Devil’s advocate: a critical journey through the origins of the name 'Hell's Kitchen'.
Updated: Feb 27
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing” (Albert Einstein). Inquisitiveness may not actually be included in the standard academic’s job description. But one prerequisite to being an effective researcher is the ability to play the role of perpetual devil’s advocate by questioning everything. The critical exploration which follows of how ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ acquired its demonic moniker is a compelling case in point.
Myths, Legends and Heresay; Exploring The Origins Of The‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Epithet
Interestingly, the most often cited explanation about how Hell’s Kitchen acquired its name is also the most difficult to substantiate. Yet it is an account which has endured over many years and is now enmeshed firmly into the urban mythology of New York City. It is said that a local police officer named ‘Dutch Fred’ and his junior colleague were patrolling W39th Street when the less experienced officer likened the neighborhood to hell. Dutch Fred quipped: “Hell is a milder climate - this is Hell’s Kitchen.” Much less commonly cited but equally challenging to validate is the more prosaic proposition that a German woman called ‘Heil’ had a restaurant in the neighborhood. Others subscribe to the view that Hell’s Kitchen was named after a Victorian slum in London. Given the propensity for place names to further stigmatise the impoverished through sustained negative discourse about the communities in which they live, this account seemed potentially tenable. In 1882, George Simmonds wrote about a part of Battersea which had become known as ‘Little Hell’ adjacent to ‘Hell’s Corner’ where “persons in the habit of receiving stolen property were said to reside in the neighbourhood” (Simmonds ibid:5). In my article entitled ‘Woman Of Influence’, published July 2008 in ‘Inside Housing’ I explored the enduring legacy of Octavia Hill, the Victorian philanthropist and social housing pioneer. Here, I refer to ‘Little Hell,’ the renowned Victorian slum in Marylebone London, as being one of Hill’s first housing experiments for the poor. The original printed copy of my article may be accessed below.
The Importance of Documented Sources
Some thirteen years later after the publication of my piece on Octavia Hill mid-July 2021 , I spent three days engaged in prodigious research fully immersed in historical maps of Victorian London and other archival material trying to find a London based ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’ Having not found any new credible sources, I enlisted the guidance of the highly accomplished Laura Vaughan, Professor of Urban Form and Society at Bartlett School of Architecture University College London. In her excellent blog entry entitled 'Hell’s Kitchen – The Language Of Poverty’ prompted by my enquiry, Laura revisited the proposition that NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen was named after an east London Victorian slum. My fellow scholar points to the autobiography published in 1930 written by a British ex- offender which refers to ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ in its title (see Shore, 2007). Might something as prosaic as a clerical error have been the genesis of the suggestion that London had its own Hell's Kitchen? It's certainly possible.
In March 2022, I was made aware by Scott Martin @urbigenous via Laura Vaughan (thanks to you both) of an intriguing reference to a site which, in 1820, was marked ‘Hell Corner.’ This demonic sounding locality was located where Douro Place, Kensington currently sits. It has been contended, however, in a posting by the Royal Borough Of Kensington And Chelsea that this reiteration of 'hell' as place originated from a map created between 1741-45 by John Rocque. Rocque's map referred to ‘Hales House’ showing it in a rather more isolated position and calls it 'Hell House.' Certainly, changing place names whether intentionally or not was commonplace then as it is today. It may just be me in search of a story. But it does seem a leap of imagination to go from 'hale' to 'hell'. In fact, the alliteration in itself evokes the binary opposites of 'heaven' and 'hell.'
But that withstanding, no credible sources are in the public domain to corroborate the claim that New York’s Hell’s Kitchen had an English counterpart of the same name.
The earliest documented reference to Hell’s Kitchen as a specific location in New York City is contained in Davy Crockett’s autobiographical account of his visit to Five Points in 1835. “I do think I saw more drunk folks, men and women, that day, than I ever saw before ...these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell's kitchen” (Crockett, 1923: 159). Forty years later in 1879, the architect Charles H Farnham refers to a ‘Hell’s kitchen’ in his compelling piece ‘A Day On The Docks’ published in ‘Scribner's Monthly’. The use of lower case in ‘kitchen’ in the piece is significant in that it is suggestive of an emergent typology of place. Farnham’s ‘Hell’s kitchen’ was located in West 10th St: He writes: “We...passed under the crooked pier at the foot of West Tenth street... This is known as ‘Hell's kitchen.’ It may seem incredible that any free man should choose such a place for his abode...” (Farnham, 1879:39). Two years later, a report in the New York Times published on 22nd September 1881 described a series of buildings “bounded by W40th and W38th St north and south and by Tenth and Eleventh on the east and west of the city” as being described as Hell’s Kitchen by local police officers. The locality was “likely to be the lowest and filthiest in the city...where law and order are openly defied.”
The critique above highlights the importance of authoritative sources and more mythologically driven accounts of how Hell’s Kitchen acquired its striking moniker over two centuries ago. The residents of Hell’s Kitchen, both past and present, have borne witness to monumental changes, the vast majority of which have been driven by external economic, social and political factors. Oral history is a people’s history, a collection of individual accounts of what Jean-François Lyotard (1980: xxiv) characterised as petites histoires. If undocumented, this myriad of memories risk being misrepresented or allowed to seep undetected into the urban landscape to be lost forever.
Today, little evidence remains of the neighborhood which became home to thousands of immigrants in the 1840s. The gentrification which has ensued has met little resistance. The grit, grind and graft of the docklands which dominated two centuries ago has been replaced by a vibrant waterside. The eradication of the criminal underworld in the 1980s, the development of Times Square as a theatre destination, the success of the restaurant program have all coalesced to make Hell’s Kitchen the realtor’s dream. But some remnants of the past still secret themselves in the neighborhood creating what Pierre Nora (1984) characterised as a lieu de mémoire (site of memory). A handful of walkups, a smattering of pubs and restaurants whose names salute the neighborhood’s past and local places of worship all have tales to tell. But it is the residents of Hell’s Kitchen past and present whose stories of the everyday extraordinary nature are conspicuous by their absence. In ‘Stories From Hell’s Kitchen’, each interviewee is the protagonist in their own storytelling, given the time and space to ‘re-present’ the quintessential essence of the neighborhood. This immersive oral history project will draw not just on words but music, poetry, art and photography to create a nuanced and less revisionist sense of the neighborhood’s past. Because in reality, what makes your Hell’s Kitchen is an individual as your DNA. As is often the case, the devil is in the detail. Join us on this special journey through this iconic neighborhood.
Anon (1881) ‘A notorious locality: rookeries which none but the police dare enter’, New York Times, September 22nd.
Crockett, D. (1923) The Autobiography of David Crockett. United States: C. Scribner's Sons.
Lyotard, J. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Farnham, C H (1879) ‘A Day On The Docks’ in Holland J G (eds) Scribner’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine For The People XVIII, May-October inclusive, New York: Scribner and Co.
Nora, P. (1984) Entre mémoire et histoire. Les lieux de mémoire, 1, 23-43.
Maye-Banbury,A. (2008) ‘Woman Of Influence’, Inside Housing, 18th July.
Shore, H. (2007) “Undiscovered Country: Towards a History of the Criminal ‘Underworld’.” Law, Crime & History, citing Ingram, George, and DeWitt Mackenzie. 1930. Hell’s Kitchen: The Story of London’s Underworld as Related by the Notorious Ex-Burglar George Ingram to De Witt Mackenzie. London: Herbert Jenkins
Dr Angela Maye-Banbury
First published 23rd August 2021
Revised 27th February 2022