It’s 1661. A few months ago, Charles II was restored to the throne of England after twenty years of civil war and upheaval. For ten years the country had tried life without a king, but now the son of the executed Charles I was invited back, with very little opposition.
When the king rode through the streets of the city, some Londoners were overjoyed. Others felt betrayed, but they mostly kept quiet. Yet others had quickly changed sides when they saw what was going to happen – there were many very new Royal coats of arms to be seen all over London. So many people told the king they had always wanted him back that he joked that he could see it was his own fault he had stayed in exile for so long.
One of the Londoners who were really pleased to welcome the king was a successful carpenter called Thomas Cass. This is a good year for him and his wife Martha – their first son was born on 20th February and christened at their local church, St Botolph’s without Aldgate. Thomas had worked hard to make his fortune as a carpenter, ending up as an official supplier to the army and navy and employing many other people..
The London where John Cass was born stretches only from Bethnal Green in the East to Covent Garden in the west. Islington is a country village famous for its springs of fresh water, Hackney another village where there are good boarding schools and market gardens, and Knightsbridge is a notorious for the dangerous highwaymen who rob travellers.
Most London streets are narrow, the houses tall and generally made largely of wood. Travelling by water taxi along the river Thames is the quickest way to get around, as the streets are crowded, badly kept and often dangerous.
When John Cass is still a little boy, his parents buy a grand new house and 70-acre farm in Hackney – perhaps to let their only son grow up the healthy country air. And this is a good decision, as later the same year the Plague kills one Londoner in five. And a few months later the Great Fire destroys four-fifths of the centre of the City.
So when it is the young John Cass’s turn to become a London apprentice, the city he enters has changed almost beyond recognition.