The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 16, 2007

Camomile Street

You have to hand it to these westerners. Is there nothing that is not preserved in some archive somewhere for posterity? Inveterate diarists, conservationists, large libraries, galleries, museums, specialist archives - the curious researcher can find data on pretty much anybody who lived in a European city over the past four hundred years. The information is incredibly detailed as well, even for such innocuous things as streets. As a case in point, my local library near work organised a small talk on Camomile Street, the road on which it stands. A more insignificant road you would not bother to find. At 151 yards long, it is one of the smaller main streets in the City of London.

Ruth Barriskill and Malcolm Key of the Guildhall Library presented the talk: Camomile Street and its Neighbourhood - a Brief History of its Buildings and People. The Guildhall library is one of the oldest archives in London, dating back to around 1420, established with a bequest by Dick Whittington. It is the library of reference for all things pertaining to the City of London, including genealogies, maps, manuscripts, drawings, and official records of various bureaucracies.

The first reference to Camomile Street appears in 1677. Before that, although there was a street there, nobody has been able to determine what it was called. There were shops on either bank, occupying the ground floors of the three-storeyed houses that stood here. On the side where stands the modern library (numbers 12-20), the ground floor had a living room and a yard with a privy behind the shop; the shopkeepers lived on the same premises, their sleeping quarters upstairs. Across the street, though, there was no space for a yard and the back wall of the shop abutted directly on the old London Wall, which was extant at the time. (Not much remains of the old battlements girdling the City. A section can be seen underground at Aldgate station.) The engraving to the left is "Bishops Gate Ward Within and Without According to a New Survey" by Benjamin Cole, published around 1766. If you can see Wormwood Street, going up from about the middle of the engraving, just follow it up across Bishopsgate, and that's Camomile Street.)

Bishopsgate, the main thoroughfare that Camomile Street meets, is just a few metres away; as its name suggests, it was a gate or entry into the City, cut into the wall built originally by the Romans. Camomile Street was on the northeast boundary of the wall. You can see a reconstructed map of Roman London to the right. Not much remains of this, and constant rebuilding in the Square Mile means that most archaeological artifacts have been discovered.

By about 1520, there was a chapel near the intersection with Bishopsgate - St. Augustine Papey, a fraternal order looking after indigent priests. They fed and accommodated sixty-four priests. This chapel lasted till the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII. Today, there's a little green yard which researchers speculate is a remnant of the chapel.

There was a law that required a clearance of sixteen feet on either side of the Wall. It is surmised that the camomile plant grew in this clearing, which led to the name of the street. However, as with many other names in the City, no real reason has been found for them, so people have tried to come up with possible histories. Consider, for example, the tale of Houndsditch, a street parallel to Camomile but on the other side of the wall, which is supposed to have been where dead dogs were dumped. Similarly, Wormwood Street is thought to have been named after the eponymous plant that might have grown in the clearing along the Wall.

In the sixteenth century, the entire area was enveloped with monasteries; there were very few private residences. The Earl of Oxford Inn in the vicinity was not - contrary to the modern usage of the word inn - a public house. At the time, inn referred to a private aristocratic dwelling, and the Earl was wont to stay here during his forays into the capital. Meanwhile, a map from 1562 shows that the Wall still exists, and that in the space between it and Houndsditch, there appear to have been stakes and poles that were possibly used to hang up clothes to dry. Also visible are St Augustine Papey and the various monastic buildings opposite.

In 1666, the Great Fire of London struck. By sheer chance, this area was spared the conflagration because, contrary to habit, that day the winds blew east to west, and pushed the flames away. A year later, as evident from the map, large sections of the city were still desolate, but Camomile Street and its environs were thriving. There were houses and shops, and increasingly, there was an enterprising community of Jews, educated and well-off, who made the area their own.

Bevis Marks is the synagogue of the Sephardim who were among the first to take advantage of Oliver Cromwell's permission to enter England. In common with many other European countries, Jews had been banished from Britain in the mediaeval period; when the Commonwealth was established, Cromwell seems to have lifted the ban. Suddenly England became a safe-haven for the Chosen People escaping persecution in Spain and Portugal (and later, Central and Eastern Europe).

