Little slices of London's history

Ludgate: wine, printers, and Pocahontas

A 17th-century print of the old gate

Ludgate was the westernmost of the London Wall gates; and gives its name to Ludgate Hill and Ludgate Circus. There are – as is so often the case – conflicting theories as to the origin of the name. Most fun is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s theory that is from King Lud, a legendary king of Britain, after whom it is said that London (Lud’s Town) was named, and who was buried on the site of the Lud Gate.

Ludgate was one of the Roman gates, and was rebuilt in the 13th century; like Newgate, it was used as a prison but later Newgate was earmarked for the more serious offenders while Ludgate held the ‘misdemeanour’ criminals. The gate was rebuilt again in the 15th and 16th centuries; in the 1586 rebuilding, a statue of King Lud was placed on the east side of the gate, while the west side was graced with a statue of Queen Elizabeth I on the west.

But back to the name; according to Walter Thornbury, in his Old and New London: “Our later antiquaries, ruthless as to legends, however romantic, consider its original name to have been the Flood or Fleet Gate, which is far more feasible.” It may also have derived from an Old English term meaning ‘postern’.

If we want to look at names and their derivation, however, we need look no further than La Belle Sauvage Yard which, sadly, no longer exists. The yard, which led off Ludgate Hill was once the site of a coaching inn, the Belle Savage, described by the London Gazette as an “antient inn”.

Coach emerging from La Belle Sauvage Yard into Ludgate Hill

Thornbury had much to say about the yard: “An incredible quantity of ink has been shed about the origin of the sign of the ‘Belle Sauvage’ inn, and even now the controversy is scarcely settled,” he notes. He does point out that the name ‘Savage’ was at the very least a local name, because in 1380 a certain William Lawton was sentenced to an hour in the pillory for trying to obtain money, by means of a forged letter, from William Savage of Fleet Street.

Another font of London historical knowledge, John Stow, believed that the earliest occupant of the inn was one Arabella Savage, known as Bell Savage, and that her name provided inspiration for an imaginative sign painter.

A more romantic theory came from Joseph Addison, founder of The Spectator, an 18th-century daily publication, who was intrigued by the inn’s sign, which showed a savage man standing by a bell. He was, he said, “very much puzzled by the conceit of it” until he read a French novel that describes a beautiful young woman who was found in the wilderness and was called ‘La Belle Sauvage’.

This sort of fits in with another story that, in the 17th century, when John Rolph brought his bride to England, they stayed at the inn. In honour of the beauty and gallantry of this foreign wife, the name was changed to La Belle Sauvage. The bride in question was Pocahontas.

The Cassell’s statue of Pocahontas

The printing works of Cassell, Petter and Galpin moved into part (later all) of the premises in 1852, and Pocahontas became the symbol for Cassell’s. The company was later based in Red Lion Square; a statue of Pocahontas was commissioned and later moved when the printing company did.

According to a contemporary newspaper report, “To retain the firm’s link with La Belle Sauvage, and that neighbourhood’s own fanciful connection with the Princess Pocohontas, Cassell’s commissioned a larger than life size statue of the ‘Beautiful Savage’ to grace the entrance of the firm’s headquarters.”

The yard had an earlier history of printers: a charmingly named book The Delights of the Bottle, or the Compleat Vintner was printed at the sign of the Bell Savage in 1721.

Unfortunately, as with so many of these names, it seems that the least exotic theory is likely to be the closest to the truth. The inn is mentioned in a document of 1453 as Savage’s Inn, otherwise known as the Bell on the Hoop. Whether or not there was an Arabella involved, it was probably a case of the not uncommon practice of combining a pub name with the name of the landlord.

6 responses to “Ludgate: wine, printers, and Pocahontas”

  1. […] last but not least, the inn at La Belle Sauvage Yard once also served as a coffee […]

  2. […] Some of London’s best street names have been changed over the years, partly due to offended sensibilities, but some for no apparent reason – other than, perhaps, political. For example, Of Alley, which is a great name, was changed to York Place. Likewise, some of London’s streets with great names are no more: for example, La Belle Sauvage Yard. […]

  3. Great piece. Do you know where the Pocahontas statue is now, please?

    1. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. I gather the statue was sold by Cassell to a private buyer and so would seem not to be on display anywhere.

  4. […] yard was once home to an “antient inn” and one theory was that the yard was named in honour of Pocahontas, who was a guest at the inn and who later became the symbol for the publisher Cassell, once based […]

  5. […] of the original gates of London. (The others were Aldersgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, and Moorgate.) Newgate was so named because it was new: in the 12th century, a new gate, built to […]

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, 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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