London’s culinary streets: Oat Lane to Poultry

But first, a slight diversion. Kind of. The other day I saw a big arctic lorry advertising the country’s favourite meat auctioneer. That set me off wondering about meat auctions: do you bid, along the lines of the restaurant at the end of the universe, on the meat while it’s still walking around? If not, what’s the window of opportunity? How soon do you have to bid on meat and then get it to the customer? What happens if the air conditioning breaks down?

Oat Lane
Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

None of which is particularly relevant, but what’s the point of a blog if you can’t muse at your reader(s)? Of course, meat has featured in this culinary theme: so far we’ve had bacon (Bacon’s Lane); mutton (Cat and Mutton Bridge); ham (Ham Yard); and venison (Haunch of Venison).

And now on to a vegetarian option: Oat Lane. That name is probably nothing to do with oats; it was known at various times as Sheers Alley and Bulls Head Passage (ooh, back to the meat) and, in the 16th century, the one that has stuck: Oatelane.

It is possible that it could have been so named because it was where oats were sold, but that is not the popular theory. “It appears,” says the 19th century London street name expert and opinionated FH Habben, “to be indebted for its name to the owner or builder. The neighbourhood never had any connection with grain.

Orange Street is, perhaps not surprisingly, nothing to do with fruit. One explanation is that it was named after Charles I’s grandson William III, William of Orange, who became joint monarch with his wife Mary in 1689.

Another explanation is that building of the street was begun in the 1670s and the area at that time was a favoured spot for stabling of courtiers’ horses. There were several mews there, including the Green and Blue Mews. The stables of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, stood partly on the site of Orange Street; it is likely that his stables were called Orange Mews to differentiate from the other colours.

The development of the street was finished in the 1690s; by then the unfortunate Monmouth would have had no interest in his horses, having been beheaded in 1685.

The story of Monmouth’s execution is a particularly grisly one: the executioner, Jack Ketch, had a bad day (though not quite as bad as Monmouth’s): he took five attempts with his axe to complete the job and even then had to finish it with a knife.

The post of public executioner was a hated, albeit lucrative, one; Ketch, who held the post for more than two decades, was particularly loathed. After his death in 1686 his name was used to refer to all public executioners. The name Jack Ketch can also be used to refer to death or the devil.

Back briefly to Orange Street: some of the famous names associated with the street include the dramatist Thomas Holcroft who was born in Orange Street. In the late 18th century there was a small chapel in the street where Augustus Toplady – who wrote the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ – was minister for a short time.

Perhaps the most famous person with an Orange Street connection is the actor Edmund Kean, who went to school here. (He was also a regular patron of the Cole Hole tavern near Farting, I mean Carting, Lane.)

EAS_4084Poultry brings us back to meat names; It was once called Scalding Alley, says Stow, from the poulterers who dwelt there and “their poultry, which they sold at their stalls, were scalded there. The street doth yet bear the name of the Poultry”. And, of course, it still does, though today there is no scalding or stalls. Even by Stow’s time, poultry stalls had given way to houses inhabited by grocers, haberdashers, and upholsterers.

Not all poultry sellers traded at Poultry however: a proclamation of 1345 declared that the ‘strangers’ (out-of-towners) had to have their poultry stalls at Leadenhall. This segregation was due to the fact that the non-Londoners were wont to charge too much for their wares; the declaration was equally firm that residents of the city were not to join the outcasts in Leadenhall, but to “sell their poultry at the stalls [in Poultry] as of old”.

However,by the time of the Great Fire in 1666, Poultry had become famous more for taverns Elizabeth Fry plaquethan anything else.

At number 22 Poultry was Dillys, the booksellers where Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published; Johnson had dined there with John Wilkes and found him to be “excellent company”. Poultry was also the location of the “house where I was born” – the poet Thomas Hood, who penned the immortal lines “I remember, I remember, the house where I was born,” was born in a house at what is now 31, and where a blue plaque commemorates the fact.

There is also a blue plaque in memory of Elizabeth Fry, a notable prison reformer, who lived there from 1800 to 1809. Mrs Fry, of an old Quaker family, was horrified at the conditions under which as many as 300 women and children could be packed into Newgate. She worked hard at improving conditions but was forced to give up philanthropy when her husband became bankrupt.

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8 thoughts on “London’s culinary streets: Oat Lane to Poultry

  1. My second wife worked at HSBC Bank in Poultry. I sometimes met her from work, and we would wander around the City, to have a drink or a meal. My bank account was at that branch for many years until it closed.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. The point about Johnson (a Tory) and Wilkes (a radical Whig) is that they were political enemies (without ever having met) before a dinner was engineered by Boswell and Dilly. You can read about it here: https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/boswells-prank/

    You could have included Pudding Lane as the ‘puddings’ referred to are offal. As John Stow says: “now commonly called Pudding lane, because the butchers of Eastcheap have their scalding house for hogs there, and
    their puddings, with other filth of beasts, are voided down that way to
    their dung boats on the Thames”.

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