White Conduit House


  • White Conduit House

Street/Area (default name)

  • Penton Street

Maps & Views


from the Grub Street Project, by Allison Muri (2006-present)

See also White Conduit House, by Paul F. Rice.

from Old and New London, by Walter Thornbury and Edward Walford (1873-1893)

White Conduit House. On the east side of Penton Street formerly stood that celebrated Cockney place of amusement, "White Conduit House." The original tavern was erected in the reign of Charles I., and the curious tradition was that the workmen were said to have been regaling themselves after the completion of the building the very hour that King Charles's head fell at the Whitehall scaffold. In 1754 "White Conduit House" was advertised as having for its fresh attractions a long walk, a circular fish-pond, a number of pleasant shady arbours, enclosed with a fence seven feet high, hot loaves and butter, milk direct from the cow, coffee, tea, and other liquors, a cricketfield, unadulterated cream, and a handsome long room, with "copious prospects, and airy situation." In 1760 the following spirited verses describing the place, by William Woty, author of the "Shrubs of Parnassus," appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine:—

"Wish'd Sunday's come—mirth brightens every face,
And paints the rose upon the house-maid's cheek,
Harriott, or Moll more ruddy. Now the heart
Of prentice, resident in ample street,
Or alley, kennel-wash'd, Cheapside, Cornhill,
Or Cranborne, thee for calcuments renown'd,
With joy distends—his meal meridian o'er,
With switch in hand, he to White Conduit House
Hies merry-hearted. Human beings here,
In couples multitudinous, assemble,
Forming the drollest groupe that ever trod
Fair Islingtonian plains. Male after male,
Dog after dog succeeding—husbands, wives,
Fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters, friends,
And pretty little boys and girls. Around,
Across, along the garden's shrubby maze
They walk, they sit, they stand. What crowds press on
Eager to mount the stairs, eager to catch
First vacant bench, or chair, in long room plac'd!
Here prig with prig holds conference polite,
And indiscriminate the gaudy beau
And sloven mix. Here, he who all the week
Took bearded mortals by the nose, or sat
Weaving dead hairs, and whistling wretched strain,
And eke the sturdy youth, whose trade it is
Stout oxen to contund, with gold-bound hat
And silken stocking strut. The red-armed belle
Here shews her tasty gown, proud to be thought
The butterfly of fashion; and, forsooth,
Her haughty mistress deigns for once to tread
The same unhallowed floor. 'Tis hurry all,
And rattling cups and saucers. Waiter here,
And Waiter there, and Waiter here and there,
At once is called, Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe!
Joe on the right, and Joe upon the left,
For every vocal pipe re-echoes Joe!

"Alas! poor Joe! like Francis in the play,
He stands confounded, anxious how to please
The many-headed throng. But should I paint
The language, humours, custom of the place,
Together with all curtseys, lowly bows,
And compliments extern, 'twould swell my page
Beyond its limits due. Suffice it then
For my prophetic muse to say, 'So long
'As Fashion rides upon the wing of Time,
While tea and cream, and butter'd rolls, can please,
While rival beaux and jealous belles exist,
So long, White Conduit House shall be thy fame.'"

About this time the house and its customers were referred to by Oliver Goldsmith. He says, "After having surveyed the curiosities of this fair and beautiful town (Islington), I proceeded forward, leaving a fair stone building on my right. Here the inhabitants of London often assemble to celebrate a feast of hot rolls and butter. Seeing such numbers, each with their little tables before them, employed on this occasion, must no doubt be a very amusing sight to the looker-on, but still more so to those who perform in the solemnity."

"White Conduit Loaves," says Mr. Timbs, "was one of the common London street-cries, before the French war raised the price of bread."

Washington Irving, in his "Life of Goldsmith," says:—"Oliver Goldsmith, towards the close of 1762, removed to 'Merry Islington,' then a country village, though now swallowed up in omnivorous London. In this neighbourhood he used to take his solitary rambles, sometimes extending his walks to the gardens of the 'White Conduit House,' so famous among the essayists of the last century. While strolling one day in these gardens he met three daughters of the family of a respectable tradesman, to whom he was under some obligation. With his prompt disposition to oblige, he conducted them about the garden, treated them to tea, and ran up a bill in the most open-handed manner imaginable. It was only when he came to pay that he found himself in one of his old dilemmas. He had not the wherewithal in his pocket. A scene of perplexity now took place between him and the waiter, in the midst of which came up some of his acquaintances, in whose eyes he wished to stand particularly well. When, however, they had enjoyed their banter, the waiter was paid, and poor Goldsmith enabled to carry off the ladies with flying colours."

