There and Gone: Pill Lane, The Vanished Street Behind the Four Courts (Part 1)

A mid-18th century Pill Lane as mapped by Rocque

A street once there, now gone, can provoke more curiosity than one still paved and passable, and it is impossible for those who know about the vanished route of Pill Lane not to wonder, when traversing the portions of the Four Courts and Chancery Street over which it once passed, about how this street might have looked in the past. 

This post seeks to tell the first part of Pill Lane’s story.

For those unfamiliar with the history of the general area surrounding the Four Courts, the best introduction can be found in the following extract from ‘North Dublin City’ by Augustine Dillon Cosgrave, O. Carm, published in 23(1) Dublin Historical Record 3-22 (June 1969):           

‘Up to the end of the seventeenth century, the portion of the City of Dublin, lying to the north of the river Liffey was very small. It consisted of Church Street, then the principal thoroughfare, and a few streets to the east and west of it: from the east side out to the sea was a stretch of open country in which lay the suppressed Abbey of St Mary and the Dominican Priory nearer to the river Bradogue… Nothing to the east of this line had yet been recovered from the sea…

Pill Lane, renamed Chancery Street, derived its name from the Pill or Estuary of the Bradogue. Before the embankment of the Liffey in 1717 the Pill was quite a large river-inlet or harbor. The district adjoining was also called the Pill, and in 1641 Charles I granted the Pill to the City of Dublin, which City then lay south of the Liffey. This estuary was important at the very early period as being the Little Harbour of St Marys’ Abbey.  In 1684 Ormond Market, now demolished, was built beside the Pill, and called after James Butler, first Duke of Ormond. The word Pill is of Celtic origin and is the same as Peel in the Isle of Man or Poul in Poulaphouca or Pwill in such Welsh place names as Pwilheli, Llanfairpwllgwyngyl or Brich-Y-Pwil.

Speed’s 1610 map of Dublin, with buildings on the northern side of Pill Lane only. The large walled area to the south of the Lane, was the Inns of Court (formerly the Dominican Priory of St Saviour), today, the home of the Four Courts.

The original Pill Lane had buildings on its northern side only. The land adjacent to its southern side formed part of the Inns of Court, formerly the Dominican Priory. By the early 18th century, this land was no longer in the occupation of the Inns of Court, and had been built on. A century later the process would be reversed and this area reincorporated into the Four Courts complex.

18th century Pill Lane was a narrow street, bordered by gentlemen’s residences and places of business. A 19th century note records the continued presence of three or four old houses, now demolished, constructed in the ‘Elizabethan’ (or, more likely, the Dutch Billy) style and bearing stone tablets with the dates 1711 and 1712.

Houses on Pill Lane dating from the late 17th and early 18th century would have been versions of the Dutch Billy style. Above is a photograph by the late Patrick Healy of Dutch Billy housing elsewhere in Dublin, courtesy of South Dublin Libraries. Some of the houses in Pill Lane in the 18th century may have been even older.

One of the oldest recorded houses in Pill Lane was the ancient mayoralty house of the City of Dublin, subsequently owned by William Bedell, Bishop of Kilmore, and later passing to his descendants the Stanford family.

Other residents of Pill Lane included John Geoghegan, pewterer, described in the Dublin Intelligence of 1714 as selling dishes and plates of the newest fashion, tea kettles, and chafing dishes, who may perhaps have been a relative of the Miss Geoghegan abducted for the purposes of marriage when entering a chapel on Arran Quay in 1737, Anthony Daraugh, described in his 1745 obituary as ‘an eminent dealer in Hard-Ware and a person of very fair character’ and James Aspy, a haberdasher, who fell off his horse near Swords in 1753 and broke his neck.  There must have been some ill-fortune attaching to members of the Aspy household; the coachman who drove James to the grave, upon his return, fell from the box, also broke his neck, and expired instantly.

