Hidden and not-so-hidden gems of London street names

But first, a big thank you to my blogmate Pete, blogger supreme – check him out at beetleypete.com, who has made a generous sponsorship pledge for my Wye Valley Mighty Hike in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support and in memory of my cousin.

Yesterday’s post was green-themed to fit in with the Macmillan colour scheme, and one of the streets was Emerald Street, once called Green Street and renamed. I mentioned at the time that there are other precious stone London street names, so today let’s look at a few.

Following on from Emerald Street, renamed because of a plethora of Green Streets, we have Diamond Street in south London. One theory for this name is that the street forms one side of a small ‘square’ that could be considered roughly diamond-shaped.

There was once, evidently, another Diamond Street, built in 1890. This was, intriguingly, given its name because the plumber who built it was able to do so because of a diamond – however, any details of the plumber and his diamond have been lost in the mists of time. Maybe there is some connection with the Flanders and Swann song ‘Down Below’ about Hatton Garden in which a sewer worker says:

Hatton Garden is the spot, down below
Where we likes to go a lot, down below,
Since a bloke from Leather Lane,
Dropped a diamond down the drain

Ruby Street, also in south London, has a name that is unrelated to precious stones. This is believed to have been named after Ruby Hahn, the daughter of the area’s landlord.

Garnet Street in Wapping, despite its current name, started off nothing like precious stones. The street was originally called New Gravel Lane and the present Wapping Street was Old Gravel Lane because they were part of the routes for carrying sand and gravel inland from the riverside. The name was changed to honour Thomas Garnett, an ordained priest who was suspected of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.

Other gemstone names, the derivation of which I confess to being ignorant, include Agate Road, Amethyst Road, Coral Street, Crystal Terrace, Opal Street, and Sapphire Road. If anyone can pass on any information about these names, I’d be most grateful.

If you want to sponsor me for the Wye Valley Mighty Hike, my fundraising page is http://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Elizabeth-Steynor.


London’s green streets and hiking for Macmillan

I’ve signed up for the Wye Valley Mighty Hike – a 26-mile hike in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support – which I will be undertaking in memory of my cousin Pat who lost a short but brave battle with pancreatic cancer. My welcome pack arrived recently and the training shirt is a very bright green, so in honour of Macmillan and my cousin, I thought I would have a green-themed post.

Let’s start with Bowling Green Lane near Farringdon. I used to work near there, and this is one of the streets, along with Bleeding Heart Yard, that started me on my quest of finding out more about weird and wonderful street names. The lane was so called because in the 17th century there were two bowling greens here, the last of which was closed in the 19th century. John Stow disapproved of bowling – he thought it distracted archers from their proper pastime.

Less than a mile away we have Emerald Street, which reflects the ingenuity of some of those responsible for naming and renaming streets. It was originally called Green Street, possibly after a local resident. Towards the end of the 19th century there were far too many Green Streets in London and so it was given a name that allowed it to take its place in the rank of precious stone streets, such as Diamond Street and Ruby Street. But precious stones are for another time.

Also in that general area is Greenhills Rents. Back in the day, many lanes and alleyways were built either by one person or with one person’s money, and given the name of ‘buildings’ or ‘rents’. The latter, unsurprisingly, were buildings built specifically to be rented out. John Greenhill was an 18th-century landowner; he and his wife Agnes owned, among other land and property, the Castle tavern on Cowcross Street. In 1736 John applied unsuccessfully for a market to be built on his land; the last of his property was sold by Edith Minnie Greenhill in 1920.

Green Dragon Court, near Southwark Cathedral, is named – like so many streets – from a pub; there was a tavern here as early as 1542. 

It may seem like cheating to include Laurence Pountney Hill, but it was once called Green Lettuce Lane. The name is nothing to do with salad; it is, apparently, a corruption of Green Lattice Lane and, some say, comes from a lattice gate that opened into what is now Cannon Street. 

A much jollier explanation is that, although lattice in its corrupted form does play a part, it was not a gate. In earlier days taverns were designed so that customers could see out without being observed by people going past. This was sometimes achieved with latticework over the window, traditionally painted green or red.

Green Man Lane in West Ealing comes from another common tavern sign, a reference to an ancient figure in folk customs: Jack-in-the-Green. He was originally part of the traditional May procession, and represented one aspect of the summer. The Jack was a man enclosed within a wicker cage, which was covered by green leaves and boughs. (Who can think of that without remembering The Wicker Man with Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee?)

Later on, Jack-in-the-Green became associated with chimney sweeps, who were traditionally supposed to be carriers of good luck, and during their May Day celebrations, the street procession would include a boy dressed in the wicker costume.

There is a Greencoat Place, which takes its name from the Green Coat School. In 1624 the Churchwardens of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, established St. Margaret’s Hospital to which Charles I granted a Charter of Incorporation in 1633. As the children of St. Margaret’s were dressed in green, the Hospital became known as The Green Coat School.

