Field lane was once a narrow alley that led to Saffron Hill (once fields and gardens belonging to Ely Place and filled with actual saffron), and formed part of a tangle of the narrow lanes and courts that contained some of London’s most desperate poverty. Flora Tristan describes it thus in 1842:
Quite close to Newgate, in a little alley off Holborn Hill called Field Lane, which is too narrow for vehicles to use, there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in secondhand silk handkerchiefs.’ I am sure I do not need to warn any curious traveller who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps, to leave at home his watch, purse and handkerchief before he ventures into Field Lane, for he may be sure that the gentlemen who frequent the spot are all light-fingered! It is particularly interesting to go there in the evening, as it is then thronged with people – which is easy to understand: buyers and sellers alike are anxious to preserve their anonymity for, after his purse. nothing is more precious to anyone in business than the mask of respectability he has been at such pains to acquire.
The shops are in fact stalls which project into the steet, and this is where the handkerchiefs are displayed: they hang on rails so that intending purchasers can recognise at a glance the property they have had stolen from them! The men and women dealers, whose looks are in perfect harmony with their trade, stand in their doorways and hector the customers who come under cover of the night to buy dirt cheap the spoils of the day. There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs (175).
I found a picture or two (with a jarring one in contrast, to bring us into the present):
They are described by Dickens of course, in Oliver Twist. I was so pleased to have accidentally been reading that at the same time as Tristan’s London Journal, and to have connected the two together on my own. Of course, I found out that is no big thing. This is from Dickens, describing one of Fagins’ haunts:
Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts, and the shelves within are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself—the emporium of petty larceny, visited at early morning and setting-in of dusk by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back parlours and go as strangely as they come. Here the clothes-man, the shoevamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods as sign-boards to the petty thief, and stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.
Here is a map showing the maze of streets and courts:
Another long passage from Oliver Twist (I love this feeling that you are walking alongside and looking about you, though seeing things rather differently)
As John Dawkins objected to their entering London before nightfall, it was nearly eleven o’clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. They crossed from the Angel into St. John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.
Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.
There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade
appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.
Oliver was just considering whether he hadn’t better run away, when they reached the bottom of the hill. His conductor, catching him by the arm, pushed open the door of a house near Field Lane; and drawing him into the passage, closed it behind them.
All this was soon to become a thing of the past, 1844 ushered in efforts to rebuild the area, 1869 saw the construction of the Holborn Viaduct, by the time Charles Booth was making his second set of poverty maps in 1898-99, it looked rather different (in both, field lane is the bottom left), though the black sections show that poverty and crime abide:
Today crime clearly still abides, at least, loitering does along these steps that lead down from Charterhouse.
Further down becoming Saffron Hill proper (though Field Lane has been wiped from memory through signage alone), it regains something of the feel for what was:
I love this area, despite the creep of the City, the expensiveness, the smart suits walking briskly to and fro. There are still a scattering of normal people, some estates not yet demolished or turned into luxury apartments perhaps. Still a sound of accents that make me feel at ease, still a raffish air to it. I don’t mourn the loss of the desperate poverty, the cold, damp and overcrowded housing, or the picturesque views of stolen goods. What I hate is that our people were simply swept away for the most part, to build a cold corporate environment of nearly empty echoing alleys. Buildings that are a monument to greed and thievery of a different kind, often, though not always, a legitimated one.
People with money desire curious things.
For more on Victorian cities or Dickens…