Little slices of London's history

London’s culinary streets: Salmon Lane to Sugar Loaf Court

Salmon Lane
Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

Let’s start with fish, and Salmon Lane in Limehouse, which is part of a fishy theme that we’ve explored earlier in this blog, and it is nothing to do with fish.

This takes is name from the church of St Dunstan’s in Stepney. Work that one out. No, don’t bother, I’ll tell you: ‘Salmon’ in this instance  a corruption of ‘sermon’; this was the closest church for Limehouse residents until 1729 when St Anne’s church was built in Newell Street. So the lane was the route people would walk to church to hear a sermon.

See? Easy when you know. Incidentally, the church of St Anne’s was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a contemporary of Sir Christopher Wren; Hawksmoor also contributed to the design of St Paul’s Cathedral and Blenheim Palace.

Shad ThamesStaying with fish, we have Shad Thames (no, I never knew Shad was a fish until I was challenged to do the aforementioned fishy blog post), which is nothing to do with fish. It is, instead, probably a contraction of St John at Thames; the Priory of St John at Jerusalem owned about 25 acres of land here from the 13th century until the Dissolution. In Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes (who drank in a dive in Little Saffron Hill, now Herbal Hill), lived and died on Jacob’s Island, east of Shad Thames.

From fish back to meat, with Shoulder of Mutton Alley. Another inn sign, indicating the food specialities available in that particular tavern or, apparently, in one case outside of London, the shape of the land where the inn was located. We have already looked at Cat and Mutton Bridge, named from a tavern formerly called the Shoulder of Mutton and Cat which, confusingly, may have been to do with sheep rather than a food speciality.

There was once another use of the word ‘mutton’ (though I am not sure it was related to Shoulder of Mutton Alley): it was a slang term for prostitutes, extended also to ‘laced mutton’. Mutton Alley, which no longer exists was apparently where many such women plied their trade. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, poet, satirist, and courtier of Charles II referred to the term in his unkind epitaph for Charles II (written while the king was still alive):

Here lies our mutton-eating king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.
The king responded wittily, saying, “True, for my words are my own, and my actions are my Ministers!”

Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

And on to Stew Lane which, like Pudding Lane and Grape Street, is far removed from the culinary delight indicated by its name, and is more in keeping with the term ‘mutton’ as used above. A ‘stew’ or ‘hothouse’ were once terms for a brothel and, from the 12th century to the 17th, the banks of the Thames teemed with such houses. They tended to be on the south side but some – like this lane – were on the north bank. (Though one source says that this lane led down to the waterside embarkation point for women working in the Bankside brothels.)

The stews were licensed and regulated by the government to prevent any debauchery of the respectable wives and daughters of London and, says London historian John Stow in a somewhat judgemental fashion, “for the repair of incontinent men to the like women”.

Some of the regulations governing the stews were that they could not be opened on holidays; that women of religion, or married women (presumably even if they were ‘incontinent’), could not work there; that men could not be enticed into them; that no woman could be “kept against her will that would leave her sin”; and that a woman could not “take money to lie with any man, but she lie with him all night till the morrow”.

The women of the stews were not allowed the rites of the church, and were not permitted Christian burial; they had their own plot of land, called the Single Woman’s churchyard, a respectable distance from the parish church.

Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

From meat to sweeteners and Sugar Loaf Court (there is also a Sugar Loaf Alley), which, hurray, takes its name from sugar. More precisely, from the sign of a sugarloaf (a tall cone of refined sugar with a rounded top), which was a common shop sign for grocers, when sugar was sold in conical ‘loaves’. These loaves were broken up for general household use, and this was called loaf sugar.

Not all households settled for pieces of sugar loaf: the household accounts of Lady Moseley show that, in 1707, £3 [nearly £600 in 1750] was paid for one of these loaves. Although initially used mainly as a grocer’s sign, the shape was easily recognizable, which, like artichokes and pineapples, made it useful for tavern signs (see Artichoke Hill).

It could be that the court was the site of a refinery for making sugar loaves. There is also the argument that the court itself is in the shape of a sugar loaf, being broad at the base and narrow at the top.

8 responses to “London’s culinary streets: Salmon Lane to Sugar Loaf Court”

  1. You left out Shadwell itself!

    1. I’m rubbish, aren’t I? I need to consolidate my lists! But it gives me another backtracking opportunity…

  2. A good roundup once again, Elizabeth. I have no street connections on this occasion, but when I was young I did hear the term ‘Mutton’ still being used for what my Dad would call a ‘Tart’. This was an older woman who was available for money, or in some cases just the price of a few drinks in a pub. This in turn derived from ‘Mutton dressed as lamb’, indicating a female who was past her best, still dressing like a much younger woman. This last phrase is still widely used today, and you may well have heard it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete. I have indeed heard that expression and wondered which came first. Back from Scotland and the Lake District where we had a lovely time. All the best, Elizabeth.

  3. Sorry to be a wet blanket but Stew Lane just means there was at least one bathhouse there. You’re absolutely correct that the term ‘stews’ euphemistically referred to the brothels of Southwark but the word also had the innocent (and original) meaning of a bathouse offering immersion in hot water. The idea that sufficient numbers of stews workers or patrons disembarked from a single point on the north bank to name the lane is just a desperate invention by someone who knew the stews were in Southwark but was faced with explaining Stew Lane in the City.

    1. Sigh. I guess I will have to reinstate the sentence from my original draft: One other reason is that it was from a bath house for those in need of a hot bath. Thank you for the correction; even though I tend towards preferring the more colourful, if unlikely, explanations of names, I don’t want to be ignorant of the truth.

  4. I’m afraid I have another correction … according to Bolitho & Peel (“Without the City Wall”) Salmon Lane was named after Captain Robert Salmon, Master of Trinity House at the time of the Spanish Armada.

    1. Hmm. My reply seems to have gone astray. Thank you for that. I’ve just managed to lay my hands on a copy of the book so I am looking forward to reading it.

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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