London’s lost street names: cuckolds, elfs, and naked boys

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.

Today, therefore, let’s look at some of the alleys and passageways of London that no longer exist, but should do, if only for their names.

Black Raven Passage, for instance: the name probably comes from the fact that the raven has something of a reputation as a bird of ill omen, the raven in Christian symbolism represents God’s providence – an allusion to the raven that fed Elijah. It was also an old Scottish badge and a Jacobite symbol.

And, of course, the ravens in the Tower of London; superstition has it that: “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”

This passage which no longer stands, may have been the birthplace of the scandalous Mary Anne Clarke, who was, eventually, the mistress of Frederick, the Grand Old Duke of York. She used her influence with him to obtain money from officers in the army.

The Duke resigned his post (but was later reinstated) and broke it off with Mary Anne. She threatened to publish the letters he had written to her and 10,000 copies of her memoirs were actually printed. The Duke, however, paid her debts and gave her £400 to burn the books.

Cuckold’s Point, at a sharp bend on the Thames in East London, was once marked by a pole, crowned with a set of horns, which delineated the boundary of land granted to a miller who had been cuckolded by King John.

Apparently the miller returned home unexpectedly one day to find his beautiful wife disporting herself with the king and, in order to appease him, King John granted the miller as much land as he could see, and the furthest point he could see was the point that bears the name.

The king also granted the new landowner the privilege of an annual fair – but on the condition that, on the day of the fair, he should walk to the point wearing a pair of buck’s horns on his head..

Elfin Road, back in the 19th century, may have taken its name either from the fact that it was a tiny road dwarfed by its neighbours, or from the prevalence of the plant Elphin-gold moss. While the charmingly named road no longer exists, there is an Elf Row, E1 (not all that far from Cuckolds Point) and an equally charming Elfwine Road in West London.

Naked Boy Court’s came from a sign, which was supposed to have been a comment on the rapidly-changing fashions of the time. The sign painters had so much difficulty keeping up with them that the artist responsible for this one didn’t even try.

The name was later changed to Boy Court; as one acerbic London historian points out, they were too modest in his day to keep the original name. Dressed or naked, Boy Court no longer exists.

Some other names that were overly descriptive,and therefore changed, were things like Dunghill Lane, Gropecontelane, Stew Lane (in modern parlance that would be Brothel Row), and of course, the slightly altered but still extant Passing (formerly Pissing) Alley.

And on that note… more in the next post.

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4 thoughts on “London’s lost street names: cuckolds, elfs, and naked boys

    1. Indeed, it would be good, wouldn’t it? Even some of the more straight-laced 19th-century writers about London seemed to think it was a shame to change the old names for no particularly good reason. I presume people would still have thought of them as the old names. Do you know Reading at all? There is a street called Smelly Alley and I bet a lot of people who live in the town would have to think hard about what its real name is. (It’s Union Street, where the fishmongers used to be, and there is still one there called the Smelly Alley Fish Company.)

      1. I am not too familiar with Reading, but I would expect people might be reluctant to have an address of Smelly Alley.
        Personally, I wouldn’t mind!

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