We 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?
We 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.”
Other 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.
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.
Staying 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!”
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.
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.
Well, dear reader(s), you could be forgiven for thinking I don’t know my way around the alphabet. Last time we left off at Poultry and here I am backtracking again to pickles, starting with Pickled Egg Walk. This walk which, alas, no longer exists, was once apparently a “place of low amusements” and took its name from the Pickled Egg tavern. The tavern, in its turn, took its name from the fact that the proprietor had a particularly delectable recipe for pickled eggs.
The story goes that Charles II (though some version say it was his father, Charles I) once stopped there, sampled that delicacy for the first time, and enjoyed it. Royal pleasure was something that any canny landlord would capitalize on and this proprietor was no exception, promptly naming the inn for his speciality.
There was once also a Pickle Herring Street – again, sadly, no longer there, having given way to modern developments in the Tooley Street area. The easy explanation for its name is that the street was on the site of one of the Thames River’s old wharves – where cargoes of pickled herrings were shipped. The area was once known as ‘London’s larder’, from its use as the primary storage area for butter, cheese and, later, canned meat.
As always, there are other possible explanations: though herrings were pickled in England as far back as the 14th century, it was more of a Dutch speciality. There is a record, in 1584, of a ‘Peter Van Duraunte alias Pickell Heringe’ being buried in Bermondsey. Van Duraunte was actually a brewer, so the nickname is not obvious, unless he had an inn called the Pickled Herring; such an inn may have given rise to the street name.
The name may also have come from the fact that Sir John Falstofe – who gave his name to Shakespeare’s Falstaff – lived on this spot in 1447. Falstofe was once a fish merchant, so it could have been his pickled herrings that gave the street its name.
(Incidentally, Tooley Street comes from St Olave’s Street, with a connection to London Bridge falling down, so maybe there could be a nursery rhyme theme coming up in the future.)
From pickles to fruit, and Pineapple (strictly speaking, Pine Apple) Court, another tavern-derived name. The Pineapple tavern was recorded there in the late 18th century and its name reflects the fashions of the times. The fruit was introduced to England in the 17th century; its shape and novelty made it popular on signs, especially those of confectioners. Christopher Wren was said to be so taken with the shape that he adopted it in the decorations of all his buildings (though many of them resemble acorns more than pineapples).
There was was once also a Pineapple Place in Maida Vale; the painter George Romney kept a retreat here where he could go to sleep and to have “rural breakfasts”. Romney painted many of the leading society figures of the day, including Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson and the mother of Nelson’s daughter, Horatia. (Emma has links to various London streets, including Pall Mall with its stories of celestial beds.)
And on to where we should have been alphabetically, with Pudding Lane (once called Red Rose Lane), entrenched as it is in London’s history. Straight away, you need to ut aside any notion of cakes or desserts that this name may bring to mind: the truth is far from appetising. The lane, once part of the meat centre of London, was on the route where the ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river. Stow explains it most eloquently:
“Red Rose lane, of such a sign there, now commonly called Pudding Lane, because the butchers of Eastcheap have their scalding house for hogs there, and their puddings, with other filth of beasts, are voided down that way to their dung boats on the Thames.”
Pudding Lane is most famous for being where the Great Fire of 1666 first broke out, causing the destruction of 13,000 houses and 14 streets – though, amazingly, only 11 deaths. The street was a narrow one with pitch-covered wooden houses and led to the riverside warehouses full of oil and combustible materials such as hay, coal, and timber.
But let’s not leave it there with a tenuous link. There is a tenuous dessert connection: the fire started in the house of a man called Faynor (or Farryner), the king’s baker.
Pudding Lane was the site of the original first Apothecaries Hall, established there in 1633 by the Royal Apothecary of James I. The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London was founded in 1617 by James I to prevent unqualified people from making medicine. The Apothecaries Hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt in Blackfriars Lane in 1786.
In 2013, six students studying Game Art Design at DeMontfort University in Leicester took part in a new competition called ‘Off the Map’. They established Pudding Lane Productions, took part in the competition, and won with a 3D reproduction of 17th-century London.
