London’s culinary streets: from Haymarket to Mint Street

Haymarket cropWhere were we? Oh, yes, we left off last time at Lime Street but I thought I should backtrack again to include Haymarket. Not culinary, you say? Tell that to various farm animals. And tell it also to various cheffy people on TV who made cooking with hay trendy.

So, Haymarket, which takes its name from hay: from Elizabethan times there was a market for hay on the site, and in 1697 the street was paved, each cartload of hay contributing to the expense. However, there were merchants other than those dealing in hay: one of the earliest tradesmen in the Haymarket appears to have been a vendor of sea-coal. A token used by him is in the Museum of London; on one side it says: “Nathaniel Robins, at the Seacoale seller, 1666” and on the other, “Hay Markett, in Piccadilla, his half-penny”.

In 1708 Haymarket was described as “a very spacious and public street, in length 340 yards, where is a great market for hay and straw”. In 1720 an enterprising carpenter named John Potter built a small playhouse in the Haymarket. The small playhouse was later called the Hay Market and then the Little Theatre in the Hay. It is now the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the UK’s third oldest playhouse still in use.

According to London historian Edward Walford, “The cost of the building was £1,000, and Potter further expended £500 in decorations, scenery, and dresses. He leased the theatre, immediately after its completion, to a company of French actors, who were at that time much favoured by the English aristocracy.”

In 1729 Henry Fielding started what might today be called a string of hits in the theatre, starting with a burlesque and ending with a political satire that so enraged the prime minister, Robert Walpole, that he introduced what became unprecedented censorship powers that effectively closed the theatre for several years.

In 1807 Haymarket was described as “an excellent street, 1,020 feet in length, of considerable breadth, and remarkably dry, occasioned by the descent from Piccadilly”.

A few years later, the Prince Regent, later King George IV, thought that London was looking tired and old and he instructed John Nash to enhance the appearance of the city. One enhancement included the Little Theatre in the Hay and the Theatre Royal Haymarket opened in 1821 with a production of Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’.

EAS_4059Since I’m including bibendiary in with culinary, we can turn next to Milk Street which was, as with so many others, a Cheapside shopping street. According to John Stow, anyway who says of it, “there be many fair houses for merchants and other”. Among these other was Gregory Rokesley, “the chief assay officer of the king’s mints, and mayor of London in the year 1275”.

Thomas More, later knighted and beatified, was born in Milk Street on 7 February 1478. The young More originally planned to devote his life to the church, and led a highly ascetic life: he wore hair shirts, scourged himself regularly, and slept on the ground with a log as a pillow.

Although More later turned to law, he never lost those ascetic tendencies or his religious convictions – which would eventually cost him his life. He entered Parliament in 1504, was knighted in 1521 and became Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor in 1529 following the fall of Cardinal Wolsey.

[Wolsey had made the mistake of disagreeing with Henry VIII, a mistake that More would later echo. Wolsey had been unable to have Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that Anne Boleyn could become the next queen. He was stripped of his property and died the following year, with the famous line: “If I had served my God as diligently as I did my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”]

More is, perhaps, as famous for his views on social reform and his book Utopia and for his position in Henry VIII’s government. It is not generally known that, as a judge, he specialized in heresy. That is to say, during his time as Lord Chancellor six heretics were executed – not, relatively speaking, a great number, but possibly more than one would expect from a future saint.

The problems with Henry came to a head when More not only opposed the annulment to Catherine of Aragon, but also refused to take an oath renouncing the authority of the pope over that of the king. That double whammy led to him being tried and convicted of treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

More also made the history books for his death as much as for his life, with his famous last words: when he mounted the dilapidated and shaky scaffold, he said to the attending official, “I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”

On a lighter note, there are two entertaining stories about marriages in the More family. Sir Thomas himself, when presented with John Colt’s three daughters, took a fancy to the middle one. However, according to More’s son-in-law, Sir William Roper, More thought that it would be “great grief and some shame to the eldest to see her younger sister in marriage preferred before her”, and so he settled for marrying the eldest daughter.

William had no such compunction; though his wife Margaret was in actual fact More’s elder daughter, the reason for his choice was not as noble as More’s own. When the time came for a marriage to be arranged between William and one of More’s daughters, the prospective groom was taken by the girls’ father into their bedroom as they slept.

More flung back the sheet and the naked girls rolled over in their sleep. William was powerfully attracted to the sleeping Margaret, and patted her naked bottom, saying, “Thou art mine.”

This displaying of future brides was not an uncommon practice: it was one way of proving that they had no marks of a witch.

Also born in Milk Street was Isabella Mary Beeton (neé Mayson, who married publisher Samuel Beeton, so here’s another good culinary connection. Her organisational abilities and dynamism contributed greatly to the success of their publishing house and she is perhaps best known Beeton’s book of household management.

Mrs Beeton was, possibly, the original domestic goddess; she was the author of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a bible of domestic information from Victorian times to the present. It seems, by the way, that Mrs Beeton was not much of a cook herself: being more of a journalist she collected and edited recipes rather than creating them.

st016_herb_mint
Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

Speaking of mints, which we were above with Gregory Rokesley, we now come to Mint Street, which is nothing to do with sweets, but currency.

Henry VIII established a royal mint here around 1543 at the home of his brother-in-law Charles Brandon. Brandon was consoled for the loss of his home with a town house, which formerly belonged to the Bishop of Norwich, in the Strand. The mint was used until its demolition in 1557; smaller houses were then built in the area.

Until the early 18th century the Mint area was a criminal quarter, a recognized sanctuary for thieves and debtors, and a haunting ground for marriage brokers. In John Gay’s 1728 The Beggars’ Opera , there was a character referred to as Matt of the Mint; in real life one of the people who sought refuge here was Jack Sheppard, a notorious highwaymen. It was Sheppard upon whom Gay based Macheath, the central character of the Beggar’s Opera.

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