In honour of International Women’s Day: from Fanny Burney to Phillis Wheatley

As it is International Women’s Day today, I’d thought I revisit briefly some of the women who have appeared in this blog by virtue of a connection, however tenuous, with London and its street names.

Let’s start with Phillis Wheatley, who was the first published African-American female poet. Born in West Africa and taken to the US in 1761, she was bought by a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley (and given his name as was the custom of the time). Phillis was schooled by Wheatley’s daughter Mary and accompanied his son Nathaniel to London, where she had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London and met with other significant members of British society.

The Boston publishers of the 18th century did not want to be associated with a book written by a slave so her work Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published by a company based in Aldgate.

Margaret Cavendish (born Margaret Lucas and later the Duchess of Newcastle), who was born in 1623, was a poet, philosopher, essayist, and playwright who had her works published under her own name, unusual for women of the time. She wrote The Blazing World, one of the earliest examples of science fiction, she was an early opponent of animal testing, and she argued philosophy and science with the great minds of the time.

One of Margaret’s brothers, John Lucas, was an original member of the Royal Society and, in 1667, Margaret asked permission to attend a session of the  Society. This request caused a great deal of argument and dissatisfaction, but was eventually granted, and she became the first woman to attend a session. (The Royal Society, which was once based in Crane Court, was founded in 1660, but women were not permitted by statute to become fellows until 1945.)

Fanny Burney, later Madame D’Arblay, was an extraordinary woman; she was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – 18th century writer, but she should also go down in history as a woman of huge courage. Fanny was a breast cancer survivor and wrote the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic.

Fanny married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay on 28 July 1793, relatively late in life. Her father did not attend the wedding, having expressed disapproval of his daughter marrying a penniless foreigner. The couple remained happily married and had one son.

There is memorial window to her at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and London’s oldest surviving plaque for a woman was erected in 1885 at her residence in Mayfair’s Bolton Street. According to English Heritage, “It is a sign of the times in which it was made that its inscription gives greater prominence to her married name – Madame D’Arblay – than to the one by which posterity knows her.” There is also a D’Arblay Street, and Fanny lived in Half Moon Street.

Lola Montez, universally described as an adventuress, also lived in Half Moon Street, where she was arrested for bigamy in 1849. Lola was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland. She later claimed to be Spanish, adopted the name Lola Montez, and became a dancer whose dancing apparently involved more enthusiasm than talent. Her most renowned dance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothes.

Lola is perhaps better known for her lovers, among the more famous of whom was Ludwig, King of Bavaria, who was dominated by the strong-willed Lola and became a strong political force. Her meddling in politics sparked off riots that eventually led to her banishment and the king’s abdication. Another famous lover was the equally temperamental Franz Liszt.

Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, was born around 1584 and lived and died in Fleet Street. She was described by the Newgate Calendar as “A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663”. She is considered to have been, at least in part, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book Moll Flanders.

As Moll Cutpurse the pickpocket, she was successful and made a great deal of money. Eventually, a spell in various prisons, and having her hand burned (a punishment for theft) four times, she took to highway robbery instead. When she grew tired of, or nervous about, stealing, Moll turned to a variety of activities, including fencing stolen goods and running a bawdy house.

Mary, or Moll, died of dropsy when she was in her seventies, was interred in St Bridget’s churchyard, and it is believed that John Milton wrote her epitaph, though the headstone was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

Phoebe Hessel, who gives her name both to Amazon Street and Hessel Street, is another woman who was famous for dressing as a man; in her case she disguised her gender to enlist as a man in the 5th Regiment of Foot, supposedly to be with her lover, Samuel Golding. She hid her secret successfully even from her comrades-in-arms, that is, until Golding was wounded and invalided home. Phoebe then revealed her secret to the wife of the commanding officer; once her secret was out, she was discharged and returned to the UK where she married Golding and bore nine children.

On Golding’s death, Phoebe moved to Brighton where she married William Hessel and became something of a local character. The then Prince Regent, later George IV, granted Phoebe a small pension and invited her to his coronation parade. She died in 1821, at the alleged age of 108 and was buried in the parish churchyard with honours.

follow her lover into battle, and served overseas as a man, having was later a local character in Brighton, becoming a favourite of George IV, Price Regent and living to the ripe old age of 108.

