London Clay Pipe Studies

The clay tobacco pipe industry in the parishes of St Margaret and St John the Evangelist, Westminster

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Historical background

A brief description of the parishes

Originally St Margaret's was a large parish, co-extensive with the Westminster Abbey estate. In the 14th century the northern part of the parish was hived off to become St Martin-in-the-Fields, and in 1548 Henry VIII added to St Martin's that part of St Margaret's parish that lay to the north of his new palace of Whitehall. Thus, by the beginning of the post-medieval period the parish had contracted considerably; it contained the ancient town in the vicinity of Westminster Abbey, Whitehall Palace and the Palace of Westminster and a large tract of open land to the south of the town, as shown below on Fig 2.

The Benedictine Abbey of St Peter at Westminster rose to prominence under the patronage of Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. When the king moved his residence from the City of London to a new palace near the Abbey he established Westminster as the seat of royal power, and the Abbey began its long association with the monarchy. Edward's successor, William I, was crowned at Westminster Abbey in 1066, and since then, with only two exceptions, the Abbey has witnessed the coronation of every English monarch. Whitehall Palace ceased to be the prime royal residence in 1689, when William and Mary moved the court to Kensington Palace. Whitehall was destroyed by fire in 1698, and subsequently St James's Palace (located in the neighbouring parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields) became the principal royal seat in the London area. The Palace of Westminster, which had been the main royal abode until Henry VIII moved to Whitehall, became the meeting place for both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It remained such until it, too, was destroyed by fire in 1834. Important as these establishments were, they have little relevance to the subject of this paper. Of much greater significance is the small town that grew up around them in the medieval period.

Even into the 17th century the town of Westminster remained relatively compact. The built-up area lay mostly to the north of the Abbey, along King Street (modern Whitehall), and to the west, along Tothill Street and Petty France. To the north the town abutted the sprawling apartments of Whitehall Palace, and to the north west it was hemmed in by St James's Park, part of which lay within the parish boundary. It was not until the mid-17th century that the town began to extend southwards, as far as Peter Street and Wood Street (modern Great Peter Street), as shown on Fig 2. Between  those streets and Market Street (modern Horseferry Road) was the former Abbey Vine Garden, which by that time had been given over to market gardening, remaining mostly open land until the early 19th century. The Horse Ferry, shown on Fig 2 at the east end of Market Street, was the principal means of crossing the river until the completion of Westminster Bridge in 1750. Beyond the ferry, to the south along Millbank, market gardens and meadows extended along the bank of the Thames. 

To the west and south of the town was an extensive, desolate wasteland called Tothill Fields. This was low-lying and marshy, and consequently remained open land until well into the 19th century. In fact, much of the town of Westminster was built on similarly low-lying ground in the former delta of the River Tyburn, a tributary of the Thames. The Abbey and Palace of Westminster stood on an area of slightly elevated land known as Thorney Island, which lay between two former channels of the Tyburn. By the post-medieval period the channels had been infilled, but the nature of the topography continued to influence both the development and the character of the town, as will be seen below.

In the early 18th century, by which time the population of St Margaret's (then at about 200,000) had long outgrown its parish church, it was decided that a new church should be built on land between Wood Street and Vine Street. St John's, Smith Square, was completed in 1728 and the southern half of the parish of St Margaret became the parish of St John the Evangelist. Despite this, for certain administrative purposes (such as polling) the parishes remained a single unit.

Fig 2  Extract from William Morgan's map of c. 1680, showing the town of Westminster and part of Tothill Fields

The economic life of the parishes

Since the medieval period Westminster has been home to the royal court, the centre of national government and a seat of ecclesiastical power. Not surprisingly, St Margaret's and St John's parishes were inhabited by some of the richest and most powerful families in the country. However, the majority of the population was made up of the artisans, tradesmen and agricultural workers who provided the services required by that social elite.

An attempt has been made by Green to define the nature of Westminster's economy in the late 18th century, by examining  voters' occupations as recorded in contemporary poll books (Green, 1990). The poll books survive for eleven of the twelve elections contested between 1774 and 1820 and although the data are obviously biased towards those with voting rights (male householders assessed to pay rates) some general deductions can be drawn. For example, Green states that in Westminster as a whole production was organized in small units rather than vast factories. It was essentially an artisan and trading economy with a large service sector and a substantial leisure class. In 1784 those engaged in occupations coming under the general heading of Dealing constituted 31.5% of all voters, with the Manufacturers making up 29.6%. In the same year, 43% of all voters (in the Westminster constituency as a whole) could be classed under just 10 occupation or status labels, as listed below: 

