I like Jesty Court, and wouldn’t want to know anybody that didn’t, I will tell you why later. It is a small square, tucked away in a corner of London that is hard to find. It’s not that maps avoid it, it’s just that the street pattern around it is surprisingly confusing.
It is lined with elegant houses, built at the beginning of the century before last, has a neat garden in the middle, and the surrounding road is lit with old gas lamps, very old gas lamps. As you walk round the square you will see that most of the houses have blue plaques on them, telling of the great and the good who once lived there. Though in Jesty Court it is seems that the great who lived there were all very good, notable doctors, philanthropists, reformers – on one corner there was a name I half recognised, when I looked him up I realised where I had seen the name, and what had happened in that house.
Nearly two hundred years ago a group of serious and good men met here, to change the government, to change the country, in time to change the world. Not by violent revolution, but by argument, peacefully, and they succeeded. They reformed how parliament was elected, then in the new reforming parliament they did wonders, they abolished slavery, they began to reform working conditions, end child labour, end cruelty to animals, and even create parks and gardens in towns and cities.
It was one dark night, in the reign of good King William, that the leader of these men, who is best known for the tea created for him (and he was prouder of that than anything else he had done) stumbled as he made his way to his carriage.
“You need proper lights here, a lit street is a safe street. I will help if you wish.”
They did wish, the men who had helped people throughout the world, now helped themselves, as well as anybody else who entered Jesty Court. The pavements were dug up, pipes were laid, and gas lights spread their glow over the square.
A Lamplighter was appointed, Thomas Crowther was his name in the records of the Gas and Light Company, but everybody called him Old Tom and everybody liked him. As he lit the lights in the evening his ‘Evening Sir’ or “Evening Ma’am,” greeted men returning from their labours, or couples leaving for the theatre or dinner with friends. Children loved to watch the lamps being lit, the gentle pop as he applied the flame, then watch with wonder the light’s growing brilliance. To his friends, and he considered everybody in Jesty Court his friends, he would repeat the saying, ‘A lit street is a safe street,’ and so it was, until tragedy struck.
It was a frosty morning, just before Christmas, a maid, opening the shutters was the first to see. Lying in a pool of light, under one of his lamps, Old Tom lay. It wasn’t certain if he had fallen from his ladder, or there was another, darker, reason for his death, but the whole square was in mourning. The residents paid for his funeral and, in a tiny, dark, churchyard they paid for his gravestone. ‘A lit street is a safe street’, was his epitaph.
I had listed the story amongst the many tales I knew of Old London, and would have thought no more about it, until I was in an old library, I won’t say where, when in a serendipitous moment I mentioned Jesty Court to the librarian.
“Oh yes, I saw the name somewhere recently.” He pulled out two or three box files, then one labelled ‘Dicken’s Forgeries.’
“We have a number of them, all are very bad, some even pornographic. But this one is different, it purports to be a draft of a short story or magazine article, but ..” He paused, and handed me the envelope, “Read it and see what you think.”
It was a large brown envelope, with a library reference number neatly written in the top right-hand corner. Then, under it, was a pencilled scrawl, ‘Jesty Court?’ and below that something that made me gasp. ‘A lit street is a safe street.’
I knew that Charles Dickens was fascinated by London and its people, he explored it, walked the streets at night, sometimes with his friends in the police, sometimes alone. The tales he heard he wove into his wonderful novels, but of Jesty Court, he had said nothing.
On foolscap paper someone, early last century I guessed, had typed out this story.
‘Mr Field [Inspector Charles Field] had suggested that I visited Jesters Square at night. “No need to be alarmed there, we rarely bother to go there, safest palace in London.” When I asked why I should go there, he replied, “Speak to the old lamplighter if he is there, he has a tale or two that will amuse you.”
I knew Mr Field too well to doubt him, so a few nights later I made my way to the Square. It is a very pleasant spot, the leaves had begun to fall from the trees and my feet rustled in them as I walked across the garden, at first there was no sign of anybody there, but when I had reached the far side, I turned and saw a figure under the light where I had first entered the Square. I retraced my steps, but when I was halfway across a noise distracted me for a second, when I turned back the figure had vanished. I walked to where he had been standing, but there was no sign of anybody, looking around I saw the figure again, where I had been standing when I first saw him.
I began to walk towards him again, then, just as before, he vanished. I muttered under my breath, imprecations against Inspector Field for sending me on this wild goose chase.
