August 21, 2014 by auntkatefirmin
I’ve been having a delightful journey exploring the visual side of Dorothy Sylvester Hall Smith’s years as the wife of William Smith then Josiah Hall. Like London itself, this blog post is necessarily eclectic – dependent on what survived in terms of the physical fabric of buildings for comparison with today, and upon period views that I could discover. As I mentioned earlier, Dorothy’s neighborhood overlapped in space and time with the London of Dickens, living as she did just blocks away from Saffron Hill and (west) Smithfield. From 1839 to at least 1851 she lived near the intersection of Benjamin Street and Cow Cross. I’ll begin with her skyline and the streets near Smithfield Market which she and her family must have known well.
Just the name of Smithfield is one amusing aspect of the journey. Supposedly derived from the Saxon “smethe/smooth field” meaning “smooth field,” many people are not aware there was another Smithfield just east of the Tower of London. I’ve become adept at picking both of them out on period maps. As can be seen from the map above, West Smithfield formed a distinctive open space just north of the City wall roughly in a line north of St. Paul’s – at least until the open market was closed in 1855 and a covered market built close by. East Smithfield, boy-hood home of Dorothy’s brother-in-law George Firmin (the American Kate’s grandfather) is an equally distinctive space in modern maps and aerial views as the streets where George was born are now under the water of St. Katherine’s Docks. But let’s take a look at Dorothy’s skyline.
There is a sense in which Dorothy, George, and all of Kate’s London ancestors were not Londoners. They did not live inside the (former) walls of the City “proper.” In their day, before the London Metropolitan Board of Works was established in 1855 any “rates” that they paid went to local boards, often parish-based. I haven’t turned up an ancestor yet that definitely lived in the City (as opposed to conducting business there), although their neighborhoods were often old and well-established by the early 19th century when I begin to find them in the London area. A few of them, including John Firmin, father-in-law of Emily Hall (Dorothy’s sister), had become a Freeman of the City by redemption and thus were licensed to carry on his business inside the walls.
Still, Dorothy’s skyline, once out of any narrow alleys, was archetypically London – St. Paul’s Cathedral provided a point of reference along with the distinctive spires of St Sepulchre’s where Dorothy was married.
Nearly 175 years after the Great Fire, Dorothy could not help but be aware of that pivotal event. St Paul’s was the visual triumph of the re-built London that Dorothy would have entered any time she journeyed south of Smithfield. In the same view, the tower of St Sepulchre provided a contrast from even earlier as the current church is a hybrid with the tower and the porch that survived the fire while the rest was rebuilt immediately after the fire and remodeled again after Dorothy’s day. The coffered ceiling dates to 1834, just before her first marriage (to William Smith in 1839).
Here is a view of what was considered the boundary of the fire in Dorothy’s neighborhood, Pie (or Pye) Corner at the top of Giltspur street, in the southern corner of Smithfield.
While this view is dated 1789, I like to think that it is not too far removed from segments of Dorothy’s reality – except perhaps in the artistic license of making the street less crowded.
This view from 1845 by C H Matthews of “Old buildings north side of Smithfield Market” includes both inns and the increasingly dominant small manufacturing that would become a hallmark of the area to the north of Smithfield including Cow Cross and Turnmill Streets. Dorothy’s London was moving from timbered to brick while keeping the patterns of the old properties, streets – and rivers.
The Fleet is one of what is often called London’s “lost” rivers. In Dorothy’s day portions of the Fleet just west of Benjamin Street were not yet paved over and diverted into sewers or culverts and could be seen behind the houses and inns of Clerkenwell. The Fleet runs south, parallel to Turnmill, forming the boundary of the parish. In 1855, excavations along the Fleet uncovered old water pipes made of hollowed elm trees and bits of what were thought to be an impoundment (the black timbers) to form a mill pond for a mill at Clerkenwell.
A bit farther south, the Fleet had been covered and channeled by the 18th century but still presented a challenge for east-west traffic. The construction of the Holborn viaduct began in 1863 to span the low spot where the road crossed the valley of the Fleet. In the drawing below, the spires of St Sepulchre can be seen on the high ground to the east of the valley, known as Snow Hill.
The entrance to another notable landmark, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, proudly faced the market. It is still main public entrance to oldest existing hospital in Britain on the original site. It was founded 1123 and the precincts include a church, St Bartholomew the Less, with a 15th century tower and vestry. Let us hope that Dorothy and her family never needed to visit.
I’ve just scratched the surface of Dorothy’s London and will gather more illustrations for other near-by 19th century landmarks both vanished and visible, permanent and transitory.