Some Days are Merle Haggard Days

It’s like this:

Some days are just Merle Haggard days.

When nothing you do and nothing you to say,

Helps you find one more card,

When there’s no card to play.

When you’re tripping and falling

and can’t make your way.

And you’re tumbling down into

A Merle Haggard day.

When life and the devil push troubles at you.

The only thing left for a good man to do,

Is listen to Haggard’s Workin’ Man Blues

Or sing out the strains of his Rainbow Stew

Or one about jail or a woman done wrong,

And cry with the Okie-boy’s sad, sad song.

Then troubles start crawling and creeping away.

When you’re having another, Merle Haggard day.


Things were hard back then.  Not Merle Haggard, hard.  But hard in a different way.  My mom said that when I was born, we had an indoor toilet. My dad said the privy was out back.  She said we lived in the “big house.”  He said we still lived in the little one.  Even though I was there, I can’t remember.  I was too small.  What I do remember, later, is the fry-pan heat of the summer, the smell of adobe dust chasing the farm machines, and the dry-cracked, rock-hard,  barefoot-toe-toasting ground that grew hotter with the arc of the sun.  We were Okies.  Most folks on the east coast, where I live today, don’t know the species.  People in the West generally do, though the generations are losing the memory of that era, and in that history, and how it shaped the nation’s timeline.


Kern County labor camp nursery, Dorothea Lang, 1936. It appears to be the same house plan that we lived in later, but newer and with paint.    Photo – Library of Congress.

1 1 1 a Jerry and Jimmy Byous SM Dompe Ranch Crows Landing Ca c1951 bw.jpg

My older brother, Jerry, and me in a Dompe Brothers Ranch, farm-labor house, 1951. I think this is the fancy, “big house” that had an indoor toilet.

The great migrations started with the Dust Bowl in the 1920s and pulsed in three waves ending after the Second World War. Millions of sharecroppers and small farm owners in the center of the United States were forced to give up their land and move in search of an income to feed their families.  A significant percentage moved to California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington to work in the fields and orchards. Others moved to different points on the compass, including Michigan, Indiana, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.

The disparaging name they earned was, “Okies,” meaning “from Oklahoma,” though they were also from many of the Dust Bowl states in the heart of the nation.  Most were people from the Scots-Irish culture and its “dirt people” who were farmers and laborers.  My aunt, Gladys Byous Parker, proudly called herself an Okie until she read a 1950s dictionary account describing them as “filthy trash from Oklahoma.” It was years before she used the word in a positive manner claiming, “I might be from Oklahoma, but I’m not filthy trash.” Her in-laws had lived in California since the days when movie houses posted signs reading, “Negros and Okies in the balcony.” The second billing for “white-trash Okies” was an overwhelming sentiment of the natives.

The book, Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic, told of their travels and travails. The reality-based narrative was a hard slap at California’s agricultural elites.  They did not like it.  Many school districts and counties in the Central Valley banned the book until it won a Pulitzer Prize and demanded re-installment. I find it interesting that Steinbeck’s fictitious Joad family farm was in the same county where Mark Covey was born.  He was my maternal grandfather.  Steinbeck didn’t write about him nor those similar to him.  He, and they, stayed on their farms, but they too had bad times during those dark days.  But not quite as bad as those who moved on.  Papaw, as we called him, was able to ride out the depression after buying his farm back in a tax sale.  It cost him $200, half of which went to a man who required the sum to prevent his raising the bid.  Steinbeck wrote of the other people, including many of my family who lost their farms and jobs and moved west from their small Eastern-Oklahoma communities around the town of Poteau.

Merle_Haggard_in_1971 Country Music Assoc photo Public Domain

Merle Haggard at the 1971 Country Music Association Awards.  Photo -CMA.


Espie “Epp” Parker was a bear of a man and he was an Okie.  The surly-looking guy displayed a gruff, strong, hard-working, tobacco-chewing persona, but held the disposition of the stuffed, huggable kind named after Teddy Roosevelt.  Dorothea Lange became a legend photographing people like him when she worked for the predecessor of the U.S. Farm Security Administration during that time.  I had seen her pictures over the decades but stopped in my mental tracks a few years back when I saw Epp’s face staring from one of them.

