I reviewed the book Revolutions from Grub Street last year for the Financial Times and on this blog, but it’s rare to come across the term Grub Street except in academic circles. I saw it in this column title for ‘From London Town’ in the first edition of Northern Counties Magazine, an issue that dates back to 1900.
Grub Street was a real London road near the present-day Barbican. It was where aspiring writers lived and plied their trade – Samuel Johnson among them until he went up in the world and became a hack living just off Fleet Street in Gough Square.
The Pre-Raphaelite painting ‘The Death of Chatterton’ by Henry Wallis, used as the cover to Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, gives an idea of the sort of lodgings such hacks would have had. It was painted in a garret in Gray’s Inn with a view of St Paul’s – centre of England’s publishing industry not far from both Grub Street and Brooke Street, where the Romantic poet committed suicide with arsenic in 1770.
The term Grub Street would have been known to Thomas Chatterton. The Oxford English Dictionary has it in use by 1630, and gives the following explanation:
The name of a street near Moorfields in London (now Milton-street), ‘much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems’; hence used allusively for the tribe of mean and needy authors, or literary hacks.
The Northern Counties engraving by RS – Robert Spence – shows one of these ‘mean and needy authors’ scribbling away with a quill pen while two men about town peruse his books. The engraving portrays the building as built of stone, which is unlikely. The Tipperary pub in Fleet Street claims to be the oldest building around there because it was built of stone and so did not go up in flames in the 1666 Great Fire of London like the rest of the area. It also seems unlikely that Grub Street would have been cobbled. Note the unusual typeface with its extravagant swashes.