Lady Elizabeth Hatton provides one of the many, many theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard: she was the basis of a legend about a beautiful gypsy who made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. The devil then appeared unexpectedly at a ball one night and carried her off, after which revellers at the ball were revolted to discover a bleeding human heart in the courtyard.

Elizabeth, who died in 1646, was indeed a woman to inspire legends. The young and beautiful (and rich) woman was the toast of 17th-century London society; her Annual Winter Ball in Hatton Garden was one of the highlights of the London social season, and invitations were much sought after. Her suitors were many and varied, including Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

Coke won Elizabeth’s heart – possibly to his detriment, because the two quarrelled virtually throughout their long marriage. Elizabeth retained the Hatton name and the couple lived in separate houses for much of their marriage. There were indeed rumours of Elizabeth being carried off by the devil – after defying him to do so if she could not open the door to the wine cellar which thwarted the efforts of her servants.

Another real woman to provide a theory behind a London street name (in this case, La Belle Sauvage Yard) is Pocahontas, a Native American who was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe in what is the first recorded inter-racial marriage in North American history.

The Rolfes travelled to London to seek investment for their tobacco farm, and the couple became celebrities. When the couple set sail to return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill, died at the age of 21, and was buried in Gravesend.

The printing works of Cassell, Petter and Galpin were based at one point in the yard, and Pocahontas became the symbol for what became today’s publishing company of Cassell’s. There was once a statue of Pocahontas in Red Lion Square, commissioned by the company when it moved there.

Random London yard names from Apple Tree to Blue Ball

Apart from the the fun of learning about London street names – and passing on what I’ve learned – a large part of the fun of a blog is being to ramble about the subject of my choice. So brace yourself for a couple of musings, ending up in London street names.

First: Apple Tree Yard. “I’m reading a book I can’t put down,” a friend told me recently. My first thought was, “Is that a real street name?”, and I rushed to my A-Z. It is, indeed, really a street – yard – in the Palaces of Westminster area.

However, I regret to report, I am unable to find out what, if any, is the connection to apple trees.

I did find out that it was once called Angier Street (not, as I thought on first reading, Angler Street). The name is from John Angier who, by 1676, had built a house in St James’s square on the site of what is now the East India Club. The club, originally known as the East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools’ Club, has “a long tradition as a gentlemen’s home from home”.

According to the Survey of London (not John Stow’s, but an initiative founded in the 1890s to provide an official history of London’s buildings), Angier’s name was “given to the access-street running at the back of the houses on the north side of the square (now Ormond Yard and Apple Tree Yard)”.

The distinguished architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens had an office at Number 7 Apple Tree yard, where he worked on his designs for New Delhi, chosen to replace Calcutta as the seat of the British Indian government in 1912.

And there you have it. (Incidentally, I read the book, enjoyed it tremendously, and then found that it was being dramatised on the BBC, so I have watched that and enjoyed it almost as much.)

Now a commercial break: I will, of course, have to add Apple Tree Yard to the list of tree-related street names, a post on which you can read here.

From apple trees to baby clothes: I recently learned something about gender stereotyping and colour, namely, that the assignment of pink to girls and blue to boys is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Centuries ago, the dye to make pink cloth was expensive and, as a result, was something of a status symbol. Because of its cost, pink was used by the male elite: during the Renaissance, men and male saints were often depicted wearing pink clothes.

Regrettably, I have been unable to find any pinks in London street names; the closest I could come was a Pinkerton Close in Streatham but that is too far a stretch even for me.

Blue, however, was slightly more rewarding: there is a Blue Ball Yard off St James’s Street (and a short walk from Apple Tree Yard). The yard, which has been in existence since at least 1680, was once called Stable Yard. The name may have been changed to commemorate the Blue (or Blew) Ball Tavern in St James’s street, demolished in the late 18th century. A blue ball sign was often used to denote a tradesman and, sometimes, a fortune teller.

Blue Anchor Yard in Whitechapel also takes its name from that of a tavern name. Blue was common in signs generally, often just to mark the colour of a place of business’s doors or doorpost. The colour was considered to be a symbol of trustworthiness, and the anchor is also representative of hope in Christian symbolism, as in the Hope and Anchor, another common pub sign.

