Fatal Vespers: The Dismall Day at the Black-Fryers

 

On 26th October (os dating), 5th November (ns dating) 1623, a fatal accident occurred in London. The location of the accident was a gatehouse in the precinct of Blackfriars. Between two and three hundred Catholics gathered together in a small garret room, to hear the Jesuit Robert Drury deliver a sermon, and to celebrate evensong. Half way through Drury’s sermon, the wooden floor gave way and the priest and almost a hundred people fell two storeys to their death. Some people survived the fall, others were trapped in the rubble, and some managed to break through a wall surrounding the collapsed floor itself and escape into an adjacent house. Crowds quickly assembled, many to assist in the rescue of survivors, and others merely to taunt the unfortunate Catholics victims. The following day the dead were extracted from the rubble, but due to an order from the Bishop of London, which prohibited their burial in any consecrated city ground, sixty or so corpses were interred in two common pits near the spot where the accident had occured. A large pair of black wooden crosses were hastily erected, only to be subsequently removed.

There is some extant contemporanous evidence of the event. A ballad exists, entitled The Dismall Day at the Black-Fryers, the illustration from which can be seen at the top of this post, and one account, written by a supposed Catholic, Thomas Goad, describes the accident itself:

 

The floare, whereon that assembly stood or sate, not sinking by degrees, but at one instant failing and falling, by the breaking asunder of a maine Sommier or Dormer of that floare; which beame, together with the Joyces and Plancher thereto adjoyned, with the people thereon, rushed downe with such violence, that the weight and fall thereof, brake in sunder another farre stronger and thicker Sommier of the Chamber situated directly underneath: and so both the ruined floares, with the people overlapped and crushed under, or betweene them, fell, (without any time of stay) upon a lower third floare, being the floare of the said Lord Ambassadors withdrawing Chamber; which was supported underneath with Arch-work of stone, (yet visible in the Gate-house there) and so became the boundarie or terme of that confused and dolefull heape of ruines, which otherwise had sunke yet deeper by its owne weight and height of the downfall: the distance from the highest floare, whence the people fell, to the lowest, where they lay, being about two and twentie foot in depth.

Here some bruised, some dismembred, some onely parts of men: there some wounded, and weltering in their owne and others bloud, other some putting forth their fainting hands and crying out for helpe. Here some gasping and panting for breath, others stifled for want of breath. To the most of them being thus covered with dust, this their death was a kinde of buriall. Have the gates of death beene opened unto thee? Or hast thou seene the doares of the shadow of death? Verily if any man could looke in at those gates, and returne, he would report such a pourtrait as was this spectacle.

Such was the noise of this dreadfull and unexpected downefall, that the whole city of London presently rang of it, and forthwith the Officers of the city (to whom the care of good order chiefly appertaineth) and in speciall Sergeant Finch the Recorder, repaired thither the same evening. With all speed possible some were employed for the relieving and saving such as yet struggled for life under this heavy load. Which could not so soone be effected, as they in charity desired; for that the ruines, which oppressed the sufferers, did also stop up entrance to the helpers: who thereupon were faine to make a breach in through an upper window of stone. From hence they hasted downe with pickaxes and other instruments, to force asunder, and take of, by peecemeale, the oppressing load of beames, joyces, and bords.

In this dolefull taske of withdrawing those impediments, laying forth the dead bodies, and transporting the maimed, all that night, and part of the next day was spent, though charitie and skill did whet their endevours with all dexteritie and expedition.

A young girle of the age of ten yeeres, or thereabout, who then crying said unto him [a rescuer], O my Mother, O my sister, which are downe under the timber and rubbish. But hee wishing her to be patient, and telling her that by Gods grace they should get forth quickly, the child replied, that this would prove a great scandall to their Religion.

 

Contemporary engraving of the ‘Fatal Vespers’ of 1623 –  an impression of the collapse of the interior

 

Given the date of the accident, so near to the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, many believed it was the result of divine providence; God punishing Catholics for the conspiracy of 1605. In a touching tribute to the victims in his account of the event, Thomas Goad lists their names and occupations, which I have reproduced at the end of this post.

However, there is a curious Shakespeare connection to this story. In 1613, Shakespeare bought a property near the Blackfriars theatre from Henry Walker, ‘citizen and minstrel of London’. Shakespeare paid £140 for the property on 10th March 1613. It had originally belonged to Mathias Bacon from about 1590, until he sold it to Walker in 1604. The property had long been regarded as a centre of Catholic agitation and intrigue. Part of it was built over ‘a great gate’, and in 1586, Richard Frith reported that ‘It hath sundry back doors and bye-ways, and many secret vaults and corners. It hath been in time past suspected and searched for papists but no good done for want of good knowledge of the back doors and bye-ways and of the dark corners.’ Shakespeare bought the property with other men; possibly a William Johnson (identified as landlord of the Mermaid Tavern), John Jackson, a shipping magnate, and John Heminges. However, it was Shakespeare alone who put up the cash, the others serving as his trustees. Of the extant Shakespeare signatures, one is on the purchase deed, the other on the mortgage. There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever lived in the house. Could the contemporaneous illustration above be the same house Shakespeare bought in 1613? It’s tempting to speculate.

***

A list of the dead, taken from Goad’s account of the accident. The names, occupations, and in some cases, addresses, provide some lovely detail.

