Little slices of London's history

London’s occupational streets (part 2): Frankenstein, gambling, and a famous transvestite

Following on from ironmongers and rope makers, London’s streets contain more occupations, from brewers to skinners. But first, let’s look at one ‘occupation’, which may be cheating a bit: Boss Street, south of the river near Shad Thames.

A boss was once a reservoir of water; there was once a Boss Alley which, London historian John Stow tells us was, “Named from a Bosse of spring water continually running standing by Billingsgate against this alley, erected by the executors of Richard Whittington”.

Brewer Street cropFrom water to beer, and bosses to brewers: brewing is represented in, among others, Brewer Street, Brewers’ Hall Gardens, and Brewer’s Green.

Unusually for London street names, Brewer Street does take its name from the noble art (or science) of brewing, and there were two 17th-century breweries here. One of these was opened in 1664 by Thomas Ayres (who gave his name to Air Street), and continued brewing until the 19th century. The other, opened a few years later, lasted only 70 years.

A contemporary caricature of the Chevalier D’Eon, depicting him as half man, half woman

Brewer Street was also the residence of that enigmatic character, the Chevalier D’Eon, who first came to England in 1762 as an undercover agent for Louis XV. The Chevalier started life as a man, and then, for the last 33 years of his life, lived as a woman; upon his death he was discovered to be anatomically male. He is considered to be one of the earliest openly transvestite people.

Brewers Hall Gardens cropBrewers’ Hall Garden takes its name from the Hall of the Company of Brewers, one of the oldest City Livery companies, and number fourteen in order of precedence.

The Brewers were granted a Royal Charter in 1438, at which time they rejoiced in the name of ‘The Wardens and Commonalty of the Mystery of Brewers in the City of London’. There has been a Brewers Hall on the site for over 600 years.

Brewers GreenBrewer’s Green, however, is nothing to do with brewing; it takes its name from one 17th-century William Brewer, who was a gardener.

Potters Fields, near Tooley Street, was once called Potts Field and takes its name from – you guessed it – pottery. Following religious persecution in Holland, many Dutch potters fled to England, and the Pickleherring Pottery, one of the earliest Delftware kilns in England, was established here in the early 17th century. (Perhaps another piece in the puzzle that lies behind the name of Pickle Herring Street? I just love it when street names mesh.)

Potters Fields has rather more unpleasant connotations, being the name for a place where unknown people are buried. This term comes from the Bible; ground that was rich in the clay used by potters was useless for agriculture and therefore a handy burial spot.

Bursar Street is another occupational street, of which there are quite a few in the Tooley Street area. Others are Carter Lane (no longer there, but there is one near St Paul’s), Druid Street (possibly stretching to call it an occupation, but it’s still a great street name, and Weaver’s Lane.

EAS_3891Why Bursar and Druid I have yet to find out, so any insights gratefully accepted; Carter Lane near St Paul’s probably does take its name from carts. Either because carters lived in the area or because, in the 13th century, St Paul’s churchyard was walled up and carts would have to detour through the lane.

The reason for closing the courtyard was that, “by the lurking of thieves and other lewd people, in the night-time, within the precinct of this churchyard, divers robberies, homicides, and fornications had been oft times committed therein”.

The London street name expert FH Habben, generally to be relied on to poor cold water on some of the more fun theories of London’s street names, had this to say of that theory: “The statement hardly lends itself to one’s credulity, and one would be rather inclined to connect it with a builder or owner’s name, but there is no evidence to warrant this.”

But back to the Tooley Street area, and Weaver’s Lane, which probably does take its name from the many weavers who lived in London and who may also have given the name to Petticoat Lane.

Shavers Place 2 cropShaver’s Place, near Piccadilly, has two shaving reasons for the name, one occupational and one more of an occupational hazard. Simon Osbaldeston, formerly the barber to the Lord Chamberlain, set up a gambling house here in the 17th century.

As with Piccadilly, however, local wits were responsible for the naming of his house: they dubbed it ‘Shaver’s House’ in honour less of his former profession than of the treatment that visitors to the gambling house received.

Skin Market Place takes its name from London’s (legal) skin trade: here, in the market, were sold “the skins from nearly all the sleep slaughtered in London”. The market appears on maps in the late 1700s but is gone by the turn of the century. There is also Skinners Lane, EC4, once known as Maiden Lane and named for much the same reason, except that the skins in this case were furs.

Skinners LaneSkinner Street, however, has differing theories for its name. One is that in the early 19th century an Alderman Skinner was the driving force behind building the street.

More probably, and earlier, is that in 1630 eight acres of land were bequeathed to the Worshipful Company of Skinners by John Meredith. It was not, however, until two hundred years later that the street was built by James Whiskin, who gave it the name.

One resident of the street was William Godwin, an atheist philosopher and novelist himself, but perhaps more famous for his literary wife and daughter. His first wife was the feminist Mary Wollenstonecraft, who wrote Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 – a work that demanded equal educational opportunities for men and women.

The daughter of that marriage (sadly her mother died from a fever less than two weeks after the birth of her daughter) was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, née Godwin, wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of the Gothic novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

A less savoury claim to fame for the street is that a sailor called Cashman was hanged in a gunsmith’s shop: he had stolen a gun during the Spa Field Riots of 1816 and was the last person in England to be executed at the scene of the crime.

There is also a Skinner’s Lane, which took its name from the fur merchants of the time.

More occupational names, that will have to wait for another time, included Clothier Street, Cutler Street, Grocers’ Hall Court, and Gunner Lane, among (many) others.

3 responses to “London’s occupational streets (part 2): Frankenstein, gambling, and a famous transvestite”

  1. A great selection from my life in London. My mother grew up in Shad Thames, and when I was much older, I also had a lot of dealings with Brewer Street, which was a haven for drug dealers, when I worked for the Met Police at West End Central.
    Wonderful stuff Elizabeth, as always.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete. A haven for drug dealers, eh? Your time in the Met certainly showed you the seedy side of London as well as most of its streets!

      1. They used to hang around the lock-ups where the stalls from Berwick Street Market were stored, and the NCP car park too. Mostly at night though.
        My time in the LAS and Met certainly provided an education!
        Best wishes, Pete.

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, I 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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