On Twitter today I read about plaques that mark the great trees of London, so I thought that seemed like a good cue for discussing the reason behind the name of Gospel Oak. Strictly speaking, this is an area rather than a street, but never mind.
There would, at one time, have been an oak tree on or near the boundary between two parishes, in this case, the parishes of Hampstead and St Pancras. The tree, sadly, no longer exists, having last been recorded on an 1801 map.
The name itself comes from an old custom of ‘beating the bounds’ and part of this custom was a gospel reading under a large tree. St Augustine and John Wesley were among the many people who are said to have preached under this particular oak.
Beating the bounds took place in or just before Ascension Day. Schoolchildren, accompanied by clergyman and parish officers, walked around the parish boundaries, equipped with special wands for beating stones or other boundary markers. Sometimes the children themselves might also be whipped (nominally only) and have water poured on them so that they would remember the boundaries.
In the mid 19th century there were grand plans for developing the Gospel Oak area, up until then largely rural. The railways got there first, and the houses that were built were not the elegant villas that had been planned; instead of being a leafy suburb, Gospel Oak became more of a slum. There was at one time a tavern called the Gospel Oak that was the “noisiest and more objectionable public house in the district”.
The subterranean River Fleet, which gives its name to Fleet Street, flows under Gospel Oak and along to the Thames. Incidentally, ‘fleet’ in this instance is nothing to do with speed: it comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, fleot, meaning a creek or tidal inlet. The Fleet is now underground and is used as a sewer – a function that it has performed since 14th-century butchers used it for cleaning out entrails and others took up the habit by dumping refuse into the stream. In the 18th century, Alexander Pope wrote in his Dunciad of where “Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams, rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames.”