Drought refugees from Oklahoma SM camping by the roadside. They hope to work in the cotton fields. There are seven in family. Blythe, California 8b38481a.jpg

Espie “Epp” Parker, my uncle, in a photograph by Dorothea Lang in 1938 or ’39. I don’t know who the woman might be. I suspect she is his sister in law. Whomever she is, she is young, and she appears tired. Photo – Library of Congress.

“Uncle” Epp was married my father’s sister, Gladys, at the start of World War II.  He journeyed to California down Route 66 to work a year or so prior to Pearl Harbor, then returned to Oklahoma to make her his wife.  Lange caught up with him in ’38 or ‘39 near Blythe, California, a hot, dry, desert town on the Arizona line between the Colorado River and the edge of Hell. She snapped his likeness into a film of silver salts on the backplate of her camera and moved on. A few years before, she had taken another portrait of pea picker, Florence Thompson, who eventually lived in Modesto, the “big” city north of my hometown of Ceres. Several of my classmates knew her, but her path and mine never crossed.  I would have loved talking with her.

Florence was not happy that Lange snapped her picture. She was promised copies but never received them.  It’s explainable since she and her family moved on shortly after the photo hit the newsstands.  It did, however, help stir public attention which created financial donations to help the migrants.  Florence died in 1983 and is buried in the same cemetery, near Hughson, California, where some of my family members and their friends are interred. Her headstone reads, “Florence Leona Thompson, Migrant Mother – A legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.” She was that. They all were.

Florence Thompson migrant mother 3b41800u jpg SM.jpg

Florence Thompson, the Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lang, 1936. Photo – Library of Congress

Merle Haggard was one of the few Okies that made well. Others were musicians, Buck Owens, the Maddox Brothers and their sister, Rose, along with a smattering of civic leaders and politicians, Gary Condit being one. Business people who made it good include Cal Worthington, who made his dog “Spot” famous in the Valleys of the Sacramento and San Joaquin.  My father, too, did well after he switched from driving Caterpillar tractors into construction at the start of the 1950s post-war economic boom. Before he retired… back to Oklahoma… he told me of the discrimination he’d seen.  Like the others, he shrugged it off.  He, as did they, looked forward without forgetting the past so the moniker, “Okie,” became a badge of honor the way “Redneck” is worn with pride in the South. They endured.  We endured. That’s what counts.

Byous and Parker families SM Thanksgiving c1956.jpg

The Byous and Parker families before Thanksgiving dinner, c 1955.  Left to right, my father, Clyde Byous, his sister, Gladys Parker, her son, Ron Parker, Epp Parker, with a partial head, my brother, Jerry, my mom, Martha, Ed Parker, and me mugging the camera.

But now and then there are days.  Days when things are hard, though not as hard as back then.  Hell, we actually have it pretty damned good.  But still, there are days when things go wrong.  That’s where Merle Haggard comes to soothe the soul.  So we scroll through the internet pages, or the radio dials, or the stack of aged vinyl platters, and remember those who endured so we too can endure.

Once in awhile the world, and life, give you Merle Haggard days.

We can deal with it.  We always have.  We always will.

– JD Byous


© JD Byous, January 2020, All rights reserved







Filed under Uncategorized

Yellowhammer Lake

Yellowhammer Lake.  That’s where I go for solitude. Listening to the silence between the waves of the breeze, rolling and subsiding in the currents of wind that brushes over and through the pines.

I lay across the granite and let the sun warm my face.

It hugs and blankets me, the cool of the rock collecting the excess.  I slip into perfect tranquility.

My spot is near the inlet on a narrow upper strand of glacial-polished felsic paving where the slope rolls into the water, down, down to the clear, down to cerulean, down to the cobalt-blue then on to the black, unseen depths below.

A trout floats in the clear, just above the blue.  He does not care that I am here.

Above, an eagle soars in the cotton-white-patched sky.  He is watching for his dinner.

Chipmunks and squirrels scurry past, chirping their displeasure at my presence.  Soon they will have their space, but now it is mine.

