In fact, quite a lot of money changed hands there every day during the Regency, as it had for many centuries before. It was not the "cheapness" of Cheapside which caused most people in high society to look down their noses at the area and those who lived or worked there. It was all that appallingly exuberant commerce which was daily transacted along that thoroughfare that rankled with the most pretentious members of society. Yet the area along Cheapside was crucial to the ecomony of London and of Britain during our favorite decade. Despite the aspersions which Mr. Bingley’s sisters cast on Cheapside in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that area holds much promise as a setting for a scene, or a series of them, in an upcoming romance.
Cheapside through the Regency . . .
The area known today as the City of London comprises most of the area of the original Roman settlement of Londinium. The main reason for that settlement was commerce, and commerce continues to be the life blood of the City, even today. And Cheapside was the High Street, that is, the primary business street, of the City of London, from at least the Middle Ages. The name Cheapside is believed to have derived from two Anglo Saxon words. The word ceap, meant to buy or purchase something, but it also meant the place where things could be bought or sold. The word was pronounced in a way very similar to the modern word cheap, and was also the origin of words like chapman (meaning a merchant or trader) and chapbook (meaning an inexpensive book, often sold by chapmen). The word "side" has Germanic origins, and among its meanings is a region or place closely adjacent to something or the two parts of a busy roadway. Thus, "Cheapside" meant a roadway running alongside a market place. And this particular Cheapside ran through the most active market place in all of Britain.
Originally, the area that became Cheapside and it side streets, was an open area known as Crown-field, which was located in the West-chepe part of the City. West-chepe was so named to distinguish it from another area, farther east, near the Tower of London, named East-chepe. Probably even before the early Middle Ages, people in the London area traded goods at Crown-field in West-cheap. It was centrally located and not too far from the Thames, by which many commodities were brought into the City. Many merchants set up small sheds from which they sold their wares. Eventually, certain commodities came to be sold in specialized locations and the names of those locations became memorialized in the street names in the area. Even today, Cheapside runs into Poultry, and is intersected by Bread Street, Milk Street, Honey Lane, Wood Street and Ironmonger Lane, all of which are self-explanatory. However, fishmongers sold their wares in Friday Street, since that was the day of the religious week when the Catholics of England typically ate fish. Cobblers and curriers all had shops in Cordwainer Street. Another commercial street which intersects with Cheapside was Gutter Lane. The first recorded name of this street, in the early Middle Ages, was Godrun Lane, which became corrupted to Gutter Lane by the fifteenth century. The majority of London’s gold beaters and goldsmiths had premises along Gutter Lane.
From at least the sixteenth century, West-chepe gave part of its name to the main roadway which ran though the rapidly diminishing Crown-field. Even before the turn of the seventeenth century, this roadway was known as Cheapside and it was one of the most important and highly traveled streets in the square mile City of London. Before the middle of that century, Crown-field had been almost completely obliterated by the construction of the warehouses, shops, offices and residences which lined Cheapside. But most of those buildings were destroyed in the massive conflagration of the Great Fire of London, in 1666. Due to its crucial importance to the ecomony of London, the area of Cheapside was rebuilt after the Great Fire. In the process, some of the tiny lanes and alleys intersecting it, which had become bottlenecks to traffic and trade, were eliminated. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the new, wider, straighter roadway of Cheapside was one of the main thoroughfares through the City of London and by mid-century, it had become the most important and bustling shopping street in greater London. There were so many shops in Cheapside, most of which were open well into the evening, all illuminated by several candles, that, in 1775, one visitor, wrote ". . . the street looks as if it were illuminated for some festivity." But, in fact, it was just typical business hours along Cheapside.
St. Paul’s Cathedral was located near the western end of Cheapside, and the grand new church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built on that same location after the Great Fire. One of the other churches located along Cheapside was St. Mary-le-Bow. It was said that anyone born within the sound of the bells of this church was known as a Cockney. That church was also destroyed in the Great Fire. However, a new church of St. Mary-le-Bow was also designed by Wren and construction was completed in 1679. Until 1739, the home of the Lord Mayor of London was located in Cheapside, as were many important shops and other businesses associated with commerce. Through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, Cheapside was a very busy, attractive and perfectly respectable area of London.
In fact, in the years of the Regency, Cheapside was still a popular shopping area in London, even with the upper classes. Though Bond Street had been laid out in the early eighteenth century, and various shops and other businesses had begun to locate there, those shops tended to be more exclusive and upscale. The Bond Street shops, and the other shops in the very fashionable Mayfair area, did not offer the wide range of goods which could be had in Cheapside. Bond Street in the Regency might be compared to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, while Regency Cheapside could be compared to a very large mall. In Bond Street, a Regency shopper could find several exclusive high-fashion dress shops, tailors, shoe and boot makers, along with a few fine haberdashery shops, and even some elegant jewelers. However, there were many haberdashers, mercers, linen and woollen drapers, shoe- and boot-makers, watch- and clock-makers, stationers, chair and cabinet-makers, upholsterers, paper-stainers, china and glass dealers, opticians and apothecaries with premises in Cheapside, among many others. Physicians, lawyers, land and house agents, as well as other men of business, also had offices in Cheapside. Any goods or commodities which could be purchased in the shops of Bond Street during the Regency could also be purchased from shops in Cheapside, though probably at more reasonable prices.
