Little slices of London's history

Vacuums, cutlery, and Elephant and Castle

Space vacuum
According to this NASA diagram, there is no real vacuum, even in space

This day in London’s history: 4 February is, apparently, Create a Vacuum Day, though it is unclear as to who decided this and what you should do. It seems that there is no such thing as a perfect vacuum: even in interstellar space there is still stuff floating around.

By way of celebrating Create a Vacuum Day, this post is in memory of Hubert Cecil Booth, a British engineer who invented the first powered vacuum cleaner. Cecil Booth, who was born in Gloucester, moved to London to study civil engineering and mechanical engineering, following which he joined the company of Messrs Maudslay Sons & Field as a civil engineer.

The company, which no longer exists, stood near the site of Lambeth North underground station, which is one stop away from Elephant and Castle on the Bakerloo line. So that’s enough about Mr Hubert Cecil Booth; now we move on to Elephant and Castle.

Although known primarily as an area and a train station, the ‘Elephant’ is also a street. Well, it’s really more of a junction than a street: it’s the intersection of six major roads and a tavern stood there as long ago as the 16th century.

The emblem of the Cutlers’ Company

There is a great deal of speculation as to where the name came from. It is generally accepted to derive from the crest of the Cutlers Company (as in cutlery), an established guild back in the 13th century. Many of the implements made by the company involved the use of ivory, which would explain the importance of the elephant. The castle would then be the ‘howdah’, the basket-like structure to make riding on the back of an elephant easier and which, on the Cutlers’ emblem, looks very like a castle.

That’s all very well, but the Cutlers adopted that emblem in 1642, making it too late, presumably, to have inspired the pub name. However, the elephant and castle symbols appear in medieval heraldry. There are examples of it in England as early as the 15th century, such as a bench carving in Ripon Cathedral. It also featured in the arms of the Royal Africa company, incorporated in 1588. This may have some bearing on the theory that the Elephant and Castle was a brewery trademark, adopted when the company sent ale to the army in India.

There are less likely, albeit arguably more interesting, theories about the name. One is the story that some elephant bones were found in the River Fleet in 1715, but this does not take into account either the late date of that supposed find or the castle. Probably the most ingenious theory is that Elephant and Castle is a corruption of Infanta de Castile – the title given to daughters and sons (other than the heir apparent) of the kings of Spain.

2 responses to “Vacuums, cutlery, and Elephant and Castle”

  1. […] George, German by birth, ruled for 13 years but never learned to speak English. He is remembered, among other things, for his two mistresses, one of whom was very thin and the other very large. They were known as the Elephant and the Maypole (or Scarecrow), though some sources say they were also known as the Elephant and Castle. […]

  2. […] Elephant and Castle, where theories about its name include the emblem of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers (number 18 on the list). The Cutlers are now based in Warwick Street but their original hall (destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666) was in what is now Cloak Lane. […]

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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