Baking themes in London’s street names

I’ve just been watching the Great British Bakeoff Final, so what better theme for a post than that of baking?

We can start with the obvious: Baker Street, which is probably most famous as the the literary location of 221b – the residence of that brilliant detective, violinist, cocaine user, and misogynist Sherlock Holmes. Number 221b was never a genuine address in Baker Street, and was carefully chosen by Conan Doyle for that very reason.

That has not stopped people over the years from writing to Holmes: the first letter was in 1890 when an American tobacconist wrote asking for a copy of Holmes’s monograph ‘Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos’, which was referred to in various cases. Whether or not he was serious, he started a craze and other people were soon also writing to Sherlock Holmes.

These letters were, for many years, fended by the Abbey National Building Society whose Abbey House stood on the spot where 221b would have been. At one time, up to 400 hopeful correspondents would received a polite reply explaining that Mr Holmes had vacated his room and his current whereabouts were unknown. 

The street stands on the Portman Estate – in 1553 Sir William Portman bought nearly 300 acres of land in the area; 200, years later development of the Portman estate began. The name does not come from any prevalence of bakers in the area. It commemorates a person called Baker, though opinion has been fiercely divided as to which particular Baker. 

Peter William Baker is one candidate: he was the Portman agent; others are Sir Edward Baker of Ranston was a friend of the Portmans; John Baker was also said to be a friend of the Portmans; and Sir Robert Baker, a Bow Street magistrate who helped quell the riots at Queen Caroline’s funeral in 1821.

Next we have Pudding Lane, with a baking connection: the lane is most famous for being where the Great Fire of 1666 first broke out, starting in the house of a man called Faynor (or Farryner), the king’s baker. The lane was a narrow one with pitch-covered wooden houses and led to the riverside warehouses full of oil and combustible materials such as hay, coal, and timber. Once the fire got going, it caused the destruction of thirteen thousand hoses and fourteen streets – though, amazingly, only eleven deaths.

Incidentally, the pudding part of Pudding Lane is nothing to do with baking or desserts: the lane, once part of the meat centre of London, was on the route where ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river.

Piccadilly can also be brought into the baking theme, although the name, first recorded in 1623, may come from a ‘pickadil’, defined as “that round hem or several divisions set together about the skirt of a garment.

The popular theory is that the name of the street itself arose from one Robert Baker, an early 17th century tailor, who bought a plot of land in what was still far from being central London. He built a large house and, four years after his purchase, he was referring to himself as a ‘Gent’ – a source of amusement to those who thought of tradesmen as being tradesmen and not gentry.

The house was thus dubbed ‘Pickadilly Hall’ in honour of those items that had brought him his money (and, presumably, to remind him of his origins). The name, as that sort of thing does, gradually stuck.

Oh, yes, and of course there is Bread Street, which gets its name from the fact that it was one of the many ‘shopping’ streets, connected with the Cheapside market, which were named for their speciality. Edward I decreed in 1302 that bakers could sell bread only from this street. Before that, the “leprous women of St James’s” were allowed a tenement here in 1204; part of the street was later destroyed by fire in 1263.

Incidentally, I haven’t forgotten the challenge thrown down by one reader to be fair regarding the World Series and mention the Dodgers, aka the losing team. Did I mention the Red Sox won? I haven’t been able to find anything Dodger-like yet, but the closest I can come for now is another Oliver Twist character: Bill Sikes. In Dickens’ time, Saffron Hill was an evil slum, and features in Oliver Twist: “in an obscure parlour, of a low public-house, in the filthiest part of Little Saffron Hill…sat, brooding over a little pewter measure and a small glass…Mr William Sikes”.

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