Royal Mint Street, E1
Running from its junction with Mansell Street at its western end and merging into Cable Street in the east, Royal Mint Street was so named in 1850 in (belated) recognition of the Royal Mint which had moved into the Tower Hill area in 1810. Methinks it was a rather belated attempt to refresh the reputation which, under its previous name, Rosemary Lane, had developed a certain reputation. I may return to the Mint another time but I will focus attention on other aspects of the street’s history.
From the beginning of the 18th century Rosemary Lane hosted a Rag Fair where Alexander Pope noted in footnotes to his satirical poem, Dunciad, published in 1728, “old cloaths and frippery are sold”. A contemporary commentator added more colour to the area by noting that “much of the clothing that was sold there was stolen; the market was also the final destination of all cast-off rags, in an epoch notorious for its careless habits and for seldom or never changing its linen”. Such was its reputation that in 1733, when a draper in Great Turnstile in Holborn noticed that he had lost 43 pairs of stockings, he immediately sent a boy to Mr Hancock’s in Rosemary Lane to look for them.
Its great rival was the market in Petticoat Lane but it had some advantages, namely being a wider and airier street, with taller buildings and the added attraction of a gin house. One of the attractions of the stalls, apart from cheap second-hand clothing, was that you were never quite sure what you would find within the garments. This snippet from the Public Advertiser from February 17, 1756 makes this point as well as shedding some light on how the transactions were conducted. A woman by the name of “Mary Jenkins, a dealer in old clothes in Rag Fair, was selling a pair of breeches to a poor woman for seven pence and a pint of beer. While the two were drinking together at a public house, the purchaser unripped the clothes and found eleven gold Queen Anne guineas quilted in the waistband and a £30 bank-note, dated 1729, of which she did not learn the value until she had sold it for a gallon of twopenny purl” (warm beer flavoured with something bitter). A case of caveat venditor.
There was some dispute amongst the authorities around the turn of the 19th century as to whether the Rag Fair was simply a marketplace for old tat. Thomas Pennant in his Of London, published in 1790, talked of tubs in which customers paid a penny to dip their hands to pull out a wig and that someone could clothe themselves for little or nothing. Joseph Nightingale, in his London and Middlesex from 1815, vehemently refuted Pennant’s account, recording that “the houses in Rosemary Lane, or the so called Rag Fair, are mostly occupied by wholesale dealers in clothes, who used to export them to our colonies, and to South America. In several Exchanges, or large covered buildings, fitted up with counters, &c. there are good shops, and the annual circulation of money in the purliens of this place, is really astonishing, considering the articles sold, although their cheapness bears no kind of proportion to Mr. Pennant’s conjectures”
Whoever was right at the time, by the middle of the century it was characterised by disorder and tawdriness. Henry Mayhew gave us a vivid illustration of life in the street in his London Labour and London Poor, published in 1861. He reported that it was “chiefly inhabited by dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpers, &c., as well as the slop-workers and “sweaters” employed in the Minories”. He went on to give a detailed description of the bric-a-brac on sale and the disorder to be found on the streets. “Some of the wares are spread on the ground, on wrappers, or pieces of matting or carpet; and some, as the pots, are occasionally placed on straw. The cotton prints are often heaped on the ground, where are also ranges or heaps of boots and shoes, and piles of old clothes, or hats or umbrellas. Other trades place their goods on stalls or barrows, or over an old chair or clothes-horse. And amidst all this motley display the buyers and sellers smoke, and shout, and doze, and bargain, and wrangle, and eat, and drink tea and coffee, and sometimes beer”.
The fair lasted until 1911. I shall return to this street to talk about some of the colourful characters who lived on it.