Once at the heart of one of London’s most infamous Victorian rookeries or slums, Saffron Hill, located between Holborn and Clerkenwell, is associated with the Charles Dickens 1838 novel Oliver Twist, and in particular as the home of the arch criminal Fagin.
Saffron Hill takes its name from the saffron which was once grown here on land owned by the Bishops of Ely. The land laid on an embankment of the western edge of the River Fleet. Saffron was used in the Middle Ages to disguise the taste of rancid meat and would have likely to have had a ready market in the nearby Smithfield live meat market.
By Dickens’ time, saffron had long ceased being produced and the area has descended into one of London’s worst slums. It had also become London’s Italian quarter, swelled by immigrants and exiles. St Peter’s Italian Church (on Clerkenwell Road) was founded in 1846 and completed in 1863.
Charles Dickens and Saffron Hill.
In Oliver Twist, Fagin’s den is located “near Field Lane” (the southern extension of Saffron Hill beyond Greville Street) and it is here that Fagin’s young associate, Jack Dawkins (better known as the Artful Dodger), takes Oliver after first encountering him.
As Oliver Twist is led down Saffron Hill, Dickens paints a picture of the area he saw:
A dirtier of more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.
As well as Fagin’s lair, the street is also home to salubrious pub The Three Cripples, Bill Sikes’ favoured watering-hole. The Three Cripples was said to be the name of a lodging house in Saffron Hill during Dickens’ time, located next to a pub called The One Tun.
Field Lane Ragged School.
Within the Saffron Hill area was the Field Lane Ragged School. In 1841, Andrew Provan, a London City Missioner, came to Saffron Hill to teach the children and young people the Christian gospel, establishing a ‘ragged school’. Charles Dickens was a supporter of the school and would also go on to publish an article in 1852 about it, entitled A Sleep to Startle Us, as well as letters to newspapers highlighting the work of the school.
The Saffron Hill area is located between the Holborn and Clerkenwell areas of London.
Further Reading (external sources).