Taverns in Pill Lane or its immediate vicinity at this time included The Sign of the Turkey Cock, where a nursery of cherry, apples and pear trees was advertised for sale in 1709 to ‘any gentlemen, gardeners or others with occasion for any of the said things, all extraordinarily good’, and ‘the noted tap house, known by The Sign of St Patrick, well known by some breweries in the City of Dublin to draw eight barrels of ale in a week beside porter.’   One of the best-known was Walter Kennedy’s tavern The Bunch of Grapes, at the junction of Pill Lane and Greek Street. Walter’s grandson of the same name built a house next door, with a window into the tavern to allow him to procure wine from the comfort of his own home.

A close-up of an early 19c Wide Streets Commissioners Map showing a portion of the southern side of Pill Lane at the Church Street end. This area, comprising 57-84 Pill Lane, was originally part of the Inns of Court. It includes the Old and New White Cross Inns. Other businesses operating in this part of the Lane in the 18c included Hugh Reilly’s school at no 61, James Crosby’s The Figure of Justice at no 70, Aery Jessop and John Fuller’s The Spinning Wheel and Shuttle at no 76, and C & T Murphy’s Beer Wine and Spirit Warehouse at no 84. Holmes Apothecary (no 85) was located on the opposite side of Mountrath Street.

At the Church Street end of Pill Lane could be found The White Cross Inn, with twenty-eight sleeping rooms, a large tap room and stabling for eighty horses. Later, another premises of the same name, The New White Cross Inn, opened nearby. If the White Cross stables were full, there was always The Sign of the Flying Horse at 5 Pill Lane, with haylofts and stabling for upwards of thirty horses.

Another Pill Lane hostelry, and one which nearly put an end to the Lane at its zenith, was The Coleraine Inn. In 1747 a fire broke out in its stables, which was burning a long time before it was discovered. The horses narrowly escaped, but an ostler lost his life, and all hay and saddles were destroyed. On inquiry, it transpired the fire had been due to the carelessness of a little boy who had stuck a candle in one of the racks of hay. There were more fires in Pill Lane in 1765 and 1774. Fortunately, John Bolton at The Sign of the Scales specialised in building fire engines, and the engine for St Michan’s Parish was kept at his premises.

The Coleraine Inn fire was the second of two disasters to strike Pill Lane in the 1740s. Three years earlier, an old house in the street, where Mass was being officiated in breach of the Penal Laws, had collapsed, killing the priest and nine others, with many ancillary broken limbs and bruises.

Pill Lane’s location close to the Ormond Market, whose butchers had regular faction fights with the Liberty Boys across the river, could also result in danger for its inhabitants. The year 1750 saw

“a terrible fray between the Ormond and Liberty Boys on Ormond Quay, Pill Lane, Church Street etc. in which one man had his arm almost cut off, another his head scalped, and several more very much hurt  The servant of a noted chandler in that neighbourhood, returning to his master’s house, was attacked by them and dangerously wounded in several parts of his head, the consequences of which cannot at present be judged of.  The Piquet Guard was forced to be brought out, which soon dispersed them. Several of the above wounded rioters presented themselves to the different hospitals to be dressed, but were refused, in pursuance of their resolutions to discourse all riots and licentiousness, the real poor and distressed being the only objects of their care.”

An advertisement for the sale of a house in Pill Lane belonging to Robert Gibson, suitable for a hardware-man, haberdasher, linen draper or grocer, all being well-established Pill Lane trades.

Proximity to the Ormond Market did, however, help to attract trade. 18th century Pill Lane was one of Dublin’s top shopping destinations – particularly where textiles were concerned. As early as 1705, a business at the corner of Pill Lane and Church Street was advertising a choice of broadcloths, stuff, and serge for sale by wholesale or retail at reasonable rates. Slater’s Public Gazetteer of 26th May 1764 references

‘Printed linen and cotton Manufactory, all kinds of chintzes and penciled Linens and Cottons, Black and red and purple ditto, also blue, white, and red and white printed handkerchiefs and Dresden ditto with all kinds of bordered cambric’ manufactured and printed by Hugh Holmes and sold by wholesale at his warehouse in Pill Lane almost opposite Bull Lane. Holmes is the only person in the kingdom who manufactured and prints his own goods, he is enabled and determined to sell them on the lowest terms.’ 

