Little slices of London's history

New year London names: from New Scotland Yard to Newgate

Well, loyal reader(s), it’s been a while. Long enough that it’s too far after Christmas to continue that theme (and I was coming to a bit of a dead end on that anyway). But it’s still sort of the New Year, so let’s take a quick look at ‘new’ names – that is, names with new in them.

New Scotland YardBut first a bit of a cheat with New Scotland Yard, which is a building rather than a street. And it isn’t even in Great Scotland Yard, which is what it was named for. That name came about because the Palace of Westminster, which no longer stands, once served as the main residence for the English monarchs –and a parcel of land belonging to the palace, including a house given by King Edgar to Kenneth III of Scotland in the 10th century, was reserved for royal Scottish visitors and their retinues.

Great Scotland YardIn 1829 the Metropolitan Police Force was formed and the new force (consisting of around 600 men, six of whom were discharged on the first day for being drunk) set up headquarters in Great Scotland Yard (Little and Middle had by then combined to become Whitehall Place). Scotland Yard (or the ‘Yard’ then became the name by which the police force was known.

From police to prisons, and Newgate, one of the original gates of London. (The others were Aldersgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, and Moorgate.) Newgate was so named because it was new: in the 12th century, a new gate, built to replace the original Roman gate.

Newgate is perhaps best known for Newgate Prison, possibly one of the world’s most famous, and infamous prisons and the gatehouse was indeed used as a prison later in the 12th century. When the gate was rebuilt again in the 15th century, Dick Whittington (or, to give him his proper title, Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London) provided money for the prison to be extended.

The prison was eventually demolished to make way for the Central Criminal Courts, known as Old Bailey, taking their name from the street on which they stand). In the 18th century Newgate became not just a prison but the location of public executions: the gallows at Tyburn were moved to the prison in 1783 and prisoners no longer made the long journey west from Newgate to be executed.

EAS_3968From prisons to fetters, or manacles for prisioners. There is a Fetter Lane and a New Fetter Lane and on the corner of these two streets is a statue of John Wilkes, a journalist and member of the notorious Hellfire Club.

The word ‘fetter’ in this instance, however – you guessed it – is nothing to do with manacles. Many alternative spellings include faitor, fewter, felter, and faitour.

As the historian John Stow puts it, the lane was “so called of Fewters (or idle people) lying there, as in a way leading to gardens, but the same is now of latter years on both sides built through with many fair houses”. (The Old French word faitor meant a lawyer, and by the 14th century the reputation of that august profession had fallen so far into disrepute that the word was synonymous with idlers.)

The name could have derived from ‘felter’ – makers of felt also carried on their business in the lane, or from ‘faitour’ – a type of fortune teller prevalent in medieval and Elizabeth times. As well as all the iidlers, the area did have workers in the form of the armorers whose workshops were located there. and the name may have come from the lance vests worn on cuirasses (also known as fetters).

EAS_3905And finally, from lawyers to bankers: New Change was formerly Old Change, originally just Change (it became Old in 1293); it took its name from a buiEAS_4102lding where bullion was stored before being taken to the Mint to be coined. (There is also a Change Alley; that takes its name from the Royal Exchange, founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham to act as a centre of commerce for the city, and officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I.)


8 responses to “New year London names: from New Scotland Yard to Newgate”

  1. and Cripplegate is interesting too

    1. Indeed; all the London gates have a fascinating story behind them, whatever the truth behind the derivation of their names.

  2. An appropriate start to 2016, Elizabeth. Welcome back!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete and Happy New Year.

  3. Actually Moorgate wasn’t one of the original gates – it was created in the early 15th century. The word moor is what we would call marsh today, probably caused by the damming effect of London Wall itself and lack of maintenance of the Roman drainage system.

    As simonjkyte says, Cripplegate is interesting but please don’t give any more oxygen to the nonsense that it’s named after cripples. It was connected to the Barbican by a “crepel” – a covered tunnel or passage in Old English – and referred to as the Crepelgate back in the 11th century. All references to cripples are medieval fictions to retrofit the name after it became corrupted to Cripplegate.

    I’d also be very wary of using John Stow for etymology. Although a ‘reliable witness’ his derivations of names are very often incorrect. Street-Names of the City of London by Eilert Ekwall is recommended. I’ll see what he says about Fetter Lane this evening.

    1. Thank you for the information, particularly about the Moorgate timing; I need to get my head around the chronology of the London gates as I have relatively recently started reading up on them. I do appreciate that some of the theories about London’s names are complete eyewash but there are many scholarly works out there so my approach is to entertain as much as inform by airing all the theories I come across. And Stow, like Habben, is entertaining in what he writes, rather than necessarily being accurate.

      1. I only want your book to be as good as possible and for you to avoid propagating old errors.

        Well it had to happen … after casting doubt on Stow’s accuracy it seems the old boy’s right for once. Ekwall traces Fetter Lane through Faytureslane (1292) to Stow’s Fewtar(s) lane via numerous intermediate forms but the conclusion is that the name is derived from faitor (Middle English) meaning ‘impostor, cheat; esp. a vagrant who shams illness’.

      2. Thanks again and you have a valid point – I should be clear on which are fun but unlikely theories and which are more likely even if less colourful. Though I like the idea of the vagrants who sham illness.

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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