Dr Johnson and Boswell in Fleet Street - on their way back to Bolt Court
It was cold, it was seven o’clock in the morning, and it was February 1940. London had endured yet another night of sustained German bombing, for this was the prequel to what became known as the London Blitz.
Most adults would be scared out of their lives at the thought of bombs falling on the city, and of hearing about how many people were killed in the previous night’s air-raid, but Kenny was just 14 years old, and was tucked up in bed, fast asleep when the big old alarm clock on the table beside him, started ringing so furiously that it actually started to wobble and move as if it were walking towards him. Just before it reached the end of the table, and without opening his eyes, the young lad stretched out his hand and slammed it down onto the clock, stopping it ringing and moving, immediately. He groaned and turned over, and looked at it through one half opened eye. It was still so dark outside that he could hardly see the clock, let alone the time. Kenny grappled under his pillow for his torch, and shone it at the face of the clock, which showed 7 am.
He pulled the bedclothes over his head and turned over to get some more sleep, but as he did so, there was a loud banging on his door, followed by his father calling out, asking if he was up yet.
Young Kenny couldn’t understand why his father wanted him up so early, it was pitch black outside, and he was sure that no respectable people would have been about at such an early hour, let alone opened their premises for business yet. The reason Kenny was thinking about business opening times was because his father had made an appointment for him to go for a job interview that morning.
Kenny’s father banged on the door and called out again, this time demanding that he got up. It was alright for him, thought the boy, he only has to go downstairs to his barber’s shop and open up, while he makes him go out in pitch black darkness, with the possibility of being killed by German bombers attacking London; didn’t he know there was a war on, mused Kenny.
Half an hour later, as Kenny was in the kitchen, picking at a bowl of porridge that his mother had lovingly prepared for him, his father came into the room, looked up at the big clock on wall and started shouting yet again, telling his son to pull himself together and to hurry up and get his breakfast down him. He was always saying things like this, telling him it was no wonder he was so skinny, he was like a little girl instead of a boy. Kenny opened his mouth in an attempt to reply, but was quickly stopped by the wagging finger of his mother, who could see the type of mood his father was in. Kenny rolled his eyes and decided to take his mother’s silent advice, and continue with his breakfast; another mouthful of porridge, followed by another carefully posed sip of tea, with his little finger standing out at a right angle, trying his best to annoy and ignore his father at the same time.
Kenny’s father shouted at him yet again, telling him that he was supposed to be there at eight, to which Kenny rose silently to his feet, flicked his hair off his face, and left the room, muttering to himself as he went out the door, that he might not be there at all if one of those German bombs got him.
Ten minutes later, Kenny was standing in front of the hallway mirror, while his mother brushed down his overcoat, and patted his hair into place, telling him not to take any notice of his father, and to just go there and do his best. This made young Kenny feel better, but as he got halfway down the stairs on his way out, the bellowing voice of his father resounded from the top of the stairs, telling him that for his information, the Germans don’t drop bombs in the daytime.
It was starting to get light when Kenny left his home in Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury, and to his surprise there were plenty of people about, and shops opening for business. As he passed the Marquis of Cornwallis pub in his street, he heard someone call his name, and looked around to see Derek, an old schoolmate, who asked what he was doing out so early. Kenny explained to him that he was going to the Bolt Court School of Lithography just off Fleet Street for a job interview. As soon as Derek heard the name Fleet Street, he naturally assumed that Kenny was going to be a reporter.
Kenny explained to his friend that it was his father’s idea, and in his best and most exaggerated theatrical voice, told him how he had always wanted to be an actor. This made his friend laugh, as Kenny was very good at impersonating people and putting on funny voices. Kenny saw that he had a captive audience, and so continued with the nasal twang, telling Derek that daddy thought that acting is no way to earn a living and, in his eyes, all men in acting are poufs and all the women are tarts. His friend couldn’t stop laughing as Kenny ended with “blooming cheek I think, I’m not a tart”.
The two friends parted and Kenny continued on his way to Bolt Court. He wasn’t going there to become a reporter as his friend mistakenly thought, or to be interviewed for some sort of job, it was purely to train as a cartoonist, which was at least a honourable profession, in his father’s eyes, and not ‘some namby-pamby job in the chorus line of some theatre’.
Kenny did his best at the Bolt Court School of Lithography, staying on there for nearly six months, but his heart was never in it, and so when he and many other young people of his age, were ordered by the Government to be evacuated out of London for the duration of the war, he was quite pleased. In 1944 he was conscripted into the army, where he joined the Combined Services Entertainment, and from there he went onto become one of Britain’s best known comedy actors, in such shows as Hancock’s Half Hour, and from there to the Carry On films.
The young boy who set out to train as a cartoonist in Bolt Court ended up known to millions, as the world famous Kenneth Williams.