From puddings to spices with Saffron Hill. In 1290, John Kirkby, who had been awarded the bishopric of Ely, bequeathed his estate to the see of Ely to be used as a palace. The gardens there were famous for, among other things, vines and strawberries – and herbs, including saffron, the main source of the spice for the City dwellers. Apart from its colour, it was, like garlic, useful for disguising meat that may have seen its best.
Saffron was widely used in ancient times, as a dye, a spice, a deodorant, and a healing drug. Romans would put in on their beds on their wedding night, giving rise to the expression ‘having slept in a bed of saffron’ (dormivit in sacco croci), to be light of heart, or enlivened.
From light heart to light pockets: according to the Victorian London historian Walter Thornbury in his Old and New London, Saffron Hill “once formed a part of the pleasant gardens of Ely Place, and derived its name from the crops of saffron which it bore. But the saffron disappeared, and in time there grew up a squalid neighbourhood, swarming with poor people and thieves”.
Dickens wrote about many of the streets in this area, including Little Saffron Hill, a herb garden attached to the palace of the Bishops of Ely. That features in Oliver Twist, when Bill Sikes is seem drinking in a sleazy dive there with the unfortunate Bulls-eye: “in an obscure parlour, of a low public-house, in the filthiest part of Little Saffron Hill…sat, brooding over a little pewter measure and a small glass…Mr William Sikes”.
Little Saffron Hill was renamed Herbal Hill in the 1930s, in honour of the 16th-century herbalist John Gerard and his work.
I should have added more photos to this post but I am in Scotland at the moment and the internet connection is kind of slow. I’ll add them later.
But first, a slight diversion. Kind of. The other day I saw a big arctic lorry advertising the country’s favourite meat auctioneer. That set me off wondering about meat auctions: do you bid, along the lines of the restaurant at the end of the universe, on the meat while it’s still walking around? If not, what’s the window of opportunity? How soon do you have to bid on meat and then get it to the customer? What happens if the air conditioning breaks down?
None of which is particularly relevant, but what’s the point of a blog if you can’t muse at your reader(s)? Of course, meat has featured in this culinary theme: so far we’ve had bacon (Bacon’s Lane); mutton (Cat and Mutton Bridge); ham (Ham Yard); and venison (Haunch of Venison).
And now on to a vegetarian option: Oat Lane. That name is probably nothing to do with oats; it was known at various times as Sheers Alley and Bulls Head Passage (ooh, back to the meat) and, in the 16th century, the one that has stuck: Oatelane.
It is possible that it could have been so named because it was where oats were sold, but that is not the popular theory. “It appears,” says the 19th century London street name expert and opinionated FH Habben, “to be indebted for its name to the owner or builder. The neighbourhood never had any connection with grain.
Orange Street is, perhaps not surprisingly, nothing to do with fruit. One explanation is that it was named after Charles I’s grandson William III, William of Orange, who became joint monarch with his wife Mary in 1689.
Another explanation is that building of the street was begun in the 1670s and the area at that time was a favoured spot for stabling of courtiers’ horses. There were several mews there, including the Green and Blue Mews. The stables of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, stood partly on the site of Orange Street; it is likely that his stables were called Orange Mews to differentiate from the other colours.
The development of the street was finished in the 1690s; by then the unfortunate Monmouth would have had no interest in his horses, having been beheaded in 1685.
The story of Monmouth’s execution is a particularly grisly one: the executioner, Jack Ketch, had a bad day (though not quite as bad as Monmouth’s): he took five attempts with his axe to complete the job and even then had to finish it with a knife.
The post of public executioner was a hated, albeit lucrative, one; Ketch, who held the post for more than two decades, was particularly loathed. After his death in 1686 his name was used to refer to all public executioners. The name Jack Ketch can also be used to refer to death or the devil.
Back briefly to Orange Street: some of the famous names associated with the street include the dramatist Thomas Holcroft who was born in Orange Street. In the late 18th century there was a small chapel in the street where Augustus Toplady – who wrote the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ – was minister for a short time.
Perhaps the most famous person with an Orange Street connection is the actor Edmund Kean, who went to school here. (He was also a regular patron of the Cole Hole tavern near Farting, I mean Carting, Lane.)
