Liberty of the Mint
The Mint was a district in Southwark, south London, England, on the west side of Borough High Street, around where Marshalsea Road is now located, so named because a mint authorised by King Henry VIII was set up in the mansion of Suffolk Place there, in about 1543. The mint ceased to operate in the reign of Mary I and Suffolk Place was demolished in 1557. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the area was known for offering protection against prosecution for debtors due to its legal status as a "liberty", or a jurisdictional interzone.
In 1550, the City of London acquired two manors from Edward VI's government. These comprised the previous holdings of Bermondsey Abbey, on the west side of Borough High Street, and that of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the east side (see also King's Manor, Southwark). However, the Charter retained the mansion and grounds of the Duke of Suffolk, known as Suffolk Place and Southwark Place; these had been assigned to Edward's mother by Henry VIII. On the accession of Mary I she assigned it to the Archbishop of York for his London palace, and it was that diocese which then began to lease out the estate for development, mainly of the highest density and poorest quality; the area became a rookery of slums. However, the 1550 Charter's exemption from the City's control of the neighbouring manor had created a separate jurisdiction, the Liberty of the Mint. "The Mint" therefore, became an Alsatia (so called after the area of Whitefriars), a haunt of criminals and fugitives.
Such anomalous districts attracted their particular denizens, and the Mint's primary population was debtors. Those who were in danger of being thrown into debtors' prison could, if they were lucky, run to the Mint to hide. Once in the Mint, such debtors risked immediate arrest if they were found outside of it. Debt collectors (known as "duns") would stand along the main roads out of the Mint and wait for any suspected debtor. Sometimes the duns were bill collectors in the modern sense, and sometimes they were thugs who would beat and seize the debtor. Within the Mint, life was hard. Since persons there could not leave (except on Sunday, when no debts could be collected), they could not get jobs to raise money enough to pay off their debts. Those who would attempt to leave the Mint on Sunday to gather money from friends or lenders were often called "Sunday gentlemen", as they would attempt to appear prosperous to hoodwink lenders.
The Mint was hardly a debtor's holiday. Those who went to the Mint would frequently die of malnutrition or murder before raising enough money to escape their debts. Furthermore, the Mint's geography was a factor in its poor living standard, as it was below the river's level and therefore was a breeding ground for sewage- and water-borne maladies. Daniel Defoe describes life in the Mint for his heroine Moll Flanders in the novel of the same name.
In 1723, the Mint lost its protected status as a result of The Mint in Southwark Act 1722, although it remained a slum into the 19th century. By that time, its reputation as a haunt for the poorest of the poor had ensured that it had a lower standard of living than the rest of London. Although elsewhere in 19th century London new roads were deliberately laid through slum areas to eliminate them, Southwark Bridge Road, constructed in 1819 to link up with Southwark Bridge, swerved around the western side of the Mint.
In the later 19th century its reputation as one of London's worst rookery was sustained when conditions there were exposed by the Rev. Andrew Mearns in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) and by George R. Sims in How the Poor Live (1883). The scandal created by Mearns' and Sims' revelations prompted a Royal Commission in 1884–5. However, the destruction of the old Mint was already underway. From 1881 to 1886, associated with the construction of the new Marshalsea Road, the area was cleared of most of its old slums, although even in 1899 some remnants of the old rookery were still to be discovered between Red Cross Street and Borough High Street.
In addition to Defoe's description, the Mint is referred to by most 18th-century British satirists, including Alexander Pope in his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot and, indirectly, by John Gay in Trivia. It also features as the refuge of the outlaw Jack Sheppard in William Harrison Ainsworth's novel of the same name (1839) and in the novel "The System of the World" by Neal Stephenson.
The only remnant of this entity is that one of the streets within its area is named 'Mint Street'.
- The Marshalsea, a debtors' prison close to the Mint to the east.
- "Mint Street" in Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (eds) (1983) The London Encyclopaedia: 521
- Jerry White (2007), London in the Nineteenth Century, 9–10, 58–60.