Sunday 20 May 2012

The Shambles

Although I am pleased with the original,  the picture here seems almost to have lost a top veneer and so exposes some of its 'bones.'  The important thing is that the Sales Department (Pat) is happy ... getting passed her Quality Control system isn't easy :0) 

The Shambles, York  (1910)         John Simlett 2012
10" x 12"     Pen & Ink   on 300gsm Cartridge
As is my want, I feel the need to share the background to the unusual name "Shambles" ... If you find it boring then just skip out of ....where'd you all go? :0)
The Shambles was mentioned in the Doomsday Book of William the Conqueror in 1086. Many of the buildings on the street today date back to the late fourteenth and fifteenth century (around 1350-1475).

The Shambles was a street of butchers’ shops and houses, many complete with a slaughterhouse at the back of the premises, ensuring a ready supply of fresh meat. The meat was hung up outside the shops and laid out for sale on what are now the shop window-bottoms. It is still possible to see some of the original butcher’s meat-hooks attached to the shop fronts.

Lacking modern-day sanitation facilities, there was a constant problem of how to dispose of the waste produced by the slaughter of animals in the city. The pavements are raised either side of the cobbled street to form a channel where the butchers would wash away their offal and blood twice a week.

In some sections of the Shambles it is possible to touch both sides of the street with your arms outstretched. The architecture which now appears so quaint had a very practical purpose. The overhanging timber-framed fronts of the buildings are deliberately close-set so as to give shelter to the ‘wattle and daub’ walls below. This would also have protected the meat from any direct sunshine.
Why ‘Shambles’? The name is thought to derive from ‘Shammel’, an anglo-saxon word for the shelves which were a prominent feature of the open shop-fronts.

We tend to forget that Karl Marx was first and foremost a historian. In about 1850 (ish) he and his sidekick Engels visited Manchester, and they describe it in great detail ... particularly the 'stink'.

Finally we come to my favourite poet, Jonathan Swift  - who wrote Gulliver's Travels.
Here he writes about the panic brought to the city, when it rained. The last stanza is really pertinent to the Shambles.

*Tories and Whigs are politicians. They used chalk to whiten their wigs, the 'dust' he speaks of is chalk dust, rain matted the chalk and ruined the wig, also it ruined their fine clothes.  The 'chair' is a sedan chair carried between two men ... a taxi?.

As usual, he writes in rhyming couplets, which makes it easy to follow. 

A Description of a City in a Shower Jonathan Swift

Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.
Returning home at night, you’ll find the sink
Strike your offended sense with double stink.
If you be wise, then go not far to dine;
You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine.
A coming shower your shooting corns presage,
Old achès throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Sauntering in coffeehouse is Dulman seen;
He damns the climate and complains of spleen.
         Meanwhile the South, rising with dabbled wings,
A sable cloud athwart the welkin flings,
That swilled more liquor than it could contain,
And, like a drunkard, gives it up again.
Brisk Susan whips her linen from the rope,
While the first drizzling shower is born aslope:
Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean:
You fly, invoke the gods; then turning, stop
To rail; she singing, still whirls on her mop.
Not yet the dust had shunned the unequal strife,
But, aided by the wind, fought still for life,
And wafted with its foe by violent gust,
’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust.
Ah! where must needy poet seek for aid,
When dust and rain at once his coat invade?
Sole coat, where dust cemented by the rain
Erects the nap, and leaves a mingled stain.
         Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.
To shops in crowds the daggled females fly,
Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy.
The Templar spruce, while every spout’s abroach,
Stays till ’tis fair, yet seems to call a coach.
The tucked-up sempstress walks with hasty strides,
While seams run down her oiled umbrella’s sides.
Here various kinds, by various fortunes led,
Commence acquaintance underneath a shed.
Triumphant Tories and desponding Whigs
Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs.
Boxed in a chair the beau impatient sits,
While spouts run clattering o’er the roof by fits,
And ever and anon with frightful din
The leather sounds; he trembles from within.
So when Troy chairmen bore the wooden steed,
Pregnant with Greeks impatient to be freed
(Those bully Greeks, who, as the moderns do,
Instead of paying chairmen, run them through),
Laocoön struck the outside with his spear,
And each imprisoned hero quaked for fear.
         Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.


  1. Good morning sir. I love the drawing with the bare bones exposed. A glimpse of process makes a drawing more a work of art for me. I, an artist, like seeing the mark of the artist.

    I have no time this AM to read about the Shambles. We're off to the nursery for plants--and photographs of all the glorious colors. I will be back. I love historic streets and tales.

