The above copper farthing token measures 15.6 mm and weighs 0.94 grams. It was issued in the name of The Fleece Tavern in Bridges Street. This now lost street lay off the eastern side of Covent Garden in Westminster.
The design of the token may be formally described as follows;
Obverse: (mullet) AT.THE.FLEECE.TAVERNE , around the central depiction of a sheep’s body facing left and suspended in a harness around its middle.
Reverse: (mullet) .IN.COVEN.GARDEN. , around twisted wire inner circle, letters W.C within.
This is one of two undated tokens, a farthing and a half penny, of similar design which were issued from the Fleece Tavern in Covent Garden and which bear the issuer’s initials W.C. The slightly larger half penny tokens also carry the issuers name in full, William Clifton, so there is no doubt who was responsible for their issue.
Although not a common inn sign today the emblem of the Fleece or Golden Fleece was not uncommon in the 17th century. As well as being a common inn sign it was also adopted by tradesmen working in branches of the wool trade.
Immediately after the Restoration the taverns of Covent Garden, notably the Rose and the Fleece taverns on Bridges Street, gained an unsavoury reputation as places of licentiousness and violence which included several murderous assaults that took place on their premises.
The establishment of the Fleece tavern dates to the building of Bridges Street in 1632. According to one early token researcher, Henry Beaufoy,(1) an entry in the 1651 rate book for the Covent Garden area notes the Fleece tavern as being located six houses down from the corner of Bridges Street and Russell Street, an area later taken up by the Drury Lane Theatre. The same rate book also confirms that William Clifton was then the tavern’s landlord. The location of the Fleece on the south-west side of Bridges Street is confirmed by later authors. However, John Aubrey (2) writing in 1696 claims it to have been in York Street. This may allude to the tavern having a back entrance, no doubt a very convenient resource for such a dubious establishment.
Prior to 1633/4 William Clifton was landlord of the Goat tavern in nearby Russell Street before moving to the Fleece where he took over from the previous landlord, Thomas Gough (3) . After arriving in his new premises in Bridges Street he soon appeared to have issues with William and Mary Long, who ran the neighbouring Rose tavern which was located on the corner of Bridges Street and Russell Street. The Fleece seems to have been a more prosperous establishment than its neighbour. According to one previous study (1) in the local rate book of 1657 William Clifton is assessed at 26/- whilst William Long at the Rose was assessed at only half that amount. This relative prosperity bias may be down to the comparative size of the two establishments. In the 1666 Hearth Tax return from the Covent Garden district the entry for William Clifton is for a sizeable premises with 24 hearths while that for Mary Long (at the Rose) is for on 14 hearths. Despite running a large tavern such as the Fleece it appears that William Clifton still found time to undertake additional responsibilities within his local parish (St. Paul’s, Covent Garden). In 1644 he is reported as being an overseer of the poor (4).
The churchwardens’ accounts for St. Paul, Covent Garden contain several references to the Fleece;
1657 – refer to a payment of 26/- “for mending the grate over the sewer by the Fleece Tavern”.
1658 – payment on 12th April to “Mr. Clifton £3-13-0 for wine for the last yeare”‘.
There is a further mention of William Clifton in an issue of the Kingdom‘s Intelligencer of December 1661. A public announcement refers to the loss of a looking-glass and some gilt leather hangings. Anyone who knew of their whereabouts and who reported the matter to “Mr. Clifton at the Fleece Tavern” was to be rewarded with 40 shillings.
In the original research undertaken into this token issuer by Henry Beaufoy he mentions that he was unable to discover Clifton’s name in the burial registers of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden although there were interments recorded for the following related or associated individuals;
12th November 1658 – Mr. Clifton’s man
21st March 1661 – Thomas, son of William Clifton
13th September 1672 – Amey Watts, Mr. Clifton’s servant
26th February 1675 – Widow ………… More, from the Fleece – The parish clerk had left a blank in the register and added a footnote that he did “not lerne her christian name”
Clifton was vintner at the Fleece from 1633/4 until at least 1672. According to one source William died in 1672 and his wife, Martha, continued as landlady. The current researcher has not been able to find any records of the marriage of William and Martha Clifton. The farthing and half penny tokens issued in the name of the Fleece only bear William’s initials, instead of the a triad of token issuer’s initials which are usually displayed if the primary issuer is a married man. On the basis that neither of the token types issued by William Clifton from the Fleece probably date to no later than c.1660 it would be reasonable to assume that William and Martha weren’t married until after this time.