“Know Mr Field do you, come and sit down then.” The voice was a strange hoarse whisper, it sounded as if the speaker was right beside me, whispering in my ear. Startled I looked around and saw a man some ten yards away, seated on a bench below one of the gas lamps. I couldn’t see his face as he was wearing a broad brimmed hat which shaded it. He had a long brown coat on and a ladder was propped up on the lamp behind him.
“Good evening” I began, but he interrupted me.
“Good evening to you Mr Writer.” I was surprised but he continued, “Yes I know who you are, and as Mr Field will vouch for you, I will tell you a tale or two. Told you this was the safest street in London I reckon.” I nodded, “Tis now, but didn’t use to be.”
[He then repeated the tale of how the gas lamps had come to the Square and the death of Old Tom]
“Dreadful.” I muttered, “A terrible accident I suppose.”
“Doubt that.” He continued, “A couple of months later a pair of rogues entered the Square, well known to the Runners they were, had tools with them. Later their friends said that they had cased a house in the Square months back but had been prevented from burglering it.”
“Did they rob it?”
“Oh no,” The old man whispered, “They found them the next morning, fallen down the area steps into the cellar of one of the houses, both dead.”
“Did they break their necks?”
“Yes, but not in the way you would think, the bags that they had their tools in, somehow they caught on the railings and round their necks. Found them hanging there, as neat as if they had been turned off at Newgate. Justice it was.”
“You think they had killed Old Tom.”
“Yes, I do. And more than that, since then the wicked have been wise to keep out of the Square, it’s the lights. ‘A lit street is a safe street’.”
“You must be proud of your calling then, keeping the lamps lit.”
“Oh someone else lights the lamps now, I just keep an eye on them, and on the Square and everybody who comes here.”
“But” I turned to look at the lamp, but the ladder had vanished, turning back the old man wasn’t there either. Shaken I rose and begun to hurry out of the Square. Suddenly the whisper was in my ear again.
“No need to hurry, safest place in London this is, and it is my task to keep it that way. But Mr Writer I would be grateful if you don’t go putting me in any of your stories.” As he spoke I wondered how he would know. He seemed to guess what I was thinking and said.
“I belong to this Square, and I like the light, I seem to get me strength from these lamps. But I know the dark as well, and the Dark of London is old, very old, Dark speaks to Dark as the saying is. If you were to tell anybody, at least in a way they might believe, I will know soon enough.”
I was silent, as I left the Square I turned back, Old Tom stood under a gas lamp. I touched my hat in acknowledgement, he replied in a similar fashion.’
I carefully returned the papers to the envelope, then behaved very improperly and rubbed out the pencil inscription before returning the envelope to the box file. Thanked the librarian and said that I didn’t think the story had anything to do with Jesty Court, and left.
I had, of course, visited Jesty Court several times after dark and, although it was certainly a surprisingly peaceful place, seen no sign of Old Tom. I don’t know if I really expected to. I did, however, write about Jesty Court, and the story connected with the installation of the lamps, and one day got a letter from a resident of the Court thanking me. Apparently my article and the link to the great reformers had been added as ‘additional material’ to the bid to get the lamps listed as being of historic importance.
I met up with her and learnt of the attempt of the council to ‘update’ the old gas lights.
“They said new lights would be safer, but that is nonsense of course, the young woman who was attacked, she said the lights almost followed the man as he ran away. She could seem him very clearly.”
This was surprising as everybody had told me how safe Jesty Court was.
“Oh it is, of course, and nobody got hurt, apart from him. It seems the woman was crossing the garden as she knew how safe the garden was supposed to be, when the man went to grab her.” My friend smiled, “Fortunately he had picked the wrong one to attack. She fought back breaking his nose and kicking him where it really hurt. He ran, and this is odd as she said he seemed to be running from someone and it wasn’t her. She stood, shocked, as he ran across the garden and down Grey’s Place. Then she heard the noise of the accident.”
“Yes, he ran straight out into traffic and was hit.”
“Was he killed?”
“No, both legs and his pelvis were broken. He had attacked other women before, and will spend his prison sentence in a wheelchair, he may never walk properly again.”
