He gave his name to one of the most famous, or infamous, pubs in Britain, and is now a byword for the East End, even for people who have never been here. But who exactly was the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green?
The story itself is shrouded in legend, and set in a Bethnal Green vastly different from the chaotic and overcrowded slum it became in the 19th century.
Bethnal Green is first mentioned in an Eighth Century deed. One Mathilda le Vayre of Stepney is listed as having a home in ‘Blithehall’, and making a grant of the house’s courtyard.
By the Middle Ages, however, Bethnal Green was rather isolated from London, a quiet little village and rather grand. There were manor houses and mansions in the surrounding countryside and cottages cluster- ed around the green itself.
In the 1200s, one of those manor houses belonged to Simon de Montford – the young lord who is today remembered by Montford House, a red-brick block of flats on the north side of Victoria Park Square.
His story, and how he went from landed gentry to poor beggar, became hugely popular in early Tudor times, and was given a new lease of life by Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which was published in 1765.
Simon was a soldier in the service of the king, and fought at the Battle of Evesham, in the West Country, in 1265. According to the legend, he fell at the battle and was found wandering, blinded, by a nobleman’s daughter. She nursed the wounded soldier back to health, they fell in love and were married.
In time a daughter arrived, but although Besse was beautiful she couldn’t find a husband – the problem being her father. Besse was courted by four suitors; a rich gentleman, a knight, a London merchant and the son of an innkeeper.
Most of them withdrew their suit when they met Montford to ask for the old soldier’s consent to the marriage.
Montford’s reduced circum-stances were related through a popular song of the time:
“My father, shee said, is soone to be seene
The siely, blind beggar of Bednall-green,
That daylye sits begging for charitie,
He is the good father of pretty Besse.
Hie makrs and his tokens are knowen very well;
He alwayes is led with a dogg and a bell;
A seely old man, God knoweth, is he,
Yet he is the father of pretty Besse.”
In a predictably medieval twist, the courtly knight was the only man who could see past the seeming lack of a decent dowry to the woman he loved.
He received his reward, as the couple received a dowry of £3,000, plus £100 for Besse’s wedding dress. The benefactor? Grandfather Henry, who was still a rich man.
The legend persisted. Samuel Pepys visited fashionable Bethnal Green to stay with his friend, Sir William Ryder; Ryder’s house occupied the very same spot as the Montford mansion. The great diarist records the occasion on June 26, 1663:
“By coach to Bednall-green, to Sir W Ryder’s to dinner. A fine merry walk with the ladies alone after dinner in the garden; the greatest quantity of strawberries I ever saw, and good. This very house was built by the Blind Beggar of Bednall-green, so much talked of and sang in ballads.”
By 1690, the Bethnal Green beadle bore the badge of the Blind Beggar on his ceremonial staff. And in the 18th century every pub in the area bore the image of the beggar on their signs. Even Kirby’s Castle, a lunatic asylum, was dubbed the Blind Beggar’s House in 1727.
Kirby’s Castle was demolished to make way for post-War redevelopment, Montford’s House is buried in mystery, and today only one pub bears the sign of the Blind Beggar.
But Besse is remembered in Besse Street, the mayor bears an image of Simon and Besse on the borough’s ceremonial badge and, most famous of all, in 1966, the Kray twins and the unfortunate George Cornell sealed the Blind Beggar in the nation’s folklore forever.
With thanks to London’s East End: Life and Traditions, by Jane Cox, Phoenix Illustrated, ISBN 1-85799-956-8, £9.99.