This day in London’s history: on 9 December 1608, the poet John Milton was born in Bread Street off Cheapside in London.
Cheapside takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter. West Cheap, as it was once known, to distinguish it from Eastcheap, was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as Bread, Milk, Honey, and Fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.
In the case of Bread Street, Edward I decreed in 1302 that bakers could sell bread only from this street. Before that, the “leprous women of St James’s” were allowed a tenement here in 1204; part of the street was later destroyed by fire in 1263.
The poet also lives on in London names in Milton Street, formerly Grub Street. This was known as ‘Grubbestrete’ in the 13th century and could have meant, in the London tradition of not mincing words when it came to street names, ‘street infested with maggots’. It could also have been from ‘grube’, a ditch or drain, or from a personal name – Grub was not an uncommon name in the 13th century.
The street was once largely inhabited by people occupied with archery: according to historian John Stow, in the 16th century, it was “of late years inhabited, for the most part, by bowyers, fletchers, bowstring makers, and such like occupations.” Things started to change, as he also notes with disapproval that archery was giving way to “a number of bowling-alleys and dicing houses, which in all places are increased, and too much frequented”.
Towards the end of the 17th century, the street became the haunt of poor and hack writers. Another poet, Andrew Marvell, coined the phrase ‘Grub Street’, which became a generic term for sub-standard literary achievements. This use was aided by Dr Johnson’s definition of it in his 1754 dictionary as “a street near Moorfields, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called Grub Street”.
Pope and Swift were two other writers who attacked Grub Street and Pope popularized the street’s image in his Dunciad, described by Pope as “a general satire of Dulness, with characters of contemporary Grub Street scribblers”.
The hack writers flourished, however, and it was not until the 19th century that they began to move away. The local residents, weary of the reputation of their street, decided to change the name and in 1830 it became Milton Street.
While it could have been named after the poet, another theory is that it was the name of a local property owner; according to the 19th-century work A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs by James Elmes, “a respectable builder so called, who has taken the whole street on a repairing lease”.