Much later, at the turn of the 20th century, there was a member of the Court of Appeal in Ireland also bearing the name of Hugh Holmes. It is interesting to observe how frequently the surnames of merchants in Pill Lane recur among the 19th century Irish bar and judiciary.

Other Pill Lane textile traders included John Gordon and Robert McCulloch, who set up a haberdashery business there in 1767, specializing in silk and worsted breeches, Aery Jessop and John Fuller, whose shop, ‘The Spinning Wheel and Shuttle’, at 76 Pill Lane sold stays, garters, wigs, knitting threads, quilting pens and needles, and Thomas Wolfenden, who offered genuine Lambeg blankets for sale at his warehouse on Pill Lane, near Church street ‘on the most reasonable terms to prevent the importation of that species of woolen good so detrimental for this Kingdom.’  

In 1775, Thomas Higgins, owner of ‘the sole and exclusive right, benefit and advantage of printing and staining with various colours’, advertised for sale at his premises in Pill Lane ‘an assortment of the most elegant chintz, tabby nets, and poplins,’ while the ropemaker George Williamson, of The Plough’ manufactured all kinds of packing cord, bed cord. twine fishing line, jack line, bell line and sailcloths.

An advertisement placed by James Crosby at the time of dissolution of the partnership

There was also, at 36 Pill Lane, The Irish Scale Manufactory, the Sign of the Crown, and the Scales, run by James and Daniel Crosby. Along with beams, scales, and weights, it also sold, for one British shilling a paper, their famous powder promised to perform ‘great Destruction of Rats.’  James subsequently moved to 70 Pill Lane and opened a competing business, The Figure of Justice, while Daniel continued to trade from the original premises. Another James by the name of Sleator, trading under The Sign of Mother Redcap, offered for sale a different kind of powder, one for hair and wigs.

Wholesale China, Staffordshire and Irish cut glass could be had from Thomas Higginbotham at his warehouse at 106 Pill Lane, on the corner of Arran Street opposite the National Bank, while Joseph Rathbone, a chandler, carried on business beside the Bunch of Grapes. Rathbone Candles, the world’s oldest candlemaker , is still operating in Blanchardstown today.

Another merchant in Pill Lane was Mr Luke Plunkett, who appears to also have been in the wine and spirits business.

Leonard McNally, best known as the barrister who received a British Government pension for informing on Robert Emmet, kept a grocery in the Lane for a while. He was not alone. In 1773 John Hughes begged leave to acquaint his friends and the public that he had laid in a general assortment of ‘every Article in the Grocery and Dye Stuff way’, including ‘a large and fresh assortment of the best-chosen teas’ in the house now known by the Sign of the Parrot. Robert White, who traded from 106 Pill Lane during the same period, offered ‘new fruit and all other kinds of goods in the grocery way’ as well as ‘Pitch and Tar… on the most reasonable terms’, ‘real rushling, remarkably nice and well cured for sale’, and ‘genuine salt water fresh every day taken up in its purity at Howth.’  Those looking for something stronger than salt water could find it at 84 Pill Lane, home to the wholesale grocery, tea, wine, and spirit warehouse of C & T Murphy.

A 1929 article on historic Dublin apothecaries notes, with some regret, that Pill Lane, despite its name, never contained a representative of this trade. The owner of Holmes Apothecary, which opened at 85 Pill Lane in 1779, might have begged to differ. An earlier provider of health services was Robert Jenkins, surgeon, who specialized in making ‘all sorts of trusses for Ruptures or broken bellies, either plain or with Springs, the Bandage being the Newest, Easiest, and most Chirurgical for that disorder yet known. Gentlemen in the County may be supplied with any sort, sending the number of inches round the waist, and the side on which the Rupture is.’

There were a couple of schools in Pill Lane as well, one (English and Latin) run by Hugh Reilly, at 61 Pill Lane, and another (English only) at the Sign of the Black Lion. Hugh may have been the son of Philip Reilly, earlier recorded as keeping a ‘school in Latin or classics’ on the Inns.

