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.

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.

Gulliver’s Travels and hot cross buns

Jonathan Swift

This day in London history: on 13 January 1695 Jonathan Swift was ordained an Anglican priest. The Irish-born Swift, in addition to being a biting satirist, was also a poet, essayist, cleric, and political pamphleteer. However, he is probably best known for Gulliver’s Travels, both a satire on human nature and a parody of the travellers’ tales genre of literature.

Published in 1726, the book has never been out of print. As Swift’s friend John Gay told him in a letter, “From the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.”

Gulliver's travelsSwift spent a great deal of time in London, which is where he showed the manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels to, among other, John Gay and Alexander Pope. It was published anonymously as a true account by Lemuel Gulliver.

In addition to his contribution to literature, Gulliver is also responsible for immortalizing the shortcomings of a bakery frequented by London’s high society, including royalty.

Bunhouse Place in Chelsea (unlike Bunhill Row, which was named for the less appetizing Bunhill Fields) does have a bun connection . The Chelsea Bun House, established in the 18th century, sold Swift a stale bun one day; he wrote in a letter dated 1711, “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it…”

Chelsea Bun House pre-demolition
The Chelsea Bun House before it was demolished

Despite Swift’s disappointment, Bun House did a storming trade and there were said to be as many as 50,000 people waiting outside on Good Fridays to buy hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on that day. This caused some consternation among the neighbours and in 1793 the proprietor Mrs Hand declared that she would not sell any hot cross buns on that day.

This was made clear in a notice on the shop, which read, “Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Despite the fact that business began to decline in 1804, there were still nearly a quarter of a million buns sold on Good Friday 1839, the year when the Bun House finally closed.

In 1592 it was made illegal to sell hot cross buns except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. Those who ignored the edict had to forfeit their buns to the poor.

There is a nursery rhyme all about hot cross buns:

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One a penny two a penny
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons
One a penny two a penny
Hot cross buns!

Opera, price riots, and Bow Street Runners

Royal Opera House exterior
The modern-day Royal Opera House. Photo credit: ROH2012

This day in London’s history: on 7 December 1732 Covent Garden theatre opened on Bow Street on what was the site of an ancient convent garden, and remained a fruit and vegetable market until 1974.

John Rich, actor/manager at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was responsible for the building of the first Opera House: in 1728 he commissioned The Beggar’s Opera from John Gay. This was successful enough to provide the funds to build the first Theatre Royal at Covent Garden, designed by Edward Shepherd and completed in 1732.

In 1763 the interior was substantially damaged when rioting broke out amongst would-be theatregoers who were refused half price admission in the third act. They stormed the theatre, tearing out benches and breaking chandeliers.

Original Opera House
The Opera House before the 1808 fire

More serious damage occurred in 1808 when fire destroyed the theatre, which was rebuilt virtually immediately, reopening less than a year later.Seat prices were raised to help cover the rebuilding costs, but once again the theatregoers resisted this move, and, says the Opera House’s official site, “disrupted performances by beating sticks, hissing, booing and dancing”.

These ‘Old Price’ riots lasted nearly three months before the audience won their battle.

In 1856 fire struck once more, and the theatre was again completely destroyed. Rebuilding took a little longer this time, largely due to financial considerations, but the third – and current – theatre opened on 15 May 1858.

Bow Street, the home of the Royal Opera House, owes its name to the shape of the street, which runs “in the shape of a bent bow”. As well as the Opera House, Bow Street is perhaps most famous for the Bow Street Runners.

Henry Fielding lived in Bow Street when he was writing Tom Jones and was appointed magistrate for Westminster. It was in 1749 that he established the Bow Street Runners, the precursor to the modern London police force, and many of his ideas were developed by John. There were originally only a handful of these Runners, but they caused the crime rate to drop almost immediately.

EAS_4072During Victoria’s reign, the police station in Bow Street was unusual in that it was provided with a white lamp, rather than the traditional blue one. It is said that Victoria did not like seeing the blue lamp when she visited the theatre because it reminded her of her beloved Albert, who had died in the Blue Room of Windsor Castle.

There is also a Bow Lane, EC4: it is the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, located here, that determined whether or not someone is a Cockney: traditionally someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of those bells. (This, however, begs the question as to how Dick Whittington managed, as tradition has it, to hear the bells all the way from Highgate. Certainly people born between in Highgate are not considered Cockneys.) The name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches, which are shaped like bows, upon which it was built.

The church of Mary-le-Bow


Beggars, a Bubble, and the six faces of Seven Dials

This day in London history: on 4 December 1732, John Gay, English poet (Beggar’s Opera), died aged 47. John Gay is perhaps most famous for his satirical ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, with its central character of Macheath.

John Gay The opera, adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, would later become The Threepenny Opera and 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.

Macheath was based on a notorious highwayman of the time, Jack Sheppard, who often sought refuge in what was, at the time, one of London’s criminal quarters and a sanctuary for thieves and debtors. The area, which lives on in Mint Street, was called the Mint, former site of a Royal Mint established by Henry VIII. There is also a character called Matt of the Mint in The Beggar’s Opera.

The Beggar’s Opera had been suggested by two of Gay’s friends, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, and Swift also provided ideas for another of Gay’s works: Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poem in three books. One of the places Gay mentions in this poem is Seven Dials:

Where famed St Giles’s ancient limits spread
     An in-rail’s column rears its lofty head
Here to seven streets seven dials count their day
    And from each other catch the circling ray

seven dialsSeven Dials was an early exercise in town planning: in 1693 the Master of the Royal Mint, Sir Thomas Neale, purchased a meadow in what is now the heart of London’s Soho. He planned seven streets radiating from a central point where there was a six-sided column with a sun dial on each face.

Some say the seventh ‘dial’ comes from the column itself; others that the column was commissioned before a change of plan meant there were seven streets instead of six.

The column was taken down 1773 when a false rumour circulated to the effect that money was hidden in the base, and it was re-erected in Weybridge Green.

Gay was one of the victims of the disastrous ‘South Sea Bubble’ scheme, speculation that ruined the purses and lives of thousands of investors. It started with the South Sea Company, given exclusive trading rights first with South America and then the South Seas. The company originally planned to convert the National Debt to a lower rate of interest and then take it over completely.

Money poured into the scheme, resulting in gross over-speculation and the eventual bursting of the bubble. It was not just the unwary investors who were ruined financially: Members of Parliament were shown to have taken bribes and the bubble was a national scandal.