Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs, of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself: the emporium of petty larceny: visited at early morning, and setting-in of dusk, by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back-parlours, and who go as strangely as they come. Here, the clothesman, the shoe-vamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods, as sign-boards to the petty thief; here, stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist, 1838
SAFFRON HILL. A squalid neighbourhood between HOLBORN and CLERKENWELL, densely inhabited by poor people and thieves. It was formerly a part of Ely-gardens, [see Ely House], and derives its name from the crops of saffron which it bore. It runs from Field-lane into Vine-street, so called from the Vineyard attached to old Ely House. The clergymen of St. Andrew's, Holborn, (the parish in which the purlieu lies), have been obliged, when visiting it, to he accompanied by policemen in plain clothes.
Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850
see also Thomas Beames in The Rookeries of London - click here