What’s in a name? Petticoat Lane and Of Alley

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I had my knuckles rapped metaphorically by a Twitter bot – did I really just write that? – someone who has taken to Twitter to take umbrage at Madame D’Arblay, née Frances Burney, being referred to as Fanny in yesterday’s post on Half Moon Street. What’s the big deal, I wondered, what’s in a name? That made me think of some of the ‘proper’ names in London that are not nearly as much fun as their previous names.

Let’s start with the obvious: Middlesex Street. Boring, eh? Don’t most people know it as Petticoat Lane? I used to live in Reading where there was a passage properly called Union Street but commonly known (because of a long-term fishmonger there) as Smelly Alley. It was years before I learned that it was really Union Street.

Similarly, I remember trying to find Petticoat Lane in a London A-Z and discovering that it was really Middlesex Street. Yawn. Why, in 1830, Petticoat Lane was renamed I don’t know, but apparently the lane was once a boundary between the City of London and the county of Middlesex. 

There is a history of renaming the lane: in the 14th century this was a country lane called Berwardes Lane, after the local landowner. By the 16th century it ran through a pig farm and was renamed Hog Lane.

It then, presumably through a combination of the French silk weavers who settled in the area and the secondhand clothes dealers who established this as the centre of London’s used clothes district, became Petticoat Lane.

One of my favourite sources for information on London street names is a 19th-century writer called FH Habben who wrote a book called London street names; their origin, signification, and historic value, published in 1896. He (like the abovementioned bot) could be a little testy at times, particularly when it came to the meaningless renaming of streets and believed this to be an “instance of inappropriate name change”. He ignored the whole rag trade, stating firmly that the name came from the English form of petit court, a little short lane.”

York Place.jpgAnother favourite name of mine that has, again I have no idea why, been changed from fun to boring is Of Alley, which is now York Place and was once part of the house and gardens belonging to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Both of them: father and son, royalists both, who were the first two holders of the title of Duke of Buckingham, and both called George Villiers.

The second duke, a loyal follower of Charles II, fled the country with his king when England became an unhealthy place for them. Although his property was confiscated by Cromwell’s Parliament, Villiers regained it after the Restoration and own return to England.

The property didn’t do him much good: Villiers junior managed to run up so much in the way of debt that he was forced to sell his land. In 1674 it became the possession of a property developer on the condition that the streets built on the land were given Villers’ name. All of them. There were five in total, and they became George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street (now gone), Of Alley, and Buckingham Street.

At least the street signs there still proclaim that it is York Place, formerly Of Alley.

6 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Petticoat Lane and Of Alley

  1. I walked past Duck Lane yesterday- think it’s W1 – or perhaps WC1 – near Cambridge Circus- I was walking from Regent Street to Charring Cross road and saw it on my way – would love to know why it’s called that!

    1. Thank you for your interest in my blog. As I understand it, there were a few streets and lanes where Duck and Duke were used interchangeably over the years. I believe that this particular Duck Lane is considered to have once housed ducks – but whose ducks and when I am not sure.

  2. Some people, like that Twitter person, really need to get a life. Fanny was a widely-used name. Get over it!
    It was our habit to go to Middlesex Street every Sunday morning, in my teens. We went to try to get cheap versions of the latest 1960s fashions. I always believed the market was named after ‘Petit-Court’, and have told a lot of people that over the years. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. What a fascinating blog! I visited following up beetley pete’s listing of some favourite blogs. I was born and brought up in polar opposite districts of London and lived in it’s Epping Forest suburbs until retirement a few years back. All this information is too much to take in after a day’s shopping, but I will be back.

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