Battle Bridge

At Battle Bridge the River Fleet crossed the dust fields owned by John Smith. Here amid brickworks stood the ‘Great Dust Heap’, located where the New Road joined Gray’s Inn Road (as it became on most maps). The enormous hill of ashes stacked at the north end of Gray's Inn Road in Battle Bridge Field had accumulated over many years providing coal ash to be mixed with brick earth. The fine quality and great depth of the brick earth locally have been confirmed by recent excavations for blocks of flats on the nearby estate.

According to the Survey of London, Smith’s Great Dust Heap was removed in 1826 when the ground was sold to the Panharmonium Company. William J Pinks in his History of Clerkenwell asserted that the dust heap was sold by W F Bray, the builder of Derby Street, to the Emperor of Russia for a large sum (£20,000 is mentioned by others) to help rebuild Moscow after Napoleon’s invasion and its destruction by fire in 1812. This improbable legend appears to have extended to a second and later dust heap, just a stone’s throw away.

The Fleet, a river that had been navigable in earlier times, marked the ancient route from Holborn up Gray’s Inn Lane (Road), Old St Pancras Road (Pancras Road) and King’s Road (St Pancras Way) to the north. Gray’s Inn Road, the New Road, Old St Pancras Road and Maiden Lane all converged on Battle Bridge, for long a transport hub, where a broad ford crossed the River Fleet. St. Pancras Way is still the continuation of Gray’s Inn Road to Kentish Town, following the former bank of the River Fleet. Flooding of the low-lying areas around the marshes of St Pancras caused those that could afford it to move to higher ground at Kentish Town, Highgate and Hampstead.

The name Battle Bridge was attached not only to the hamlet near the ancient bridge but was also applied to the fields to the south, on both sides of Gray's Inn Road. A chapel was built near the south end of Maiden Lane in the 1770s and a few small houses existed by the end of the century, inhabited in 1810 mainly by shopkeepers, artisans and labourers. The area was made unattractive by its proximity to the Fleet and the trades that had gathered there, including a pottery, a paint manufacturer, and a bone collector.

Battle Bridge, 1814 
View south from Maiden Lane down Gray’s Inn Lane with the New Road crossing from the left. 
The building on the corner, the White Hart public house has striking similarities to the 
Lighthouse building that is there now (courtesy of Wellcome Collection)

The Battle Bridge area developed an early reputation for crime, even in Elizabethan times, when Old St Pancras Church was:

         ‘visited by thieves, who assemble not there to pray, but to wait for praye, and manie fall into their hands clothed, that are glad when they escape naked. Walk there not too late’ (Norden, 1593)      

        The chief nurserys of all these evil people is fields of Pancrass and about the Churche, the Brick kylnes near Islyngton, and the Wells’ (letter to Elizabeth I).

Later Fagin in Oliver Twist instructs his new charges in ‘the kinchin lay’:

        The kinchins, my dear” said Fagin, “is the young children that’s sent on errands by their mothers, with sixpences and shillings; and the lay is just to take their money away …”

           and you can have a few good beats chalked out in Camden Town, and Battle Bridge, and neighbourhoods like that, where they’re always going errands, and you can upset as many kinchins as you want, any hour in the day.             Ha! ha! ha!