Little slices of London's history

Gulliver’s Travels and hot cross buns

Jonathan Swift

This day in London history: on 13 January 1695 Jonathan Swift was ordained an Anglican priest. The Irish-born Swift, in addition to being a biting satirist, was also a poet, essayist, cleric, and political pamphleteer. However, he is probably best known for Gulliver’s Travels, both a satire on human nature and a parody of the travellers’ tales genre of literature.

Published in 1726, the book has never been out of print. As Swift’s friend John Gay told him in a letter, “From the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.”

Gulliver's travelsSwift spent a great deal of time in London, which is where he showed the manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels to, among other, John Gay and Alexander Pope. It was published anonymously as a true account by Lemuel Gulliver.

In addition to his contribution to literature, Gulliver is also responsible for immortalizing the shortcomings of a bakery frequented by London’s high society, including royalty.

Bunhouse Place in Chelsea (unlike Bunhill Row, which was named for the less appetizing Bunhill Fields) does have a bun connection . The Chelsea Bun House, established in the 18th century, sold Swift a stale bun one day; he wrote in a letter dated 1711, “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it…”

Chelsea Bun House pre-demolition
The Chelsea Bun House before it was demolished

Despite Swift’s disappointment, Bun House did a storming trade and there were said to be as many as 50,000 people waiting outside on Good Fridays to buy hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on that day. This caused some consternation among the neighbours and in 1793 the proprietor Mrs Hand declared that she would not sell any hot cross buns on that day.

This was made clear in a notice on the shop, which read, “Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Despite the fact that business began to decline in 1804, there were still nearly a quarter of a million buns sold on Good Friday 1839, the year when the Bun House finally closed.

In 1592 it was made illegal to sell hot cross buns except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. Those who ignored the edict had to forfeit their buns to the poor.

There is a nursery rhyme all about hot cross buns:

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One a penny two a penny
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons
One a penny two a penny
Hot cross buns!

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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