Mincing Lane and Seething Lane, EC3
This pair of quaintly named streets are to be found in the heart of the City of London, the former linking Fenchurch Street with Great Tower Street and the latter Hart Street with Byward Street. On Mincing Lane is to be found the London Underwriting Centre and I fondly imagined brokers mincing gaily down the street, perhaps indulging in a spot of polari with their mates, only to return in high dudgeon or seething after an underwriter had the audacity to turn down the opportunity to put their pen to a guaranteed loss-making risk.
Mincing Lane, though, owes its name to a corruption of the word Mynchen meaning a nun which in turn is from the Anglo Saxon for a nun, mynechenu. The living quarters of the Benedictine nuns attached to St Helen’s church on Bishopsgate were to found on the lane which appears in written records as Menechinlane in 1273. Presumably the reformation put an end to their occupation there and, almost certainly, the Great Fire of 1666 would have eradicated much of what was standing there.
In the late 18th century the Lane became the centre for the British tea and spice industry following the assumption of most of the trade from the east by the British East India Company. When the Company ceased commercial activities in 1834, tea auctions were held in the London Commercial Salesrooms on the Lane and, naturally, tea merchants set up their premises in the street, earning it the moniker of “the street of tea”.
Other commercial activities on the Lane involved what we would now consider to be shady or nefarious practices. It was the centre of the British opium trade – about 90% of the British trade was transacted there – as well as other drugs. The characteristic fragrance of the street took Charles Dickens’ interest, giving it a name check in Our Mutual Friend (chapter 16), “[Bella] arrived in the drug-flavoured region of Mincing Lane, with the sensation of just having opened a drawer in a chemist’s shop”. Worst still, the British slaving company, Hibbert, Purrier and Horton, had their premises there from 1770. Perhaps being a centre of the London insurance market now is not too bad after all.
The more easterly Seething is again a corruption, this time of sifethen which meant full of chaff, suggesting that it was the centre of the mediaeval corn trade. One of the notable relics there are the Gates of the Dead, a a gate with spiked iron and grinning skulls and crossbones, marking the entrance to the graveyard of St Olave’s or St Ghastly Grim, as Dickens nicknamed it in The Uncommercial Traveller. The gate commemorates the three hundred and sixty plague victims who were buried there in 1665.
Perhaps the most famous resident in Seething Lane was Samuel Pepys who moved into ten roomed house in the Navy House complex there in July 1660. He was a regular at St Olave’s and famously witnessed the progress of the Great Fire from his rooms. Another resident of note was Sir Francis Walsingham who occupied what is now number 35 and what in 1656 became the Navy House, dying there in 1590. He was good Queen Bess’ spymaster in chief and was responsible for entrapping Mary Queen of Scots, amongst others.
But for me the real pleasure of these streets is to be gained from their names.