Poultry brings us back to meat names; It was once called Scalding Alley, says Stow, from the poulterers who dwelt there and “their poultry, which they sold at their stalls, were scalded there. The street doth yet bear the name of the Poultry”. And, of course, it still does, though today there is no scalding or stalls. Even by Stow’s time, poultry stalls had given way to houses inhabited by grocers, haberdashers, and upholsterers.
Not all poultry sellers traded at Poultry however: a proclamation of 1345 declared that the ‘strangers’ (out-of-towners) had to have their poultry stalls at Leadenhall. This segregation was due to the fact that the non-Londoners were wont to charge too much for their wares; the declaration was equally firm that residents of the city were not to join the outcasts in Leadenhall, but to “sell their poultry at the stalls [in Poultry] as of old”.
However,by the time of the Great Fire in 1666, Poultry had become famous more for taverns than anything else.
At number 22 Poultry was Dillys, the booksellers where Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published; Johnson had dined there with John Wilkes and found him to be “excellent company”. Poultry was also the location of the “house where I was born” – the poet Thomas Hood, who penned the immortal lines “I remember, I remember, the house where I was born,” was born in a house at what is now 31, and where a blue plaque commemorates the fact.
There is also a blue plaque in memory of Elizabeth Fry, a notable prison reformer, who lived there from 1800 to 1809. Mrs Fry, of an old Quaker family, was horrified at the conditions under which as many as 300 women and children could be packed into Newgate. She worked hard at improving conditions but was forced to give up philanthropy when her husband became bankrupt.
Where were we? Oh, yes, we left off last time at Lime Street but I thought I should backtrack again to include Haymarket. Not culinary, you say? Tell that to various farm animals. And tell it also to various cheffy people on TV who made cooking with hay trendy.
So, Haymarket, which takes its name from hay: from Elizabethan times there was a market for hay on the site, and in 1697 the street was paved, each cartload of hay contributing to the expense. However, there were merchants other than those dealing in hay: one of the earliest tradesmen in the Haymarket appears to have been a vendor of sea-coal. A token used by him is in the Museum of London; on one side it says: “Nathaniel Robins, at the Seacoale seller, 1666” and on the other, “Hay Markett, in Piccadilla, his half-penny”.
In 1708 Haymarket was described as “a very spacious and public street, in length 340 yards, where is a great market for hay and straw”. In 1720 an enterprising carpenter named John Potter built a small playhouse in the Haymarket. The small playhouse was later called the Hay Market and then the Little Theatre in the Hay. It is now the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the UK’s third oldest playhouse still in use.
According to London historian Edward Walford, “The cost of the building was £1,000, and Potter further expended £500 in decorations, scenery, and dresses. He leased the theatre, immediately after its completion, to a company of French actors, who were at that time much favoured by the English aristocracy.”
In 1729 Henry Fielding started what might today be called a string of hits in the theatre, starting with a burlesque and ending with a political satire that so enraged the prime minister, Robert Walpole, that he introduced what became unprecedented censorship powers that effectively closed the theatre for several years.
In 1807 Haymarket was described as “an excellent street, 1,020 feet in length, of considerable breadth, and remarkably dry, occasioned by the descent from Piccadilly”.
A few years later, the Prince Regent, later King George IV, thought that London was looking tired and old and he instructed John Nash to enhance the appearance of the city. One enhancement included the Little Theatre in the Hay and the Theatre Royal Haymarket opened in 1821 with a production of Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’.
Since I’m including bibendiary in with culinary, we can turn next to Milk Street which was, as with so many others, a Cheapside shopping street. According to John Stow, anyway who says of it, “there be many fair houses for merchants and other”. Among these other was Gregory Rokesley, “the chief assay officer of the king’s mints, and mayor of London in the year 1275”.
Thomas More, later knighted and beatified, was born in Milk Street on 7 February 1478. The young More originally planned to devote his life to the church, and led a highly ascetic life: he wore hair shirts, scourged himself regularly, and slept on the ground with a log as a pillow.
Although More later turned to law, he never lost those ascetic tendencies or his religious convictions – which would eventually cost him his life. He entered Parliament in 1504, was knighted in 1521 and became Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor in 1529 following the fall of Cardinal Wolsey.