In keeping with the world of the theatre and the acting profession, a reference to Bolt Court can be found in an article about Jenny Hill (1850-1897), who started singing in 1869, and was one of the earliest music hall singers. The article mentions Jenny Hill as singing "a very ordinary pot-house sing-song in Bolt Court, Fleet Street." Records show that there has only ever been one Inn or Tavern in Bolt Court, and that was the Bolt-in-Tun Inn, which means that the ‘pot-house’ referred to in this article must be the Bolt-in-Tun Inn. The article goes on to mention what a good singer she was, and how some of her "husband-nagging, semi pathetic songs" had certain parallels with a lot of female blues singers of the 1920's and '30's.
The Bolt-in-Tun Inn, or Tavern, as it later became known, stood at the southern end of Bolt and Tun Court, which has now been whittled down simply to “Bolt Court”. Over the years the Court has had various names, from "Bolt and Tun Yard," in 1642, "Bolt and Tun Alley," in 1644, "Bolt and Tun Court," in 1677), and "Bolt in Tun Yard" in 1875. The most likely explanation as to how the name originated, goes back to Prior Bolton of St Bartholomew, Smithfield, from whom it is alleged that it was a rebus on his name. The old sign for the inn, depicted a tun, which is a large wine cask with a capacity of 252 gallons, pierced by a bolt, which was the missile fired from a crossbow. Part of one of the stone windows of the church of St Bartholomew-the-Great in West Smithfield, depicts this in memory of Prior Bolton, who died in 1532.
In its heyday, the famous old coaching inn saw many stage coaches rumbling out of the Court every day; passengers on their way to various destinations across the country, such as Cambridge, Lincoln and Winchester. Evenings at the Inn saw scenes of tears and sadness, as relatives and friends said their farewells to those travelingthe following day. This was often followed by drunken celebrations, which could often last long into the night.
Whether these nocturnal activities ever blossomed out, beyond the confines of the Inn, is not recorded, but on 1st August 1748, a local newspaper, “The General Advertiser”, carried the following story: ‘Early on Tuesday morning last some rogues broke open the house of Mr. Berry in Bolt Court in Fleet-street, and stole from thence a large quantity of plate, money, and wearing apparel. They got in by wrenching the bars off the cellar window. This makes the sixth or seventh robbery committed in the Courts in that neighbourhood, within a short time. It is surprising that the inhabitants do not prevent such mischief, which might be done, by keeping, at a joint expense, two stout super numerous watchmen, to patrol through the Courts all night’.
Although Bolt Court is most certainly associated with The Bolt-in-Tun Inn, the Court also attracted the more normal, every day activities of those who lived and worked in the Court. The most famous being Doctor Samuel Johnson, who had moved from nearby Johnson's Court to take up residence at number eight Bolt Court in 1776. When Johnson’s good friend, James Boswell called at the doctor's house in Johnson's Court on the 15th March 1776, he was astounded to find out that the man was no longer living there, and worst still, that he hadn’t bothered to even tell him of his proposed move. He recorded the event in writing, with these words: 'I felt a foolish regret that he had left a court which bore his name; but it was not foolish to be affected with some tenderness of regard for a place in which I had seen him a great deal, from whence I had often issued a better and a happier man than when I went in, and which had often appeared to my imagination, while I trod its pavement in the solemn darkness of the night, to be sacred to wisdom and piety.'
Boswell last saw Johnson on the 30th June 1784 at the Fleet Street entrance to Bolt Court, where both Johnson and Boswell had just returned by coach from dining with their mutual friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds. As Johnson climbed down from the coach, he called out to Boswell 'Fare you well' and then hurried away, which Boswell described as 'with a kind of pathetic briskness', down the dark alley towards his house. Unfortunately this was the last time Boswell would see his old friend, for two days later, he embarked on a business trip to his native Scotland and did not return to London before Johnson's death on the 13th December 1784.
Just a few doors away from Doctor Johnson’s house, the Scottish astronomer James Ferguson lived at number 4 Bolt Court. Ferguson died there in 1776.
The name Fleet Street is still synonymous with newspapers and the publishing industry, even though the industry has since moved out to Wapping in east London. One company which began around 1557 was the Stationers Company, who became involved in training and education, when ‘apprentice’s indentures’ were drawn up by the Company and printing houses were obliged to present their apprentices at Stationers’ Hall, for the fee of sixpence, during their first year.
In 1861 the Stationers Company established the first Stationers’ School, based in Bolt Court, to benefit the sons of the Liverymen and Freemen of the Company. The school later moved to Hornsey but unfortunately closed in 1984.
Today, Bolt Court shows no signs of its past. All the old properties have long been demolished, including the Bolt-in-Tun Inn. In their place are nondescript office buildings. A blue plaque marking the site of where Doctor Johnson’s house once stood is the only reminder left of Bolt Court’s historic past.