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Chick Lane and district (under construction)



Chick Lane & The Black Boy Alley Gang - A detailed case study of crime in Chick Lane in the eighteenth century by Rictor Norton on the Georgian Underworld website.

The Slum at West Street (Smithfield), Saffron and Field Lane, London an extract from the book Mysteries of London by W.M. Reynolds written in the mid nineteenth century and found on the Victorian Web site.

St. Sepulchre Workhouse - From the wonderful The Workhouse site.

Red Lion Tavern, West Street, Clerkenwell - on the London Coffee Houses and Taverns website is reproduced an article by Jonathan Wild in the Illustrated London News 1844

Field Lane and Larceny, Then and Now - an article by Andrea Gibbons.

Walks Through London Including the Suburbs - a book written by one David Hughson in 1817 - now a Google Book. Walk number X is through this area.

A Great and Monstrous Thing - an extract from a book by Jerry White, about the criminal activities in the area.

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Jonah Beckwith -1805?
Jonah Beckwith 1753-1816
Ann Stuck
Robert Mollett  

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure whether the ancestors listed above (and not yet written up in 2019) lived in this area or not.  For there has been some doubt, and looking into the district - and Chick Lane in particular is, I think, helping us to sort out who, if any of our ancestors lived here.  For it is one of the most crime ridden parts of London in the eighteenth century. So if our ancestors were here, why were they?

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1746 map.jpg

Chick Lane

The area I am talking about is the area shown on this detail from the Horwood map of London in 1792.   Out of the frame but to the right and top is Smithfield which has its own page on this website. In fact at the end of Chick Lane are the sheep pens for as you can see on the lower map West Smithfield market.   Chick Lane runs across the middle of the map, with its warren of little courts and yards behind it.  At the left end is Field Lane, running north/south, and to the left of that, Union Court. All three of these names are mentioned on various baptismal records for the children of the first Jonah.  Or is it another Jonah or even Jonas or Joseph?  Saffron Hill is to the north and Hatton Garden - the silver and goldsmiths area of London is to the left.  Cross Street and Charles Street, other roads mentioned in the Beckwith baptismal records, and somewhat more respectable are  to the north of Chick Lane.  The big road that you see at the bottom of this map is Holborn Hill.   Cow Lane, curves out of the picture at the bottom right, and I think this is associated with the early life of Robert Mollett the pastry cook, who eventually set up shop in Snow Hill which is just to the south of this map section.

The 1746 map below gives a slightly wider view and an author who knows considerably more about it than I describes the whole area thus:

"Perhaps the most notoriously criminal district in London throughout the eighteenth century was that centred on Chick Lane, straddling the boundary between Farringdon Ward Without in the City and the parish of St. Andrew Holborn. Chick Lane was long and narrow, linking Smithfield Market in the east with Saffron Hill and crossing the open Fleet Ditch at its western end.  From it opened a maze of some thirty or forty courts and alleys on either side of the way.  Of these, Black Boy Alley was the most notorious, on the north side towards the Fleet Ditch end.  Chick Lane alone was referred to in over 300 case in the Old Bailey Proceedings across the century."  A Great and Monstrous Thing by Jerry White 

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The engravings and paintings shown here depict Chick Lane and particularly the Red Lion Tavern, well known haunt of a notorious criminal Jonathan Wild.  When it was demolished in 1745 a huge number of hidden passages and hiding places were discovered, and doubtless other taverns and dwelling houses in the area had similar things.  Criminality in the Chick Lane area was at its height in Georgian times - the eighteenth century - when our ancestors were living there.  

"These are the fearful mysteries of that hideous district which exists in the very heart of this great metropolis. From St. John-street to Saffron Hill--from West-street to Clerkenwell Green, is a maze of narrow lanes, choked up with dirt, pestiferous with nauseous odours, and swarming with a population that is born, lives, and dies, amidst squalor, penury, wretchedness, and crime."  George W. M. Reynolds - The Mysteries of London 

Some time around the end of the eighteenth century it became known as West Street. It has now disappeared, having been built over by railways, and markets and general building.  It's the edge of the city of London now.

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"Hugh Morris, hanged at the age of 17 with two other Irish lads in November 1730, confessed to eight robberies and told the Ordinary of Newgate that ‘his total ruin was owing to some places about Chick-Lane, where numbers of the vilest miscreants, street robbers, thieves, pick-pockets, house-breakers, shop-lifters, and other monsters of wickedness, meet in great companies, and there they drink and carouse in a most intemperate manner; then (having got musicians of their own kidney), they fall a dancing, and crying out like so many pigs and geese, and often, as drink comes in, wit goes out, they fall a fighting, beating, and tearing one another.’

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.  Charles Dickens

Leading out of Holborn, between Field Lane and Ely Place, is Upper Union Court--a narrow lane forming a thoroughfare for only foot passengers. The houses in this court are dingy and gloomy: the sunbeams never linger long there; and should an Italian-boy pass through the place, he does not stop to waste his music upon the inhabitants. The dwellings are chiefly let out in lodgings; and through the open windows upon the ground-floor may occasionally be seen the half-starved families of mechanics crowding round the scantily-supplied table. A few of the lower casements are filled with children's books, pictures of actors and highwaymen glaringly coloured, and lucifer-matches, twine, sweet-stuff, cotton, &c. At one door there stands an oyster-stall, when the comestible itself is in season: over another hangs a small board with a mangle painted upon it. Most of the windows on the ground-floors announce rooms to let, or lodgings for single men; and perhaps a notice may be seen better written than the rest, that artificial-flower makers are required at that address."  George W. M. Reynolds - The mysteries of London 

Field Lane

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