I go there when I need to rest, to stop all around me, to clear my mind – spring, summer, fall, winter. The sun is never too hot; the snow is never too deep.

I find peace there.  It is my resting spot, my respite.  When all around me is chaos, I go there, say a prayer, and praise my God that he has given me that place of consolation.

I go there often – though I haven’t seen the lake since 1972.  It’s here in my mind.  So, I go.

It’s mine.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos are easy?

Making videos are easy, I was told.  They’re not.  They’re work… I mean, lots of work.

Working with Trustees’ Garden in Savannah, I’ve had the pleasure and job of finding the history of the ten-acre site that was the first British-Crown sanctioned experimental garden in North America.  The history of the site has been astounding when one finds the things that took place there and the people associated with the spot on the eastern side of the Historic District.

There is so much history I’ve started declaring it to be, arguably, the most historic piece ground in the southeastern United States.  I qualify by saying, “If it isn’t, then it is definitely a most historic ground.”

The video…

First, the script must be written, condensed, and (semi) memorized.  Then film the narrative.  Then finding illustrations for which permissions can be gained.  Then the editing.  It’s a bunch of work… and I loved every minute.

It is fitting that a short video introduce the site.  But saying that is like trimming 286 years of intense activity into a seven-minute YouTube post.

I didn’t.

I can’t.

So here’s what I was able to cram into that length of “air time.”  Take a look and give me your opinion.

– JB

© J Byous Company, All rights reserved 2019



Leave a comment

Filed under History, Travel Photography, Uncategorized

If you can’t get in the Booth, a kids’ table is fine with me

1 1 Red Mesa by M Dixon cp.jpg

Tara McCormick with Red Butte with Mountain Men by Maynand Dixon, Oil, 1935.

I love western art.  I love all types of art museums, but I especially love western art in western art museums. So naturally, I absolutely love the Booth Western Art Museum. So much so I became a member a while back. I’m from the West. I was transplanted to Georgia about twenty-five years ago having grown up in the rural western culture, horses, cattle, and riding to places where no one else was hanging out.

They have three guilds, the Booth Writer’s Guild, the Booth Photography Guild, and the Booth Artist Guild. I recently joined the latter two having found they are good places for me to see, learn, and update my painting and photo skills used in the last century for newspapers. The Booth is in Cartersville, Georgia. Yeh, Georgia, as in “The State of.”  It’s a few miles from The New York of the South — Atlanta.  I’m told it is one of the biggest western art museums in the USA.  Who’d a thunk?  In little ol’ Cartersville.

When you go you can often see traveling exhibits with works by the artist that I love. Hanging on the walls are paintings by Maynard Dixon, Frank Tenney Johnson, Frederic Remington, and Charles Russell from a century ago. They are among the great of the great. They captured moments in the Old West, or the perceived, Old West and have endured through time — them and a bunch more.


Carrie Ballantyne and Donna Howell-Sickles.jpg

Carrie Ballantyne, top left, and Donna Howell Sickles, right, at the Booth a few years ago when I had darker hair.

Works at the Booth include the very-much-living female greats like Donna Howell Sickles, with her joyful, mythological, and optimistic paintings of western-female-cowgirl figures. Some of the subjects appear to defy gravity in mixed media while attracting animals in a Supergirl-cum-Snow-White-on-the-range kind of way.  I’ve seen Carrie Ballantyne’s work there as well.  Her painting and drawings include silky, lifelike, can’t-be-believed realist portraits of America’s cattle-culture people — the cowboys, and cowgirls that live in Ballantyne’s right-now, today, twenty-first-century, Wyoming world.

So, when a competition opened for a juried show at the Art Guild’s Fall/Holiday show I decided to enter. It’s at the Downtown Gallery, one of the Booth’s offshoots a couple of blocks from the main building. Two of my works were entered. One was chosen and I was happy. You see, having a painting associated with the Booth is an honor. Not as great an honor as being in a permanent exhibit in one of the main galleries, but still an honor. It’s akin to being able to sneak into the barbeque and being allowed to sit at the kid’s table. I was happy to get in.

