Little slices of London's history

An actor, horses, and a beheading

Edmund Kean as Sir Giles Overreach

The actor Edmund Kean was born in London on this day in 1737 (though some sources say otherwise). Kean was a regular patron of the Coal Hole tavern near Carting Lane (or Farting Lane, if you prefer), and his early schooling took place in Orange Street, near Leicester Square.

Orange Street was nothing to do with fruit. it is not the site of a former orchard or an orange-sellers’ haunt. One explanation is that it was named after William III, William of Orange and grandson of Charles I, who became joint monarch with his wife Mary in 1689. (Coincidentally, William was also born on the 4th of November, in 1650; he and Mary were married on the 4th of November 1677.)

Another explanation is that building of the street was begun in the 1670s and the area at that time was a favoured spot for stabling of courtiers’ horses. There were several mews there, including the Green and Blue Mews. The stables of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, stood partly on the site of Orange Street;  it is likely that his stables were called Orange Mews to differentiate from the other colours.

The development of the street was finished in the 1690s; by then the unfortunate Monmouth would have had no interest in his horses, having been beheaded in 1685.

The story of Monmouth’s execution is a particularly grisly one: the executioner, Jack Ketch, had a bad day (though not quite as bad as Monmouth’s): he took five attempts with his axe to complete the job and even then had to finish it with a knife. The post of public executioner was a hated, albeit lucrative, one; Ketch, who held the post for more than two decades, was particularly loathed. After his death in 1686 his name was used to refer to all public executioners. It can also be used to refer to death or the devil.

12 responses to “An actor, horses, and a beheading”

  1. I used to walk through Orange Street all the time, when I worked just off of Trafalgar Square. Nice to find out more of the history of it.
    The new look of your site seems good, No doubt I will soon get used to it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Pete, I love it. You have been everywhere in London. I should set a challenge of writing about a street that you haven’t walked along.

    2. And thanks for the feedback on the site. Still getting used to it myself and not sure I might not revert to the original.

  2. There are many of London’s streets that have yet to feel my tread-
    just not that many…
    As for the new-look site, any change always seems strange at first. Initially, I thought that it was too busy, and less attractive than the original. However, I am sure that after viewing a few posts, I won’t even remember what the other one was like.
    Best again, Pete.

    1. Thanks Pete, the ‘busy’ comment particularly interesting as I was going for less busy!

  3. Is there any truth to the story that after Monmouth was executed they realized they didn’t have a portrait of him and so quickly reattached his head long enough for a painting to be done?

    1. Oh, I think I did read something about that some time ago. I will try to find out more. Thanks for raising the question.

    2. If you follow this wikipedia link down to ‘Popular legends’, you will see that this was unlikely, as paintings of him existed long before his death. Hope that helps. Pete.,_1st_Duke_of_Monmouth

      1. Yes, thanks!

  4. […] II. When building began in 1681, apparently there were only a few residents, one of whom was the Duke of Monmouth – one of Charles II’s illegitimate sons. The square eventually took its name from the area, […]

  5. […] there is Orange Street in the West End. Building of the street was begun in the 1670s and the area at that time was a […]

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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