From Brown Beer to Sweet Apple: London’s lost street names

But first, a little back story. I’ve mentioned the writer FH Habben recently, he who can be slightly tetchy when describing changes to street names. When I first became interested in London street names and began to research them, it was in the days before the internet. There were occasions when I had more time and less money than I would have liked, so I indulged my new hobby by spending time in reference and local history sections of various libraries throughout London.

Mr Habben was one of my favourite (and most informative) sources so imagine my delight when I happened to find that his book is now available as a print-on-demand item. My copy arrived in the post yesterday and opening it was like meeting an old friend again.

In my early days of looking at the story behind London street names, I focused exclusively on streets that I either saw as I walked in or past them, or names that I found in the London A-Z. (Yes, children, it was possible back then to find your way around without benefit of Google Maps.) That meant, as I realised yesterday, I had missed a huge number of particularly charming street names; Mr Habben has a whole section (Appendix III) on ‘Names of the Past’.

Allow me to offer you an example of his captivating turn of phrase when he mentions these names of the past: “Some of these were so quaint, and must have required so much hardihood and recklessness on the part of the municipal, parochial, or other authorities responsible for their application, that they deserve to be rescued from oblivion, if only as a memento of what can be and has been done in the art of street nomenclature.”

Here are but a few of the street names that have, sadly, disappeared. Bandy Leg Alley which, says Habben, must have been a tortuous alley, not unlike Crooked Lane in Cannon Street (which also no longer exists, though there are other crooked streets that we can look at in a later post.) There were quite a few Dirty Lanes and Alleys; (“a modest, or, it may be, a shameless, reference to their special characteristics”).

There were a Barber’s Alley and a Penny Barber’s Alley (“indicating that honest, if ruinous, competition existed in those days.”). 

Brown Beer Alley was apparently nothing to do with drink, but most likely an alteration of ‘bear’ – as with Beer Lane, the original name deriving from the fact that Henry III owned a white bear, which was taken to the river near the Tower so that it could catch fish. 

Food featured heavily (as it still does) in the names from the past: Habben mentions Buttermilk, Cabbage, Gingerbread, Mustard, Mutton, Porridge, Powdered Beef, Strawberry, and Sweet Apple.

There are plenty more weird and wonderful names, but let me close with Hairbrained Court; this Habben speculates, was a misspelling of ‘harebrained’ and was no doubt a reference to the builders, or perhaps inhabitants of said court.

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