“Mr CLAY of Hercules Buildings”

“Mr CLAY of Hercules Buildings”

Angus Whitehead (whitehead65_99@yahoo.co.uk) is assistant professor in English literature at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is coeditor of Re-Envisioning Blake (Palgrave, 2012) and is currently completing a biography of the last years of William and Catherine Blake and their “inheritor,” Frederick Tatham.

1 In his manuscript “Life of Blake” (c. 1832), Frederick Tatham writes that during the 1790s William and Catherine Blake
resided in Hercules Buildings in a pretty clean House of 8 or 10 Rooms & at first kept a servant, but finding (as M.rs Blake declared & as every one else knows) the more service the more Inconvenience, she like all sensible women, who are possessed of industry & health & only moderate means, relinquished this incessant Tax upon domestic comfort, did all the Work herself, kept the House clean, & herself tidy, besides printing all Blakes numerous Engravings, which was a Task alone sufficient for any industrious Woman, but however as there is no state, or scheme, or plan, without its accompanying Evil Blake had reason to regret his having left no one in possession of his House during his & M.rs Blakes absense for one day paying some friendly visit, some Thieves entered it & carried away Plate to the Value of 60 Pounds & clothes to the amount of 40 more. [1]
However, as this note will demonstrate, by the end of January 1791 William and Catherine may have been all too aware that leaving a servant in charge of 13 Hercules Buildings was no sure security against burglary.
2 Rate book entries for 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, reveal that by early March 1791 the Blakes had moved from their former residence at 28 Poland Street, Soho, to their new house. [2] In the second edition of Blake Records (2004), G. E. Bentley, Jr., suggests that the Blakes may have moved to 13 Hercules Buildings as early as “the autumn of 1790” or at least “before the end of 1790.” [3] A short paragraph that appeared in the Evening Mail on Wednesday 26 January 1791 suggests a slightly later date for the move. The Evening Mail reports:
A few days since the house of Mr CLAY of Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, was stripped of every article of furniture in it during his absence. His house-keeper who had lived with him three years is the thief and had hired a cart to remove the goods, which were to have been sold the next day, had not this good Lady saved him the trouble of doing so. [4]
3 “Mr CLAY of Hercules Buildings” can be identified as the Blakes’ predecessor as ratepayer and resident at 13 Hercules Buildings, William Clay. [5] The short article in the Evening Mail indicates that Clay’s housekeeper and his furniture still occupied 13 Hercules Buildings during the last week of January 1791. If William and Catherine Blake were unable to move into the house until the end of January, their move from 28 Poland Street to 13 Hercules Buildings can be dated between 24 January 1791, the earliest date we can assume Clay vacated the premises after being robbed by his housekeeper, [6] and 9 March 1791, when Blake is first recorded as ratepayer for the property. [7]

1. Quoted in G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) [hereafter BR(2)] 676. Bentley suggests a date of Sept. 1795 for the robbery (676fn). On the night of 7 June 1793 Blake’s neighbor Philip Astley “of the Royal Saloon, in Hercules Buildings” was burgled and robbed of “cash, plate, watches, &c. &c. to the amount of 800 l.” (World 2 Sept. 1793: 3, col. c).

2. Blake is first recorded as payer of the poor rates for 13 Hercules Buildings on 9 Mar. 1791 (see BR[2] 744fn).

3. BR(2) 744 and fn (see also 742-43fn).

4. Evening Mail 26 Jan. 1791: 2, col. b. The article was reprinted verbatim in the “News in Brief” section of the Times on Friday 28 Jan. (3, col. c).

5. “Wm Clay” is recorded as ratepayer for 13 Hercules Buildings in rate book entries for the second, third, and fourth quarters of 1790 (see BR[2] 744fn). No other Clay is listed among the ratepayers for the twenty-three other residences in Hercules Buildings in 1790.

6. I.e., “a few days” before the report appeared in the Evening Mail.

7. The fact that, according to the Evening Mail, Clay’s furniture was “to have been sold the next day” suggests that about 24 Jan. Clay was in the process of vacating 13 Hercules Buildings in anticipation of the Blakes’ moving in.