Hatton Garden: diamonds, underworlds, and herbs

Hatton Garden has been much in the news lately following an audacious jewellery raid, so let’s have a look at the name and history of the street, which is named after Sir Christopher Hatton. Hatton was a favourite of Elizabeth I, and was appointed Lord Chancellor.

The queen also formally granted him the Bishop of Ely’s palace in Ely Place, Holborn (much to the Bishop’s dismay and – overruled – protests). The Holborn area of London was an extremely fertile one, abounding with gardens and vineyards, including a herb garden attached to the palace; it was once called Little Saffron Hill.

Gerard's Herball Science Museum London
A 1633 Edition of Gerard’s Herball. Photo: Science Museum London

John Gerard was a skilled herbalist who lived in the area, carefully tended his garden, and in 1596 published a list of all the plants that grew there.

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants was the first catalogue of any one garden, public or private. (Although some scholars claim that the original book was essentially a translation of a popular earlier Flemish herbal.)

In the late 1930s Little Saffron Hill was renamed Herbal Hill after Gerard’s work.

The gardens of the Bishop of Ely’s palace were also famous for saffron, which was the main source of the spice for the city dwellers. Apart from its colour, it was – like the garlic that gave Garlick Hill its name – useful for disguising meat that may have seen its best.

Saffron was widely used in ancient times, as a dye, a spice, a deodorant, and a healing drug. Romans would put in on their beds on their wedding night, giving rise to the expression ‘dormivit in sacco croci’ (having slept in a bed of saffron), to be light of heart, or enlivened.

Saffron Hill cropFrom light heart to light pockets: Saffron Hill later became an evil slum, and features in Oliver Twist: “in an obscure parlour, of a low public-house, in the filthiest part of Little Saffron Hill…sat, brooding over a little pewter measure and a small glass…Mr William Sikes”.

EAS_3921Nearby is another street – Bleeding Heart Yard – which was highlighted by Charles Dickens, who devoted an entire chapter to it in Little Dorrit. One of the legends behind the name is the story of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who brings us back to Sir Christopher Hatton.

Hatton himself never married; his nephew, William Newport, inherited his estate, took the Hatton name and died six years later, leaving Elizabeth a widow. The young and beautiful Elizabeth was the toast of 17th-century London society; her Annual Winter Ball in Hatton Garden was one of the highlights of the London social season, and invitations were much sought after.

Cloak LaneThe story goes that she was carried off by the devil one night after her ball; her cloak fell in Cloak Lane, her shoe in Shoe Lane and her heart in Bleeding Heart Yard.

EAS_4009All of which brings us back to Hatton Garden, still the centre of London’s diamond and jewellery trade.

The street sits atop a network of underground works including ancient passageways rumoured to be built by the monks of Ely, abandoned railway platforms, decommissioned bunkers, and the remains of the Fleet river.

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