It is another of the gracious, leisurely London corners that few of London’s visitors discover, lies to the north of Holborn in the Gray’s Inn Road. Any of the buses along Holborn will take you there, and it is only a few minutes’ walk behind Chancery Lane Station on the Central London Railway. You could once wander in the old gardens more freely than in the other Inns, and if you slipped his Essays in your pocket could read what Sir Francis Bacon wrote about gardens in the very garden that he made. Bacon was once Treasurer of Gray’s Inn and he interested himself in the laying out of “the purest of human pleasures “that he found there. Gray’s Inn Gardens used to be as fashionable a place for a walk as Hyde Park is today. Pepys the Chatterer related the doings of numberless people when he wrote: “When church was done my wife and I walked to Gray’s Inn to observe fashions of the ladies, because of my wife’s making some clothes.”Pepys must have gone there very often, for two months later the frivolous Secretary wrote: “I was very well pleased with the sight of a fine lady that I have often seen walk in Gray’s Inn Walks.”
Times have changed and fine ladies are no longer allowed to walk in Gray’s Inn Gardens, unless indeed they have relations among the benchers who are complaisant in the matter of keys.
The Hall is the oldest and most beautiful thing in Gray’s Inn. Queen Elizabeth once came to a banquet here, and it was here that the Comedy of Errors was first performed. The old Inn has had many famous names among its members, the Sydneys, Cecils, Bacons, etc., and a man no less distinguished in another circle, Jacob Tonson, had his first bookshop just inside Gray’s Inn Gate.
The old bookseller and publisher’s name has a very modern interest, even for the London visitor who never turns the pages of Pope or Walpole, because his house at Barn Elms is now used as the Ranelagh Club. The people who go out to Ranelagh. of a fine afternoon to drink tea and watch the polo, are following the footsteps of the members of the famous Kit-Cat Club founded in 1700, it is popularly supposed as an outcome of the dinners Tonson offered to his patrons. The club, of which Tonson became secretary, consisted of thirty-nine members-authors, wits and noblemen-their portraits hang in the halls of the Ranelagh Club today.
Tonson published for Addison and Pope, and was the first man to print cheap editions of Shakespeare. He had innumerable friends, and his portrait shows him as a genial creature who must have merited the description of him, written in 1714, that I found in Old and New London:
While in your early days of reputation, You for blue garters had not such a passion; While yet you did not live, as now your trade is, To drink with noble lords and toast their ladies, Thou, Jacob Tonson, were to my conceiving, The cheerfullest, best, honest fellow living.”
Tonson moved from the Gray’s Inn Gateway in 1712 to his more celebrated bookshop in the Strand that stood on part of the present site of Somerset House. I hear that another old landmark connected with this prince of publishers is doomed to disappear, for the Upper Flask, in Heath Street, Hampstead, that was known in Tonson’s day as the “Upper Bowling Green House,”used as the summer quarters of the Kit-Cat Club, may have to give way to the new buildings of some philanthropic institution.
Gray’s Inn takes its name from the Grays of Wilton. There is a document registering the transferring in 1505 of the “Manor of Portpoole, otherwise called Gray’s Inn “from Edmund Lord Gray of Wilton to a Mr. Denny. The public, alas, are never admitted to the Gardens, but any visitor may see the Hall on a week-day between the hours of 10 and 12:15.