Wooden houses, thrushes, and prisons

Richard I
Richard I during his coronation

On 25 March 1199 Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, was wounded by a crossbow bolt; this led to his death on April 6. He reigned as king of England for ten years, but spent only six months in the country and, when he was raising funds for his crusade, he is reputed to have said, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.”

However, Richard did make contributions to London street names, one of which was Snow Hill. He also, with great foresight, given the fires that raged through London in later centuries, declared that houses in the city should be built of stone and not wood, to lessen the risk of fire.

EAS_4053All of which brings us to Wood Street, with a name that dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard’s farsighted edict). Some sources have it that, as one of the Cheapside streets, it was given the name because timber and firewood were sold there.

Some people, including John Stow, also point to the fact that there was a Thomas Wood, Sheriff of London, who lived in the street and built a row of houses there (“the beautiful row of houses over against Wood street end”), but as he was there in 1491 the name would seem to be more happenstance than commemoration.

Wordsworth immortalized the street in his poem ‘The Reverie of Poor Susan’. Susan, a homesick country girl, passes a plane tree at the end of Wood Street, and the song of a thrush emanating from the tree reminds her of her rural life:

At the corner of Wood Street when daylight appears
Hangs a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of the morning, the song of the bird.

Pepys and Jonson frequented a tavern (the Mitre) in Wood Street and the young Charles Dickens stayed at the Cross Keys inn there upon his arrival in London.

The street was was also the location of the Wood Street compter; this compter was mainly a debtors’ prison, but also served to take in overflow from Newgate, and had three sections – where you were depended on whether you were rich, poor, or comfortably well off. Prisoners were transferred here in the 16th century from the Bread Street compter and then, in the 18th century, the occupants of Wood Street compter were, in turn, transferred to the Giltspur Street compter.

There was once a cross, Cheapside Cross (one of the Eleanor crosses, but more of that another time) , which stood at the corner of Wood Street,; all royal proclamations used to be read from here, even long after the cross was removed.

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