Ralph Mills

Objects of delight

6: The archaeology of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece I

Individually, the items may be viewed as beautiful, incredibly crafted or even plain ugly and pointless, yet when arranged on a mantelpiece this stuff creates a narrative, expressing the design handwriting of the creator.
(Curtis 2011)

"Of No Great Note": the historical context

Were you to seek out Plumtree Court, off Shoe Lane, Holborn, in Google StreetView today, you would find yourself in one of those melancholy urban non-streets that lurk behind and beside so many modern buildings. When recorded by the Google Earth camera in May 2015 it was no longer a thoroughfare, its Farringdon Road end blocked by bollards (Figure 1). It was now solely offering access to an underground car park, though still affording a glimpse of the ornately mid-Victorian Holborn Viaduct around the corner.

Until recently, the south side of the Court was occupied by the Evening Standard's Fleet House, but by 2015 this had vanished, to be replaced by the new headquarters of Goldman Sachs. The north side is dominated by the forbidding brick cliff that is the rear elevation of the City Temple of 1874, destroyed in the second World War and rebuilt in the 1950s.

Before the nineteenth century, Plumtree Court was a narrow alley amongst other narrow alleys that had escaped the Fire of London. In the twentieth century it thrummed not with throngs of humanity but with the rumble of a daily newspaper's printing presses. Plumtree Court is now a shadowy cul-de-sac lined with "no parking" signs, where passers-by have no reason to pause as they walk towards Farringdon Road and Holborn Viaduct, or the sandwich bars of Shoe Lane. Though it now physically leads nowhere (at least for vehicles) Plumtree Court nevertheless leads to the heart of this project.

In the eighteenth century, Plumtree Court1, "large and well-built", was described by Strype as the "best of all" the "great many alleys and Courts of little Account" in an area "of no great Note" either for buildings or inhabitants, the other alleys and courts being variously described as "very mean and ordinary", "indifferent good" and "ordinary" (Strype 1720, 282). Things had not improved by the time that Charles Dickens described the area in Oliver Twist:

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main.

Reflecting Dickens' description, at least three taverns opened onto Plumtree Court, the Angel, the Bull Head Tavern and "The Plum-tree in Plum-tree Court, Shoe Lane" which Caulfield describes as a meeting place of criminals (Caulfield 1819, 63).

Early maps (Figure 2) show an area crammed with small dwellings, all no doubt influenced by the noxious, malodorous proximity of the Fleet River or Fleet Ditch, then a busy waterway just to the east. Since this area escaped the fire of London (just, the wavy line on Ogilby and Morgan's 1676 map, Figure 2, shows the limit of the conflagration), it is likely that many seventeenth century buildings survived into the nineteenth century, and were those referred to by architect and reformer George Godwin when he wrote that "this most abominable of rivers has been hidden from the sight; and the houses originally on its banks have to a great extent been swept away...Plough-court, Plumtree-court, Holborn, and a few other bits within this part of the City...give some notion of the houses formerly on the vacant space. Buildings have been cleared away, and those who inhabited them have been driven to equally unfit lodgings in other districts" (Godwin 1854, 10).

Not long before Godwin visited the area, Plumtree Court, along with other nearby rookeries, was described by Thomas Beames as a "plague spot" (Beames 1852, 65). But by the time Godwin arrived the northern side was an empty space awaiting redevelopment, though along the south side of the Court a handful of houses still backed onto a warehouse (Figure 3).

Some idea of the type of buildings in the area can be gauged from illustrations made during the construction of Holborn Viaduct in the 1860s. In Figure 4, beyond the demolition of houses on Holborn Hill, the spire of St Andrews Church, Shoe Lane, almost opposite Plumtree Court, can be seen in the background, and the corner of the lane is visible beyond the omnibus to the right of the centre of the illustration. In Figure 5 the eastern end of Plumtree Court can be seen in a photograph of the nearly-completed viaduct taken in 1869

It was this area in decline, soon to be demolished, that Godwin was exploring in the 1850s. Armed with his "manifesto" of "Drain the Swamps and Build the Bridges" he was gathering evidence for his campaign to improve the housing conditions and thus drain the "swamps", the "social pathologies" of the poor, and establish "bridges", "institutional infrastructures" such as education and healthcare (Marriott 2003, 182).