But back to Macmillan and my hike: if you would like to sponsor me for this walk, click for my fundraising page.

Metallic London streets from Brass Talley Alley to Silver Street

The revisitation of my Christmas lurgy has halted proceedings on this website for a while but I am now – I hope – beyond the lying on the couch bleating feebly stage and onto the coughing and sounding worse than I feel stage. At least there is a wider audience than my husband and the pets for the latter stage.

But I digress. On to London street names and the wonderful Brass Talley Alley. Thanks to the very interesting blog ‘View from the mirror’, I have learned where that name came from: something that has, for some time, been vexing me.

The abovementioned blog described a project called ‘Brass Tally Men: An Oral History of London’s Dock Workers’. This project, set up by educational charity digital:works, is an oral history focusing on the fascinating history of the people who worked on the docks of London from the 1930s up until the closing of the docks from the 1970s.

Another website, eastlondonhistory.com, has this to say: “”Before the Dock Labour Scheme was created in 1946, bringing with it at least some guarantee of pay, the dockers were each given a brass tally, oval in shape. They would hand this in when given a job for the day, and collect it again when given their pay. If they didn’t get a day’s work they would have to sign on at the local Labour Exchange, bearing their brass tally as proof.”

It all makes sense now. The trouble is, as I have mentioned before, in looking at the map again to see just where the alley is, I found a Needleman Street, a Poolman Street, and a Garter Way. Now I have to fight the urge to dash off and research them.

(Incidentally, apologies to whoever provided me with this photo of the Brass Talley Alley street sign; I can’t for the life of me find a credit for it.)

Instead, let’s have a quick look at some other metal street names, some of which are logical and others which are anything but.

There was once a Silver Street, which no longer exists, but was, says Stow, named from the silversmiths who lived there. Legal evidence, surviving from May 1612, shows that Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit about a marriage dowry of £60. The evidence confirms his presence as a lodger at a house on Silver Street in the Jacobean period.

There is also a Silver Place in the West End, which may have been so named because it is not that far away from Golden Square.

Golden Square, on the other hand, is nothing to do with gold: the site upon which Golden Square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. Building work on the square was begun in the 1670s and, as it was designed for the gentry, a rather more refined name was needed.

Ironmonger Row, once largely inhabited by ironmongers, was built in the 18th century on land bequeathed to the Ironmongers Company in 1527 by Thomas Mitchell, ironmonger and citizen of London. There is also an Ironmonger Lane in EC2, which was known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century and was also the haunt of ironmongers. The Ironmongers Company had their original hall here until the 15th century, when they acquired buildings in Fenchurch Street and moved there, along with most of the ironmongers.

By way of contrast, there is Rust Square in Camberwell, which is nothing to do with metal, rusty or otherwise. It is, supposedly, named for George Rust, the Bishop of Dromore. Dromore is in Northern Ireland. Go figure.

It just occurred to me: I could include Leadenhall Street in this post. Leadenhall is basically as it sounds – from a grand mansion with a lead roof. The mansion, built by Sir Hugh de Neville, was eventually acquired by Dick Whittington, otherwise known as Sir Richard Whittington, Mayor of London, who then granted it to the City.

Pelicans, phoenixes and other royal street name references

Given the current meteorological conditions I should be focusing on snow but I covered Snow Hill recently, and you can read that post here. I was, however, enjoying the snow today when I went out with the dogs and I discovered two things.

First, that it’s not easy making snow angels with two springer spaniels (snowdogs) who want to get involved. Second, negotiating the more slippery bits along the river bank was easier if I adopted a peculiar, penguin-like waddle.

And that, faithful readers, leads me nicely into today’s bird-themed post, which is following up on my current pelican obsession.

After the last post on Pelican Stairs and The Prospect of Whitby, I continued my research into why a pub – and Francis Drake’s ship – would be named after a bird that is not indigenous to the UK. I did find out quite a lot about the use of pelicans in heraldry and religious allusions, but I have now learned more, and possibly the answer to my original questions.

But first, this is how my research into London street names started; it went something like this?

Q: Why are Pelican Stairs called that? 
A: They are named after a pub.
Q: Ok, but why name a pub The Pelican?
A: ?

I wanted to know more (though the street that set me off originally was Bleeding Heart Yard), so I started looking into pub names, then I would learn something about a resident in a particular street, or some reason that a particular pub had a special place in history. And it went from there. Then I reasoned that I couldn’t be the only person who wanted to know the rest of the story. (A nod here to Paul Harvey and his radio programme ‘The Rest of the Story’ of which my mother was a dedicated listener.) Why not write a book, I thought.

And here we are. I need to learn how to balance chasing after these tangents with actually pulling all my research and text into a publishable form. I keep finding new street names and new interesting facts, so the blog is supposed to be a way of channeling that information while I work on the book in the background.

