St Valentine, St Catherine, and ferris wheels

Catherine of Alexandria

14 February is St Valentine’s Day so it would be a good day for talking about Bleeding Heart Yard, which has to be one of London’s best street names; certainly good enough for Charles Dickens to devote an entire chapter to the yard in Little Dorrit. We jumped the gun in this blog by discussing the yard elsewhere, with the traditions behind the name, including the one of a beautiful gypsy who was carried off by the devil.

So, as someone (who does decide these things) has decreed 14 February to be Ferris Wheel Day as well as Valentine’s Day, it seems a good time to talk about Catherine Wheel Alley in Bishopsgate. (Incidentally, though it make sense for Ferris Wheel Day to be connected to Catherine, it commemorates the birthday of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr, an American engineer who created the first ferris wheel ,for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.)

George Washington Ferris
George Washington Ferris

Back to Catherine Wheel Alley, which takes its name from a once-popular inn sign. This particular galleried coaching inn was supposed to have dated from the 16th century; it was damaged by fire in 1895 and finally demolished completely in 1911.

The Catherine Wheel, adopted as arms of the Turners’ Company, was a representation of the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century. Despite the tradition of the Catherine wheel, she was not actually tortured on a wheel, which was the plan of the emperor Maxentius. He was enraged by her refusal to marry him and condemned her to death on a spiked breaking wheel but, at her touch, the wheel was miraculously destroyed. Maxentius finally had her beheaded.

Before that, it formed the badge of the Order of the Knights of St Catherine of Mount Sinai, an order that was formed in 737 and later reformed by the Crusaders to protect pilgrims travelling to and from the Holy Sepulchre. The idea of protection for travellers lent itself well to tavern signs. During the time of the Puritans, when overtly religious symbols were frowned on, most landlords changed the name to the Cat and Wheel.

Dirty DicksA famous London pub – Dirty Dick’s – stands on virtually the same spot as an old coaching inn that gave its name to the alley. The pub, built in 1745, takes its name from Richard (or Nathaniel) Bentley, who was known as Dirty Dick. He kept a warehouse in Leadenhall Street and was once known as the ‘beau of Leadenhall Street’ being well-dressed and a frequent visitor at court. His change in hygiene is said to have come about when the girl to whom he was betrothed died the day before their marriage; Bentley may have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens when he penned the character of Miss Haversham in Great Expectations.

Bentley went into a mental decline, closing off the room that had been prepared for his wedding breakfast and leaving it – and himself – to accumulate grime for the next 40 years or so. The outside of his building became as filthy as the inside, causing great annoyance to the neighbours, who frequently offered to pay for its cleaning.

Ferris wheel austria
The Wiener Riesenrad

Sadly, as is the case with so many of these legends, there is also a more down-to-earth story. Dirty Dick is also alleged to have been just an ordinary businessman, of non-too-clean habits, who discovered that, in terms of business, the infamy of his filth was better than being clean but unknown.

Back to the ferris wheel; apparently Austria claims to have created Ferris Wheel Day; certainly one of the most famous ferris wheels is the Wiener Riesenrad (Viennese giant wheel) that features in the Orson Wells classic, The Third Man.

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