Little slices of London's history

From Lavender Hill to Mint Street: music and Dickens in London’s spicy streets

As promised, we return to spicy street names; in checking my notes I discovered that I have some street names for which I have no information or explanation. Among these are Tarragon Close and Sorrel Close in southeast London, which may be just nice names, like the streets in Poplar and West Ham. A search for Sage Way in King’s Cross and Thyme Close in Blackheath was similarly unsuccessful. There is also a Mace Street in Bethnal Green, about which I can find nothing. In one of those invaluable websites I find myself wandering through, a look at the old to new street names section tells me that Mace Street was formerly known as King Street and Old Ford Road.

But enough negativity. Let’s move on to streets about which I do have some information, starting with Battersea’s Lavender Hill, which is just that. It is so named because of the lavender that was grown here commercially in the 18th century; in the area’s 18th-century market gardens. There are also a Lavender Road, Lavender Sweep, Lavender Terrace, and Lavender Walk nearby. The opening of Clapham Junction station in the 19th century led to much residential and commercial development in the area.

Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

I had a dearth of information about Lavender Hill, other than the derivation of the name and the fact that I have seen and enjoyed the charming Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. (I promise, not every post will have a movie reference.) A quick trawl through Wikipedia, however, unearthed the following facts: The Kinks recorded a song called ‘Lavender Hill’, which may have been under consideration as a follow-up single to Waterloo Sunset, but was rejected in favour of ‘Autumn Almanac’. The song was eventually released in the U.S. in 1973 on The Great Lost Kinks Album; a 1973 LP of mostly unreleased material recorded between 1966 and 1970. The release of the album was the centre of legal action by Ray Davies against the record company and the album was discontinued in 1975. Most of the songs remained officially unreleased until the 1998 reissue of Kinks albums with bonus tracks.

Another fact that came to light was that Detective Inspector, one of Scotland Yard’s original eight Detectives, died at 2, Cumberland Villas, in Lavender Hill. Detective Inspector Jack Whicher was an English police detective. He was one of the original eight members of London’s newly formed Detective Branch, which was established at Scotland Yard in 1842. During his career, Whicher earned a reputation among the finest in Europe, and is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Constance Kent case, which involved a 16-year-old girl confessing to the murder of her four-year-old half-brother.

Also taking its name from a spice grown in there is Saffron Hill, in the Holborn area. In 1290, John Kirkby, who had been awarded the bishopric of Ely, bequeathed his estate to the see of Ely to be used as a palace. The gardens there were famous for, among other things, vines and strawberries – and herbs, including saffron, the main source of the spice for the City dwellers. Apart from its colour, it was, like garlic (as in Garlick Hill, see earlier post here), useful for disguising meat that may have seen its best.

Saffron was also 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 ‘having slept in a bed of saffron’ (dormivit in sacco croci), to be light of heart, or enlivened.

From light heart to light fingers: according to historian Walter Thornbury in his Old and New London, Saffron Hill “once formed a part of the pleasant gardens of Ely Place, and derived its name from the crops of saffron which it bore. But the saffron disappeared, and in time there grew up a squalid neighbourhood, swarming with poor people and thieves”. An earlier historian, John Strype, in 1720 describes the locality as “of small account both as to buildings and inhabitants, and pestered with small and ordinary alleys and courts taken up by the meaner sort of people.”

This area of London featured heavily in many of Charles Dickens’ books; in Oliver Twist he writes: “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”.

There was also once a Little Saffron Hill, but in the 1930s was renamed Herbal Hill, which features in my earlier post about spicy streets.

Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

Let us now move back south of the river to Mint Street which, by contrast, is nothing to do with mint plants. 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 for a relatively short period and was demolished 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 Beggar’s Opera, there was a character referred to as Matt of the Mint; in real life two of the people who sought refuge here were Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, notorious highwaymen. It was Sheppard upon whom Gay based, in part, Macheath, the central character of The Beggar’s Opera.

The Beggar’s Opera is, says Wikipedia, “the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today”. Apparently, the idea for the opera originated with Jonathan Swift, who suggested it in a letter to his friend Alexander Pope. The opera later became a musical, adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and entitled The Threepenny Opera. One of its songs, ‘Mack the Knife’, was recorded by various people including Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, but was a big hit for Bobby Darin. (My mother took me to see the play during a short run on Broadway in the 1970s, with Raul Julia as Macheath. That’s not a movie reference, but we were both big Raul Julia fans, so we did go together to see The Addams Family.)

That wraps up all the spicy streets that I have found thus far. I’m off to think of a theme for the next post.

3 responses to “From Lavender Hill to Mint Street: music and Dickens in London’s spicy streets”

  1. I offer this TV series reference, concerning Inspector Whicher. I really enjoyed the actor Paddy Considine in the role.
    Also a literary recommendation, the simply wonderful London-set historical novel ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, by Michael Faber. It mentions a trip to the Lavender Fields. (Also later adapted for TV with an impeccable cast.)
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks for that, Pete. I did both read and see the Whicher book and TV series (my mother was an avid reader of true crime books, as well as being a fan of Raul Julia), so I had been aware of the Constance Kent story and was intrigued to see it come to light in popular fiction. As you say, very good, and Paddy Considine is always impressive. The Crimson Petal and the White is in the ‘must read’ section of my library, so thank you for getting it bumped nearer the top! All the best, Elizabeth

      1. You won’t be sorry. Faber’s book is marvellous. I couldn’t put it down!

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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