It’s time for a reality check. I received another I-hope-it-was-a-gentle rebuke from reader MattF, who warned me against taking to heart some of the less likely explanations of why streets are called what they’re called. My aim is to entertain as well as inform, so I like to air as many views as I can find about street name derivations, but equally, MattF has a point so I’ll try to make it clear which theories are probably complete eyewash and which may be plausible.
On that note, I thought it might be fun to look again at some of the weirder street names I’ve come across, and some of the many theories behind those names.
Starting with where my pursuit of London street names began: Bleeding Heart Yard. Dickens helped make the yard famous: there is a chapter in Little Dorrit entitled ‘Bleeding Heart Yard’. “The opinion of the Yard,” said Dickens, “was divided respecting the derivation of its name. The more practical inmates abided by the tradition of a murder.”
The other inhabitants believed that the name came from a young woman was imprisoned by her father for not marrying the man he chose for her. She sighed and wasted away, murmuring, “Bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding away.” Dickens, like MattF, said: “Neither party would listen to the antiquaries who delivered learned lectures in the neighbourhood, showing the Bleeding Heart to have been the heraldic cognizance of the old family to whom the property belonged.”
(Incidentally, one family name that is bandied about in the heraldic cognizance – distinctive emblem – as being the basis of the name is the Douglas family, as in Douglas motorcycles, which has a heart in its crest.)
There are other theories about the name, but the most dramatic – and least likely – is that a beautiful gypsy made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. She did so, married him, and then lost her heart – literally – to Old Nick. He appeared unexpectedly at a ball one night and carried her off. As she was whisked through the air, her cloak fell to the ground in what is now Cloak Lane and one of her shoes fell in Shoe Lane. The revellers at the ball were revolted to discover a bleeding human heart in the courtyard.
“So who can doubt the legend?” asked a 19th-century writer who compiled a dictionary of London street names. “And yet those incredulous sceptics, who destroy our beautiful legends one by one, seek to explain the name by the assertion that it was originally Bleeding Hart Yard, a forgotten sign or family cognizance, and I am inclined to think they are right.”
I was also called up (sort of) on the last post for mentioning Newgate and ignoring Cripplegate. To be fair, there are a few London ‘gate’ names and I’ve covered them in various other posts. And even I couldn’t fit Cripplegate into the ‘new’ theme. But that’s another one with theories ranging from plausible to downright weird.
Before I start, let me quote MattF on the derivation of Cripplegate’s name: “…please don’t give any more oxygen to the nonsense that it’s named after cripples.”
Ok, so it’s not the real reason for the name. Here’s the theory anyway: allegedly, when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured.
(Whether it’s relevant or not, Edmund is the patron saint of pandemics. Why do pandemics have a patron saint? Anybody out there know?)
MattF puts the proper explanation for the name very well, so over to him: “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.”
Incidentally, there is a medieval church, St Giles-without-Cripplegate, which is so named because when it was built it was without (outside) the city wall. St Giles is the patron saint of lepers and cripples.