‘Take ginger, galingale, cinnamon, nutmeg, grains of paradise, cloves bruised, fennel seed, caraway seeds, origanum, one ounce each. Next, take sage, wild marjoram, pennyroyal, mint, red roses, thyme, pellitory, rosemary, wild thyme, chamomile, lavender, one handful of each.
Beat the spices small, bruise the herbs, put all into a limbeck with wine for twelve hours; then distil.’
If taken four times daily it was claimed to cure dropsy, prolong life to eternity and probably scare evil spirits out of their wits. In our day of sophisticated medical remedies it would take the courage of a hero to contemplate swallowing such a preparation, but until less than 100 years ago it was a typical remedy, at the finger tips of every dedicated housewife.
The secret of a successful mixture was to have a goodly number of ingredients; that is, as many as necessary to convince the patient that it was going to do him good. Thus, a cure for a simple illness, such as the common cold, might have included merely two or three varieties of herb whereas the most popular cure for the plague, known as ‘plague water’, included the combination of fifty-nine varieties.
Herbs and spices have been the basis of every medicinal preparation ever since the cure of illness was first thought of. On the kitchen shelf of every household, there was a mighty tome of recipes for the treatment of all kinds of ailment; the housewife diagnosed the problem and prescribed the treatment. Only when in immediate danger did anyone think of calling in a physician, or more commonly a herbalist. Treatments varied widely and no two herbalists held alike views on remedies; they were all independent in their thinking and everyone claimed to have ‘invented’ the cure for all ills.
The demand for herbs in a large city like London was such that some gardeners dedicated their entire grounds to the cultivation of herbs; these were the main suppliers to the herbalists, but every gardener choosing to set aside a plot for the growing of herbs would be sure to sell his yield. We know that in the 16th century there was an established garden on the site of Herbal Hill wherein a variety of herb plants were grown; whether this was an expanse entirely given over to the purpose, or a section of a multi-purpose garden is not known. Also unknown is the owner or tender of the garden. There are various possibilities but three distinctly come out as clear contenders. Firstly, there was St Mary’s Nunnery which occupied the site to the east of Farringdon Road; the nuns owned numerous acres of land but their boundary is unlikely to have extended further west than the line of the present main road. Then there was the garden of the Bishops of Ely, notable throughout London for its quality orchards and a fine strawberry patch of which Shakespeare found necessity to mention in Richard III: ‘My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn I saw good strawberries in your garden there.’ The Bishop’s garden was a sizeable estate but presumably, the northern limit was on a line with that of the garden of Sir Christopher Hatton who gained his plot from the Ely estate with the help of Elizabeth I. This means that the Herbal Hill site would have been just outside the Bishop’s garden.
Coming in very strongly is John Gerard, barber-surgeon and native of Cheshire, who moved to London in 1577 and took up the position of head gardener to William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Gerard bought a house in Holborn, about midway between the two gardens he was commissioned to tend; one at Lord Burghley’s mansion in the Strand and the other at Theobalds, to the north of the Ely estate. On these plots, he continued the work he had been following for many years, that of refining the art of rearing and nurturing an unrivalled array of herbs, fruits and flowers. The high degree of his dedication inspired the writing of Herbal, published in 1597, the first comprehensive catalogue of herbs, ever compiled. In 1602 Gerard’s skill was recognised by Anne of Denmark and as a reward for his commitment to the subject he was granted the lease of a two-acre plot of land on the site of the present King’s College. All evidence does seem to suggest that it was the activities of John Gerard that led to the naming of Herbal Hill.
There are no herbs or flowers here now, not even a solitary ghost of Gerard’s skilful creation desperately trying to poke its head between the cracked paving. Today, Herbal Hill gives the impression of not knowing where it is; it seems lost in its surroundings of the not quite inner city, yet not quite anything else.
Image: Looking south from its junction with Ray Street. This narrow street runs right through to Clerkenwell Roadby Dr Neil Clifton (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Much of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.