(And Sigourney Weaver, as promised.)
The wonderful website Party Excuses says that today is National Pierogy Day, and who am I to argue? The pierogy, or pierogi, is part of the Polish cuisine, so it’s not too much of a stretch to Poland Street in London’s Soho district.
The street was once part of a patch of land used as horse pasture by its 16th-century owner and it would appear that Poland Street is on the site of what was once called Little Gelding’s Close. Early in the 17th century, Little Gelding’s Close, along with 19 other acres of land, was sold to Robert Baker, the builder of Piccadilly Hall.
The name of Poland Street first appears in 1689, deriving from an inn called King of Poland. It is assumed that the pub was named in commemoration of the victory of John Sobieski, King of Poland, over the Turks in 1683.
The poet Percy Shelley once lodged in Poland Street.
There is a nearby street once called King Street, presumably also in commemoration of said victory. It has since been renamed Kingly Street and renaming of streets leads us nicely into Sigourney Weaver.
Today marks Ms Weaver’s 65th birthday and, yes, there is a connection, however tenuous, between that fine actress and a street in London. Well, ok, there is a Weaver Street (near Shuttle Street) in Spitalfields, and those streets do reflect the fact that the silk weaving industry was once predominant there.
But that’s too easy. Another weaver connection is that of Petticoat Lane, about a mile from Weaver Street. Despite the fact that the lane was once a “filthy and wretched street”, according to James Elmes, who wrote A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs, it did once benefit from nearby pleasant fields.
The gentry flocked to build their houses in these relatively rural surroundings, but were soon ousted by an “influx of the French Refugees in the reign of Louis XIV, it became the residence of the lowest class of their weavers”.
(A bit of a slur on the weavers, perhaps, because in 1155 the Weavers’ Company received its charter and it is the oldest recorded City Livery Company.)
So the name, dating back to the 17th century, could be from the silk weavers, who would have made petticoats, and who settled in the area; or from the secondhand clothes dealers who had begun to trade in the lane even back then. By the 19th century the lane was, said Henry Mayhew, a 19th-century social researcher, journalist, and playwright, “essentially the old clothes district”, and to look down the lane at the time was “to look down a vista of many-coloured garments”.
The reason for changing a perfectly good name is, presumably, Victorian prudery that deemed women’s undergarments an unsuitable item for a street name. This wasn’t the first time its name was changed, however: early names were Berwardes Lane (from a local landowner) in the 14th century and Hog Lane in the 16th century (because, like Huggin Hill, it ran through a pig farm.
FH Habben, an outspoken, and sometimes downright curmudgeonly-sounding, 19th-century London historian, who wrote extensively on the city’s street names, was somewhat outraged at the name change, calling it an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He, however, ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from “The English form, I presume, of petit court, the little short lane.”
(Maybe Habben would have been somewhat mollified to know that the street is still better known as Petticoat Lane than Middlesex Street.)
Oh, yes, it was called Middlesex Street because it once formed a boundary between the city of London and the country of Middlesex (which now exists in a different form).