Little slices of London's history

From Air and Wood to Bell and Gun: London’s noun street names

Flintlock CloseBut first, a small diversion. It was Groundhog Day on Tuesday (February 2nd) so I should point out that, regarding the hog bit, there is a pig-related street names post on this blog and you can read it here.

As far as the ground bit goes, there has been a bit of a debate about Golden Square and whether it was really a plague pit. Some sources say it was, others are adamant that it was not.

Still, it was a good excuse for me to start looking into plague pits, and I found a great website with a list of confirmed and possible plague pit sites. So that could be a post theme for the not too distant future.

Air Street cropIn the meantime, before I lose the thread of parts of speech street names, why not look at a few noun street names? (We have done quite a few of them before, in other categories, such as clothing and culinary, but we won’t let that slow us down.)

And we can start with Air Street, just off Regent Street. This street was in existence by 1659, when it would have been at the very western end of the city; however, its name is nothing to do with air or open space. It was also called Ayr Street and may have been named for Thomas Ayres, a local builder and brewer. Apparently it is “innocent of literary or historic associations”.

EAS_3953Bell Yard off Fleet Street takes its name from an inn that no longer stands, and where William Shakespeare was a frequent patron. The only surviving letter to him was penned here in 1598 by Richard Quyney (who wrote to his “loving friend and countryman’). Quyney’s son Thomas married Shakespeare’s younger daughter. Charles Dickens had an office in the yard in 1831.

Frying Pan Alley cropFrying Pan Alley takes its name from a shop sign, common with ironmongers and braziers, and also used for taverns. The Clerkenwell historian WJ Pinks said of an earlier alley with this name that it was only two and a half feet wide. Lest the reader should be in any doubt as to how narrow that was, he goes on to inform us that there was not enough “room in it to get a full sized coffin out without turning it on edge”.

Gravel LaneNames like Dunghill Lane and Filth Alley help conjure up a pretty good image of what roads in London were like some time ago and puts the modern problem of ‘doggie doo’ into context. Gravel Lane, along with its neighbour Stoney Lane, was probably so named because of the fact that it had, unusually, a surface other than mud. Up until the 17th century, this was relatively rare – certainly rare enough for names like Gravel Lane and Paved Alley.

Gun StGun Street takes its name from the nearby artillery grounds. The artist Mark Gertler (see Elder Street) was born here in 1891. There was once a Gun Square, and there is a Gunmakers Lane, which takes its name from the London Small Arms Factory, which was on adjoining land.


Wood Street’s name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard I’s farsighted edict that all houses should be built of stone to avoid the risk of fire). It could also be that, as with so many other streets in the Cheapside area, it was given the name wood because wood was sold there. (There was a Roman fort here in the first and second centuries; the north-south road in it coincides with the top end of Wood Street, which could then arguably be the oldest street in the city.)

Oh, yes, Flintlock Close. Sorry, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about this other than that it has a great name and fits in with Gun Street.

5 responses to “From Air and Wood to Bell and Gun: London’s noun street names”

  1. The new theme is brighter, and easier on the eye, Elizabeth.
    Thanks for another excellent collection of streets too.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete. I have spent far too much time on redoing the website and not enough on research! I’m nearly there though there are a couple of features I have yet to sort out.

  2. Ekwall firmly plumps for Wood Street (Wodestrata 1156) meaning “the street where wood was sold” although John Stow prefers the unlikely explanation that the houses were made of wood.

    Wood Street was also my assigned prepared talk subject for my unsuccessful attempt to enrol on the City of London Guides Course but probably the less said about that the better.

    The Roman Fort at Cripplegate is thought to date from the early 2nd century so I don’t think Wood Street can have any claim to the oldest City street. The earliest streets extended northwards and westwards from the bridge crossing point, thought to be in line with Fish Street Hill.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I’m still working on getting the balance right on the blog: there must be a happy medium between just sound bites and putting the entire book on the website.

  3. […] forgot to mention in the last (Groundhog Day inspired) post that someone has already tackled the thorny issue of the name of Punxsutawney Phil’s home: […]

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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