Daniel Defoe 1660 – 1731. Born Cripplegate died Ropemakers Alley, Moorfields
Have you been to Bunhill Fields and seen this?
This impressive memorial to famous author Daniel Defoe does him proud but did you know that originally he had a much more modest headstone? Almost 150 years after his death, as the appreciation of his story telling grew it was felt that something far more fitting should mark his resting place which was looking rather neglected.
You can see from the inscription that this was erected after an early example of crowd funding – very few modern ideas are actually new – in 1870 the word went out to the young readers of ‘Christian World’ to give their sixpences and 1700 responded with £150 being raised. A stonemason, one Samuel Horner of Bournemouth was commissioned to carve a marble obelisk with the architect CC Creeke, as the designer. The unveiling took place on 16 September 1870 with three of Daniel Defoe’s great granddaughters in attendance. Daniel Defoe was being lauded principally as the author of Robinson Crusoe and it is said that Robinson Crusoe is second only to the Bible in terms of the languages into which it has been translated.
However, just as there is a story behind the Memorial, and things are not as they first appear, the same could be said of much of Daniel Defoe’s life. Did you know that he was actually born Daniel Foe to James and Alice Foe and that as well as the novels for which he is rightly famous; he was a prolific author of over 500 works including political pamphlets, poems and magazines? His family were dissenters rather than followers of the Anglican Church, and so, in many ways Daniel was something of an outsider. He could not be educated at any of the Universities of the time and so after elementary education at boarding school in Bath, he was sent instead to the academy at Newington Green run by the Reverend Charles Morton. The education there however was broad and of high standard, Charles Morton later is understood to have become the first vice president of Harvard College.
Daniel was destined for the Presbyterian ministry, but perhaps this was not exciting enough for a young man who had lived through the great plague, the great fire of London and the invasion of the Dutch up the Thames and Medway rivers all before his 8th birthday. By the age of 10 he had also suffered the loss of his mother. He resolved to become a merchant and during much of his life dealt in varying commodities including hosiery, woollen goods and wine, travelling through much of Europe for his trade. At one time he was also the owner of a brick works near Tilbury and also a ‘merchant insurer ‘This last contributed to his bankruptcy in the early 1690’s. He may have been a man to take on risks in his business and he certainly had a chequered career, often in debt. He apparently said of himself ‘No man has tasted differing fortunes more, and thirteen times I have been rich and poor.’ The dowry he received on his marriage to a rich merchant’s daughter, Mary Tuffley, some £3,700, is understood to have helped him out of debt at least temporarily
Daniel also took risks in life, he took part in the Monmouth Rebellion against the catholic King James ll, happily managing to escape after the Battle of Sedgemoor and therefore living to later ride out and welcome King William of Orange for whom he proved a loyal and devoted subject. One of his best known poems was a witty defence of King William when some opposed him for his foreignness – ‘The True Born Englishman.’ Ever one to speak out or write in defence of an ideal or belief Defoe wrote many satirical political and religious pamphlets, particularly in support of religious freedom, that eventually got him pilloried (literally) and imprisoned for sedition. His Tilbury tile works failed while he languished in prison in the early 1700’s and this was the last of his businesses.
Daniel Defoe was however a survivor and he turned to The Earl of Oxford for help, one Robert Harley. They were contemporaries and shared many of the same ideas and beliefs and Harley with his contacts and position of Speaker of the House of Commons was able to effect his release. The terms – Defoe became his spy, his intelligence gatherer and political pamphleteer. Many believe that Harley was one of the first masters of ‘spin’ and used Defoe’s writing skills to good effect. Defoe served Harley well: he visited Scotland several times when the idea of the Union between the two countries was being proposed, supplying Harley with information on the mood of the people and the level of public opinion. Daniel Defoe who now had an intelligence and literary career rather than a mercantile one, put all of this to good effect and 20 years later wrote ‘ Tour through the Whole Islands of Great Britain ‘ You may not have heard of this work or of what may be considered some of Daniel Defoe’s best work in the form of the ‘Review’ a weekly periodical he founded and largely wrote single handed between 1704 and 1713.This expanded to being produced several times a week and discussed current affairs, trade, international and domestic politics and became the mouthpiece for the Government.
But let’s return to the work which led to the monument in Bunhill Fields. ‘The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ was published in 1719 when Daniel Defoe was almost 60. Many see it as an early example of the English novel, some claim it as the first. It was certainly a famous and well loved story by the late 19th Century. Defoe followed it with ‘The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders’ in 1722 , and his third novel ‘Roxanne’ in 1724. In 1722 he also wrote the non fiction ‘ A Journal of Plague Year’ – interesting that on its 200th Anniversary we have just emerged from our own modern day plague. Certainly by the time of the memorial in Bunhill Fields Defoe was a feted author and Britain was less concerned with religious factions and denying non conformists taking up public office or entry to University (UCL had been established as the first University open to all) Some have suggested that had Defoe died at the time the memorial was erected he would have been buried or commemorated in Westminster Abbey rather than Bunhill Fields.
Daniel Defoe died in Ropemakers Alley in 1731, not far from where he was born in Cripplegate and indeed not far from a grand house he had once owned on Church Street, Stoke Newington. However his lodgings in Ropemakers Alley were a far cry from both of these, his fortunes had turned again and it is thought that he died of a stroke, perhaps pursued by creditors as he was once again plagued by debts. What a sad end after such an amazing life.
Another twist to the tale; it is said that Defoe’s original burial was listed under a spelling error – it was marked in the register as Mr Dubow , Cripplegate. And what happened to the original headstone that had marked his grave for 150 years? Well that was removed by the sculptor and taken back to his yard in Bournemouth. It was later sold on with other masonry and is said to have formed part of a kitchen floor to a local farm. Defoe’s gravestone went through several other adventures before ending up in a garden in Portswood Road Southampton. It apparently graced the said garden for over 50 years and once ‘discovered’ by an erstwhile councillor from Stoke Newington, it then resided in his garage for another 13 years.Finally it was presented to the local history collection at Stoke Newington Library in 1958 thus coming back to the area where Defoe had probably his most prosperous and prolific writing years.
- Exploring London July 24 2015
- Sotonopedia The A – Z of Southampton’s History
- www.bl.uk (British Library )
- The Victorian Web ( for list of Daniel Defoe’s publications)
For more information, and for walking tours of the area please contact Lulu Martyn-David the author of this post.