There was once a Blue Anchor Alley in Bunhill Fields, and the Blue Anchor Tavern, which stood in Bunhill Row, is the subject of a painting in the British Museum, ‘Rat-Catching at the Blue Anchor Tavern, Bunhill Row, Finsbury. The description reads:

A Manchester terrier called Tiny the Wonder is shown attempting to kill 200 rats in under an hour at a tavern in Bunhill Row, Finsbury. He achieved this feat twice, on 28 March 1848 and 27 March 1849, “having on both occasions time to spare”. Jimmy Shaw, owner of Tiny and the Blue Anchor Tavern, could store up to 2,000 rats at his establishment.

And there you have today’s ramblings tenuously linked to London street names.

London misnomers: Brook Street to Orchard Street

brook-streetI recently spent some time wandering around Mayfair or, rather, a small section of Mayfair, during which time I found a few more of London’s ‘misnomers’. There is a charming 19th-century poem (more of which later) by James Smith that spells out many of London’s misnomers, so let’s start with Brook Street, which is “wanting in water”.

brook-street-view
Brook Street: “wanting in water”

Though the street may have been (and still is) wanting in water, there was a brook: the now underground River Tyburn; it flowed from Tyburn across Piccadilly, leading to the neighbourhood being called Brookfield. The earliest published use of the name was an ad in the London Gazette of September, 1688: “His Majesty [Charles II] has been graciously pleased to grant a market for live cattle to be held in Brookfield, near Hyde Park Corner, on Tuesday and Thursday in every week”.

When the land became more desirable for buildings than for cattle markets, the designers and architects descended on the area and building was at its height in the 18th century. The principal street at the time was called Brook Street, though early on it was sometimes referred to as Lower Brook Street to distinguish it from Upper Brook Street, and part of it was known as Little Brook Street.

farm-streetFrom fields to farms, and Farm Street, where building began around the 1740s. This street does take its name from a farm in the area, called Hay Hill Farm, which seems pretty straightforward; however, the Hay is not hay as such. The name was a late 17th-century corruption of Ayehill, from the nearby Aye (or Eye) Brook, a tributary of the Tyburn.

In 1927 Tallulah Bankhead bought a house in Farm Street, four years after she had first moved to London.

The farm also gave its name to the nearby Hay Hill and Hay’s Mews; of Hay Hill Smith writes: “And (tho’ it abuts on his garden) Hay Hill/Won’t give Devon’s duke the hay fever”. This is a reference to Devonshire House, originally Berkeley House, from John Berkeley, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton, who built it. The name was changed to Devonshire House when it was purchased by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire. Hay Hill and many other streets in the area, formed part of the gardens of the house.

Beau Brummell is supposed to have had a sentimental connection to Hay Hill, which is adjacent to Berkeley Square. Thomas Raikes, a London dandy and friend of Brummell’s, recorded this in his journal:

hays-mews-2“At five o’clock on a fine summer’s morning, in 1813, [Brummell] was walking with me through Berkeley Square, and was bitterly lamenting his misfortunes at cards, when he suddenly stopped, seeing something glittering in the kennel. He stooped down and picked up a crooked sixpence, saying, ‘Here is an harbinger of good luck.’ He took it home, and before going to bed drilled a hole in it, and fastened it to his watchchain. The spell was good: during more than two years he was a constant winner at play and on the turf, and, I believe, realised nearly £30,000.”

Brummell was also a friend of the future King George IV, who had less fortunate associations with Hay Hill. Despite – or perhaps because of – the area’s wealth and luxury in the 18th century, it was infested with highwaymen and footpads. George IV, then the Prince of Wales, and his brother, the Duke of York, were apparently stopped one night by highwaymen on Hay Hill, whilst riding in a hackney coach, and robbed of what valuables they had about them”.

hays-mews-contextHay’s Mews (once spelled Hayes Mews), which also takes its name from the farm, is adjacent to Charles Street (a family name of the Berkeley family). On the corner of Charles Street and Hay’s Mews is a pub, originally called I Am the Only Running Footman(supposedly the longest pub name in London), and later The Running Footman.

Back in the day, a running footman did just that – he ran ahead of his master’s coach to clear people out of the way, pay tolls, and perform other essential tasks to ensure a hassle-free journey. Apparently, at the beginning of the 19th century only one such running footman remained, employed by William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry. The Duke lived in Piccadilly, so why a pub in Hay’s Mews should have been named after his footman is something of a mystery.

