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.

Wine, Mohawks, and snow

wine18 February is National Drink Wine Day, the purpose of which is “to spread the love and health benefits of wine”. (The nation in the national is the US but there’s no reason, surely, why the UK couldn’t adopt such a worthy holiday?) Appropriately, if somewhat gruesomely, on this day in 1478 George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of Malmsey – in today’s terms, about 480 litres of sweet Madeira wine. (And it happened at the Tower of London, so there is a London connection.)

Pilgrim's ProgressOn this day in 1678, John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress or, more properly, The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, was published. Bunyan died in 1688, at the sign of the Star, a shop in Snow Hill run by his grocer friend Mr Strudwick.

Meteorological conditions have nothing to do with this name Snow Hill, which has been described as “a mysterious name of unknown origin”. It was once known as ‘Snore Hylle’ (as early as the reign of Henry III) and therein lies more than one tale.

Snore could have come from a Scandinavian trader called Snorro who lived there. It could also have come from the Celtin word ‘snuadh’, a brook, because the hill once led to the Fleet River. Or it could be that, because Snow Hill is steep and winding, the name derives from an old word meaning ‘twist’.

Snow HIll 19th century
Snow Hill in the 19th century

Once again, there is another theory that, while unlikely, is much more fun. The Saracen’s Head inn at Snow Hill was a coaching inn dating back to the time of Richard the Lionheart (who stopped there when he came back from the Crusades and gave the landlord permission so to name it). Passengers arriving at the tavern after travelling a long way would generally, by then, be sound asleep and snoring, giving rise to the hill’s earlier name.

In John Stow’s time, it was a “fair and large inn for the receipt of travellers”, but it was demolished in 1868.

The steepness of the hill made it ideal for one particular, non-commendable, 18th-century pastime. Groups of young men (called Mohocks, from the Mowhawk Indians) would seize elderly women, put them in tubs or barrels, and roll them to the bottom of the hill. They would also upend coaches onto rubbish heaps (presumably whether or not there were any elderly women inside them).

At one point, in 1715, it was not a good place to pass if you were not a Jacobite supporter: a group of Jacobites congregated at the bottom of the hill, toasting the memory of James. If any passers-by were foolish enough to decline to join in the toast, they were stripped.

And, lest you think we have given up on the wine theme: Snow Hill historically was the site of one of the City of London conduits and on days of great celebration it was made to run with red and white wine. Sadly, this tradition is no longer upheld.

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Edison, Christmas lights, and wicked behaviour

This day in London history: On 22 December 1882, Thomas Edison created the first string of Christmas tree lights. In January that year, Edison had switched on the first steam-generating power station at Holborn Viaduct in London.

There are at least two possibilities for the derivation of Holborn’s name. It could be from the Middle English ‘hol’ (hollow), and ‘bourne’ (a brook), in this case the Fleet River. The London historian John Stow attributes the name to the Old Bourne, or old brook, a stream that he said ran into the Fleet at Holborn Bridge.

Holborn Viaduct 1869
A royal procession under Holborn Viaduct in 1869

Holborn Viaduct, which replaced Holborn Bridge, was built between 1863 and 1869. When the Viaduct was built, it bisected Turnagain Lane, which originally ran from Snow Hill to the Fleet river and was once called Windagain Lane. According to says Stow it was so called, “for that it goeth down west to Fleet dike, from whence men must turn again the same way they came, for there it stopped”.

There was an old proverb: ‘He must take him a house in Turnagain lane’, applied to those bent on a path of wicked and destructive behaviour, and who needed to make dramatic changes to their way of life.