Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
In the 17th century, it was uncertain who held jurisdiction over the area – the City of London, the County of Surrey and the Marshall of the nearby King’s Bench Prison all had claims – and consequently was outside the reach of the law. It became known as the Liberty of the Mint and became a safe haven for fugitives from the law. Each liberty in London was associated with a certain type of crime and the Liberty of the Mint became a shelter for debtors. They were unable to work or to arrange to borrow money to pay off their debts and were only able to leave on Sunday when they were free from fear of arrest outside the Liberty. They had no money for food and lodging and often they starved on the streets or died from disease.
St Michael's Church in Lant Street was consecrated by the Church of England in 1867 under the patronage of St George the Martyr in Borough High Street. Its vicar, the Revd. Hibbert Newton described his congregation as “All very poor or very low, mostly living in rooms or in lanes and courts” whose occupations were described as operatives and labourers "all forsaken, through Railways, by the rich and thriving.” George Sims wrote a series of newspaper articles in 1883 concerning the living conditions of the poor and wrote with pity and a reforming passion about The Mint. He described the filth and garbage, the dangerous buildings, the broken windows and the dilapidated roofs. He described the single rooms as pigsties where whole families lived and the tenants in a state of nudity as they'd pawned their last clothes to buy food.
But improvements were already being made at the time George Sims was writing. The Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act 1875 made provision for slum clearances. If a local Medical Officer of Health reported an area within their parish as unfit for human habitation, and if the local Board (in London the Metropolitan Board of Works) agreed after holding a local enquiry, the owners would be compelled to sell to the Board. The owners would be compensated, the Board then demolished the area and sold the land to a commercial company who were bound by the Act to only use the land to build housing for the poor. Henry Bateson, the Medical Officer of Health for St George the Martyr Parish in Borough, reported to the Board that an area in the Mint that included part of the south side of Mint Street, Blue Ball Alley, Star Court, Mitre Court and Suffolk Court was unfit for human habitation. In 1882 the cleared site was sold to the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company and Douglas Buildings completed in 1886.
By the end of the 19th century, though still a desperately poor area, the worst deprivations of The Mint had been curbed. When interviewed in 1898 for the Charles Booth’s Survey of Life and Labour in London, Revd. W H Longsden, who had succeeded Revd. Newton as vicar at St Michael’s, felt conditions within the parish had improved. He described his parishioners’ occupations as City policemen, printers, iron moulders etc while half of the parish was out of work.
A short row of the remaining old houses on Mint Street were purchased by St Michael’s in 1898 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and were repaired and refurbished to become Mission Rooms (Longsden: “And the bugs! I thought I should never get rid of them.”) A former lodging house at the end of the row of houses was also purchased at the same time and became the Vicarage.
A school now stands over the location of the house where Charles Dickens once lodged in Lant Street and is named after him. St Michael’s Church was declared redundant in 1953 and demolished in 2004. A block of flats now stands on the site.
The Mint lost its status as a liberty in 1722 and 400 houses had been built in the area by 1774. The most famous resident of the area was Charles Dickens who took lodgings in Lant Street to be near his father imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison for debt, along with the rest of his family. Dickens described the spirit and humanity of the area in The Pickwick Papers. Thomas Miller, writing in 1847, conveys a more bleak and desolate view of The Mint as having no end of narrow courts, winding alleys and ruined houses, many of which were unroofed and uninhabited. There was no spot so melancholy or miserable. There had been both road and railway building throughout London that had the additional effect of clearing slums and those who had been displaced and lost their homes in the process had no alternative but to go to those areas where the rents were low, and the Mint became even more over-crowded.
Mint Street, 1854
A second factor that contributed to slum clearance in the Mint was the construction of the Marshalsea Road in 1888 which starting at Southwark Bridge Road curved down to the eastern half of Mint Street which part was renamed and became a part of Marshalsea Road. Ilfracombe Flats were built on the triangular area cleared between the Mint Street Workhouse, Mint Street and the curve of the new Marshalsea Road, and Monarch Flats were built on the northern side of Marshalsea Road, both blocks built by James Hartnoll. There had been criticisms regarding the slum clearances in that very few of those dispossessed were housed in the new blocks and pushed the problem of over-crowding and homelessness to other areas close by. The Peabody Trust acquired Ilfracombe and Monarch Flats in 1970 having already purchased Douglas Buildings in 1964. The three blocks are now called the Marshalsea Estate.
The Mint is an area to the west of Borough High Street, once made up of a warren of small streets and courts that had the greatest deprivation, poverty, the most over-crowded and squalid living conditions in London. Once the site of a grand renaissance palace, home to Henry VIII’s sister and her husband Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, the area derived its name from a Royal Mint established there briefly by Henry VIII.
Two photos from the end of the 19th century. Left: The houses in Mint Street purchased by St Michael's. The house on the left became the vicarage and the remaining houses were coverted into a Mission Hall. At the end of the street is the rear of the Evelina Hospital and the building on the right is the front of the Workhouse. Right: The vicarage when it was a lodging house - note the people on the roof looking down!
This row of houses is still standing (right) with added loft extensions and is now residential. A hundred years ago, the houses would have been overshadowed by the grim prospect of the Mint Street workhouse looming over them which was built in 1782. It ceased life as a workhouse in 1920 and mostly demolished in 1936. Today there is just a wall remaining which bears a street sign ‘Mint Street’. To the west was the rear of the Evelina Hospital. Today both workhouse and hospital have been cleared and the area has been formed into the delightful Mint Street Park.