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Smart’s Key

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Smart’s Key was one of the so-called legal quays, those established by Act of Parliament as authorized locations for ships to load and unload goods. Lying just east of the harbour of Billingsgate, Smart’s Key was primarily involved in the trade of fish during the latter sixteenth century (Dietz). In 1559, the key’s dimensions were measured at 19 feet wide along the river, stretching 110 feet north toward Thames Street (Dietz). The key was located in the parish of St. Mary-At-Hill in the ward of Billingsgate (Harben).
The earliest mention of the key appears in the records of St. Mary-At-Hill, wherein the churchwardens’ accounts from 1512–13 note the received payment of four pence for the grownde for a maryner that dyed at Master Smerttes Key (Littlehales 283). A year later, the churchwardens recorded receipt for the payment of a more expensive burial (twelve pence) of another unfortunate mariner who died at the key (Littlehales 287). This Master Smertte is likely the one Smart, sometime owner of the key, referred to in John Stow’s Survey of London (Stow). Around the time the keys were surveyed in 1559, Smart’s Key was owned by Thomas Nicholson, a wealthy cordwainer (Sharpe). However, Nicholson died at the end of July that year, leaving possession of the key, after a life interest to his wife Ide to London’s fraternity of cordwainers (Sharpe), who maintained ownership of the property well into the eighteenth century. As late as 1796, the Master, Wardens, and Commonalty, of the Mystery of Cordwainers were still representing the key’s interests as they joined proprietors of other legal quays to petition the House of Commons for various requests (Journals of the House of Commons 483).
Smart’s Key is perhaps most notorious for being the location of an alehouse that in 1585 was converted into a training ground for aspiring cut-purses and pickpockets (Ellis 295-303). The owner of the alehouse-turned-schoolhouse was a merchant named Wotton, who after falling upon hard times decided to turn to a life of crime and recruited a large number of young boys to assist him in the pursuit. William Fleetwood, recorder of London, had the opportunity to observe some of the activities going on at Wotton’s school, as described in a letter he wrote to Lord Burghley:
There were hung up two devises, the one was a pockett, the other was a purse. The pockett had in yt certain cownters, and was hunge abowte with hawkes bells, and over the toppe did hannge a litle sacring bell; and he that could take owt a cownter without any noyse, was allowed to be a publique ffoyster, and he that could take a peece of sylver owt of the purse without the noyse of any of the bells, he was adjudged a judiciall Nipper. Nota that a ffoister is a Pick-pokett, and a Nypper is termed a Pickepurse, or a Cutpurse.
(Ellis 295-296)
Fleetwood also notes that there were many poems and sayings related to the thieves’ craft and their general philosophy written on a tablet in Wotton’s house, such as:
Si spie sporte, si non spie, tunc steale.
Si spie, si non spie, ffoyste, nyppe, lyfte, shave and spare not.1
(Ellis 303)
The precise fate of Wotton’s operation is unknown.
Scattered references to Smart’s Key throughout the seventeenth century establish its ongoing importance as an official landing place for merchant vessels. Documents created by the water poet John Taylor indicate that a hoy from Colchester in Essex came to Smart’s Key on a weekly basis between 1637 and 1642 .2 After the Port of London was surveyed in 1667 following the Great Fire (Dietz), the extent of the port was reassessed, but Smart’s Key remained on the updated list of legal quays (Forrow 11).


  1. Barrett and Harrison interpret these phrases as a mixture of dog Latin and criminal argot, translating the first phrase, If anyone is watching, play; if not, then steal (Barrett and Harrison 58). The second phrase likely means, Whether someone’s watching or not, steal in all manner of ways without mercy. (JCH)
  2. Taylor’s Carriers Cosmographie first established this fact. The later A brief director, attributed by Wing to Taylor and dated approximately 1642 also reports the ongoing weekly activity. (JCH)


Last modification: 2016-05-27 14:37:29 -0700 (Fri, 27 May 2016) (tlandels)
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MLA citation:

Hogue, Jason. “Smart’s Key.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 29 March 2017. <>.

Chicago citation:

Hogue, Jason. n.d. “Smart’s Key.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed March 29, 2017.

APA citation:

Hogue J. (n.d.). Smart’s Key. In J. Jenstad (Ed.), The Map of Early Modern London. Retrieved March 29, 2017, from

TEI citation:

<bibl> <author><persName><surname>Hogue</surname>, <forename>Jason</forename></persName></author> (<date>n.d.</date>). <title level="a">Smart’s Key</title>. In <editor><persName><forename>J.</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></persName></editor> (Ed.), <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>. Retrieved <date when="2017-03-29">March 29, 2017</date>, from <ref target=""></ref> </bibl>