This popular place of amusement derives its name from an old stone conduit, removed in 1831, and used to repair part of the New Road. It bore the date 1641, and beneath, the arms of Sutton, the founder of the Charterhouse, with initials and monograms probably of past masters. The conduit, repaired by Sutton, was built in the reign of Henry VI., and it supplied the Carthusian friars. The waterhouse was used by the school till about 1654, when the supply fell short, and a New River supply was decided on. The site of the conduit was at the back of No. 10, Penton Street, at the corner of Edward Street. There was a smaller conduit at the back of White Conduit Gardens, close to where Warren Street now stands. In 1816, Huntington (Sinner Saved) the preacher, cleansed the spring, but his enemies choked it with mud to spite him. Latterly, however, the Conduit House fell to ruins, and the upper floors became a mighty refuge for tramps and street pariahs.

An old drawing of 1731 represents White Conduit House as a mere tall building, with four front windows, a gable roof, a side shed, and on the other side the conduit itself. On either hand stretched bare sloping fields and hedge-rows.

The anonymous writer of the "Sunday Ramble," 1774, describes the place as having boxes for tea, cut into the hedges and adorned with pictures; pleasant garden walks, a round fish-pond, and two handsome tea-rooms. Later the fish-pond was filled up, and an Apollo dancing-room erected. In 1826 a "Minor Vauxhall" was established here, and the place became somewhat disreputable. Mr. Chabert, the fire-eater, after a collation of phosphorus, arsenic, and oxalic acid, with a sauce of boiling oil and molten lead, walked into an oven, preceded by a leg of lamb and a rump-steak, and eventually emerged with them completely baked, after which the spectators dined with him. Graham also ascended from these gardens in his balloon. In this year Hone talks of the gardens as "just above the very lowest," though the fireworks were as good as usual.

About 1827 archery was much practised; and in 1828 the house was rebuilt with a great ball-room and many architectural vagaries. A writer in the Mirror of 1833 says:—"Never mind Pentonville, it is not now what it was, a place of some rural beauty. The fields behind it were, in my time, as wild and picturesque, with their deep-green lanes, richly hedged and studded with flowers, which have taken fright and moved off miles away— and their 'stately elms and hillocks green,' as they are now melancholy and cut up with unfurnished, and, of course, unoccupied rows of houses, run up during the paroxysm of the brick and mortar mania of times past, and now tumbling in ruins, with the foolish fortunes of the speculators. The march of town innovation upon the suburbs has driven before it all that was green, silent, and fitted for meditation. Here, too, is that paradise of apprentice boys, 'White Cundick Couse,' as it is cacophoniously pronounced by its visitors, which has done much to expel the decencies of the district. Thirty years ago this place was better frequented—that is, there was a larger number of respectable adults; fathers and mothers, with their children, and a smaller moiety of shop-lads, and such-like Sunday bucks, who were awed into decency by their elders. The manners, perhaps, are much upon a par with what they were. The ball-room gentlemen then went through country dances with their hats on and their coats off. Hats are now taken off, but coats are still unfashionable on these gala nights. The belles of that day wore long trains to their gowns. It was a favourite mode of introduction to a lady there to tread on the train, and then apologising handsomely, acquaintance was begun, and soon ripened into an invitation to tea and the hot loaves for which these gardens were once celebrated. Being now a popular haunt, those who hang on the rear of the march of human nature, the sutlers, camp-followers, and plunderers, know that where large numbers of men or boys are in pursuit of pleasure, there is a sprinkling of the number to whom vice and debauchery are ever welcome; they have, therefore, supplied what these wanted, and Pentonville may now hold up its head, and boast of its depravities before any other part of London."

The place grew worse and worse, till, in 1849, the house was pulled down and streets built on its site. The present "White Conduit" Tavern covers a portion of the original gardens. Mr. George Cruikshank has been heard to confess that some of his early knowledge of Cockney character, and, indeed, of City human nature, was derived from observing evenings at White "Conduit House."