1 1 1 Morgan Tara and me.jpg

My granddaughters, Morgan and Tara with me.  My painting is next to Tara on the right.  The third place, Red Rocks, by Elizabeth Carr can be seen on the right of the photo.

The thing is, there are some great artists in the Downtown show who, in my opinion, have the quality to join the greats in the grown-up seats. I’m sure some will one day. Might I be among them? Nope. Not likely. My approach to art is pure amateur. I do it because I love it and when I want or feel the need to slap paint.

1 1 Cecile Morgan.jpg

Cecile Morgan’s Voices in the Wind has a painterly style with a Bierstadt-like glow.  It was my favorite in the show.

Some of these folks, like Cecile W. Morgan, are bringing out gallery-quality work regularly. She and her husband are both excellent artists. Cecile creates cameos of longhorn cattle, cowboys, cowgirls, and portraits in her dreamlike style. She placed second with a portrait of two cowgirls entitled, Cowgirl Memories, between Nikki Davidson’s Saint George Blues at first place, and a triptych, Red Rocks, by Elizabeth Carr who placed third. The People’s Choice Award went to Gary Worthan and his nautical painting, Waiting on the Word.  In all fifty-three artists were featured in the seventy-two works show.

So, can I say I came inches away from third place… since Red Rocks was next to my painting? Well, at least I was there and had a great time meeting folks.  Afterward, we walked to a restaurant to grab a bite. We sat in a booth.  Can I say I was in an art show and I was in the booth?  My grandkids told me, “No, Papa!” So, I grabbed one more photo of Tara… to prove I was in… THE BOOTH!

1 1 1 Tara in Black and White.jpg

The last photo of the night, Tara at the table in black and white. So, hey, can I say I got into the booth… for supper.  Maybe next time.

If you get to Cartersville check out the Booth Western Art Museum. You can find it at 501 Museum Drive, Cartersville, GA or give them a call for more information, 770-387-1300.  It will be worth your trip.  Also, check out Booth’s Downtown Gallery.  It’s a few blocks away at 13 North Wall Street. You can give them a call at 770-387-4330.  Ask for Melissa.  She’s a nice lady with a big welcoming smile.

Next week we’ll talk about the Booth Western Art Museum and its show on Andy Warhol… yeh… that Andy Warhol.  Interesting, no?

– JD Byous



1 Comment

Filed under art, cowboy art, travel, western art

An American’s American Artist


Thomas Hart Benton, Achelous, and Hercules, Smithsonian

Tom_benton LOC.jpg

Thomas Hart Benton, artist.

Thomas Hart Benton was the John Steinbeck of the painting world.  “Okie baroque” is how many critics described his artwork. Other’s loved it.  The images have a sense of being there — the in your imagination, being there — with all the senses.  The scents of horses, livestock, oil fields radiate from the paintings with a whiff of turpentine and linseed oil.

Filmmaker Ken Burns noted Benton’s persona as being a hard-drinking, harmonica-playing hillbilly. He was far from it.  Born in 1889, Benton was from a privileged political family from “The Show-Me State.” His namesake, Missouri’s first senator, Thomas Hart “Old Bullion” Benton, his great-great-uncle.  Tom was the son of Bullion’s nephew, Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four-term congressman. His first cousin, Jesse Benton Fremont, Old Bullion’s daughter, was an author that was married to “The Pathfinder,” General John C. Fremont, who invaded California in 1846 and claimed the territory for the United States.

Thomas_Hart_Benton the elder on gold certificate wiki.jpg

Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, “Old Bullion.”

Like many great men, Benton was a walking paradox, “an anti-intellectual intellectual,” as writer Justin Wolff described him. He could be crude as well a delightful, depending upon the situation. A man’s man and American’s American, he saw the flyover states in the country as neglected by the look-down-the-nose culture of the coastal elites.

For his calculated slights to other styles and ideology, he became a whipping boy for the avant-garde art movement of his time the way Donald Trump would become the political whipping boy of progressive thinkers over three-quarters of a century later. Both men rejected leftist views and gained the label, “fascist and xenophobe” by their opposition.