What about the pelicans? I hear you cry.

It suddenly occurred to me that a well known insurance company uses a pelican as its logo and I checked the company’s website. That website informed me that the pelican generally has royal connotations.

Then I learned, from the Royal Museums Greenwich website, that the pelican was a favourite symbol of Elizabeth I. In times of food shortages, mother pelicans were believed to pluck their own breasts to feed their dying young with their blood and save their lives; Elizabeth used this symbol to portray her motherly love for her subjects.

That certainly could explain why pubs and Drake’s ship would pay homage to the pelican. Yay. That’s Pelican Stairs out of the way for now.

But wait – it didn’t stop there. I discovered that another favourite symbol of Elizabeth’s was the phoenix. There are a pair of portraits of the queen, painted on wood panels that scientific analysis has shown to be from the same two oak trees. The portraits, also painted in the same workshop, are called the Phoenix and Pelican portraits because in each of them she is wearing jewels depicting each of these birds.

A little more research uncovered some more of the queen’s favoured symbols, which are all used in another portrait, the Armada Portrait. These are pearls, a mermaid, and the globe.

Now I can view the pelican research not as wasted time but as a jumping off point for more London street names.

Phoenix Street, for instance, in the West End; this is said to take its name from the Phoenix cockpit that is also commemorated in Cockpit Alley, the site on which the Drury Lane theatre was later built. That’s one theory. The other is that it takes its name from a pub.

Near Mount Pleasant, which we will look at another time, there is a Phoenix Place that took its name from an iron foundry – now a car park – and a Phoenix Road near King’s Cross that was named for a tavern. Mythical creatures such as the phoenix and the mermaid, were popular for signs.

Which, happily, brings us to another Elizabethan symbol: the mermaid. There is a Mermaid Court in Southwark, once known as Mermaid Alley. It takes its name from a pub, which is turn could have taken its name either from the mythical creature or from the fact that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river, ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan. Or, bluntly, a prostitute.

A more famous Mermaid Tavern (dating back to 1411, so possibly another prostitute reference) was that with one entrance on Bread Street and one on Friday Street. It is supposedly where where Sir Walter Raleigh instituted the Mermaid Club (or Friday Street Club). Members are said to have included Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.

There is a Pearl Street not far from Pelican Stairs, but I am still trying to find out where that name came from.

Finally, there are various Globes, including Globe Road and Globe Street, both named for taverns. The latter may commemorate the original Globe Theatre. But more of that another time.

Pubs, pelicans and the Prospect of Whitby

Pelicans in St James’s Park

I’ve finished watching ‘Whitechapel’, which wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be – in fact, I was strangely deflated when it ended. I think the show was cancelled unexpectedly so there wasn’t any neat wrapping up of loose ends.

Still, the show did thrown out some interesting references to London history – though I was a little taken aback when in one episode the camera kept showing the street sign for Old Peppermill Street, which doesn’t appear to exist. Pinchin Street, which was covered recently in this blog, also made an appearance in the context of unidentified female torsos being found in the river.

Towards the end there was a shot of the Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping, with Pelican Stairs alongside it. The stairs would have been part of the network of stairs used by watermen to taxi passengers across and along the Thames.

Back to the pub, which dates back to 1520 and lays claim to being the oldest riverside pub in London. Its original name was The Pelican but, because it was the haunt of smugglers and cut-throats.

See what happens when you start wondering about London street names? I then wondered why a a pub in London, even a waterside one, would have been called Pelican. There is a Pelican pub in Gloucester that dates back to the 17th century and one in Wales called, intriguingly, The Pelican in her Piety. That gave me the clue: the pelican is not uncommon in heraldry: a pelican plucking at her breast and letting the blood to fall into the mouths of her chicks symbolises Christ feeding his flock with his blood.

The ship Sir Francis Drake used to sail around the world was originally called the Pelican. When he reached the Pacific Ocean, Drake renamed his ship the Golden Hind to honour both Sir Christopher Hatton, whose coat of arms features that animal.  Hatton was a major investor in Drake’s voyage. That, however, was all after 1520.

There have been pelicans in St James’s park since they introduced were to the park in 1664 as a gift from the Russian Ambassador.

Oh, yes, the Prospect of Whitby came from another boat name.

The Highway: another London murder street

Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon.com

Another murder street but first, a small diversion. I am still struggling my way through the TV series ‘Whitechapel’ but it is living up (or down) to my fears that, like ‘Ripper Street’, it will degenerate from a police drama with some interesting history snippets into a kind of soap opera with policeman. (It hasn’t helped that one of the senior policemen was a serial killer in another series I watched recently so I keep expecting him to show his true colours.)

