the region between them in common, and they both drew upon Whitechapel, and upon Stepney beyond, where I had formerly fancied the present Whitechapel resuming somewhat of its ancient respectability. It is then a "spacious fair street," as one of Cunningham's early authorities describes it, and it is still "somewhat long," so long indeed that our tram was a half-hour in carrying us through it into Stepney. About the time of the emigrations De Foe saw it, or says he saw it (you never can be sure with De Foe) thronged "with the richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the town, with their families and servants," escaping into the country from the plague.

The "offscourings" of London, which the companies carried rather more to the southward than the northward with us, were hardly scoured off in Whitechapel, which was a decent enough ancestral source for any American strain. As for Stepney, then as now the great centre of the London shipping, she has never shared the ill-repute of Whitechapel, at least in name. Cunningham declares the region once "well-inhabited," and the sailors still believe that all children born at sea belong to Stepney Parish. By an easy extension of this superstition she is supposed to have had a motherly interest in all children born beyond seas, including, of course, the American colonies, and she is of a presence that her foster-folk's descendants need not be ashamed of. Our tram took us now and then by an old mansion of almost manor-house dignity, set in pleasant gardens; and it followed the shore of the Thames in sight of the masts of ships whose multitude brought me to disgrace for having, on my way to Greenwich, thought poorly of London as a port, and which, because of her riparian situation, made Stepney the scene of the great strike of the London dockers, when they won their fight under the lead of John Burns.

Our lovely weather cooled slightly as the afternoon wore away, but it was bright and mild again when we came another day towards Stepney as far as the old church of St. Dunstan. It is an edifice of good perpendicular Gothic, with traces of early English and even of later Norman, standing serene in a place of quiet graves amid the surrounding turmoil of life. The churchyard was full of rustling shrubs and bright with beds of autumnal flowers, from which the old square tower rose in the mellow air. Divers of our early emigrants were baptized in St. Dunstan's, namely, the wife of Governor Bradford of Plymouth, with many of our ship-men, notably that Master Willoughby, who established the ship-yard at Charlestown, Massachusetts. I like better to associate with it our beginnings, because here I first saw those decorations for the Thanksgiving festival which the English have lately borrowed from us, and which I found again and again at various points in my September wanderings. The pillars were wreathed with the flowers and leaves of the fall; the altar was decked with apples and grapes, and the pews trimmed with yellow heads of ripe wheat. The English Thanksgiving comes earlier than ours, but it remembers its American source in its name, and the autumn comes so much sooner than with us that although the "parting summer lingering blooms delayed" in St. Dunstan's church-yard, the fallen leaves danced and whirled about our feet in the paths.

There is witness of the often return of the exiles to their old home in the quaint epitaph which a writer in The Spectator (it might have been Addison himself) read from one of the flat tombstones:

"Here Thomas Taffin lyes interred, ah why?
Born in New England, did in London die."

"I do not wonder at this," Dr. Johnson said of the epitaph to Boswell. "It would have been strange if born in London he had died in New England."

The good doctor did indeed despise the American colonies with a contempt which we can almost reverence; but the thing which he found so strange happened to many Londoners before his time. One of the least worthy and less known of these was that George Downing, who came back from Boston, where he was graduated at Harvard, and took the title of baronet from Charles II., in return, apparently, for giving his name to that famous Downing Street, ever since synonymous with English administration. If he has no other claim to our interest, that is perhaps enough; and the American who is too often abashed by the humility of our London origins may well feel a rise of worldly pride in the London celebrity of this quandam fellow-citizen. His personality is indeed lost in it, but his achievement in laying out a street, and getting it called after him, was prophetic of so much economic enterprise of ours that it may be fairly claimed as a national honor.

