I’ve been in for a pint on numerous occasion and always enjoy the slightly dark interior and no nonsense decor. The pub sits on the corner of Middle and Kinghorn Street in a delightful Georgian enclave tucked away in the shadow of St Bartholomew’s church.
I knew that the building dated from the mid 1800s, but only recently found out that there had been an inn on the site from the early 16th century. It seems to have originated from 1532 in the reign of Henry VIII. I had wrongly assumed that the name had some connection to nearby Smithfield Market and sheep shearing, and although I was wrong about the reason, I wasn’t far out geographically.
The area around the pub was the site of St Bartholomew’s Fair. It began in 1133 as a humble cloth fair for textile merchants, but by the 16th century it had expanded dramatically and had many stalls and traders of goods other than textiles. It became a social event and thousands of people would flock there to enjoy the atmosphere and over the years it gained a very bawdy and disreputable reputation.
The fair was officially declared open every August at the Hand and Shears pub. The Lord Mayor would use a pair of shears to cut the ribbon to indicate the start. It is probable that the ribbon-cutting tradition that we see at certain events today first began at the Hand and Shears.
As well as being the venue for the opening ceremony the Hand and Shears for the duration of the fair became the “Court of Piepowder“. This was a special court that sat during public markets or fairs in England in the medieval period. Courts of Piepowder held exclusive jurisdiction over disputes between merchants and consumers and any other dispute arising concerning the fair. The name is thought to be a derivation of the french, “pieds poudrés“, possibly referring to the powdery, dusty feet of incoming visitors. The services of the court was in high demand during St Bartholomew’s Fair which was a haven for thieves, muggers, drunks and prostitutes. Finally in 1855 the event was axed under the straight laced Victorians due to its increasingly notorious reputation.
It is said that Charles II used the pubs’s basement on numerous occasions to entertain his mistress, Nell Gwynn, one assumes oranges were involved. The upstairs rooms were used in the 19th century for inquest to be held.