'twas the twentieth night before Christmas.
December 5th is the fifth day of the made-up characters calendar and being St Saint Nicholas’ Eve, the day that good children will find a coin in their boot and bad children will find a twig or a lump of coal in their boot, we shall now tell the story of a small child called William.
The Great Fire of London, which raged from September 5 to September 9 1666, tore through the old city within the confines of the Roman Wall. Because the fire had started at Pudding Lane and ended at Pye Corner, one of the popular explanations for the fire was that this was the result of God’s wrath being poured out upon the city for the sin of gluttony. This seems rather churlish as the fire killed as many as 80,000 people or one in seven of London's inhabitants.
In the aftermath of the fire, many people were left homeless and perhaps most shocking of all, there was no form of social security whatsoever and so many children were made orphans with no visible means of support.
One particularly gruesome tale tells of a small boy known only as William, who had to fend for himself as both of his parents had been killed. During the day, he would head down to the Thames and collect mussels, winkles and cockles which he would then try to sell; often for only a few farthings.
On December 5th, Saint Nicholas’ Eve, William was selling his wares in the Islington region of north London, when a generous gentleman passed his palm not with a farthing or a penny but a silver shilling; which was about as much as the lad would see in two months, let alone a single night. Naturally the lad was overjoyed and thanked the man.
London at night and especially during the late seventeenth century was a dark place. Although there were lamps in the city, these were still few and far between and this made it really easy to commit crime at night and evade detection. Consequently, the city was full of nefarious types and even crime itself became something of a cottage industry.
Evidently, someone had seen the lad and decided that no-one would miss another street urchin and William was slashed and then stabbed to death in the middle of the street before the assailant tore off into the night. As there would be no such thing as a permanent police force until the nineteenth century, the attacker was never found; not that many would have cared anyway.
William’s memory would not be forgotten entirely and although he had no father or mother or brother or sister to mourn his loss, he would go on to serve as a warning to other children to remain indoors at night.
Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town,
Up stairs and down stairs in his night-gown,
Tapping at the window, crying at the lock,
Are the children in their bed, for it's past ten o'clock?
The implication being that the city at night is a dark and dangerous place and that it is best that children come inside after dark. Of course the sun sets at 3:54 PM in London during the middle of winter and we do have better lighting and a far more competent police force but that’s still pretty good advice anyway.