Whilst researching for a longer post about John Keats and his medical studies, I had the opportunity to read some accounts of the student accommodation he shared during the time he spent at Guy’s Hospital, in London. They are fascinating, in that they offer a wider context and indicate that even when away from the horrors of operating theatre, ward and dissecting room, the hardships of life in London still pressed upon the young poet.
In July 1815, just as Keats finished his apprenticeship with Edmonton doctor Thomas Hammond, the Apothecary Act was passed. Instead of being able to establish his own practice immediately, Keats now had to study at a hospital, so followed his master’s example and went to Guy’s. He signed up for one years study as a surgical pupil at an initial cost of £1 2s. Astley Cooper, then senior surgeon at Guy’s, was drawn to Keats and helped him to find somewhere suitable to live, close to the hospital.
28 St Thomas Street was in Southwark, or the ‘Borough’. In 1815 this was a notoriously squalid area; streets of dilapidated timbered tenements, open ditches full of foul waste and prostitutes and thieves commonplace in what Keats described as ‘a beastly place in dirt, turnings and windings’. Situated as it was at the southern end of London Bridge, along the main road into Kent, the roads were jammed with coaches and wagon loads of provisions making their way in and out of the City.
Keats’ landlord was a tallow chandler by the name of Markham who rented out study bedrooms and a communal sitting room to students. John first shared with two much older and more senior students, Frederick Tyrrell and George Cooper, but when they had finished their studies Keats asked George Wilson Mackereth and Henry Stephens to share his rooms to cover the £63 per year rent, a sum well above his means. Interesting for his biographers is the difficult relationship he maintained with Stephens, a freethinker also interested in poetry who later became known as the inventor of Stephens Ink. Much of what Stephens wrote about his life with Keats seems soured by jealousy and dislike.
A poem Keats wrote at about this time, often referred to as ‘O Solitude’ contains the lines: ‘O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell/Let it not be among the jumbled heap/of murky buildings’. This seems to describe accurately the acute initial loneliness and low spirits Keats experienced in the drab surroundings, such a sharp contrast to the leafy lanes of Edmonton and Enfield where he had lived and attended school, and so far away from the life he had lived with his two brothers, George and Tom.
The ‘jumbled heap of murky buildings’ included the ruined Clink prison, both the old and new Marshalsea prisons and nearby King’s Bench Prison, reached via the slum district referred to as the ‘Mint’.
Perhaps inevitably the area was also the haunt of grave robbers and body-snatchers who provided Guy’s and nearby St Thomas’ with cadavers in various states of putrefaction. As a student Keats would have studied the very worst examples of their wares.
Under these circumstances – quite different from those experienced by his priviliged contemporaries Shelley and Byron – Keats continued his apprenticeship, not just as a medical man but as a poet. He spent just a year as a student and had just four further years dedicated to poetry before his early death in 1821.
I have been lucky enough to benefit from the expertise of Mike Paterson over at London Historians, a club for anyone fascinated by the city’s history. There is a website (via the link above) which offers a vast amount of information and articles by knowledgeable people and a blog which I was lucky enough to get a name check in this week. Mike recently went to Guy’s to look for an alcove from the old London Bridge that he knew to be sited somewhere close to the hospital. I mentioned to him a statue of Keats that was unveiled there in 2007 and it was thrilling to find out that the statue of Keats is actually seated within the alcove itself, just outside the hospital building. The photos on the post have kindly been supplied by Mike, who also took the photo of the blue plaque now occupying the site of Keats lodgings in Thomas Street. You can read his blog post about finding the alcove and statue here.
In a future post I hope to show how the medical studies and the horrors he experienced in the operating theatre and on his daily rounds at Guy’s Hospital informed and found their way directly into some of his most remarkable poetry.