Of those who preferred not to risk the fate Dr. Johnson held in scorn, multitudes perished at Whitechapel of the plague which it was one of the poor compensations of life in New England to escape. They would all have been dead by now, whether they went or whether they stayed, though it was hard not to attribute their present decease solely to their staying, as we turned over the leaves of the old register in St. Mary Matfelon's, Whitechapel. The church has been more than once rebuilt out of recollection of its original self, and there were workman still doing something to the interior; but the sexton led us into the vestry, and while the sunlight played through the waving trees without and softly illumined the record, we turned page after page, where the names were entered in a fair clear hand, with the given cause of death shortened to the letters, pl., after each. They were such names as abounded in the colonies, and those who had borne them must have been of the kindred of the emigrants. But my patriotic interest in them was lost in a sense of the strong nerve of the clerk who had written their names and that "pl." with such an unshaken hand. One of the earlier dead, in the church-yard without, was a certain ragman, Richard Brandon, of whom the register says: "This R. Brandon is supposed to have cut off the head of Charles the First."

From the parish of St. Botolph by Aldgate, on the road from Houndsditch to Whitechapel, came many of those who settled in Salem and the neighboring towns of Massachusetts. It is now very low church, as it probably was in their day, with a plain interior, and with the crimson foliage of the Virginia-creeper staining the light like painted glass at one of its windows. The bare triangular space in front of the church was once a pit where the dead of the plague were thrown, and in the sacristy is a thing of yet grislier interest. My friend made favor with some outlying authority, and an old, dim, silent servitor of some sort came back with him and took from a sort of cupboard, where it was kept in a glass box, the embalmed head of the Duke of Suffolk, which he lost for his part in the short-lived usurpation of his daughter, Lady Jane Grey. Little was left to suggest the mighty noble in the mummy-face, but the tragedy of his death was all there. It seemed as if the thoughts of the hideous last moment might still be haunting the withered brain, and the agony of which none of the dead have yet been able to impart a sense to the living, was present in it. As he who was showing us the head, turned it obligingly round in view of the expected shilling, and tilted it forward that we might see the mark of the axe in the severed neck, one seemed to see also the things which those sunken eyes had looked on last: the swarming visages of the crowd, the inner fringe of halberdiers, the black-visored figure waiting beside the block. As the doomed man dragged himself to the scaffold, how pale that face in the glass box must have been, for any courage that kept him above his fate. It was all very vivid, and the more incredible therefore that such a devilish thing as the death-punishment should still be, and that governments should keep on surpassing in the anguish they inflict the atrocity of the cruelest murderers. If the Salem-born Hawthorne ever visited that church in remembrance of the fact that his people came from the same parish; if he saw the mortal relic which held me in such fascination that I could scarcely leave the place even when the glass box had been locked back to its cupboard, and if the spirits of the dead sometimes haunt their dust, there must have been a reciprocal intelligence between the dead and the living that left no emotion of the supreme hour unimparted.

We visited St. Sepulchre's where the truly sainted Roger Williams was baptized, and found entrance one day after two failures to penetrate to its very unattractive interior. We were lighted by stained-glass windows of geometrical pattern and a sort of calico or gingham effect in their coloring, to the tablet to Captain John Smith, whose life Pocahontas, in Virginia, with other ladies in diverse parts of the world, saved, that we might have one of the most delightful, if not one of the most credible, of autobiographies. He was of prime colonial interest, of course, and we were not taken from the thought of him by any charm of the place; but when we had identified his time-dimmed tablet there was no more to do at St. Sepulchre's. The church is at the western end of Old Bailey, and in the dreadful old times when every Friday brought its batch of doomed men forth from the cells, it was the duty of the bellman of St. Sepulchre's to pass under the prison walls the night before and ring his bell, and chant the dismal lines:

"All you that in the condemned hold do lie,
Prepare you, for to-morrow you shall die;
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near,
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent,
And when St. Sepulchre's bell to-morrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.
Past twelve o'clock."

When we consider what piety was in the past, we need not be so horrified by justice. Sentiment sometimes came in to heighten the effect of both, and it used to present each criminal in passing St. Sepulchre's on the way to Tyburn with a nosegay, and a little farther on with a glass of beer. The gardened strip of what once must have been a graveyard beside the church could hardly have afforded flowers enough for the pious rite. It was frequented, the day of our visit, by some old men of a very vacant-looking leisure, who sat on the benches in the path; and the smallest girl in proportion to the baby she carried that I ever saw in that England where small girls seem always to carry such very large babies, tilted back and forth with it in her slender arms, and tried to make-believe it was going to sleep.