[Wolsey had made the mistake of disagreeing with Henry VIII, a mistake that More would later echo. Wolsey had been unable to have Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that Anne Boleyn could become the next queen. He was stripped of his property and died the following year, with the famous line: “If I had served my God as diligently as I did my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”]
More is, perhaps, as famous for his views on social reform and his book Utopia and for his position in Henry VIII’s government. It is not generally known that, as a judge, he specialized in heresy. That is to say, during his time as Lord Chancellor six heretics were executed – not, relatively speaking, a great number, but possibly more than one would expect from a future saint.
The problems with Henry came to a head when More not only opposed the annulment to Catherine of Aragon, but also refused to take an oath renouncing the authority of the pope over that of the king. That double whammy led to him being tried and convicted of treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
More also made the history books for his death as much as for his life, with his famous last words: when he mounted the dilapidated and shaky scaffold, he said to the attending official, “I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”
On a lighter note, there are two entertaining stories about marriages in the More family. Sir Thomas himself, when presented with John Colt’s three daughters, took a fancy to the middle one. However, according to More’s son-in-law, Sir William Roper, More thought that it would be “great grief and some shame to the eldest to see her younger sister in marriage preferred before her”, and so he settled for marrying the eldest daughter.
William had no such compunction; though his wife Margaret was in actual fact More’s elder daughter, the reason for his choice was not as noble as More’s own. When the time came for a marriage to be arranged between William and one of More’s daughters, the prospective groom was taken by the girls’ father into their bedroom as they slept.
More flung back the sheet and the naked girls rolled over in their sleep. William was powerfully attracted to the sleeping Margaret, and patted her naked bottom, saying, “Thou art mine.”
This displaying of future brides was not an uncommon practice: it was one way of proving that they had no marks of a witch.
Also born in Milk Street was Isabella Mary Beeton (neé Mayson, who married publisher Samuel Beeton, so here’s another good culinary connection. Her organisational abilities and dynamism contributed greatly to the success of their publishing house and she is perhaps best known Beeton’s book of household management.
Mrs Beeton was, possibly, the original domestic goddess; she was the author of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a bible of domestic information from Victorian times to the present. It seems, by the way, that Mrs Beeton was not much of a cook herself: being more of a journalist she collected and edited recipes rather than creating them.
Speaking of mints, which we were above with Gregory Rokesley, we now come to Mint Street, which is nothing to do with sweets, but currency.
Henry VIII established a royal mint here around 1543 at the home of his brother-in-law Charles Brandon. Brandon was consoled for the loss of his home with a town house, which formerly belonged to the Bishop of Norwich, in the Strand. The mint was used until its demolition in 1557; smaller houses were then built in the area.
Until the early 18th century the Mint area was a criminal quarter, a recognized sanctuary for thieves and debtors, and a haunting ground for marriage brokers. In John Gay’s 1728 The Beggars’ Opera , there was a character referred to as Matt of the Mint; in real life one of the people who sought refuge here was Jack Sheppard, a notorious highwaymen. It was Sheppard upon whom Gay based Macheath, the central character of the Beggar’s Opera.
We left off our culinary posts at Honey Lane, about which which one of my readers and helpful critics has commented: “I’ve always been suspicious of Honey Lane’s etymology. Honey just doesn’t seem a sufficiently high volume commodity to name a street after. Bread, Milk, Fish, Wood, Candles and even Poultry would be bought most days by the citizens but honey …? Maybe.
“Ekwall agrees that the honey was made there but this seems unlikely too. Even in medieval times, the area around Cheapside would have yielded slim pickings in terms of wild flowers compared to the countryside just a couple of miles away.”
So I guess I’ll keep looking into the etymology of Honey Lane.
Another of my ‘systems’ has been upset: I had been considering doing culinary (food) and then bibendiary (drinks) but I’m not sure there are enough of the latter so I’ll include them all in together.
And we start with Hop Gardens, off St Martin’s Lane. According to the Survey of London (as published by the London County Council, not the one written by John Stow), “Prior to 1649 it was known as Jenefer’s Alley from the occupant of a house at the western end, Roland Jenefer.” It was later called Fendalls Alley, and then from 1656 The Flemish Hop Garden, so it was presumably named for a tavern of that name.