Gentleman, 9.8% of all voters

Victualler, 7.7%

Tailor, 4.9%

Cordwainer, 4.8%

Carpenter, 4.7%

Esquire, 4.0%

Butcher, 2.4%

Hairdresser, 1.8%

Baker, 1.5%

Chandler, 1.4%

Green goes on to take a more detailed look at the occupations of voters polling in St Margaret's and St John's parishes. He states that one-fifth of all Westminster voters lived in those parishes, and yet they were home to two-fifths of all voters engaged in each of the three categories of Professions and Public Service, Agriculture and Transport. Only one-fifth of all Westminster voters engaged in Manufacturing lived in the combined parishes, and only one-seventh of those working in the Dealing sector. The manufacturers and dealers appear therefore to have made up relatively small proportions of the population of St Margaret's and St John's, compared with the other Westminster parishes. This last point is obviously of some significance when considering the contribution of the clay pipe industry to the local economy.

Analysis of voters' occupations is not enough to fully define the character of the population in the post-medieval period, since it tells us nothing of those who, by virtue of status, were excluded from the franchise. However, from other sources it is clear that in the midst of all the affluence and economic activity there existed a social underclass living in the most abject squalor, such that parts of Westminster were among the most depressed in the London area.

To some extent, this aspect of Westminster's society has its roots in medieval times, when the monks of the Abbey claimed the right to offer safe haven to alleged criminals, and later, debtors. This is the origin of the name Sanctuary for the area adjacent to the western gate of the Abbey. Even after the Dissolution, Westminster remained a magnet for the criminal class, attracted, no doubt, by the rich pickings that the town offered. Walter Besant quotes Bardsley (writing on Westminster Improvements in 1839) who described the area thus:

Thorney Island consisted chiefly of narrow, dirty streets lined with wretched dwellings, and of numerous miserable courts and alleys, situate in the environs of the Palace and Abbey, where in the olden time the many lawless characters claiming sanctuary found shelter; and so great had been the force of long custom that the houses continued to be rebuilt, century after century, in a miserable manner for the reception of similar degraded outcasts. The inhabitants of these courts and alleys are stated in the reign of Queen Elizabeth "to be the most part of no trade or mystery, to be poor, and many  of them wholly given to vice and idleness". And in James I's time "almost every fourth house is an alehouse, harbouring all sorts of lewde and badde people"  And again: "In these narrow streets, and in their close and insalubrious lanes, courts and alleys, where squalid misery and poverty struggle with filth and wretchedness, where vice reigns unchecked, and in the atmosphere of which the worst diseases are generated and diffused" (Besant 1895, 286).

Bardsley is described the area of the Sanctuary, close to the Abbey, but in the 18th century other parts of Westminster began to acquire similarly evil reputations. The worst area was considered to be around Old Pye Street, Great St Anne’s Lane (modern St Ann Street) and Duck Lane (modern St Matthew Street). This had been a pleasant corner of the town with many fine dwellings in the reign of Elizabeth I, and even as late as 1735 it must have retained some charm: Smith quotes Seymour, writing in that year, who described Great St Anne's Lane as a pretty, handsome, well-built and inhabited place (Smith 1892, 443). However, by the middle of the 18th century the gardens and courtyards of the older properties had been built over, and the streets had become notoriously ill-paved and ill-maintained (Watson 1993, 81). Typically this infilling consisted of the worst type of jerry-built dwellings, constructed of the cheapest materials, with little ventilation, poor lighting and without drainage or sanitation of any kind. To make things worse, the area was relatively low-lying and prone to water-logging, being located in one of the relict channels of the River Tyburn: archaeological excavations reveal an underlying subsoil of peat and alluvium which would be liable to subsidence. The excavation at 18 Great Peter Street showed that the brick foundations of some of the 17th-century houses on the east side of St Anne Street  were by necessity supported on massive timber beams (Grainger, 1996).

Depressed areas such as this, common enough in the London of the 18th century, were populated by the lowest stratum of society. According to Watson, Old Pye Street and Great St Anne’s Lane were considered better built than inhabited. By the 19th century the district was considered one of the worst in London - a centre of poverty, vice and crime. In fact, the term ‘slum’ was first used in its modern sense by Cardinal Wiseman who described this part of Westminster in 1850. Smith quotes the author of Ragged London (1862) who said of all the criminal districts in London it is now the worst (Smith 1892, 233) and Charles Dickens, in Household Words (1850), called it The Devil’s Acre.

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