The reader who prefers to develop these films for himself must not fail to bring out the surroundings of the places visited, if he would have the right effect. Otherwise he might suppose the several sanctuaries which we visited standing in a dignified space and hallowed quiet, whereas, all but a few were crowded close upon crowded streets, with the busy and noisy indifference of modern life passing before them and round them. St. Giles-in-the-Fields, which we visited after leaving St. Sepulchre, was the church in which Calvert, the founder of Maryland, was baptized, of course before he turned Catholic, since it could not very well have been afterwards. At the moment, however, I did not think of this. I had enough to do with the fact that Chapman, the translator of Homer, was buried in that church, and Andrew Marvell, the poet, and that very wicked Countess of Shrewsbury, the terrible she who held the Duke of Buckingham's horse while he was killing her husband in a duel. I should, no doubt, have seen this memorable interior if it had still existed, but it was the interior of a church which was taken down more than a hundred years before the present church was built.

We visited the church on the way to Lincoln's Inn Fields, turning out of Holborn round the corner of the house, now a bookseller's shop, where Garrick died. I mention this merely as an instance of how the famous dead started out of the over-populated London past and tried at every step to keep me from my proper search for our meaner American origins. I was going to look at certain mansions, in which the Lords Baltimore used to live, and the patriotic Marylander, if he have faith enough, may identify them by their arches of gray stone at the first corner on his right in coming into the place from Holborn. But if he have not faith enough for this, then he may respond with a throb of sympathy to the more universal appeal of the undoubted fact that Lord Russell was beheaded in the centre of the square, which now waves so pleasantly with its elms and poplars. The cruel second James, afterwards king, wanted him beheaded before his own house, but the cynical second Charles was not quite so cruel as that, and rejected the proposed dramatic fancy "as indecent," Burnet says. So Lord Russell, after Tillotson had prayed with him, "laid his head on the block at a spot which the elms and poplars now hide, and it was cut off at two strokes."

Cunningham is certainly very temperate in calling Lincoln's Inn Fields "a noble square." I should myself call it one of the noblest and most beautiful in London, and if the Calverts did not dwell in one of the stately mansions of Arch Row, which is "all that Inigo Jones lived to build" after his design for the whole square, then they might very well have been proud to do so. They are not among the great whom Cunningham names as having dwelt there, and I do not know what foundation the tradition of their residence rests upon. What seems more certain is that one of the Calverts, the first or the second Lord Baltimore, was buried in that church of St. Dunstan's in the West, or St. Dunstan's Fleet Street, which was replaced by the actual edifice in 1833.

The reader, now being got so near, may as well go on with me to Charing Cross, where in the present scene of cabs, both hansoms and four- wheelers, perpetually coming and going at the portals of the great station and hotel, and beside the torrent of omnibuses in the Strand, the Reverend Hugh Peters suffered death through the often broken faith of Charles II. In one of the most delightful of his essays, Lowell humorously portrays the character of the man who met this tragic fate: a restless and somewhat fatuous Puritan divine, who, having once got safely away from persecution to Boston, came back to London in the Civil War, and took part in the trial of Charles I. If not one of the regicides, he was very near one, and he shared the doom from which the treacherous pardon of Charles II was never intended to save them. I suppose his fatuity was not incompatible with tragedy, though somehow we think that absurd people are not the stuff of serious experience.

Leigh Hunt, in that most delightful of all books about London, The Town, tells us that No. 7 Craven Street, Strand, was once the dwelling of Benjamin Franklin, and he adds, with the manliness which is always such a curious element of his unmanliness: "What a change along the shore of the Thames in a few years (for two centuries are less than a few in the lapse of time) from the residence of a set of haughty nobles, who never dreamt that a tradesman could be anything but a tradesman, to that of a yeoman's son, and a printer, who was one of the founders of a great state!"