This one is cheating big time (as we not only have a brand name but one that is not spelled quite right) and I have covered it a few times before, but I can’t resist at least mentioning Kitcat Terrace. This commemorates the Reverend Henry James Kitcat, rector of St Mary’s Bow from 1904 to 1921. The name derives from Kitcott, a place name in Devon. So it’s nothing to do with the chocolate bar, but there was once a Kit-Kat Club comprised of Whig Patriots dedicated to ensuring that Protestants would continue on the throne after the reign of William III.
Lavender Hill in south London (and I can feel MattF reading over my shoulder as I write this) is so named because of the lavender was grown in the area’s 18th-century market gardens. There are also a Lavender Road, Lavender Sweep, Lavender Terrace, and Lavender Walk nearby. That’s a lot of lavender.
From hops and lavender to limes, but not the edible kind: Lime Street, an ancient street that is serves as the location of headquarters of Lloyd’s of London.
The street was Limestrate in the 12th century, and one of the documents in which it appears also mentions one ‘Ailnoth the limeburner’, so it seems safe to assume that it was a street where lime was burned and sold. (There is also a Limeburner Lane in London, presumably named for similar reasons.)
There is, as ever, a conflicting theory and that is that the name derives from a row of lime trees that ran along it. Possibly, but somehow a row of lime trees does not seem likely in 12th-century London.
In the 17th century there was a famous robbery, and subsequent execution of the thief, one Colonel James Turner, in Lime Street. According to the Newgate Calendar, “There was one Mr Francis Tryon, a great merchant, who lived in Lime Street, whom Colonel Turner knew to be very rich”. Turner and his accomplices bound and gagged Tryon in his bed and stole jewels from the warehouse and cash from the house, all to the tune of five thousand nine hundred and forty-six pounds four shillings and threepence.
It appears that Turner was very charismatic and, though his guilt was proved conclusively, “all who knew him wondered at the fact”.
Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on the day of Turner’s execution that he sent his wife to his aunt’s house, in the area of Lime Street, to save him a good place for viewing the execution. He estimated that 12,000-14,000 people were in the street to watch.
When the time came, says Pepys, “And there I got for a shilling to stand upon the wheel of a cart, in great pain, above an houre before the execution was done; he delaying the time by long discourses and prayers one after another, in hopes of a reprieve; but none came, and at last was flung off the ladder in his cloake. A comely-looked man he he was, and kept his countenance to the end: I was sorry to see him.”
Not, presumably, sorry enough to have held off watching the execution.
Today’s post on culinary streets starts with explicit content, so those of you with delicate sensibilities should look away now and skip to Green Lettuce Lane.
We start with Grape Street off Shaftesbury Avenue; the street, once called Vine Street, was named from a house called ‘Le Vyne’ that belonged to the leper hospital of St Giles in the Field. The church of St Giles in the Field started as a chapel of the parish of Holborn attached to a monastery and leper hospital founded by Matilda of Scotland, the wife of Henry I.
It is likely that that a vineyard once stood on this spot as the area was particularly fertile and the vines were mentioned in the Domesday Book. In fact, there were once many vineyards in London and many Vine Streets in London; there is still a Vine Street near Piccadilly.
There was once also a Grape Street that was a lane, now gone, in the parish of St Pancras. Early, non-euphemistic, forms of the name appear, as early as 1276, as ‘Gropecontelane’ and ‘Groppecountlane’. In Oxford, lanes of this name appeared as early as 1230. The name, says one source tactfully, is “an indecent one”. When it wasn’t changed completely, the name was altered to less drastic forms such as Grape Lane, thus disguising the prostitution activities of the street.
Green Lettuce Lane (in 1556, “the lane called grene lettyce”) is cheating slightly, because it is now called Laurence Pountney Hill. In fact it’s cheating completely because it is nothing to do with the edible lettuce but is, apparently, a corruption of Green Lattice Lane and comes from a lattice gate that opened into what is now Cannon Street.
Another, 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.
The lane was mentioned in the 18th-century bankruptcy courts with a reference to “Richard Bruce of Green Lettuce Lane, Cannon Street, London, insurance broker and merchant (dealer and chapman), bankrupt.”