In Plumtree Court, Godwin was to find an example of the "love of art"; a phenomenon he was convinced would build one of his social bridges. On the one hand, in number 9 Plumtree Court, he found 67 people crammed into fifteen rooms, and in number 24, some 40 — 18 adults and 22 children — squeezed into just four rooms (Godwin 1856, 305). On the other hand, he was able to find something "agreeable and cheering" in plaster casts of spotted cats and painted parrots.

The archaeological assemblage

A group of objects on a living-room mantelpiece can be analysed in ways which yield information about their fabric, decoration and construction. They can also be perceived as performing a range of functions which help to keep our society in being: they help to maintain the production system of manufacture and purchase, they play a role in our family lives, they are a means by which social prestige can be maintained, and one of them will tell us what time of day it is.
(Pearce 1995, 15)

As Susan Pearce explains, the mantelpiece was a place where assemblages of decorative objects were common. Paul Johnson quotes Mrs Samuel Barnett's Thrift Manual, in which she exclaims in horror that "in most rooms…there are too many ornaments...I have counted as many as seventeen ornaments on one mantelpiece — three, or perhaps five are ample. She who aims to be thrifty will fight against yielding to the artificially developed instinct to possess" (Johnson 1988 37).

In the case of Plumtree Court the mantelpiece and the wall behind it, physically linked at a moment in time form an archaeological context, one that can be recorded and compared with other contemporary contexts. Without realising it, the artist who sketched the mantelpiece became an archaeologist, making a two-dimensional record of everything he could see. The objects on the shelf and wall form an archaeological assemblage.

The archaeology of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece allows us to focus on the centre of anonymous lives that were probably spent almost entirely within a small area of London, perhaps just between the stench of Fleet Ditch and The Strand. Everything that might be required for those lives was available within a few streets and alleys: food (Farringdon Market was a hundred metres to the south, there were costermongers even closer, and at least one eating house) drink (a superfluity of inns and taverns, including several in and around the Court itself), furniture, ornaments, hardware, pawnshops, lamp oil, coal, entertainment, medicine, hair cutting, bakers, farriers, chandlers, stationers, printers, pewterers, picture frames, hatters, hosiers, access to religion, schooling (there was at one time a ragged school in Plumtree Court), Sunday School, slaughterhouses, a workhouse and burial grounds.

The source of the artefacts

Just a few paces to the west of Plumtree Court is Shoe Lane, the likely source of many of the household's possessions. There, anyone at large would have encountered: Chair-menders – "Ornaments for your fire-stoves!" - Fly-catchers - Draught-bags - Italian images - Sham sailors - Groundsel - Baked chestnuts and potatoes - Night refreshments - Fruit and vegetable hawkers - Strawberries in pottles - Street stalls - Orange girls - Hand-bills - Beggars with paintings - Cheap Jacks - Preachers - Waits – Workmen's paper caps - Soldiers - Sailors - Pensioners - Beadles - Lamplighters - Crossing sweepers - Shoeblacks – Undertakers.
(Bennett 1924, 52-3)

In the midst of that bustle, almost overlooked in Bennett's list, "as he thrids his way with care" 2, is a seller of "Italian images", one of a class of itinerant peddlers known as "image-sellers", "image-boys", or figurinai. It was to their activities and their stock-in-trade that I looked in order to carry out the next stage of my investigation.


Last updated 11th April 2020


Figure 1

Photograph of Plumtree Court in 2015
Figure 1: Plumtree Court, Holborn, in 2015. (Image: Google Earth).

Figure 2

Map showing Plumtree Court
Figure 2: Detail of Ogilby and Morgan's 1676 map of London and Holborn. Plumtree Court zigzags to the east of Shoe Lane, just to the south-east of St Andrew's Church.

Figure 3

Map of Plumtree Court before development
Figure 3: Plumtree Court before development of its north side, 1860. Ordnance Survey.

Figure 4

Photograph of Plumtree Court in 2015
Figure 4: Preparing for the Holborn Valley improvement, 1863. Illustrated London News.

Figure 5

Photograph of Plumtree Court in 2015
Figure 5: The eastern end of Plumtree Court visible from the nearly-complete Holborn Viaduct, 1869. Illustrated London News.

Footnote 1

Plumtree Court was also recorded as "Plumb Tree Court" and "Plumptre Court".


Footnote 2

Wordsworth wrote in his Prelude of an Italian image seller in 1805 threading his way carefully through a crowd of pedestrians.