Young “Tom” had a contrary bent, making him much like Fremont in that he did not live by conventional standards. His paintings and murals both delighted and infuriated people with its subject matter. Fremont, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, led an expedition through California while it was Mexican territory and created an international event. Benton stirred up a tiff after appearing on the cover of Life Magazine one year and was exiled from New York the next for his disdain for the world of modern art. Ironically, his Regionalism-style paintings were often first worked out in cubist-modernistic scale drawings to create the flow of the images that would adorn the lobbies of rural post offices, the halls of statehouses, and the mansion walls of the wealthy.

benton kkk.jpgDepicting Missouri’s history in a commissioned mural, he showed the good and the bad of what had happened by including characters from his own family, slavery, and literature. His father, brother, ordinary folks, and slave auctions are depicted as well as Mark Twain’s literary classic, Huckleberry Finn. In a mural for the State of Indiana to highlight their World’s Fair, Century of Progress display, he did the same and ruffled feathers by depicting a hooded gathering of the KKK. In 2017, clueless Indiana State students demanded the removal of the section which illustrated Benton’s disdain for the racist group. According to historians, during the Great Depression, twenty to forty percent of the state’s white-male population was composed of dues-paying KKK members.

Jackson Pollock No._5,_1948.jpg

Pollock, No. 5, 1948

Jackson Pollock’s renowned abstract paintings can be linked directly to The Mechanics of Form: Organization in Painting, a textbook written by his mentor, Tom Benton.  Stanton Macdonald-Wright, two years younger than Benton, was a co-founder of the Synchronism movement of modern art in the early twentieth century and considered him a good friend. Benton had tried the modernist style but after a decade and a half rejected it. “I wallowed in every cockeyed ism that came along… and it took me ten years to get all that modernist dirt out of my system.”

He married Italian immigrant, Rita Piacenza when he was thirty-three years old. The two met when he was teaching an art class in New York. He died while he was painting in his studio in 1975. He and Rita had been married for fifty-three years. Rita died eleven weeks later. During their long marriage, they had two children, Thomas Piacenza who was born in 1926 and a daughter named for his great aunt, Jessie, in 1929.

– JD Byous

Images from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, History

The Savannah San Francisco Connection

Matthew Hall McAllister

Hall_McAllister_by_Robert_Ingersoll_Aitken_-_San_Francisco,_CA_-_Wikipedia DSC02820.jpg

        McAllister in San Francisco


In 1850, and few yards offshore from the eastern end of Savannah’s Yamacraw Bluff, forty-nine-year-old Matthew Hall McAllister sailed down the river on his way to the boomtown of San Francisco. In five years, a street less than one-half mile away would carry his name.   The smell of salt air and marsh mud hanged on the air as he saw visions of shining gold nuggets beyond Savannah and beyond the horizon three-thousand miles to the West. He had given up on the city of his birth. For the Georgian and local leader, it is time to move on. Fifteen miles to the south, on the Ogeechee River at Strathy Hall, were his cousins who would make history later. That branch of the family would be known for Fort McAllister and the end of the Union Army’s march through the state. Hall, as he was known, would stay in touch and for the meantime, the family ties will reach over a continent and remain.

After serving in the State Senate, Hall ran as a candidate for Governor of Georgia. He lost. He had served as mayor of the city a few years earlier, and as far as credentials go, his were admirable. In 1799 his father had been mayor and had presided over the dedication of a new Exchange Building at the end of Bull Street, a milestone in the city’s history that ushered in an age of prosperity. On his mother’s side, his grandfather, Thomas Gibbons, had also served in the office. Savannah was Hall’s birthright, a part of the genetics of his family. McAllister’s family roots may have tangled and interwoven through the city’s history, but now they were balled up, stashed aboard ship, migrating to California where a new life beckons.  The West had called,  His golden illusion wasn’t in the placer and hard-rock, yellow metal that others were seeking. For him, it was in the law and litigation and legislation that controlled legal tender. Gold may be where you find it, but law books and their content are where you find the real riches, power, and influence. His wife and children traveled with him to settle in the new boomtown on the bay but Georgia politicians convinced him to sail home for one last attempt to gain a US Senatorial seat. But, again, he lost.