Ham Yard has a culinary connection: food played a large part in the naming of taverns – and hence London streets; often the speciality of the house would be featured in the sign. There was a Ham tavern in this small yard in the heart of the theatre district as early as 1739 and there was also once a Tudor mill in this area (commemorated in Great Windmill Street). The Ham tavern became the Ham and Windmill, was renamed the Lyric in 1890 and still stands there today.
Ham Yard, by happy coincidence, was once the congregation point for London’s ‘sandwich men’. Those sandwiches were nothing to do with food however: these were the walking billboards of the 19th century. These hardy souls, a result of a tax on advertising posters, would “walk the principal thoroughfares from morning to night with their boards high above their heads, secured to their shoulders by iron slips and a strap”. It was not an easy life, especially when high winds would pose a serious threat to their wellbeing. The sandwich men generally worked from 10am to 10pm with one break.
We can’t leave Ham Yard and sandwiches without mentioning the Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who is popularly believed to have created the sandwich because he did not want to move from his gaming table and ordered some meat between two slices of bread so that it would be easier to eat. (Another version is that he came up with the concept when he was working at a desk rather than gambling at a a table.)
The Earl was a member of the notorious Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Hellfire Club or the Medmenham Monks, a society founded by founded by Sir Francis Dashwood and largely dedicated to drinking, eating, and fornicating. Allegedly.
Another club member was the radical journalist John Wilkes, who had one of the best comeback lines in history. Wilkes, quick-witted and acerbic, is one of the people to whom the following is attributed: when Sandwich said to him, “Sir, I do not know if you will die on the gallows or of the pox,” Wilkes replied, “That, my lord, depends on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.”
Haunch of Venison Yard derives from a tavern that stood at the entrance of the yard from the 1720s to the early part of the 20th century.
The sign was more commonly found near royal hunting forests: though ‘venison’ now means only deer meat, the word derives from the Latin venari, to hunt, and was originally used for the edible flesh of any animal that had been captured and killed in a hunt.
The yard is not far from the Soho area, once grazing farmland and then taken by Henry VIII as a royal park for the Palace of Whitehall, so that may have had some influence in the name.
Another culinary connection is that the sign was also once used by Robert Wills, Confectioner and Pastrycook, whose shop was near St Paul’s cathedral.
Herbal Hill, near Hatton Garden, is also as it sounds. This area of London was an extremely fertile one, abounding with gardens and vineyards (as with Grape Street above) and the hill was once a herb garden attached to the palace of the Bishops of Ely. In the late 1930s the hill, formerly known as Little Saffron Hill was renamed Herbal Hill after the work of John Gerard.
Gerard was a skilled herbalist, and lived in the area. He carefully tended his garden and in 1596 published a list of all the plants that grew in it. His Herball or Generall Historie of Plants was of great interest, being the first catalogue of any one garden, public or private.
(Although some scholars claim that the original book was essentially a translation of a popular earlier Flemish herbal.)The first edition of the Herball was published in duodecimo; only one copy is known to be in existence and it is housed in the British Museum.
In 1597 a folio volume of this Herball, dedicated to Lord Burghley, was published and made Gerard’s name a household word. The book is charmingly written in a chatty tone; for instance, he describes sugar cane, which grows in warm climates: “my selfe did plant some shoots thereof in my garden, and some in Flanders did the like, but the coldness of our clymat made an end of mine, and I think the Flemish will have the like profit of their labour”.
Honey Lane is another Cheapside grocery street: it is where the medieval shopper would go there to buy honey in times when sugar was an expensive luxury that only the rich could afford. Modern researchers believe that the lane was also where the beekeepers lived, and was therefore one of the shopping lanes of Cheapside.
John Strype says of it, “”Adjoining to this street, on the north side, is Honey Lane, being now, as it were, an alley with a Freestone pavement, serving as a passage to Honey Lane Market ; the former Lane, and other buildings, being since the fire of London converted into this market. Among which buildings, was the Parish Church of St Allhallow’s, Honey Lane ; and, because it was thought fit not to rebuild it, the parish is united to St. Mary-le-Bow.”
John Stow’s charming, though somewhat far-fetched, theory for the name is that it was “so called, not of sweetness thereof, being very narrow, and somewhat dark, but rather of often washing and sweeping, to keep it clean”.