Little slices of London's history

Seven swans a swimming in London’s streets

I am feeling Christmassy, and I have on The Mighty Jamma’s ‘Reggae Pan Christmas’ to soothe the writing process. (If you think you are sick of Christmas music, try listening to steel band versions.) I wasn’t quick enough off the mark to think of doing an advent calendar of street names, but then I thought of doing 12 street names of Christmas and seven swans a-swimming seemed as good a start as any.

IMG_2569In addition, following on from the bird name streets, one reader rebuked me gently, at least I hope it was meant to be a gentle rebuke. “One bird that surely deserves a mention is the swan with Swan Lane and Great Swan Alley in the City,” said MattF.

As if in agreement, the swans around here have been gathering of late and I have been watching as many as 30 swans at a time swimming up the river. If anyone knows about swan habits, I’d be grateful for any insights. It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics of the group: who’s in an out of favour, who is being chased away from the group and then allowed back, why the youngster is being ostracized…

But I digress. MattF was absolutely right: apart from mentioning Cygnet Street, I completely omitted the swan. In my defence, there have been previous posts with swans, though they largely focus on pub names, such as the Swan with Two Necks and a boat race.

So, with apologies to swans and thanks to MattF, here we go.

To revisit briefly the boat race, the connection there is to Swan Walk in Chelsea; the walk takes its name from a tavern sign; the swan was a common sign for inns, particularly waterside inns. This Swan was the finishing post for the Doggett Coat and Badge race.

Great Swan AlleyAnd you learn something new every day: I’ve been looking into the race some more and I was so focused on Swan Walk that I missed the fact that the race originally ran from a Swan Inn at London Bridge to the Swan Inn in Chelsea. (Some sources refer to them both as the Old Swan.)

Whatever their names, the inns are gone but the course has remained the same since 1715. The Swan Inn, or Old Swan, at London Bridge gave its name to Swan Lane. The Fishmongers’ Company is headquartered near Swan Lane, and the website gives the history of the Coat and Badge race.

Another thing about Swan Walk is that it is, apparently, mentioned by Pepys in his diary. A lovely snippet that I have been able to find only in one source (Gillian Bebbington, Street Names of London) is a reference to the fact that Pepys went there with his wife and their friend Mrs Knipp and his wife was “out of humour, as ever when that woman is by”.

It seems that all the swan street take their names from inns, so named either from the bird itself, or referring to coats of arms in which it featured, such as those of Henry VIII and Edward III.

Black swans also gave their name to inns; the black swan was considered a rare bird and the name may have been a self-promoting reference to the landlord being a rare bird. There is a Black Swan Yard in Southwark.

Great Swan Alley took its name from an old inn called the White Swan; there were once a Great and Little Swan Alley, but they were much curtailed by the building of Moorgate Street.

There are other swan streets in London, including Swan Street, SE1; Swan Passage, E1; Swan Road, SE16; and, of course, Cygnet Street, E1.

One last thing about swans: after watching all the swans on the river I wondered what the collective noun is for them. There are many of them, none appearing to be the definitive term. You can choose from ballet, bank, bevy, drift, eyrar, flight (in flight), flock, gaggle, gargle, game, herd, sownder, squadron, team, wedge (in flight), whiteness, and whiting.

But my favourite, considered by some sources to be ‘fantastical’, is a lamentation of swans. There is something about the word ‘lament’. Years ago, in a Chinese restaurant in Oxfordshire (or maybe it was Buckinghamshire) I had to order the chef’s special called ‘Lamentable Prawns’. I still don’t why they were called that as they were delicious. Maybe the chillies in them were supposed the diner weep.

5 responses to “Seven swans a swimming in London’s streets”

  1. A great Swan post, Elizabeth. I have one to add; another Swan Lane, Whetstone,N20, in the London Borough of Barnet. (It also has some flats in it called Swan Court.) I only know it, because a friend lives there, and I have recently addressed his Christmas card!
    I know Swan Road, SE16 well, as when I lived in Salter Road, Swan Road was a junction I had to cross at Brunel Road, on my way out to work.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    1. Pete, I love your comments and I love the fact that there is rarely a post that doesn’t have a street with which you have a connection!

      1. Sixty years in London is a long time to ‘get around a bit’, Elizabeth!
        Best wishes, Pete.

  2. You are exswanerated!

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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