A universally overlooked detail of the Belott-Mountjoy depositions is that as well as the house on Silver Street Christopher Mountjoy leased a property ‘at Brainforde’. It is mentioned by Noel Mountjoy and Christopher Weaver, the two deponents who know most about Mountjoy’s financial standing. As they speak of his income from the property, we infer that in 1612, at least, he was sub-letting it.
What the deponents called ‘Brainforde’, a common spelling at the time, is today the pleasant West London suburb of Brentford. Jacobean Brentford straggled between two village clusters - Old Brentford was part of Ealing parish; New Brentford (or West Brentford) was part of Hanwell parish. These two villages, also known as the Upper Side and Lower Side, were not united as a parish in their own right until 1828. Lying close to the north bank of the Thames, some 8 miles upstream from London, it was a rustic place among fields and marshy meadows, with a famous cattle-fair every July. To the west it abutted on to the great estates of Syon House, seat of the Earls of Northumberland.39 It sounds a pleasant, faintly pastoral escape from this world of pimps and courtesans and sexual predation in which we have found ourselves - but it is not.
You would not think so, walking its neat streets today, but in Shakespeare’s time Brentford had a lurid reputation. It was ‘a place of resort’ for Londoners and had numerous prostitutes. It is alluded to in various plays and pamphlets of the period, almost invariably as a place for a dirty night or weekend. Thus in Dekker and Webster’s Westward Ho!, written c. 1605-6, three gallants consider their options for a ‘merry midsummer night’ on the razzle with three citizens’ wives -
WHIRLPOOL: We’ll take a coach and ride to Ham or so.
TENTERHOOK: O fie upon’t, a coach - I cannot abide to be jolted.
MABEL: Yet most of your citizens’ wives love jolting!
GOZLIN: What say you to Blackwall or Limehouse?
JUDITH: Every room there smells too much of tar.
LINSTOCK: Let’s to mine host Dogbolt’s at Brainford, then. There you are out of eyes, out of ears: private rooms, sweet linen, winking attendance, and what cheer you will!
All: Content! To Brainford!
MABEL: Ay, ay, let’s go by water. (2.2.322-30)
These are the typical connotations of Brentford - a place of amorous truancy, an escape into illicit pleasure; a place where no questions are asked, because everyone else is up to much the same thing, and where suitable accommodation is ready and waiting - private rooms, scented linen and ‘winking attendance’ (in other words, discreet service: to ‘wink at’ something was deliberately not to see it). Thus one went to ‘make merry at Brainford’.
This is the idea also in Middleton and Dekker’s Roaring Girl (1612) -
LAXTON: Prithee, sweet plump Moll, when shall thee and I go out a’ town together?
Moll: Whither? . . .
LAXTON: To Brainford, Staines or Ware.
Moll: What to do there?
LAXTON: Nothing but be merry and be together. (3.1.181-6)
Again Brentford is one of various choices, and again it is Brentford which wins - they go there: Laxton calls it a ‘lecherous voyage’.
Here is the trip from London to Brentford as taken by the adulterous couples of Westward Ho! They meet at eight in the morning at the Greyhound in Blackfriars - ‘an excellent rendezvous’, fulfilling two criteria: ‘a tavern near the water-side that’s private’. Thence, hoping not to be seen, they ‘whip forth, two first and two next, on a sudden, and take a boat at Bridewell dock, most privately’. An alternative starting-off point is mentioned in Middleton’s Chaste Maid in Cheapside:
Let’s e’en go to the Checker
In Queenhive [Queen Hithe], and roast the loin of mutton
Till young flood, then send the child to Branford. (2.2)
This adds a practical detail: one waited till ‘young flood’, when the tide begins to flow up the river (and presumably waited at the other end for the ebb-tide). The journey would be delightful, rowed upstream in a wherry or water-taxi (see Plate 30). It was also possible to go by land, via Fulham and Hammersmith, but the roads were in poor condition, and the invariable connotation of an outing to Brentford - indeed part of the fun - is going there by river. 40
Once there you might find it, as one of the characters does in Westward Ho!, a ‘lousy town’. No sooner have you arrived but a ‘consort’ of local fiddlers appears ‘under the wenches’ comical window’. They will expect a crown (5 shillings) for their entertainment, added to the innkeeper’s ‘bill of items’. Sir Gozlin complains: ‘Ud’s [God’s] daggers! Cannot sin be set ashore once in a reign upon your country quarters, but it must have fiddling? . . . Cannot the shaking of the sheets be danced without your town piping?’
In these riverside houses and cottages converted into pleasure-dens, the idling gallants consider their options - ‘sit up at cards all night’, or ‘drink burnt wine and eggs’, or have a hot ‘sackposset’ and a ‘pipe of tobacco’, or visit the ‘hot-house’. And easily the expensive gratifications turn sour - ‘I’m accursed to spend money in this town of iniquity. There’s no good thing ever comes out of it. And it stands upon such musty ground by reason of the river, that I cannot see how a tender woman can do well in’t.’
We hear of Brentford again, in the same context of amorous escape, in Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610). As the plot unravels in the final act, Dr Subtle deserts his partner in crime Face, and tries to get his girlfriend, Doll Common, to run away with him -
We will turn our course
To Brainford westward, if thou sayest the word,
And take our leaves of this overweening rascal.