While it is not known when he died a foot note in a manuscript copy (held in the library of the Royal Society) of John Aubrey’s earlier sited reference to the Fleece tavern states “Clifton the master of the house, hanged himself having perjured himself”. This being the case it fully explains why no burial record can be found for William Clifton in the parish register for St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden or for that matter any other parish burial records. As a suicide victim Clifton would have not been eligible for burial in consecrated ground and hence his death will have gone unrecorded in church records.
According to one source (3) the Fleece burnt down in 1688 and was rebuilt as a private house. This building was still standing in 1722 as an advertisement in the Daily Post for 22 January 1722 relates “To be let furnished or unfurnished a very good house in Bridge Street, two doors from the Play House, the corner of Vinegar Yard at the Green Raith which was formerly the Fleece Tavern“. The former location of the Fleece, like the Rose, must have been engulfed in the extensions to the Drury Lane Theatre in 1766.
Despite its reputation the Fleece Tavern was a popular haunt of Samuel Pepys . Between the period 1660 to 1669 he visited the tavern on at least 4 separate occasions which he records in his famous diaries. The associated entries are listed below chronologically.
1st December 1660
“I went to my Lord St.Albans lodgings, and found him in bed, talking to a priest (he looked like one) that leaned along over the side of the bed, and there I desired to know his mind about making the catch stay longer, which I got ready for him the other day. He seems to be a fine civil gentleman. To my Lord’s, and did give up my audit of his accounts, which I had been then two days about, and was well received by my Lord. I dined with my Lord and Lady, and we had a venison pasty. Mr. Shepley and I went into London, and calling upon Mr. Pinkney, the goldsmith, he took us to the tavern, and gave us a pint of wine, and there fell into our company old Mr. Flower and another gentleman; who tell us how a Scotch knight was killed basely the other day at the Fleece in Covent Garden, where there had been a great many formerly killed.”
The “Scottish knight” referred to above confuses two facts regarding this actual occurrence. The knight in question was in actuality Sir John Godschalke of St. Martin in the Field, and the murderer reputed to be one Scotsman named “Balenden”.
9th October 1661
“This morning went out about my affairs, among others to put my Theorbo out to be mended, and then at noon home again, thinking to go with Sir Williams both to dinner by invitation to Sir W. Rider’s, but at home I found Mrs. Piece, la belle, and Madam Clifford, with whom I was forced to stay, and made them the most welcome I could; and I was (God knows) very well pleased with their beautiful company, and after dinner took them to the Theatre, and shewed them “The Changes” and so saw them both at home and back to the Fleece tavern, in Covent Garden, where Luellin and Blurton, and my old friend Frank Bagge, was to meet me, and there staid till late very merry.”
25th November 1661
“Having this morning met in the Hall with Mr. Sanchy, we appointed to meet at the play this afternoon. At noon, at the rising of the House, I met with Sir W. Pen and Major General Massy, who I find by discourse to be a very ingenious man, and among other things a great master in the secresys of powder and fireworks, and another knight to dinner, at the Swan, in the Palace yard, and our meat brought from the Legg; and after dinner Sir W. Pen and I to the Theatre, and there saw “The Country Captain,” a dull play, and that being done, I left him with his Torys1 and went to the Opera, and saw the last act of “The Bondman” and there found Mr. Sanchy and Mrs. Mary Archer, sister to the fair Betty, whom I did admire at Cambridge, and thence took them to the Fleece in Covent Garden, there to bid good night to Sir W. Pen who staid for me; but Mr. Sanchy could not by any argument get his lady to trust herself with him into the tavern, which he was much troubled at, and so we returned immediately into the city by coach, and at the Mitre in Cheapside there light and drank, and then yet her at her uncle’s in the Old Jewry.”
31tst December 1666
“Rising this day with a full design to mind nothing else but to make up my accounts for the year past, I did take money, and walk forth to several places in the towne as far as the New Exchange, to pay all my debts, it being still a very great frost and good walking. I staid at the Fleece Tavern in Covent Garden while my boy Tom went to W.Joyce’s to pay what I owed for candles there.”
I would like to thank Nigel Jeffries of Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) for drawing my attention to the existence of glass bottles (1650-80) in their in their collection with seals bearing the details of William Clifton of the Fleece in Covent Garden.
1) Burn, H.B. – A descriptive catalogue of the London traders, tavern, and coffee-house tokens presented to the Corporation Library By Henry Benjamin Hanbury Beaufoy. (London, 1853).
2) Aubrey, J – Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects (Forth edition, London, 1857).
3) Sheppard, F. H. W.(General Editor) – Survey of London. Volume 36 – Covent Garden. (London, 1970).
4) Latham, R.C. – The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Volume 10 – Companion. (London, 1995).