Street View: 84
Address: 16 Charing Cross
More than one book has been written about Francis Place, the tailor who had his shop at 16 Charing Cross and who became a “remarkable radical” as his biographer styled him(1), who tirelessly campaigned to get all sorts of social reforms on the agenda, such as birth control, legalisation of the trade unions and the education of workers. Besides books about Francis that can easily fill a bookshelf, Francis’s own writings fill even more volumes, not to mention the collection of ephemera on British politics and economics for the period 1770-1853 collected by Place and now held at the British Library.(2) But, for this post, I will concentrate on his business activities at Charing Cross, although he had long retired by the time the Tallis Street View was published.
Francis was the son of Simon Place and Mary Gray. The parents were not lawfully married as Simon had contracted an earlier marriage with Anna Paling which was never terminated. Simon had been a baker, but by the time Francis was born he had a sponging house, a private debtor’s prison, first near Drury Lane Theatre, later off the Strand. He made his living by bribing the debtors for not turning them over to the regular Marshalsea Court, and by asking severely inflated prices for food and drink. Charming! When the conditions in the Marshalsea improved, less business came Simon’s way and he moved to a regular public house. When Francis was thirteen, he was apprenticed to Joe France, a leather breeches maker whose household could not be called a good example for young Francis, with Joe’s children ranging from prostitutes to pickpockets, but Francis soon managed to make himself indispensable and receiving money for extra work. Unfortunately, Joe’s business went from bad to worse and he declared himself a debtor. Francis then unsuccessfully tried several other places of employment, while in the mean time courting Elizabeth Chadd, the daughter of a coal porter. They were married in 1791 at St. Mary’s Lambeth, although Elizabeth was only sixteen at the time. Times were hard for a while with Francis having only irregular work, but by hard work he managed to get work on his own account, building up relations with suppliers so that he could get material on credit. By paying back on time, he hoped he could get larger credits over time which he needed for setting up his own shop. When not working Francis read widely to improve himself and especially the works of Adam Smith, John Locke and David Hume proved influential in his later political work.
In 1799, he and a fellow-student, Richard Wild, started their own shop at 29 Charing Cross. See here for more information about the shop at number 29. The first year they had to work from early morning to late at night and all political activities were shelved for the time being, but they succeeded and had a flourishing business by the end of 1800. Unfortunately Wild planned to take over the whole business with the help of a loan he obtained via his new wife, but Francis managed to avert disaster by getting loans for himself and after the partnership was dissolved, he and his family could move into 16 Charing Cross in 1801. According to Francis, the house was “old fashioned and very old” and had been the Royal Bagnio, but “had fallen into such a state of decay and dilapidation, that no person would take it on a repairing lease”. It had been let into tenements, but the landlord had turned them all out when they could not pay the rent and had shut up the house. In his Autobiography Place related that he took the front shop, parlour and a large room on the first floor and
pulled out the Shop front, closed the doors in front under the shop to the vaults and paved the places where there were wooden flaps in the footpath in front of the Shop. I put in a new front as elegant, as the place would permit, each of the panes of glass in the shop front cost me three pounds, and two in the door, four pounds each. The whole of the work as well the front as the fitting up inside was done in fourteen days, the painting &c were finished in two days more and on the 8th of April 1801 … I opened my new shop. … In 1802 Mr. Parke Senr. agreed to grant me a lease of the whole of the premises, at a rent of £120 a year and at Midsummer I became his tenant. … In 1805 I pulled down the enormous stack of chimneys which ran up the front house and projected nearly four feet into the rooms and in a very few days built up a new stack with the old materials …
And more improvements were to follow: new ceilings, a new staircase, a water closet, a library where he was to receive his political friends, a new kitchen, and more bedrooms on the first floor. Business went well and in 1807 Francis could once again devote more time to his political and economic reform ideas, leaving the shop in the capable hands of his foremen. His eldest son Francis was sent to Paris to the Mallett banking house and afterwards to Dresden to complete his education. He came back in November 1816 and in 1817 Francis senior handed the whole business over to Francis junior and devoted the rest of his time to politics. In 1833, Francis senior moved to 21 Brompton Square where a blue plaque has been erected for him, see here.
Francis junior married Maria Waterfield in 1830 and they and their daughter Emma (born ±1840) can be found at 16 Charing Cross in the 1841 census. In 1851 we find Francis ‘retired tailor’ with his wife Mary and daughter Emma at 2 Margarets Place, Greenwich. Ten years later, they have moved to 7 Victoria Grove, Folkestone. In the 1871 census, we find Francis and Mary still there and in 1875, it is the address where Francis dies on 14 May. Probate is granted to Mary (effects under £14,000).(3) Francis must have retired from the business between 1841 and 1851, possibly in 1845 when the lease of the property expired. What happened to the shop after Place retired is unclear.
Information for this post has been gleaned from the books and websites listed in footnotes 1 and 2.
(1) Dudley Miles, Francis Place 1771-1854: The Life of a Remarkable Radical (1988). For a short overview of his life see William Thomas, ‘Place, Francis (1771–1854)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009.
(2) The Autobiography of Francis Place (1771-1854), edited by MaryThale (1972). ’The Affairs of Others’: The Diaries of Francis Place, 1825-1836, transcribed, edited and annotated by James A. Jaffe (2007). British Library information page
(3) England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1875.
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