By that time of his first voyage Savannah’s edge-of-the-river, War-of-1812 ditch and parapet at Trustees’ Garden had eroded and had filled with sand and discarded household debris. In the layers of trash and litter were fragments of butcher-cut bone, glass and ceramic shards, unrecognizable decayed nodules mixed between carbon lenses that tell of the firing of tossed household trash and plant clippings. At the top of the slope on the West, the British Revolutionary War trenches had filled with discarded bricks, metal, and trash. Times of war were behind. The need for defenses was out of mind and slowly filling out of sight.

As he sailed past, demolition work was underway to dismantle old Fort Wayne, a stronghold named for General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Shovel by shovel, portions of the earthen stronghold disappeared the same way others on the site had in years past. As it stood, it’s a sickle-shaped earthen structure stretched one-hundred yards long arcing from the southwest to the northeast along the edge of the bluff. The “handle” section stood halfway down the slope in the center of the Trustees’ Garden, pointing to the intersection of Randolph and Broughton Streets. The blade-shaped structure led from the handle, around the bluff northward, arcing toward the intersection of Bay and East Broad Streets. The partial demolition of the fort was for progress, to take the city into the future with Savannah’s new manufactured gaslight plant. Some of the earth from the fort would fill a small terrace to hold a Gasometer tank that would rise and fall, expand and contract, regulating pressure and distributing fuel to the homes of the area. Reynolds street, laid out three decades prior to the American Revolution, was being rerouted around the bulkhead before it proceeded north to intersect Bay Street below the bluff. Gas was the modern way, the progressive way, the future for lighting, for cooking, and for heating. It epitomized the birth pangs of the industrial revolution, and Savannah is on the crest of the wave.

When Hall returned to run for the Senate, he sailed back by the site, the gas plant he saw had expanded to meet the need of the booming cotton and naval stores port. A new wall engulfed the first, looping from Bay Street, around and into the heart of the Garden intersecting with Wright Street that would become a drive and parking area for the Pirate’s House Restaurant a century later. Fort Wayne’s earthen mass was shoveled into the terrace and surrounded by a masonry wall, erasing the fort with only one brick-structured bombproof to tell of its existence though partially hidden. Except for the protective wall, the old fort is completely gone, recycled into a new fortress-looking bulkhead. During the excavation, crews found three discarded cannons from the Revolution era. Years later, gas workers would place them along the parapet creating an unintended prank that confused future generations into calling the wall, “Old Fort Wayne.” Paradoxically, the fort does remain composed of the sand-layered fill in the elongated, square enclosure. Two additional gasometers had sprung up, dominating the skyline of the bluff.

For Hall, the return was frustrating. After his loss, he again pulled his stakes and sailed for California. As he again passed Trustees’ Garden, the Savannah Gaslight Company facility is running at maximum output providing gas for cooking, heating, and especially lighting. The shanghai-prone waterfront of his embarkation was a priority for the City and for gas.  Wharf lighting was universally embraced in an attempt to stop the epidemic problem of the kidnapping of citizens and drunken sailors that awoke to find themselves aboard ships, miles from home. When Hall entered the Golden Gate of San Francisco Bay on the other side of the continent, he found that three Irish immigrants, the Donohue brothers, had built gasworks there as well.  Their venture formed the first manufactured gas company on the West Coast using imported Australian coal to fire the ovens.  San Francisco, like Savannah, was growing.

In two years, Matthew Hall McAllister left his impression on his new home and became revered in San Francisco’s history. Few know of his connection to Savannah and his family history in the east. That historical mark was made when he was named the first judge of the Federal Ninth Circuit Count. His likeness is now enshrined in a bronze sculpture that stands near the front steps of San Francisco’s City Hall. A few yards away is a statue commemorating Abraham Lincoln. During the first year as a Federal Judge, he would meet and work with a young banker and Major-General of the California State Militia. They would help put down the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, a group of revolutionary elites formed to defy the law and take power in the city. The young banker-general would visit Hall’s hometown a few years later. Generations will remember and revile the day when William Tecumseh Sherman marched across Georgia and came to town.