Not far away in one of the houses of Essex Street, Strand, a state which led in the attempted dismemberment of that great state, and nearly wrought its ruin, had a formal beginning, for it is said that it was there John Locke wrote the constitution of South Carolina, which still, I believe, remains its organic law. One has one's choice among the entirely commonplace yellow brick buildings, which give the street the aspect of an old-fashioned place in Boston. The street was seriously quiet the afternoon of our visit, with only a few foot-passengers sauntering through it, and certain clerklike youth entering and issuing from the doors of the buildings which had the air of being law-offices.

We used as a pretext for visiting the Temple the very attenuated colonial fact that some Mortons akin to him of Merrymount in Massachusetts, have their tombs and tablets in the triforium of the Temple Church. But when we had climbed to the triforium by the corkscrew stairs leading to it, did we find there tombs and tablets? I am not sure, but I am sure we found the tomb of that Edward Gibbon who wrote a History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and who while in Parliament strongly favored "distressing the Americans," as the king wished, and made a speech in support of the government measure for closing the port of Boston. I did not bear him any great grudge for that, but I could not give myself to his monument with such cordial affection as I felt for that of the versatile and volatile old letter-writer James Howell, which also I found in that triforium, half-hidden behind a small organ, with an epitaph too undecipherable in the dimness for my patience. It was so satisfactory to find this, after looking in vain for any record of him at Jesus College in Oxford, where he studied the humanities that enabled him to be so many things to so many masters, that I took all his chiselled praises for granted.

I made what amends I could for my slight of the Mortons in the Temple Church, by crossing presently to Clifford's Inn, Strand, where the very founder of Merrymount, the redoubtable Thomas Morton himself was sometime student of the law and a dweller in these precincts. It is now the hall of the Art Workers' Guild, and anywhere but in London would be incredibly quiet and quaint in that noisy, commonplace, modern neighborhood. It in nowise remembers the disreputable and roistering antipuritan, who set up his May-pole at Wollaston, and danced about it with his debauched aboriginies, in defiance of the saints, till Miles Standish marched up from Plymouth and made an end of such ungodly doings at the muzzles of his matchlocks.

It must have been another day that we went to view the church of St. Botolph without Aldersgate, because some of the patrician families emigrating to Massachusetts were from that parish, which was the home of many patrician families of the Commonwealth. In St. Andrew's Holborn, the Vanes, father and son, worshipped, together with the kindred of many that had gone to dwell beyond seas. It is a large impressive interior, after the manner of Wren, and at the moment of our visit was smelling of varnish; most London churches smell of mortar, when in course of their pretty constant reparation, and this was at least a change. St. Stephen's Coleman-Street, may draw the Connecticut exile, as the spiritual home of that Reverend Mr. Davenport, who was the founder of New Haven, but it will attract the unlocalized lover of liberty because it was also the parish church of the Five Members of Parliament whom Charles I. tried to arrest when he began looking for trouble. It had a certain sentiment of low-churchness, being very plain without and within not unlike an Orthodox church in some old-fashioned New England town. One entered to it by a very neatly-paved, clean court, out of a business neighborhood, jostled by commercial figures in sack-coats and top-hats who were expressive in their way of a non-conformity in sympathy with the past if not with the present of St. Andrew's.

St. Martins-in-the-Fields, where General Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, was baptized, was, in his time, one of the proudest parishes of the city, and the actual church is thought to be the masterpiece of the architect Gibbs, who produced in the portico what Cunningham calls "one of the finest pieces of architecture in London." Many famous people were buried in the earlier edifice, including Nell Gwynne, Lord Mohun, who fell in a duel with the Duke of Hamilton, as the readers of Henry Esmond well know, and Farquhar the dramatist. Lord Bacon was baptized there; and the interior of the church is very noble and worthy of him and of the parish history. Whether General Oglethorpe drew upon his native parish in promoting the settlement of Georgia, I am not so sure as I am of some other things, as, for instance, that he asked the king for a grant of land, "in trust for the poor," and that his plan was to people his colony largely from the captives in the debtors' prisons. I love his memory for that, and I would gladly have visited the debtors' prisons which his humanity vacated if I could have found them, or if they had still existed.

