Little slices of London's history

Passports, Parliamentarians, and Fanny Hill

Petty France cropThe  Moonwalk London 2014 route goes through Westminster and so today we look at Petty France. The name is fairly straightforward: from petit – little – France, because of French settlers there as early as the 15th century. Nestling close to Parliament Square and the seat of government, it was, for many years, the home of the London passport office; the office relocated in 2002. Jeremy Bentham plaqueFamous residents of the street included Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and William Hazlitt. John Milton also had a “pretty garden house” there, from 1652, when he was secretary to Oliver Cromwell and starting work on Paradise Lost, to the Restoration of 1660. At that time, as a supporter of the Parliamentarians, he had to make himself scarce from the re-established monarchy in the form of Charles II, whose father Cromwell had beheaded.

Fanny Hill
An early edition of Fanny Hill

The most colourful and infamous resident was the novelist John Cleland (1709-17899, who died there, in obscurity, at the age of 82. Cleland, who is said to have spent a fair amount of time in debtors’ prisons, made his mark and his money in 1750 when his Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (better known as Fanny Hill) was published. The book (of “pernicious tendency”) was a bestseller and brought the publishers £10,000 (according to some calculations, as much as £15,000,000 today) in profits. Cleland himself earned 20 guineas, or around £80,000).

Fanny Hill whips
An illustration from the book: Fanny Hill whips Mr Barville

Money notwithstanding, the privy council was not amused and summoned Cleland to explain himself. He pleaded poverty as his excuse for the scandalously indecent book, and the president of the council granted him an annuity of £100 (around £20,000) on the condition that he never again wrote that kind of book. If you want to support Walk the Walk and its efforts on behalf of breast cancer charities, you can sponsor me by visiting my fundraising page here.

2 responses to “Passports, Parliamentarians, and Fanny Hill”

  1. […] Petty France takes its name from petit – little – France, because of French settlers there as early as the 15th century. The street, which once housed the Passport Office, is associated with a book of “pernicious tendency”. Other streets were called what they were because, well, that’s what they were, such as Docwras Buildings, from houses built by Thomas Docwra & Son, well-borers. In time others became known as Rents from the people who collected the rents on the buildings, such as Perkins Rents in Victoria, from an unknown Perkins. […]

  2. […] philosopher, was born in Houndsditch, lived in Crutched Friars, and died in a house in what is now Petty France (another resident of Petty France was John Cleland, author of the 18th-century erotic novel Fanny […]

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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