Mother Goose, wild geese, and London Bridge

Charles PerraultThis day in London history: on 12 January 1628 Charles Perrault was born in Paris. Perrault wrote many stories, based on folk tales, which were later rewritten by the Brothers Grimm. Among these were the stories that would become known as Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, Puss in Boots, and Cinderella.

Mother Goose
Mother Goose frontispiece

These were contained in a book published in 1697 and called ‘Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals’; the additional title on the frontispiece was Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye, or, ‘Tales of Mother Goose’.

Bizarrely, Mother Goose is buried at the church of St Olave Hart Street, and there is a plaque that confirms this fact. Animals play a large part in the naming of London streets, largely from pub names.

St Olave's plaqueThere is a Wild Goose Drive in London’s New Cross, but finding an explanation for the 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.

St Olave gave his name to Tooley Street, is a corruption of St Olave’s Street – which is how it was recorded at the end of the 16th century; it then became St Tooley’s Street and later Towles Street. Olaf (995-1030) was king of Norway and later became a saint. He may be the inspiration for the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Samuel Pepys was a regular worshipper at the church; he refers to it in his diary as “our own church’”, a line also commemorated in the church’s plaque. Pepys and his wife Elizabeth are buried in the church.

Seething Lane signSt Olave Hart Street is on the corner of (not surprisingly) Hart Street and Seething Lane. Seething name comes from the corn market that used to be at nearby Fenchurch Street. Chaff would blow across the lane and the word ‘seething’ is a corruption of Old English ‘ceafen’, meaning chaff. One of the earliest names was ‘Shyvethenestrat’ in the 13th century; it then became Sidon Lane and Sything Lane; by the 17th century it was Seething Lane.

There is another, less savoury but – as is so often the case – more interesting theory behind the name. The area was also said to be a centre for making soap and glue; this involved the boiling of animal skins and the smelly, steaming cauldrons gave rise to the name of Seething.

Pepys Seething Lane plaqueThere is a plaque in Seething Lane to commemorate the fact that the Navy Office, where Samuel Pepys worked, was located here. Pepys also had a house in the lane; he was living here in 1666 when his maid woke him to tell him of a fire that was raging to the west. That, of course, was the Great Fire of London.

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