I wondered at this story, of course, and tried to get more details, but there was little more to find out. Then, just before Christmas I was talking to a television producer I know, he had made several ‘real life’ documentaries, filming emergency services at work. He had produced one based around a police station close to Jesty Court. He too had heard of the attack, and added,
“The stories are true, by the way, the Court is incredibly safe. Very little crime ever reported there, probably due to the fighting gas lamps.”
I looked bemused, he laughed and replied.
“It’s an odd story, we couldn’t include it for several reasons. One evening a police car stopped at the end of Grey’s Place as a number of teenagers ran out, they were terrified and most had cuts and bruises about their heads. They couldn’t say anything sensible so they were bundled down to the station where they said they had been attacked by the gas lamps. Apparently they had started throwing stones at the old lamps, when the lamps started throwing stones back!
The police thought this was funny as well, and naturally suspected they had taken some drug or another. But as no crime had really been committed, they called their parents to come and collect them reckoning, probably correctly, that they would get worse grief from their parents, that they would from any court.”
He paused, “However one parent’s reaction was odd. He was angry, but not because of the suspected drugs. ‘You know about that place,’ He said to his son, ‘You must never go there, it’s not for the likes of us.’ I wondered at this, but couldn’t ask him about it, as father and son ran quickly out of the station.”
These stories, and the cases I found in the council archives, of people complaining they slipped and fell, often spraining or breaking ankles, in the square, made me think. And when I read how, when these cases were investigated, the pavement was clean and level and that none of the people who complained lived there, made me want to return to Jesty Court.
It was cold when I entered the Court no one seemed to be about as I walked into the garden then, on the far side, I saw a figure in long coat and broad brimmed hat, standing in the light of one of the lamps. I shivered, and it wasn’t from the cold. I slowly walked towards him, suddenly something distracted me for a moment, and he vanished. Turning, I wasn’t surprised to see the same figure under the light where I had entered the garden. I decided not to approach but said softly,
“Old Tom, will you speak to me?’
“Better take a seat then,” came a hoarse whisper in my ear. Turning I saw a figure on the bench under one of the old lamps. He was just as had been described, in a broad brimmed hat which shaded his face and a long brown coat.
“Cold night.” I began.
“As it was when it began.”
“A long time ago?”
“A very long time, as you have guessed.” He paused and added, “I think I must thank you, for two reasons.” I must have looked puzzled as he continued. “For helping the good folk here keeping the old lamps burning, and for not mentioning me in your writings.”
“How did you know?” I began, then remembered and added, “Dark speaks to Dark.”
He nodded, “I would prefer it if I wasn’t well known, those that need to know, know.” I didn’t say anything and he continued. “Those stupid kids, I gave them a fright, but one of their father’s was even more frightened.”
“The one who said that the Court ‘wasn’t for the likes of them’?”
“Yes, they are members of an old London family, a very old family. Long time ago many of then rode in Jack Ketch’s cart to Tyburn Tree, or took the long voyage to Botany Bay. They know they are not welcome here.”
“So you protect the Court.”
“I try to, when new people come here I take a look at them some, the good hearted, are welcome, most are neither one thing or another and I just hurry them along, they can come here to work or visit, but never stay. Some are black hearted, they leave very swiftly.”
“With sprained limbs or broken bones.”
He nodded, then looked at me, his hidden eyes seemed to bore into me. I felt he knew all about me, all and any secrets I had were laid out before his long dead gaze.
“Well done Mr Writer, you are welcome here, when you decide to live here it will be a pleasure to look over you and yours.”
“But ..” I paused and changed the subject, “Do you do that to everybody who comes here?”
“Yes, not perhaps like that, but then you know who I am.”
“But what about when the woman was attacked.”
“I must have been getting old, I was a little slow that evening, but I would have got him before he hurt her. Didn’t need to though.” I could hear the pleasure in his voice, “It was lovely to see her move. After what she did to him I didn’t like to punish him too much.”
“But he might not walk again!” I gasped.
“He’s still alive, isn’t he? After what he was planning to do to her, I was very kind to him.”
I was silent, then I suddenly realised Old Tom had vanished.
As I left the Court I turned back, there he was under one of the lights, he touched his hat and I seemed to hear his voice again.
“A lit street is a safe street”
This tale was suggested by my son, the artist, who wrote;
“I was having a thought about a ghost story, figured you might be able to flesh it out. So my idea was of the ghost of a lamplighter, who was now trapped and only visible in the light of streetlamps.”
So here is the tale, with his illustration.