I recently spent some time wandering around Mayfair or, rather, a small section of Mayfair, during which time I found a few more of London’s ‘misnomers’. There is a charming 19th-century poem (more of which later) by James Smith that spells out many of London’s misnomers, so let’s start with Brook Street, which is “wanting in water”.
Though the street may have been (and still is) wanting in water, there was a brook: the now underground River Tyburn; it flowed from Tyburn across Piccadilly, leading to the neighbourhood being called Brookfield. The earliest published use of the name was an ad in the London Gazette of September, 1688: “His Majesty [Charles II] has been graciously pleased to grant a market for live cattle to be held in Brookfield, near Hyde Park Corner, on Tuesday and Thursday in every week”.
When the land became more desirable for buildings than for cattle markets, the designers and architects descended on the area and building was at its height in the 18th century. The principal street at the time was called Brook Street, though early on it was sometimes referred to as Lower Brook Street to distinguish it from Upper Brook Street, and part of it was known as Little Brook Street.
From fields to farms, and Farm Street, where building began around the 1740s. This street does take its name from a farm in the area, called Hay Hill Farm, which seems pretty straightforward; however, the Hay is not hay as such. The name was a late 17th-century corruption of Ayehill, from the nearby Aye (or Eye) Brook, a tributary of the Tyburn.
In 1927 Tallulah Bankhead bought a house in Farm Street, four years after she had first moved to London.
The farm also gave its name to the nearby Hay Hill and Hay’s Mews; of Hay Hill Smith writes: “And (tho’ it abuts on his garden) Hay Hill/Won’t give Devon’s duke the hay fever”. This is a reference to Devonshire House, originally Berkeley House, from John Berkeley, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton, who built it. The name was changed to Devonshire House when it was purchased by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire. Hay Hill and many other streets in the area, formed part of the gardens of the house.
Beau Brummell is supposed to have had a sentimental connection to Hay Hill, which is adjacent to Berkeley Square. Thomas Raikes, a London dandy and friend of Brummell’s, recorded this in his journal:
“At five o’clock on a fine summer’s morning, in 1813, [Brummell] was walking with me through Berkeley Square, and was bitterly lamenting his misfortunes at cards, when he suddenly stopped, seeing something glittering in the kennel. He stooped down and picked up a crooked sixpence, saying, ‘Here is an harbinger of good luck.’ He took it home, and before going to bed drilled a hole in it, and fastened it to his watchchain. The spell was good: during more than two years he was a constant winner at play and on the turf, and, I believe, realised nearly £30,000.”
Brummell was also a friend of the future King George IV, who had less fortunate associations with Hay Hill. Despite – or perhaps because of – the area’s wealth and luxury in the 18th century, it was infested with highwaymen and footpads. George IV, then the Prince of Wales, and his brother, the Duke of York, were apparently stopped one night by highwaymen on Hay Hill, whilst riding in a hackney coach, and robbed of what valuables they had about them”.
Hay’s Mews (once spelled Hayes Mews), which also takes its name from the farm, is adjacent to Charles Street (a family name of the Berkeley family). On the corner of Charles Street and Hay’s Mews is a pub, originally called I Am the Only Running Footman(supposedly the longest pub name in London), and later The Running Footman.
Back in the day, a running footman did just that – he ran ahead of his master’s coach to clear people out of the way, pay tolls, and perform other essential tasks to ensure a hassle-free journey. Apparently, at the beginning of the 19th century only one such running footman remained, employed by William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry. The Duke lived in Piccadilly, so why a pub in Hay’s Mews should have been named after his footman is something of a mystery.
The pub now calls itself, alas, just The Footman.
Hill Street, which crosses Farm Street, was so named because there was a hill there (as was Hay Hill). Elizabeth Montagu – social reformer, patron of the arts, literary critic, and writer – lived in Hill Street, She helped organize and lead the Blue Stockings Society, and hosted a literary salon at her house. Her circle was known as the Blue Stockings Society and Doctor Johnson called her the “Queen of the Blues”.
The bluestockings were not restricted to women; one regular attendee of the meetings was botanist and published Benjamin Stillingfleet. The story goes that Stillingfleet once attended a meeting in the blue woollen stockings normally worn by working men, instead of the more formal silk stockings. The term was taken up to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis on conversation over fashion.
In contrast to Hay Hill and Hill Street, Mount Row and Mount Street are not particularly hilly; however, there was once an earthwork there, known as Oliver’s Mount. According to Old and New London, this mount was part of a “line of fortification so hastily drawn round the western suburbs in 1643, by order of the Parliament, when an attack from the royal forces was expected”. The attack didn’t happen and the mount was flattened at some point, but the name lived on in Mount Field, on which the streets were built.
And on to Orchard Street, which does contain some trees, but not what you would call an orchard. There is an Orchard Street near Westminster Abbey, and that takes its name from the fact that it was built on land once part of the Abbey’s orchard. This orchard, however, is from Orchard Portman in Somerset, part of the country estates of the Portman family who developed much of the Marylebone area.
Oh, yes, I promised more about that poem, and here it is:
From Park Lane to Wapping, by day and by night,
I’ve many a year been a roamer,
And find that no lawyer can London indict,
Each street, ev’ry lane’s a misnomer.
I find Broad Street, St. Giles’s, a poor narrow nook,
Battle Bridge is unconcious of slaughter,
Duke’s Place cannot muster the ghost of a duke,
And Brook Street is wanting in water.
I went to Cornhill for a bushel of wheat,
And sought it in vain ev’ry shop in,
The Hermitage offered a tranquil retreat,
For the jolly Jack hermits of Wapping.
Spring Gardens, all wintry, appear on the wane,
Sun Alley’s an absolute blinder,
Mount Street is a level, and Bearbinder Lane
Has neither a bear nor a binder.
No football is kicked up and down in Pall Mall,
Change Alley, alas! never varies,
The Serpentine river’s a straightened canal,
Milk Street is denuded of dairies.
Knightsbridge, void of tournaments, lies calm and still
Butcher Row cannot boast a cleaver,
And (tho’ it abuts on his garden) Hay Hill
Won’t give Devon’s duke the hay fever.
The Cockpit’s the focus of law, not of sport,
Water Lane is affected with dryness,
And, spite of its gorgeous approach, Prince’s Court
Is a sorry abode for his highness.
From Baker Street North all the bakers have fled,
So, in verse not quite equal to Homer,
Methinks I have proved what at starting I said,
That London’s one mighty misnomer.