Survey of footing-soil stratification at Trustees’ Garden, J Byous Company/A.T. Dowd Research, 2015.

Remediation of Former Manufactured Gas Plants and Other Coal-Tar Sites, Allen W. Hathaway, CRC Press, 2012.

The Story of the Ninth Circuit Court, San Francisco Call, Volume 78, Number 35, 5 July 1895.

Law in the West, edited by Gordon Morris Bakken, Brenda Farrington, Garland Publishing, 2000.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Uncategorized

Oglethorpe: Between Heaven and Hell


Oglethorpe’s tree-fronted home is shown at the right on the northeast edge of Old Palace Yard.

He lived halfway between Heaven and Hell, Georgia founder James Edward Oglethorpe. His front steps on London’s St. Margaret Lane were downwind of the King’s fish yard that occupied a courtyard that opened a few houses to his right. The subsequent air often fogged his parlor and bedrooms with acrid, pungent punctuated smells that mixed with the sounds of morning-barking fishmongers, street merchants, and neighborhood workers. Around them, the clatter of knocking, squeaking wagons and carts rolled along the lane, bouncing over sparsely patched islands of free-stone pavers that dotted the long-furrowed thoroughfare.

At the far end of the market behind the rows of salmon, trout, and eel-laden stalls was the location of Hell, an eatery and watering hole once frequented by poet Ben Johnson and ridiculed by diarist Sir William Pepys.  The main entrance lured its customers down a stairway from the interior of Westminster Hall the way hookers call salesmen from an Amsterdam window — liquor lubricates opposition tongues.  It was known for being a “petty-tavern,” a gathering spot frequented by parliament’s lowly law clerks who boozed in a basement hollow that once housed the Kings’ torture chamber, thus warranting the Hadean label.

Old Palace Yard 1746 from Roques map w red.jpg

The Old and New Palace yards with Oglethorpe’s home marked with the red dot.

According to Pepys, the tavern was a “resort of disreputable characters and the most raffish of lawyers’ clerks.”  South, across the street to left of Oglethorpe’s house was Heaven, a more, but little more, up-scale tavern in a line of ramshackle brick and Tudor buildings running from west to east.  They blocked his view of the greater part of the Old Palace Yard like listing and leaning hung-over sailors lined across a deck of an outbound schooner. 

From there a few feet to the left and diagonally across the lane was another tavern, the Naked Boy and Star, which held the ground beside Westminster Abbey.  It served a slightly-more upscale clientele, Members of Parliament, poets, businessmen, lobbyists, and the occasional well-known Londoner.  Other Taverns in the area carried the trend with the names, Purgatory and Paradise.  A few doors away from the Star, at the corner of the Abbey, Geoffrey Chaucer had once lived in an upstairs flat near “The Poet’s Corner” where he was later interred.

Stepping from his portico, Oglethorpe’s route was “incommodious” as writer Henry Miles penned, noting that the lane in front of his home had “a paling of four feet high… placed between its single footpath and the carriageway, to protect the passenger from the carriages and the mud which they splashed on all sides in abundance.”  The wealthy in London, like everyone else, existed in a world of noise, foul smells, dust, mud, filth, and strewn garbage.  James held that rank in society — wealthy.

– Excerpt from an upcoming book by JD Byous



William Maitland et al, The History and Survey of London From Its Foundation to the Present Time: in Two Volumes, Book II, 1756, p 793: Rev. Mackenzie E. C. Walcott, M.A., Memorials of Westminster the City, Royal Palaces, Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, St. Peters’s College, the Parish Churches, Worthies, Streets, Modern Buildings, and Ancient Institutions, 1851, p 221.

Henry Downes Miles, The Life of Richard Palmer: Better Known as Dick Turpin…, London, p 79, 1839.

John Thomas Smith, Antiquities of the City of Westminster, London, 1807 p 68; Henry Downes Miles, The Life of Richard Palmer Better Known as Dick Turpin the Notorious Highwayman and Robber, 1839 p 79.

Henry Miles, The Life of Richard Palmer, London, p 78, 1839.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Uncategorized