... My fine flittermouse,
My bird of the night, we’ll tickle it at the Pigeons
When we have all . . . (5.2.85-99)
That last comment is a reference to the famous inn in Old Brentford, the Three Pigeons. This inn has a Shakespearean connection, as it was owned by a colleague in the King’s Men, John Lowin. Lowin acted alongside Shakespeare in Jonson’s Sejanus in 1603, and was a company ‘sharer’ by 1604. He is listed in the First Folio, as one of the ‘principall actors’ in Shakespeare’s plays. According to an early-eighteenth-century account he played the title-role in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII (1613) - ‘The part of the King was so rightly and justly done by Mr [Thomas] Betterton, he being instructed in it by Sir William [Davenant], who had it from old Mr Lowen, that had his instructions from Mr Shakespeare himself’ - a genealogy akin to the studio lineages of Italian Renaissance painting. Lowin later lived in Southwark, and ‘carried memories of Shakespeare down to the closing of the theatres in 1642’.41
It is not known when Lowin became owner of the Three Pigeons. Another of Shakespeare’s colleagues, Augustine Phillips, owned a house at nearby Mortlake, just across the river on the south bank. This house seems to have served as a base for the company in the summer of 1603, when the plague was at its height in the city. It is quite likely Shakespeare knew the Three Pigeons, and not impossible he knew the Mountjoys’ house in Brentford. The inn was associated with the playwright George Peele - or at least with his avatar in The Merrie Conceited Jests of George Peele(c. 1605) - ‘Honest George . . . is now merry at the Three Pigeons in Brainford, with sack and sugar, not any wine wanting, the musicians playing, my host drinking, my hostess dancing.’ It remained famous or infamous through the centuries: part of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer(1773) is set there. Nineteenth-century engravings show a rambling, teetering old building with tall chimneys and a range of rickety stables out back (see Plate 31). It was demolished in 1911.42
Court records give us the reality of this little good-time town beloved of the London playwrights. Various women in trouble with the law are identified in the records as ‘late of London, spinster’, which probably means they are prostitutes of one hue or another transiently set up here. Thus at ‘Brayneford’ on 8 November 1571, Isabell Cornewall ‘late of London, spinster’ broke into the house of Joan Parker, widow, and stole a silver ring and a purse containing 3s 8d. She pleaded guilty but asked for clemency as she was pregnant: if so, another unmarried mother. And sometimes the story is grim, as this: in the early afternoon of 12 December 1598, ‘in a room of the dwelling house of James Lovegrove at Braneford, co Middx . . . Agnes Charche, late of London, spinster, gave birth to a male infant, living at the time of birth, and forthwith then and there with her hands twisted and broke the neck of the said infant’.43
And with the prostitutes come the thieves, such as Richard Heyward, ‘late of London’, charged in 1601 with stealing 30 pounds of feathers worth 40 shillings from Michael Goodyeare of Brainford, and John Anderton ‘late of London, yeoman’, who stole various items from a woman in New Brentford, including a ‘woollen cloak of tobacco colour’ and a linen cap ‘wrought with gold and silke’. And in July 1612, just a few weeks after the Belott-Mountjoy depositions, Edward Flood of New Brentford was charged with possession of a cloak ‘feloniously taken out of the howse of the Lady Keligway without Aldgate’. One of his sureties in posting bail was one Ninus Layne ‘of St Olive’s in the city of London’ - possibly a neighbour of Christopher Mountjoy (though ‘St Olive’s’ could also refer to St Olave’s, Hart Street).44
We know, broadly speaking, why Christopher Mountjoy leased a property in Brentford. He did so to make money by sub-letting it. Thus Noel Mountjoy: ‘He hath but the lease of two houses: one lease of the house wherein he dwelleth, divided into two tenements, and a lease of a house in Brainforde, by which leases he gaineth an overplus of rent more than he payeth.’ How much he made from it is not vouchsafed - from the two properties combined he received rents of about £35 per annum. Roughly half of this covered the annual cost of the two leases, and the other half was profit ‘de claro’.
We do not know what kind of house it was, or what it was used for, but on the whole it would not be surprising if it offered chambers with sweet linen where well-breeched Londoners could ‘fleet the time carelessly’ with other men’s wives, or indeed with professional ladies of the kind who bought their ‘quaint periwigs’ and head-tires at the shop on Silver Street. There is another possibility. In her deposition in 1612, the Mountjoys’ former maidservant Joan Johnson gives her address as the ‘parish of Ealing in the county of Middlesex’. Old Brentford was part of Ealing parish, so it is possible that Joan and her husband Thomas the basketmaker were now Mountjoy’s tenants in Brentford.45
These possibilities are not mutually exclusive - to be a basketmaker’s wife does not at all disqualify a woman from running a ‘house of resort’. And so Joan Johnson - or Joan Langford as she was when Shakespeare knew her at Silver Street - becomes another of the Mountjoys’ maids to be touched with this aura of assignations and adulteries which seems a feature of life chez Mountjoy. But as so often in this book these are question-marks only - what, in another type of enquiry, would be called hunches.