 

 Mater Drurie the Priest that preached. Mr. Redy the Priest, whose lodging was under the Garret that fell: the floore of which lodging fell too. Lady Webbe in Southwarke. Lady Blackstones daughter, in Scroops Court. Thomas Webbe her man. William Robinson Taylor, in Fetter lane. Robert Smith, Master. Anne Davison, Mr. Davisons daughter, of the Middle-row in Holburne, Tayler. Anthonie Hall his man. Anne Hobdin. Marie Hobdin, lodging in Mr. Davisons house. John Galloway Vintener, in Clarkenwell Close. Mr. Peirson, Jane his wife, Thom. & James, his two sonnes, in Robbinhood Court in Shooe lane.

 

Mistris Udall. Katharine Pindar, a Gentle woman in Mrs. Udals house in gunpowder alley. Abigal her maide. John Netlan a Taylor of Bassingborne in Cambridge shiere. Nathaniel Coales, lying at one Shortoes in Barbican, Tayler. John Halifaxe, sometimes a Waterbearer. Mary Rygbie, wife to John Rygbie in Holburne, Confectioner.

 

John Worralls sonne in Holburne. Thomas Brisket, his wife, and his sonne, and maide, in Mountague close. Mistris Summers, wife to Captaine Summers in the Kings Bench. Marie her maide. Mistris Walsted in Milkestreet. John Raines, an Atturney in Westminster. Robert Sutton, sonne to Mr. Worral a Potter in Holburne. Edward Warren, lying at one Adams a Butcher, in Saint Clement Danes. A son of Mr. Flood in Holborne, Scrivener.

 

Elizabeth White, Andrew Whites daughter in Holburne, Chandler. Mr. Stoker Tayler, in Salisburie Court. Elizabeth Sommers in Graies-Inne lane. Mr. Westwood. Judeth Bellowes, wife of Mr. William Bellowes in Fetter lane. A man of Sir Lues Pembertons. Elizabeth Moore widow. John James. Morris Beucresse Apothecarie. Davie Vaughan, at Jacob Coldriches, Tayler in Graies Inne lane. Francis Man, brother to William Man in Theeving lane in Westminster.

 

Richard Fitzgarrat, of Graies Inne, Gent. Robert Heifime. Mr. Maufeild. Mr. Simons, Dorothy Simons,Thomas Simons a boy, In Fesant Court in Cow lane. Robert Parker, neer Lond stone, Merchant. Mistris Morton, at White-fryers, Mistris Norton, Marrian her maide at Mr. Babingtons in Bloomesburie. Francis Downes, sometimes in Southamp|ton house, Tayler. Edmond Shey, servant to Robert Euan of Graies Inne, Gent. Josilin Percy, servant to Sr. Henry Carluile, lying at Mistris Ploidons house in high Holburne. John Tullye, servant to Mr. Ashborn, lying at Mr. Barbers house in Fleetstreeet.

 

John Sturges, the Lord Peters man. Thomas Elis, Sr. Lewis Treshams man. Michael Butler in Woodstreet, Grocer. John Button, Coachman to Mistris Garret in Bloomesberry. Mistris Ettonet, lying at Clearkenwell greene. Edward Revel, servant to Master Nicholas Stone the Kings Purveyor. Edmund Welsh, lying with Mr. Sherlock in high Holborne, Tailer. Bartholomew Bavin, in White Lyon Court in Fleetstreet, Clarke.  Davie an Irish man, in Angell Alley in Graies Inne Gent. Thomas Wood, at Mr. Woodfalls over against Graies Innegate. Christopher Hopper, Tailer lying there.

 

George Cranston, in Kings street in Westminster, Tailer. John Blitten. Jane Turner, lying at one Gees in the old Baily. Frithwith Anne. Mistris Elton. Mr. Walsteed. Marie Berrom. Henry Becket, lying at Mistris Clearks house in Northumberland Alley in Fetter lane. Sarah Watsonne, daughter to Master Watsonne a Chirurgian. John Bevans, at the seven Stars in Drury lane. Master Harris. Mistris Tompson, at Saint Martins within Aldersgate, Habberdasher. Richard F[...]guift. George Ceaustour.

 

Master Grimes, neere the Hors-shooe taverne in Drury lane. Mr. Knuckle a Painter dwelling in Cambridge. Master Fowell, a Warwickshire Gent. Master Gascoine. Francis Buckland and Robert Hutten, both servants to Master Saule Confectioner in Holburne. John Lochey, a Scriveners sonne in Holburne. One William seruant to Master Eirkum. John Brabant, a Painter in Little-Brittaine. William Knockell, A man-servant of Mr. Buckets a Painter in Aldersgate street. One Barbaret, Walter Ward, Richard Garret, enquired after, but not found.

 

From Anon, Death’s Universal Summons (1650)

 

Sources

Anon, THE Dismall Day, at the Black-Fryers. Or, A deplorable Elegie, on the death of almost an Hundred Persons, who were lamentably slaine by the fall of a House in the Blacke-Fryers, being all assembled there (after the manner of their Devotions) to heare a Sermon on Sunday-Night, the 26. of October last past (1623)

Thomas Goad, The dolefull euen-song, or A true, particular and impartiall narration of that fearefull and sudden calamity, which befell the preacher Mr. Drury a Iesuite, and the greater part of his auditory, by the downefall of the floore at an assembly in the Black-Friers on Sunday the 26. of Octob. last, in the after noone Together with the rehearsall of Master Drurie his text, and the diuision thereof, as also an exact catalogue of the names of such as perished by this lamentable accident: and a briefe application thereupon (1623)

Mathew Rhodes, The dismall day at the Black-Fryers, or, A deplorable elegie on the death of almost an hundred persons, who were lamentably slaine by the fall of a house in the Blacke-Fryers (1623)

Arthur Freeman, ‘The fatal vesper and The doleful evensong: Claim-Jumping in 1623′, Library (1967) s5-XXII(2): 128-135

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, OUP (2001)

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