Comets, harlots, and ditches

Edmond Halley

This day in London history: on 14 January 1742 the astronomer Edmond Halley died. In addition to his fame as an astronomer, Halley could be argued to have made one of the greatest indirect contributions to modern mathematics.

Following a discussion with Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, in which the three men asked themselves what the orbits of the planets would be under an inverse square law of attraction to the sun, Halley posed the question to Isaac Newton. As a result, Newton Newton renewed his earlier studies of orbits under an inverse square law attraction, and went on to write what is arguably his most famous work: the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.

By the age of 22, Halley’s work in astronomy led to him being elected to the Royal Society and being awarded an MA of Oxford by command of the king. He was later appointed as Astronomer Royal.

As well as the comet, Halley also gave his name to a lunar crater, a Martian crater, a research station in Antarctica, a method for solving equations, a surgical ward, and a South London pub. There are Halley streets, drives, and roads throughout the world, and a Rue Edmund Halley in Avignon, France, but – it would seem – no Halley anything in London, though he was born in Shoreditch.

Jane Shore penance
The penance of Jane Shore by William Blake

The name of Shoreditch is said by some to have once been called ‘Shore’s Ditch’, after Jane Shore, a mistress of Edward IV, one of his three favourite mistresses, whom he described as “”the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots”. She is supposed to have died or been buried in a ditch in the area. Jane was accused of conspiracy against the government of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, when he was Protector of the realm; he was later crowned King Richard III.

That’s all very well, but the truth, as ever, would appear to be far less colourful (albeit possibly smellier) than the theory. The area was known as ‘Soredich’ in the 12th century and variations thereof, including ‘Schoresdich’ in the 13th century (Jane was born in the 15th century). before Jane Shore was born; it could have been ‘ditch leading to the shore’ or ‘sewer ditch’.

Another theory is that the ‘Schore’ could have been from a name: there was once, apparently, a Sir John de Soerdich; that theory may fall down by virtue of the fact that Sir John was around in the 14th century.

St Leonards
St Leonard’s in the 18th century

St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch is on the site of a church dating back to the 13th century and one source reports that the church’s burial register records the death of one Thomas Cam who passed away on 22 January aged 207.  A correspondent for the Penny Magazine, a weekly magazine aimed at enlightening the working classed, wrote in 1833 that Cam must then have been born in the reign of Richard II and lived through the reigns of eleven more, up to Elizabeth I.

The reporter concluded, “Such an extreme duration of life is, however, contrary to all recorded experience; and unless the fact can be supported by other evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the entry in the register is inaccurate.”

Penny Magazine

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