The pub now calls itself, alas, just The Footman.

hill-street-2

Hill Street, which crosses Farm Street, was so named because there was a hill there (as was Hay Hill). Elizabeth Montagu – social reformer, patron of the arts, literary critic, and writer – lived in Hill Street, She helped organize and lead the Blue Stockings Society, and hosted a literary salon at her house. Her circle was known as the Blue Stockings Society and Doctor Johnson called her the “Queen of the Blues”.

The bluestockings were not restricted to women; one regular attendee of the meetings was botanist and published Benjamin Stillingfleet. The story goes that Stillingfleet once attended a meeting in the blue woollen stockings normally worn by working men, instead of the more formal silk stockings. The term was taken up to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis on conversation over fashion.

mount-street-painted-signIn contrast to Hay Hill and Hill Street, Mount Row and Mount Street are not particularly hilly; however, there was once an earthwork there, known as Oliver’s Mount. According to Old and New London, this mount was part of a “line of fortification so hastily drawn round the western suburbs in 1643, by order of the Parliament, when an attack from the royal forces was expected”. The attack didn’t happen and the mount was flattened at some point, but the name lived on in Mount Field, on which the streets were built.

orchard-streetAnd on to Orchard Street, which does contain some trees, but not what you would call an orchard. There is an Orchard Street near Westminster Abbey, and that takes its name from the fact that it was built on land once part of the Abbey’s orchard. This orchard, however, is from Orchard Portman in Somerset, part of the country estates of the Portman family who developed much of the Marylebone area.

Oh, yes, I promised more about that poem, and here it is:

From Park Lane to Wapping, by day and by night,
I’ve many a year been a roamer,
And find that no lawyer can London indict,
Each street, ev’ry lane’s a misnomer.
I find Broad Street, St. Giles’s, a poor narrow nook,
Battle Bridge is unconcious of slaughter,
Duke’s Place cannot muster the ghost of a duke,
And Brook Street is wanting in water.

I went to Cornhill for a bushel of wheat,
And sought it in vain ev’ry shop in,
The Hermitage offered a tranquil retreat,
For the jolly Jack hermits of Wapping.
Spring Gardens, all wintry, appear on the wane,
Sun Alley’s an absolute blinder,
Mount Street is a level, and Bearbinder Lane
Has neither a bear nor a binder.

No football is kicked up and down in Pall Mall,
Change Alley, alas! never varies,
The Serpentine river’s a straightened canal,
Milk Street is denuded of dairies.
Knightsbridge, void of tournaments, lies calm and still
Butcher Row cannot boast a cleaver,
And (tho’ it abuts on his garden) Hay Hill
Won’t give Devon’s duke the hay fever.

The Cockpit’s the focus of law, not of sport,
Water Lane is affected with dryness,
And, spite of its gorgeous approach, Prince’s Court
Is a sorry abode for his highness.
From Baker Street North all the bakers have fled,
So, in verse not quite equal to Homer,
Methinks I have proved what at starting I said,
That London’s one mighty misnomer.

Pocahontas and her London street name connection

A belated Happy New Year, overdue apologies for my long absence from these pages, and thanks to loyal followers who have continued to support me during my times of unexplained disappearance.

There was a story on the BBC this morning about Pocahontas and her resting place at St George’s Church in Gravesend, Kent, and that has pushed aside for now the theme I had all planned for today’s post. A ceremony at the church marked the 400th year since the death of Pocahontas (also known as Rebecca Rolfe, and was attended by US Ambassador Matthew Barzun, as well as a direct descendant of Pocahontas, John Rolfe.

Pocahontas provides one theory behind the name of La Belle Sauvage Yard, which no longer exists, but the name of which – like that of Bleeding Heart Yard – has fascinated people for centuries and generated many theories.

That font of London historical knowledge, John Stow, believed that the earliest occupant of the inn was one Arabella Savage, known as Bell Savage, and that her name provided inspiration for an imaginative sign painter. There is evidence that Savage was a local name: in 1380 a certain William Lawton was sentenced to an hour in the pillory for trying to obtain money, by means of a forged letter, from William Savage of Fleet Street.

