London’s lost streets: brothels, taverns, and Dick Whittington

Following on from yesterday’s post about lost streets and street names of London, another ‘Brothel Row’ that has ceased to exist was Mutton Alley. An old slang term for prostitutes was ‘mutton’, extended also to ‘laced mutton’, and many of the women plied their trade in the alley. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, referred to the term in his unkind epitaph for Charles II:

Here lies our mutton-eating king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.

Laurence Pountney Hill 2 crop
Once known as Green Lettuce Lane

There are also streets still in existence but with names that were changed for, sometimes it would seem, no good reason. One such is Green Lettuce Lane, now called Laurence Pountney Hill.

The lane was nothing to do with salad leaves; the name was, apparently, a corruption of Green Lattice Lane and comes from a lattice gate that opened into what is now Cannon Street. There is (as is so often the case with London streets) a much jollier explanation.

That one holds that, although lattice in its corrupted form does play a part, it was not a gate. In earlier days taverns were designed so that customers could see out without being observed by people going past. This was sometimes achieved with latticework over the window, traditionally painted green or red.

Elbow Lane is another lane renamed, but at least with some semblance of a reason – though it’s not necessarily a change for the better – it is now called, less interestingly, College Street.

In the 16th century it was one street that ran west and then suddenly turned south, according to Stow, and was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”. It later became Great and Little Elbow Lanes and then, in 1839, was renamed College Street to commemorate the college established by Sir Richard Whittington (the Dick Whittington of legend, much of which is inaccurate).

Sir Richard founded the College of St Spirit and St Mary in order, apparently, to ensure that his soul would be well received by the right parties after his death. The college was yet another institution dissolved by Henry VIII.

And back to lane, courts, and alleys no longer in existence.

Fan Court was in the heart of what was the meat centre of London. The butchers used to have a scalding house in Pudding Lane, and what was scalded had to be cooled. Fanning was how that was done, and the scalding house became known as Fanners’ Hall, from which the court then took its name.

Flying Horse Court was named from a tavern that was very old in the late 19th century. The flying horse is, naturally, Pegasus, and was used as an heraldic symbol by the Knights Templar who were originally the Knights of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem – nine very poor knights who vowed to protect pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem.

By the 12th century they were well established in London. Before long they had been so well showered with gifts that they were rich, powerful, and privileged enough for them to be put in the Tower and have their property confiscated.

Fyefoot Lane was, at least in theory, five feet wide. There was a time when lanes and streets had to fulfil certain minimum width requirements. A lane had only to be wide enough for two men to roll a barrel along it – hence Five Foot, or Fyefoot, Lane.

Streets, on the other hand, decreed Henry I, had to be paved and be wide enough for sixteen knights to ride abreast. (In the 19th century that was changed to seven feet.)

Gunpower Alley was a result of anti-Catholic feelings, which still reigned strong in the 17th century. Charles II had no legitimate children and therefore no heir, so his brother James, a Catholic sympathiser, was in line for the throne.

There were fears that James would re-establish the faith once he became king. Anti-papist meetings were held throughout the country and in Fleet Street there were several demonstrations in which effigies of the pope were burned or blown up. The gunpowder for these festivities was stored in this little courtyard, now gone, off Shoe Lane.

The poet Richard Lovelace, who wrote “four walls do not a prison make, no iron bars a cage”, was a resident of Gunpowder Alley, and died there in abject poverty.

William_Hogarth_-_Industry_and_Idleness,_Plate_9;_The_Idle_'Prentice_betrayed_and_taken_in_a_Night-Cellar_with_his_Accomplice
Betrayed and captured in Blood Bowl House

Hanging Sword Alley is a very good name, and both alley and name still exist. This name can be traced back as early as 1564, when a large Tudor house was known by the sign of the Hanging Sword. The area, once part of the Whitefriars Monastery and still commemorated by Whitefriars Street) was popular with fencing masters and the sign may have referred to this occupation.

However, the alley was once known by the even more sinister name of Blood Bowl Alley, after a 14th century inn there.

Blood Bowl House was an unsavoury and “notorious night-cellar” and is depicted in Plate 9 of Hogarth’s ‘Industry and Idleness’ series. The plate shows Tom Idle, “betray’d by his Whore, & taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice” – in Blood Bowl House.

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6 thoughts on “London’s lost streets: brothels, taverns, and Dick Whittington

      1. After a bit of digging, I find the epitaph appears with at least a half dozen first lines. The one I quoted seems to have gained currency because it’s in the Bartleby edition of Wilmot’s works.

  1. That version of the Wilmot epitaph is one I’ve never encountered. One usually sees “Here lies our sovreign lord, the King”.

  2. The version I’ve normally seen of the Wilmot epitaph is “Here lies our sovreign lord, the King” with the rest the same. Where does this version come from?

    1. That version is in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; he describes the old slang definition of mutton as a prostitute and goes on to say, “It was with this meaning that John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, wrote his mock epitaph on Charles II.” Thanks for reading the blog; I hope you enjoy it.

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