I see that the next episodes are centred around the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, which I know a bit more about than I did about the Kray brothers, who featured in the last few episodes. My mother was an avid reader of true crime so I read quite a few books on that subject while I was growing up.

And now, on to murder. The Highway in East London was once a Roman road that ran from London to the east and has been renamed twice: from Ratcliffe Highway to St George Street and now The Highway. The original name came from the nearby red cliffs.

Even by the early 19th century it was a centre of East End crime and largely inhabited by sailors and those catering to the seamen’s needs. According to Walter Thornbury in Old and New London, it was: “The Regent Street of London sailors, who, in many instances, never extend their walks in the metropolis beyond this semi-marine region.”

The early 19th century also saw the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, which pre-dated the activities of Jack the Ripper and caused the Wapping area as much error and confusion.

The first incident occurred on 7 December 1811 when a draper and respectable family man, Timothy Marr, sent his maid Margaret Jewell out to buy oysters. Upon her return, she was unable to get back into the shop upon her return and summoned help.

The house was finally broken into, revealing the bodies of Mr Marr and the shop boy downstairs, and Mrs Marr and their child upstairs. They had been murdered with a maul and a ripping chisel that were found on the floor of the shop.

Less than a week later the landlord of a nearby pub, his wife, and their maid were all found with fractured skulls and cut throats. There was a public outcry, rewards were offered by the government, and over 40 people were arrested for the crimes before the finger of suspicion for these murders pointed at John Williams, who was staying at the nearby Pear Tree Inn in Cinnamon Street.

A sketch of Williams’ corpse along with the murder implements. The sketch does not match the physical description of Williams.

Williams, an acquaintance of Timothy Marr, had been seen returning to his room late on the night of the second murders. He maintained his innocence but was sent, along with two other suspects, to Coldbath Fields Prison. There was a good deal of circumstantial evidence against him for the second murders but, before he could go to trial, Williams was found dead in his cell, having apparently hanged himself.

There are theories that he did not commit suicide but was murdered so the authorities would look no further and reassure an uneasy public that the murderer was no longer at large. The pre-trial hearings continued despite the death of the major suspect, and Williams was eventually deemed to be guilty of both murders, despite the fact that he had not been considered a suspect in the first killings.

Williams was buried with a stake through his heart; some years later, during the excavation of a gas company trench, a skeleton was unearthed with the remains of a wooden stake through its torso. The landlord of a nearby pub was reported to have taken the skull as a souvenir but the whereabouts of the grisly souvenir are unknown.

From Brown Beer to Sweet Apple: London’s lost street names

But first, a little back story. I’ve mentioned the writer FH Habben recently, he who can be slightly tetchy when describing changes to street names. When I first became interested in London street names and began to research them, it was in the days before the internet. There were occasions when I had more time and less money than I would have liked, so I indulged my new hobby by spending time in reference and local history sections of various libraries throughout London.

Mr Habben was one of my favourite (and most informative) sources so imagine my delight when I happened to find that his book is now available as a print-on-demand item. My copy arrived in the post yesterday and opening it was like meeting an old friend again.

In my early days of looking at the story behind London street names, I focused exclusively on streets that I either saw as I walked in or past them, or names that I found in the London A-Z. (Yes, children, it was possible back then to find your way around without benefit of Google Maps.) That meant, as I realised yesterday, I had missed a huge number of particularly charming street names; Mr Habben has a whole section (Appendix III) on ‘Names of the Past’.

Allow me to offer you an example of his captivating turn of phrase when he mentions these names of the past: “Some of these were so quaint, and must have required so much hardihood and recklessness on the part of the municipal, parochial, or other authorities responsible for their application, that they deserve to be rescued from oblivion, if only as a memento of what can be and has been done in the art of street nomenclature.”

Here are but a few of the street names that have, sadly, disappeared. Bandy Leg Alley which, says Habben, must have been a tortuous alley, not unlike Crooked Lane in Cannon Street (which also no longer exists, though there are other crooked streets that we can look at in a later post.) There were quite a few Dirty Lanes and Alleys; (“a modest, or, it may be, a shameless, reference to their special characteristics”).

There were a Barber’s Alley and a Penny Barber’s Alley (“indicating that honest, if ruinous, competition existed in those days.”). 

Brown Beer Alley was apparently nothing to do with drink, but most likely an alteration of ‘bear’ – as with Beer Lane, the original name deriving from the fact that Henry III owned a white bear, which was taken to the river near the Tower so that it could catch fish. 

Food featured heavily (as it still does) in the names from the past: Habben mentions Buttermilk, Cabbage, Gingerbread, Mustard, Mutton, Porridge, Powdered Beef, Strawberry, and Sweet Apple.

There are plenty more weird and wonderful names, but let me close with Hairbrained Court; this Habben speculates, was a misspelling of ‘harebrained’ and was no doubt a reference to the builders, or perhaps inhabitants of said court.