Another theory came from Joseph Addison, founder of The Spectator, an 18th-century daily publication, who was intrigued by the inn’s sign, which showed a savage man standing by a bell. He was, he said, “very much puzzled by the conceit of it” until he read a French novel in which is described a beautiful young woman who was found in the wilderness and was called ‘La Belle Sauvage’.

Yet another theory is that, in the 17th century, when John Rolph, or Rolfe, brought his bride to England, they stayed at the inn. In honour of the beauty and gallantry of this foreign wife, the name was changed to La Belle Sauvage. The bride in question was Pocahontas.

Pocahontas was a Native American who was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe in what is the first recorded inter-racial marriage in North American history.

The Rolfes travelled to London to seek investment for their tobacco farm, and the couple became celebrities. When the couple set sail to return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill, died at the age of 21, and was buried in Gravesend.

The printing works of Cassell, Petter and Galpin were based at one point in the yard, and Pocahontas became the symbol for what became today’s publishing company of Cassell’s. There was once a statue of Pocahontas in Red Lion Square, commissioned by the company when it moved there.

According to a contemporary newspaper report, “To retain the firm’s link with La Belle Sauvage, and that neighbourhood’s own fanciful connection with the Princess Pocohontas, Cassell’s commissioned a larger than life size statue of the ‘Beautiful Savage’ to grace the entrance of the firm’s headquarters.” The statue was removed in the 1980s and sold to a private buyer in the 1990s.

The sculptor Grinling Gibbons used to live in the yard and is said to have carved a pot of flowers that shook with the motion of passing coaches. John Evelyn saw the carving and was so impressed that he recommended its creator to Charles II.

The yard was also home to an inn, once one of the most splendid of London’s coaching inns. At one time it had 40 rooms and stabling for 100 horses; by the 19th century the capacity for horses had increased to 400.

The inn was also a place for all kinds of entertainment, serving roles as disparate from coffee house to a centre for bull baiting, and a place where plays were performed before the advent of theatres. One of the favourites who acted there was Richard Tarlton (or Tarleton) the actor and clown said to be the basis for the character of Yorick in Hamlet.

Another famous person associated with the inn was the William Banks (or Bankes); a prosperous vintner of Cheapside, and also a showman, who was mentioned by Tarleton. Banks’s most famous act involved a trained gelding called Marocco.

Marocco could play dead, identify certain members of the audience (such as those wearing glasses), distinguish between certain colours, and even urinate on command. He could also count: if coins were collected from spectators, Marocco, by stamping his hoof, could indicate from whom the coins came and how many came from each person.

Banks and Marocco later moved to Paris, where Banks was arrested and accused of sorcery; he had to reveal that the horse’s tricks were in the main accomplished through subtle gestures. From there the pair went to Orléans where Banks was again arrested for sorcery and sentenced to burn at the stake. He was given one last chance and, to redeem himself, Banks taught Marocco to kneel down before a cross, proving that he was not a devil.

One account of Banks suggest that, following Marocco’s death in 1605, he worked in James I’s stables, and later trained horses for George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.

Earlier in the inn’s history, it marked the end of Wyatt’s 1554 rebellion: it was here that he turned back and rested when he discovered that the people would not support him.

London’s (watery) culinary streets: Water Lane to Watergate Walk

EAS_3924Before I continue with a few more culinary street names, I must stand corrected, with thanks to MattF, as to Salmon Lane. Once again, I have let myself get carried away with a name derivation that is more fun than accurate.

According to the delightfully named Hector Bolitho and Derek Peel in their book Without the City Walls, the lane is named after Captain Robert Salmon, Master of Trinity House at the time of the Spanish Armada. But we can’t leave it there; that’s what sparked the idea for this book in the first place: not just where names came from but what the story is behind the derivation.

By the way, though I missed Salmon Lane the first time around, Bolitho and Peel were one of my sources in the early days of my research, and I was fortunate enough to acquire a copy recently at not too great an expense. The book is charmingly written, in a tone chatty enough that you can imagine you are walking along with the couple as they stroll the streets of London, listening to them muse about streets and their names. A great deal of well-researched information backs up this musing, which makes the book a good read as well as a useful resource.

But on to Trinity House: this, says the official website, a charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers, providing education, support and welfare to the seafaring community with a statutory duty as a General Lighthouse Authority to deliver a reliable, efficient and cost-effective aids to navigation service for the benefit and safety of all mariners. It started with Henry VIII, whose charter led to the formation of what was, in 1513, the Trinity House Corporation. The Corporation was not a military body, but has served, on occasion, a military function and Salmon was involved in one of them.