    1. Bless your heart, Lynn, you're too kind to a heavy-handed artisan.

  2. That is a beautiful drawing John. I think what I love the most about it is the feeling I get when I look at it, I half expect to see Sherlock Holmes searching for something in this alley. And wow am I glad we live in a time where the butcher shops don't display their meat in the sunlight anymore. I think that would turn me into a vegetarian straight away!! :)

    1. Thank you, Crystal, I'm so glad you like it. It takes days for me to see the picture and not the lines.

      Awful time for food hygiene ... I tend to think of Charles Dickens when I do scenes like these.

  3. Hello, John!Beautiful drawing,"superbe"(en franòais)! Your posts are irresistible! A little help me the translator and then the dictionary !
    I have to study your writings! It's worth it because they are always interesting!
    Thanks for telling all these things and... so much verve!
    Today I published a draft by mistake, I removed ... and now I see it in your blog roll :I'll have to fix!
    Good evening.Rita.

    1. Thank you so much, Rita. I'm sorry it was such a marathon to translate. The poem is 'old English' and enen strains the modern English speaker.

  4. John, needless to say, you work is superb!! Pat must be very happy with it.
    I loved reading Swift's poem. He is one of my best-loved English literary figures. Not only do I enjoy his sometimes very sharp pen, but also the fact [ I think it's true? ] that he loved the equine more than the human. :)

    1. Kathryn, I'm so pleased to find someone else who knows Swift, beyond Gulliver. Such a satirist. I love the way that his mother gives birth to him and then clears of for years and years and then they come back together as if it were a total normal. I think your right about equine preference.

      I like the way that he, as a non-believer, becomes a Bishop and then slanders the clergy in his poems as a way of getting rid of the professional opposition. The way he kept writing epitaphs ... to himself!
      etc... etc...

  5. My goodness! I can only imagine the awful smell that must have filled the streets back then!
    What an amazing drawing! I love the old text above the shop door. Just fantastic :0)

    1. I'm glad you liked it, Sandra ... I thought of you as I did the sign over the door, remembering your skills in calligraphy.

      As for the smell ... this drawing is not to be sniffed at :0)

  6. Your drawing is excellent like always, John! And I love to read a little history about the place you have drawn. The poem takes a little effort for me to read, but I managed :)

    1. Thank you, Judy. Sorry the poem was a little difficult but glad that you followed it OK.

  7. I have just found your blog from the side bar of one of our mutual followers and I'm so glad I did. I love pen and ink work and yours is up there with the best of them. I really like this drawing of The Shambles, somewhere I've visited a number of times, and it's fabulous to see it as it would have been back then. I see many other amazing pieces on your blog and will be back often.

    1. Thank you, John, really kind of you to leave such kind comments.

  8. This pen and ink of the Shambles is beautifully done, John! I enjoy your work so much...the details are amazing the lamp on the building and the cobblestone walkway...and of course, the best part...the history in your post...SO interesting.!!

    1. Hilda I am so pleased you liked it. The history is so important I think. These days the Shambles is just full of tourist shops selling expensive 'tat'

  9. Well I'm booking passage. I have to see The Shambles for myself. I could see the blood rivers running on either side of the the street and feel the crust of dust and rain on my coat as I hurried along covering my nose with my kerchief. Jonathan Swift was swift with words as you are with pen. I do hope you include the history and poem with each print sold? It's a nice touch.

    1. Linda, you came back ... that's really nice of you, thank you.

      Blood, sweat and tears! .. Oh that was Winston Churchill, sorry.

      Good idea about the history/poem, Linda, I will do that.

  10. what a fantastic drawing! I think it may be my favorite yet. That was so funny "where did you all go"? haha! Thanks for the narrative too (I "stayed" for it!) and as always I learned new things just coming here for a visit. Great work!

  11. Thanks Cileste - I'm surprised anybody stayed to read all my Shambling Ramblings

  12. Wow John, what a wonderful drawing, I will go back and enjoy and read, thank you for sharing.

  13. Wow John, what a wonderful drawing, I will go back and enjoy and read, thank you for sharing.

  14. super john ..looking foward to york minister ! sure the sales dept is very happy ...the history enriches the sense of place ...are you going to draw the narrowest part ?

    1. Thank you, Jane. I'm looking forward to the Minster too. I shan't be drawing the narrower part, I have another, similar, street which has the Minster in the backround.

  15. Well, JOhn! Your delicate drawing has returned the Shambles to its proper time in history and reading the commentary really brought it to life! I can almost (almost, thank goodness) smell the offal and see the chalk dust and innards running down the narrow street! Beautifully done and very interestingly presented!

  16. Thank you, Susan. I like to use the oldest photo-references as possible because these places lose so much history in the face of commercialization. I bet they said the same in the 16th Century when the butchers moved in!