No one in the Regency would have gone looking for any type of groceries or utilitarian household supplies along Bond Street. However, in the shops of Cheapside, one could find nearly every foodstuff, from oranges to mutton chops to caviar, and just about everything in between. Most other basic household supplies, from candles to cooking pots to laundry baskets, to name a few, could also be purchased at various shops in Cheapside, or the in the streets which ran off it. The servants of the upper and middle classes could be seen nearly any day shopping for their employers in the shops of the Cheapside area during the Regency. London families who could not afford servants were more likely to personally shop for the things they needed in the Cheapside area than they were to visit the shops along Bond Street or elsewhere in Mayfair.
In addition to the many retail shops and professional offices which were located in the area around Cheapside during the Regency, a great many residences could also be found there. More affluent businessmen had substantial and comfortable homes for their families, like the fictional home of the Gardiner family in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. There were also a plethora of apartment buildings and rooming houses which could accommodate nearly any need and budget. The majority of these homes were clean, decent and perfectly respectable. They also had the advantage that they were fairly centrally located within the greater London area, making commuting to work in the metropolis quite convenient, not to mention doing the shopping. Of course, those residences were not as elegant and sophisticated as the majority of homes in Mayfair, and few members of the beau monde would have considered living in the Cheapside area. But it was perfectly acceptable to most ordinary folk.
There were some problems in the Cheapside area over the years. Due to the many shops and businesses in the area, there were lots of tradesmen who took on apprentices. There were also a number of taverns located in Cheapside. In the eighteenth century, at least some of these apprentices were occasionally involved in excessive drinking and/or brawling in the area. However, this problem seems to have diminished as the eighteenth century came to a close and such incidents did not often occur in the nineteenth century, though the knowledge of it may have influenced some people’s view of the area. Though the area around Cheapside was in no way a slum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the fact that a great deal of commerce was transacted there nearly every day did attract some crime. The main problems were pickpockets and thieves who took an unwholesome interest in some of the more profitable businesses in the area, leading to occasional break-ins.
Despite these relatively minor problems, the area of Cheapside in Regency London was a busy, bustling commercial and residential area in the heart of the metropolis. It was quite respectable, and people walked, rode and drove through the streets of the area with no real concern for their safety, unlike the notorious areas like St. Giles and Seven Dials. The primary reason that some members of the aristocracy and the upper classes felt such disdain for the Cheapside area was that it was a hive of commerce and trade, something many of them felt was beneath them, since their income was derived from the land of their hereditary estates and did not require manual labor on their part. Few members of the upper classes would have shopped in Cheapside, primarily because they would not want to have been seen there. They would certainly have preferred to be seen shopping along Bond Street and the other shopping areas in very upscale Mayfair and West London, regardless of the higher prices they would probably have to pay.
Dear Regency Authors, though Cheapside was no Bond Street during the Regency, it was a perfectly respectable shopping and residential area during our favorite decade, regardless of the opinion of Mr. Bingley’s sisters. In fact, their creator, Jane Austen, probably did some shopping in Cheapside when she spent time in London. Certainly, few members of the beau monde would want to live there, and they probably would not want to be seen shopping there. However, ordinary middle-class folks would have found it a very convenient place to shop, since there were so many different kinds of shops, all within easy walking distance. Though goods purchased in Cheapside would not have been cheap, they would almost certainly have been more reasonably priced than similar items purchased in most of the fashionable shops of Mayfair. Which may offer some interesting plot lines. Perhaps a pretentious young woman of the aristocracy, whose family is in financial difficulties, might give her governess (the heroine), a list of items she needs so that the governess can get them for her in Cheapside, though she intends to pass them off as coming from Bond Street. What will happen if that secret comes out? Then again, perhaps an elderly matriarch of an aristocratic family prefers to do her shopping in Cheapside, just as she had done as a young girl. Ignoring her family’s objections, she takes her companion, the heroine, along on her shopping excursions. Will that be how the young woman first encounters the hero? Mayhap he saves the pair from a pick-pocket. Because Cheapside was such a busy area, from time to time, people used it as a forum to launch political tirades. Might the heroine and hero pause to listen to a political speech? Will they agree with the speaker, or will it cause them to argue the issue? Are there other ways in which Cheapside might serve for a scene or three in an upcoming Regency romance?