When Elizabeth I became concerned about the threat of a Spanish invasion she ordered Trinity House to prepare for war, as part of its charter. It was then that Salmon stepped in, telling the queen’s advisor, Lord Burghley, that Trinity House could fit out 30 merchant ships in four days for the use of the Lord High Admiral, Lord Henry Seymour.

As it happened, none of the Trinity House ships were used in battle; however, the flag taken from the Spaniards by Sir Francis Drake was display at Trinity House in Water Lane, but was lost in 1715 when fire destroyed Trinity House.

Once again, taking liberties with the alphabet and its order since water fits in so nicely here, Water Lane takes us neatly back to culinary street names, though for some reason the latter part of the alphabet seems to favour those that are bibendiary rather than culinary.

Water Lane in Stratford, the former location of Trinity House, was the setting for an old Roman bath, popular at one time with visitors to London, and described by Dickens in David Copperfield.

A Water Lane (which no longer exists) in the City was, in medieval times, called Sporiars Lane and took its name from the spur makers of the time. The name was changed in the 15th century with the erection of a water gate in the lane; 20th century development destroyed the lane completely.

There is also a Water Street, WC2, near to the Thames, which is the only survivor of a number of similarly names streets that led to the river before the Embankments made access easier. According to John Strype in his Survey of London, it was “a Place much pestered with Carts and Carrs, for the bringing of Coals and other Goods from the Wharfs by the Water side.

EAS_3928The watergate of Watergate Walk, just off the Strand, was an extension to York House, originally the London home of the Bishops of Norwich, later the palace of the Archbishop of York, and eventually acquired by George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham, who had the watergate built. Villiers was a favourite of James I; it was the 2nd Duke of Buckingham who gave his name to Of Alley.

York House was one of several mansions that lined the Strand; those on the south side were the more desirable, having as they did direct access to the Thames (especially if you had your own watergate). The watergate is now part of Embankment Gardens and is an indication of much the river bank has moved.

While for me, as a university student in the US during the 1970s, Watergate had a completely different connotation, the name has since acquired more pleasant associations: you can sit outside Gordon’s Wine Bar in Watergate Walk. The wine bar itself has a rich history: the house in which the bar is situated was home to Samuel Pepys in the 1680s and Rudyard Kipling lived in the building in the 1890s. It was here that he wrote ‘The Light That Failed’.

A tribute to Gene Wilder with wild street names

Gene WilderWe interrupt this programme, which should be carrying on with London’s culinary street names, to pay tribute to the great Gene Wilder, of whose passing I read with immense sorrow last night.

Everyone seems to say ‘Willie Wonka’ when you mention his name but I loved him for being Leo Bloom and Frederick (“It’s pronounced Fronkensteen”) Frankenstein. And I was fortunate enough to see him on stage in the West End back in the late 90s.

So what better way to pay my own humble tribute than to throw out a few (tenuously) linked street names?

WIlder 3We can start with a fairly straightforward connection and Wilder Walk in Soho. According to Westminster City Council, which approved the name in 2010, “The naming of a newly constructed pedestrian walkway as ‘Wilder Walk’ is a fitting tribute to the contribution and service provided by the late Ian Wilder to the West End community in his capacity as a West End Ward Councillor.”

Wild Court cropOther than that I can only come up with a couple of others, including Wild Street and Wild Court near Drury Lane. This name is a corruption of Weld, and refers to the wealthy Humphrey Weld who, in the 17th century, had an elaborate mansion in the area. The house had its own chapel and extensive library and, at the time of its construction, enjoyed splendid isolation in what is now the Covent Garden and theatre area. At the time, what later became Wild Street was only a track leading to Weld’s house.

And then, to end a tribute to a comic genius on something of a comic note, there is a Wild Goose Drive in south east London. Finding an explanation for this name is, in itself, something of a wild goose chase. Although the term ‘wild goose chase’ now means a fruitless or absurd mission, it originally implied an erratic course. The drive is indeed, not straight, which may have suggested the name.