An advertisement placed by Margaret Ham, glovemaker, who seems a little worried about losing custom as a result of her move from 48 to 45 Pill Lane.

One interesting feature of 18th century Pill Lane was the presence of businesswomen. At 27 Pill Lane could be found the Grocery, Genuine Spirit, and Wine Warehouse of Catherine Foley, selling a variety of fine French teas raw and refined sugars, choice old wines (including ‘very old Jamaica rum’), spices, Bordeaux vinegar, and ‘every other article in the grocery way, mostly her own import.Elizabeth Tennant carried on a linen business at 22 Pill Lane, while Esther Metcalf, stay, slip, and robe maker, could be found plying her trade at Armstrong’s China Shop in nearby Charles Street. In 1776 Margaret Ham, glovemaker, placed an advertisement in the newspaper advertising her move from 48 Pill Lane to 45 Pill Lane, with the intention of continuing to manufacture all sorts of leather gloves in the same extensive manner as previously.

Also of interest is an unknown woman who, in 1761, enjoyed a brief but extremely lucrative success in a different line of business. Hired by one of its merchants as a maidservant, she showed ‘uncommon skill in dressing dinner, to the satisfaction of his family, who became prejudiced in her favour, until one evening, when she told them that she had to call on her former mistress. Not returning at the time appointed, it was discovered that she had carried off all the plate that lay in her way, to a considerable value, whereby she evinced her deep acquaintance with another art beside that of cookery.’

A newspaper report of another domestic robbery which took place in Pill Lane, this one perpetrated by an apprentice.

Another Pill Lane inhabitant who turned to crime was Alexander Graham ‘born in Pill Lane in the Parish of St Michan’s, of very honest parents’ executed at Stephen’s Green for robbery on 6 September 1729. Even in its days of 18th century prosperity, not all the inhabitants of Pill Lane were wealthy, and Graham’s may have been one of the families living in poverty in one of the courts behind the merchants’ and gentlemen’s houses. Not that wrongdoing in Pill Lane was confined to the poor – in 1769 a gentleman’s son, living in one of these houses, brought a dog into his father’s house and threw it down a neighbor’s chimney, where it continued howling for days.

That said, with robbery the prevailing crime in Pill Lane, its wealthy inhabitants were more likely to be victims than perpetrators, making it inadvisable for them to venture outdoors sporting large sums of money or expensive accessories. In 1782, the coach of one such inhabitant, returning home by the gate of the old Blue-Coat Hospital, was stopped by ’11 fellows, armed with long knives and cutlasses, two of whom guarded the coachman while the rest dragged the unfortunate gentleman into the passage that leads to Oxmantown Green, where they took his watch, money, shoe buckles, and after stripping him stark naked cut him in a most cruel manner in the arms, legs and almost every other part of his body and to complete this most horrid deed left him bound to  a tree with his own garters.

Given the state of crime in Pill Lane in 1784, it is unlikely that this watch case was recovered.

In 1784, two reported robberies took place in Pill Lane itself. Mr. Joseph Neary of Ormond Quay, stopped near Greek street by three footpads, was fortunate enough to lose only three shillings and his shoe and knee buckles, which were only plated. When separately accosted by ‘three ill-looking fellows, armed with pistols,’ Mr Butter, who lived next door to the Bunch of Grapes, made a stout resistance and wounded one of the robbers before being obliged to yield. These attacks were representative of an increase in crime in Pill Lane in the second half of the 18th century which contributed to the exit of its older and wealthier residents.

The chain of events leading to the disappearance of what was once one of Dublin’s most famous streets may indeed have commenced with another robbery thirty years earlier, when ‘three or four disorderly fellows with drawn swords pursued a coach containing the family of the Hon Mr. Justice French, from opposite the New Cross Inn to St Michan’s Church, stabbing the coachman in the side and running the footman through his calves to prevent him following‘, an attack possibly influencing the Benchers’ subsequent decision to relinquish the Inns of Court and its eventual replacement by today’s Four Courts.

More about the Four Courts, and its effect on Pill Lane, to come!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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