The Sephardim were mainly business folks, well-off and literate. The businesses they setup in the city were trading houses, jewelleries. Although they were disallowed from owning property, they could (and did) enter into long leases with the landowners, and established their stores, schools and synagogues in the area. In 1657, they arranged for a parcel of land on Mile End Road to serve as their cemetery. When the poorer Ashkenazim started to immigrate in the 18th and 19th centuries, they took up the largely unskilled trades of clothiers and street vending. This is reflected in the name of a nearby street - Petticoat Lane - which was dominated by Jews till the 1970s. (These days, of course, there's an incredibly ugly social housing project on Middlesex Street (thus named by the prudish Victorians in 1830), and it is filled with Bangladeshis, the latest immigrants to the East End).

We get an idea of the local residents from three different sources: church and synagogue records, trade directories and (from 1841) the regular decennial population censuses. We can tell from Bevis Marks' records, for instance, that Moses Israel Fonseca's will in 1779 bequeathed funds for the synagogue and synagogue school; from the contemporary trade directory, we see that he was of a family of stonecutters.

The earliest trade directory, from 1677, was comprehensive but not arranged by street, so it requires considerable effort to locate the residents of Camomile Street. But in 1817, Johnstone's London Commercial Directory was published, arranged street-by-street, and providing an intimate glimpse into the lives and travails of the locals. It tells us, among other things, that there were 38 houses on Camomile Street. The 1841 census indicates that the dwellings were owned by individuals, and nobody seems to have owned more than a single property. The shops were mainly retail, and the names that appear in the directory are classical English ones (straight out of Dickens, even). By 1881-1891, people have become property tycoons, owning several houses on the street; Ashkenazi names like Rosenthal and Abrahams make their appearance (by now Jews permitted to own property); and the stores are predominantly wholesale. The density of population also drops: in 1841 there were 370 residents, dropping to 40 by 1901. Incendiary bombs that fell on Camomile Street in World War II didn't kill anyone, indicating that the resident population had very likely fallen even more by the 1940s. [The map above to the right is from 1746.]

What kind of people lived on this street? Here are two examples:

At Number 27 Camomile Street, in the census of 1841, appears the name of Edward Barty. This worthy did not live here (somewhat upwardly mobile, he and his sisters lived in Islington), but established a printing press here, employing upto 70 people. His name appears in the trade directories from 1836-1875. He was born in the area, baptised at St. Helen's Bishopsgate in 1815, and died in 1878. There is a mention of his name in the archives of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, although he was a master printer. The reason is that his father was a woolman, and he inherited the membership in the guild. He died a very wealthy man, leaving £25,000 in his will.

Samson Genese, tailor, appears in 1861 at Number 6. He lived with his father, also Samson, who was a furniture maker. The Bevis Marks register shows he was married in 1871, by which time he had moved to Number 34, and that his wife died five years later. He married again in 1880. In 1881, he moved residence to Great Russell Street. At his most prosperous, he was employing 20 men in his clothing business.

Possibly the most famous building on Camomile Street was the Saracen's Head Inn at Number 7. The earliest mention of it is from about 1677. In 1721, it was a busy stage coach station, providing daily services to and from London. In 1748, the Old Bailey records a theft of sundry gold items by a Samuel Hughes from a Thomas Drane, who lodged at the inn. Our Sam was transported for his wickedness. The indictment and sentence make for fine reading:
Samuel Hughes , of St. Catherine Creedchurch , was indicted for stealing one gold watch value 5 l. one gold chain, with a Pinchbeck hook, value 20 s. one enamelled gold ring value 5 s. one gold ring with 2 sparks, and a ruby, value 8 s. the property of Thomas Drane , in his dwelling-house , June 15.

Thomas Drane . I live at the Saracen's head within Aldgate , and I lost this watch and ring out of my chamber.

Richard Parham . I took the prisoner into custody, and he said he had pawned the ring at Sadler's-wells .

Q. to Mr. Drane. Is this your dwelling-house that they were stole from?

Drane . Yes; I have lived there these twenty years.

Thomas Walker . I took this watch from the prisoner .

Q. Did he say where he had it from?

Walker. He said he had it from Worcester .

Q. to Mr. Drane . Is this your watch?

Drane . Yes.

Guilty, 39 s.
Fifty years later, in 1798, the Loyal Servants Friendly Society - Quakers? - was recorded as having had its meetings at this inn.


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