The expression itself could have either have stemmed from the fact that wild geese are difficult to catch or from an old game, a horseback form of ‘follow the leader’. In this game, two riders and their horses started off together; the rider who established the lead then set the path and the pace, and the other was obliged to follow.

Back to culinary street names next time.

Rest in peace, Gene Wilder.

London’s culinary streets: Salmon Lane to Sugar Loaf Court

Salmon Lane
Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

Let’s start with fish, and Salmon Lane in Limehouse, which is part of a fishy theme that we’ve explored earlier in this blog, and it is nothing to do with fish.

This takes is name from the church of St Dunstan’s in Stepney. Work that one out. No, don’t bother, I’ll tell you: ‘Salmon’ in this instance  a corruption of ‘sermon’; this was the closest church for Limehouse residents until 1729 when St Anne’s church was built in Newell Street. So the lane was the route people would walk to church to hear a sermon.

See? Easy when you know. Incidentally, the church of St Anne’s was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a contemporary of Sir Christopher Wren; Hawksmoor also contributed to the design of St Paul’s Cathedral and Blenheim Palace.

Shad ThamesStaying with fish, we have Shad Thames (no, I never knew Shad was a fish until I was challenged to do the aforementioned fishy blog post), which is nothing to do with fish. It is, instead, probably a contraction of St John at Thames; the Priory of St John at Jerusalem owned about 25 acres of land here from the 13th century until the Dissolution. In Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes (who drank in a dive in Little Saffron Hill, now Herbal Hill), lived and died on Jacob’s Island, east of Shad Thames.

From fish back to meat, with Shoulder of Mutton Alley. Another inn sign, indicating the food specialities available in that particular tavern or, apparently, in one case outside of London, the shape of the land where the inn was located. We have already looked at Cat and Mutton Bridge, named from a tavern formerly called the Shoulder of Mutton and Cat which, confusingly, may have been to do with sheep rather than a food speciality.

There was once another use of the word ‘mutton’ (though I am not sure it was related to Shoulder of Mutton Alley): it was a slang term for prostitutes, extended also to ‘laced mutton’. Mutton Alley, which no longer exists was apparently where many such women plied their trade. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, poet, satirist, and courtier of Charles II referred to the term in his unkind epitaph for Charles II (written while the king was still alive):

Here lies our mutton-eating king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.
The king responded wittily, saying, “True, for my words are my own, and my actions are my Ministers!”

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Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

And on to Stew Lane which, like Pudding Lane and Grape Street, is far removed from the culinary delight indicated by its name, and is more in keeping with the term ‘mutton’ as used above. A ‘stew’ or ‘hothouse’ were once terms for a brothel and, from the 12th century to the 17th, the banks of the Thames teemed with such houses. They tended to be on the south side but some – like this lane – were on the north bank. (Though one source says that this lane led down to the waterside embarkation point for women working in the Bankside brothels.)

The stews were licensed and regulated by the government to prevent any debauchery of the respectable wives and daughters of London and, says London historian John Stow in a somewhat judgemental fashion, “for the repair of incontinent men to the like women”.

Some of the regulations governing the stews were that they could not be opened on holidays; that women of religion, or married women (presumably even if they were ‘incontinent’), could not work there; that men could not be enticed into them; that no woman could be “kept against her will that would leave her sin”; and that a woman could not “take money to lie with any man, but she lie with him all night till the morrow”.

The women of the stews were not allowed the rites of the church, and were not permitted Christian burial; they had their own plot of land, called the Single Woman’s churchyard, a respectable distance from the parish church.

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Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

From meat to sweeteners and Sugar Loaf Court (there is also a Sugar Loaf Alley), which, hurray, takes its name from sugar. More precisely, from the sign of a sugarloaf (a tall cone of refined sugar with a rounded top), which was a common shop sign for grocers, when sugar was sold in conical ‘loaves’. These loaves were broken up for general household use, and this was called loaf sugar.

Not all households settled for pieces of sugar loaf: the household accounts of Lady Moseley show that, in 1707, £3 [nearly £600 in 1750] was paid for one of these loaves. Although initially used mainly as a grocer’s sign, the shape was easily recognizable, which, like artichokes and pineapples, made it useful for tavern signs (see Artichoke Hill).

It could be that the court was the site of a refinery for making sugar loaves. There is also the argument that the court itself is in the shape of a sugar loaf, being broad at the base and narrow at the top.