The text below is taken from the first volume of John Timbs’ The Romance of London, published in 1865. Timbs was an antiquarian, with a prodigious output of anecdotal compilations – over 150, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911. These anthologies are still an entertaining read, full of remarkable events and persons, but are dated in tone and suspect in accuracy.
This extract on the Southwark Mint is notable for many things: for the description of the order with which the Minters left their sanctuary, betokening community and discipline, necessary for fending off the threats of bailiffs; the landmarks and geography; the literary links; and irregular marriages.
The Minters of Southwark.
A large portion of the parish of St George the Martyr is called the Mint, from a “mint of coinage” having been kept there by Henry VIII., upon the site of Suffolk Place, the magnificent seat of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, nearly opposite the parish church. Part of the mansion was pulled down in 1557, and on the site were built many small cottages, to the increasing of the beggars in the Borough. Long before the close of the seventeenth century, the district called the Mint had become a harbour for lawless persons, who claimed there the privilege of exemption from all legal process, civil or criminal. It consisted of several streets and alleys; the chief entrance being from opposite St George’s Church by Mint Street, which had, to our time, a lofty wooden gate: there were other entrances, each with a gate; like Whitefriars, it had its Lombard Street. It thus became early an asylum for debtors, coiners, and vagabonds; and of “the traitors, felons, fugitives, outlaws, condemned persons, convict persons, felons, defamed, those put in exigent of outlawry, felons of themselves, and such as refused the law of the land,” who had, from the time of Edward VI., herded in St George’s parish. The Mint at length became such a pest that its privileges were abolished by law; but it was not effectually suppressed until the reign of George I., one of whose statutes relieved all those debtors under £50, who had taken sanctuary in the Mint from their creditors. The Act of 1695-6 had proved inefficient for the suppression of the nuisance, though it inflicted a penalty of £500 on anyone who should rescue a prisoner, and made the concealment of the rescuer a transportable offence. In 1705, a fraudulent bankrupt fled here from his creditors, when the Mint-men resisted a large body of constables, and a desperate conflict ensued at the gate before the rogue was taken. A child had been murdered within these precincts, when the coroner’s officer was seized by the Mint-men, thrown into “the Black Ditch” of liquid mud; and, though rescued by constables, he was not suffered to depart until he had taken an oath on a brick, in their cant terms, never to come into that place again.
At the clearance of the place, in 1723, the exodus was a strange scene: “Some thousands of the Minters went out of the land of bondage, alias the Mint, to be cleared at the quarter-sessions of Guildford, according to the late Act of Parliament. The road was covered with them, insomuch that they looked like one of the Jewish tribes going out of Egypt; the cavalcade consisting of caravans, carts, and waggons, besides numbers on horses, asses, and on foot. The drawer of the two fighting cocks was seen to lead an ass loaded with geneva, to support the spirits of the ladies upon the journey. ‘Tis said that several heathen bailiffs lay in ambuscade in ditches on the road to surprise some of them, if possible, on their march, if they should straggle from the main body; but they proceeded with so much order and discipline that they did not lose a man upon this expedition.”
The Mint was noted as the retreat of poor poets. When it was a privileged place, “poor Nahum Tate” was forced to seek shelter here from extreme poverty, where he died in 1716: he had been ejected from the laureateship, at the accession of George I., to make way for Rowe. Pope does not spare the needy poets:
No place is sacred, not the church is free,
E’en Sunday shines no Sabbath-day to me:
Then from the Mint walks forth the man of rhyme,
Happy to catch me just at dinner-time.
Johnson has truly said: “The great topic of his (Pope’s) ridicule is poverty; the crimes with which he reproaches his antagonists are their debts, their habitation in the Mint, and their want of a dinner.”
In Gay’s Beggars’ Opera, one of the characters (Trapes) says: “The Act for destroying the Mint was a severe cut upon our business. Till then, if a customer stept out of the way, we knew where to have her.” Mat o’ the Mint is one of Macheath’s gang. This was also one of the haunts of Jack Sheppard ; and Jonathan Wild kept his horses at the Duke’s Head, in Redcross Street, within the precincts of the Mint. Marriages were performed here, as in the Fleet, the Savoy, and in May Fair. In 1715, an Irishman, named Briand, was fined £2000 for marrying an orphan, about thirteen years of age, whom he decoyed into the Mint. The following curious certificate was produced at his trial: “Feb. 16, 1715. These are therefore to whom it may concern, that Isaac Briand and Watson Anne Astone were joined together in the holy state of matrimony (Nemine contradicente) the day and year above written, according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of Great Britain. — Witness my hand, Jos. Smith, Cler.”
The Mint of the present century was mostly noted for its brokers’ shops, and its “lodgings for travellers;” and in one of the wretched tenements of its indigent and profligate population occurred the first case of Asiatic cholera in 1832. Few of the old houses remain.
From Timbs, Romances of London, volume 1, pp.349-352, available from Archive.org.