London’s lost streets (part 3): Hercules, Ezekiel, and pickles

Our little romp through the extinct back streets of London draws to a close today, with a few more names inspired largely by inns and taverns. We start with Hercules Pillars Alley, which takes its name from a tavern that was there in 1668.

The pillars in question are the two rocks in the Straits of Gibraltar – the Rock of Gibraltar and Mount Hacho – that form the entrance to the Mediterranean. The legend is that they were once one rock and Hercules tore them apart so he could get past.

The Straits of Gibraltar were once considered virtually the end of the earth so the sign was particularly popular with taverns on the outskirts of a town. (Another name popular for such taverns was World’s End, and one gave its name to World’s End Passage in Chelsea.)

There was once a Hercules Pillars tavern in Piccadilly that was frequently visited by the Marquis of Granby (who gave his own name to many a pub), and it is mentioned in Tom Jones as the inn where Squire Western stays.

Hole in the Wall Passage took its name from another relatively common tavern name, which could have referred to an early ‘speakeasy’, an illegal drinking establishment.

Or it could have been reminiscent of debtors’ prisons: there were holes in the walls through which inmates were handed food, drink, money, and other tokens of charity. Other holes in walls were in lepers’ dens through which priests could bless the sufferers.

Alternatively, the name could hark back to the prophet Ezekiel who visited Jerusalem in spirit. When bade to dig at the hole in the wall he spied “every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts” – perhaps a comment on the patrons of the tavern in question?

Pickled Egg Walk, which was once a “place of low amusements” – took its name from the Pickled Egg tavern, not a particularly common name. The proprietor, who was not a Londoner, had a particularly delectable recipe for pickled eggs.

The story goes that Charles II (though some versions say it was his father, Charles I) once stopped there, sampled that delicacy for the first time, and enjoyed it. Royal pleasure was something that any canny landlord would capitalize on and this one was no exception, promptly naming the inn for his speciality.

Pickle Herring Street may not have taken its name not from a tavern; it may have been from the fact that the street was on the site of one of the Thames River’s old wharves – where cargoes of pickled herrings were shipped. The area was once known as ‘London’s larder’, from its use as the primary storage area for butter, cheese and, later, canned meat.

The name may also have come from the fact that Sir John Falstofe – who gave his name to Shakespeare’s Falstaff – lived on this spot in 1447. Falstofe was once a fish merchant, so it could have been his pickled herrings that gave the street its name.

As always, there are other possible explanations: though herrings were pickled in England as far back as the 14th century, it was more of a Dutch speciality. There is a record, in 1584, of a ‘Peter Van Duraunte alias Pickell Heringe’ being buried in Bermondsey.

Van Duraunte was actually a brewer, so the nickname is not obvious, unless he had an inn called the Pickled Herring; such an inn may have given rise to the street name. So it could have been from a tavern after all.

Three Cranes Lane took its name from a 16th-century inn, the sign of which depicted the bird type of crane. Many other inns and taverns with ‘crane’ in the name more commonly referred to the cranes that were used to hoist casks of wine.

However, as the helpful John Stow tells us, the lane was “so called not only of a sign of three cranes at a tavern door, but rather of three strong cranes of timber placed on the Vintry wharf by the Thames side, to crane up wines there”.

The tavern was a famous one: Ben Jonson and his fellow roisterers were patrons of the inn, and it was from here (“a little alehouse on the Bankside over against the Three Cranes”) that Pepys watched some of the conflagration of the Great Fire of 1666.

He had gone there some years earlier for a family celebration, but did not particularly enjoy the experience. In Pepys’s own words:

“…in the afternoon by coach by invitacon to my uncle Fenner’s, where I found his new wife, a pitiful, old, ugly, illbred woman in a hatt, a midwife. Here were many of his, and as many of her relations, sorry, mean people; and after choosing our gloves, we all went over to the Three Crane Tavern, and though the best room in the house, in such a narrow dogg-hole we were crammed, and I believe we were near forty, that it made me loathe my company and victuals; and a sorry poor dinner it was too.

Sadly, all letter but one of the English alphabet are represented in London street names; until the 1950s all 26 could be found in an index due to East London’s XX Place. It was situated close to Stayners Road and a brewery belonging at one time to the Stayner family.

The inspiration for the name was probably an inn sign depicting a barrel with XX and the initials ISJS and 1823 (from the brewer and date) inscribed on it.

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2 thoughts on “London’s lost streets (part 3): Hercules, Ezekiel, and pickles

  1. There is still a Pillars of Hercules pub in Greek Street in Soho, keeping that tradition going at least. I am from Bermondsey, so I was interested in the Dutchman buried there. The first name including an X that springs to mind is Ixworth Place, in Chelsea. But it sadly doesn’t begin with the letter X.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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