This day in London history: on 20 December 1955 Cardiff was proclaimed the capital city of Wales. There is a street called Petty Wales in London, possibly because it was the settlement of a Welsh centre (from ‘petit’, French for ‘little’). There is also a Petty France in London, for many years the home of the London passport office. There were once several ‘foreign’ sectors in London, such as Petty Burgundy and Petty Calais, though one of them is nothing to do with the nationality of its inhabitants.
Little Britain, in the City of London, took its name from the 13th-century Robert le Bretoun, who inherited some houses in the area: the street was called Brettonstrete. Later Londoners assumed it was, like Petty Calais and Petty Burgundy, named because it was a street inhabited by people of Brittany.
For centuries, Little Britain was the centre of London’s book trade. There is a story that the Earl of Dorset found, in a bookshop here, a book, called Paradise Lost and written by John Milton, that was not selling terribly well. He sent it to the poet John Dryden who acclaimed it as a masterpiece, saying, “This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.”
However, some doubt has been shed on this story due to the fact that Paradise Lost was, apparently, a bestseller of its day. According to Samuel Johnson, there were only 1,000 copies of Shakespeare’s works in circulation between 1623 and 1664. In contrast, for two years (and after this supposed discovery took place), there were 1,300 copies of Paradise Lost available. Having debunked the story, the writer does concede that it is an “alluring and popular story”.
Little Britain is mentioned in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, a selection of essays and short stories written by Washington Irving (perhaps better known for Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleep Hollow). He writes:
“In the centre of the great City of London lies a small neighborhood, consisting of a cluster of narrow streets and courts, of very venerable and debilitated houses, which goes by the name of LITTLE BRITAIN. Christ Church School and St Bartholomew’s Hospital bound it on the west; Smithfield and Long Lane on the north; Aldersgate Street, like an arm of the sea, divides it from the eastern part of the city; whilst the yawning gulf of Bull-and-Mouth Street separates it from Butcher Lane and the regions of Newgate. Over this little territory, thus bounded and designated, the great dome of St. Paul’s, swelling above the intervening houses of Paternoster Row, Amen Corner, and Ave-Maria Lane, looks down with an air of motherly protection.”