The reader who has had the patience to accompany me on these somewhat futile errands must have been aware of making them largely on the lordly omnibus-tops which I always found so much to my proud taste. Often, however, we whisked together from point to point in hansoms; often we made our way on foot, with those quick transitions from the present to the past, from the rush and roar of business thoroughfares to the deep tranquillity of religious interiors, or the noise-bound quiet of ancient church-yards, where the autumn flowers blazed under the withering autumn leaves, and the peaceful occupants of the public benches were scarcely more agitated by our coming than the tenants of the graves beside them.

The weather was for the most part divinely beautiful, so tenderly and evenly cool and warm, with a sort of lingering fondness in the sunshine, as if it were prescient of the fogs so soon to blot it. The first of these came on the last day of our research, when suddenly we dropped from the clouded surfaces of the earth to depths where the tube-line trains carry their passengers from one brilliantly lighted station to another. We took three of the different lines, experimentally, rather than necessarily, in going from St. Mary Woolnoth, in Lombard Street, hard by the Bank of England, to the far neighborhood of Stoke Newington; and at each descent by the company's lift, we left the dark above ground, and found the light fifty feet below. While this sort of transit is novel, it is delightful; the air is good, or seems so, and there is a faint earthy smell, somewhat like that of stale incense in Italian churches, which I found agreeable from association at least; besides, I liked to think of passing so far beneath all the superincumbent death and all the superambulant life of the immense immemorial town.

We found St. Mary Woolnoth closed, being too early for the Sunday service, and had to content ourselves with the extremely ugly outside of the church which is reputed the masterpiece of Wren's pupil Hawksmoor; while we took for granted the tablet or monument of Sir William Phipps, the governor of Massachusetts, who went back to be buried there after the failure of his premature expedition against Quebec. My friend had provided me something as remote from Massachusetts as South Carolina in colonial interest, and we were presently speeding to New River, which Sir Hugh Myddleton taught to flow through the meadows of Stoke Newington to all the streets of London, and so originated her modern water-supply. This knight, or baronet, he declared, upon the faith of a genealogist, to be of the ancestry of that family of Middletons who were of the first South Carolinians then and since. It is at least certain that he was a Welshman, and that the gift of his engineering genius to London was so ungratefully received that he was left wellnigh ruined by his enterprise. The king claimed a half-interest in the profits, but the losses remained undivided to Myddleton. The fact, such as it is, proves perhaps the weakest link in a chain of patriotic associations which, I am afraid the reader must agree with me, has no great strength anywhere. The New River itself, when you come to it, is a plain straightforward, canal-like water-course through a grassy and shady level, but it is interesting for the garden of Charles Lamb's first house backing upon it, and for the incident of some of his friends walking into it one night when they left him after an evening that might have been rather unusually "smoky and drinky." Apart from this I cared for it less than for the neighborhoods through which I got to it, and which were looking their best in the blur of the fog. This was softest and richest among the low trees of Highbury Fields, where, when we ascended to them from our tubular station, the lawns were of an electric green in their vividness. In fact, when it is not blindingly thick, a London fog lends itself to the most charming effects. It caresses the prevailing commonness and ugliness, and coaxes it into a semblance of beauty in spite of itself. The rows upon rows of humble brick dwellings in the streets we passed through were flattered into cottage homes where one would have liked to live in one's quieter moods, and some rather stately eighteenth-century mansions in Stoke Newington housed one's pride the more fittingly, because of the mystery which the fog added to their antiquity. It hung tenderly and reverently about that old, old parish church of Stoke Newington where, it is story or fable, they that bore the body of the dead King Harold from the field of Hastings made one of their stations on the way to Waltham Abbey; and it was much in the maundering mind of the kindly spectator who could not leave off pitying us because we could not get into the church, the sexton having just before gone down the street to the baker's. It followed us more and more vaguely into the business quarter where we took our omnibus, and where we noted that business London, like business New York, was always of the same complexion and temperament in its shops and saloons, from centre to circumference. Amid the commonplaceness of Islington where we changed omnibuses, the fog abandoned us in despair, and rising aloof, dissolved into the bitterness of a small cold rain.

William Dean Howells