The Saracen’s Head was a famous coaching-inn adjacent to the church of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate within the boundaries of the City of London. The nineteenth-century author Charles Dickens featured it in his 1838–9 novel Nicholas Nickleby.
The Saracen’s Head was a celebrated tavern and coaching-inn which stood on the north side of Snow Hill adjacent to the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the City of London. The location is south of Smithfield Market and north of the Old Bailey (previously the site of Newgate prison). The building dated back to at least the sixteenth century. In an account from 1522, a ‘Sersyns Head’ was used in the preparations for a visit by Emperor Charles V. The inn was recorded then as having 30 beds (considerably large for the time), and stalls for a number of horses.
The inn was demolished in 1868 to allow construction of the Holborn Viaduct and other improvements to the area. Nothing remains of the inn today and the site is now largely occupied by a City of London police station. St Sepulchre-without-Newgate remains and is the largest parish church in the City. Located close to the former notorious prison of Newgate, the bells in its tower used to be rung to announce executions.
Charles Dickens and the Saracen’s Head.
Charles Dickens featured the Saracen’s Head in his 1838–9 novel Nicholas Nickleby. The Saracen’s Head was, for a long period, one of the inns in the capital at which the Yorkshire boarding schoolmasters awaited the applications of parents and guardians in reply to their advertisements which appeared in London newspapers.
It was at this inn that Nicholas Nickleby and his uncle waited upon the Yorkshire schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, of Dotheboys Hall. In Chapter 4, Dickens describes the Saracens Head thus:
Near to the jail, and by consequence near to Smithfield also, and the Compter, and the bustle and noise of the city; and just on that particular part of Snow Hill where omnibus horses going eastward seriously think of falling down on purpose, and where horses in hackney cabriolets going westward not unfrequently fall by accident, is the coach-yard of the Saracen’s Head Inn; its portal guarded by two Saracens’ heads and shoulders, which it was once the pride and glory of the choice spirits of this metropolis to pull down at night, but which have for some time remained in undisturbed tranquillity; possibly because this species of humour is now confined to St James’s parish, where door knockers are preferred as being more portable, and bell-wires esteemed as convenient toothpicks. Whether this be the reason or not, there they are, frowning upon you from each side of the gateway. The inn itself garnished with another Saracen’s Head, frowns upon you from the top of the yard; while from the door of the hind boot of all the red coaches that are standing therein, there glares a small Saracen’s Head, with a twin expression to the large Saracens’ Heads below, so that the general appearance of the pile is decidedly of the Saracenic order.
When you walk up this yard, you will see the booking-office on your left, and the tower of St Sepulchre’s church, darting abruptly up into the sky, on your right, and a gallery of bedrooms on both sides. Just before you, you will observe a long window with the words ‘coffee-room’ legibly painted above it; and looking out of that window, you would have seen in addition, if you had gone at the right time, Mr. Wackford Squeers with his hands in his pockets.
* In the opening sentence of this passage the ‘jail‘ refers to Newgate Prison (now the site of the Old Bailey Courts), ‘Smithfield‘ to the then live meat market at Smithfield and the ‘Compter‘ was the Giltspur Street Compter, a small prison, mainly used to hold debtors in nearby Giltspur Street which closed in 1853 and demolished the following year.
Illustration: The Yorkshire Schoolmaster at The Saracen’s Head. A scene illustrated by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) for the original serialisation of the Charles Dickens novel Nicholas Nickleby. It depicts the ‘Yorkshire Schoolmaster’ Wackford Squeers, the sadistic headmaster of Dotheboys Hall boarding school, appearing to feed a terrified looking pupil on a seat inside the Saracen’s Head.
In January 1838, Charles Dickens and his friend, the illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’) visited some notorious Yorkshire schools, in particular Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge run by headmaster William Shaw. In 1823, Shaw had been prosecuted for criminal negligence when two of his pupils were blinded. Wackford Squeers was modelled on Shaw, and Dotheboys Hall on his school.
Part of the street of Snow Hill still exists, although the inn was demolished in 1868. The site is marked with a City of London Blue Plaque.
The site is currently covered by a City of London Police Station.
2022 update: The police station is now closed and the building is awaiting conversion to a hotel.