Little slices of London's history

Metallic London streets from Brass Talley Alley to Silver Street

The revisitation of my Christmas lurgy has halted proceedings on this website for a while but I am now – I hope – beyond the lying on the couch bleating feebly stage and onto the coughing and sounding worse than I feel stage. At least there is a wider audience than my husband and the pets for the latter stage.

But I digress. On to London street names and the wonderful Brass Talley Alley. Thanks to the very interesting blog ‘View from the mirror’, I have learned where that name came from: something that has, for some time, been vexing me.

The abovementioned blog described a project called ‘Brass Tally Men: An Oral History of London’s Dock Workers’. This project, set up by educational charity digital:works, is an oral history focusing on the fascinating history of the people who worked on the docks of London from the 1930s up until the closing of the docks from the 1970s.

Another website,, has this to say: “”Before the Dock Labour Scheme was created in 1946, bringing with it at least some guarantee of pay, the dockers were each given a brass tally, oval in shape. They would hand this in when given a job for the day, and collect it again when given their pay. If they didn’t get a day’s work they would have to sign on at the local Labour Exchange, bearing their brass tally as proof.”

It all makes sense now. The trouble is, as I have mentioned before, in looking at the map again to see just where the alley is, I found a Needleman Street, a Poolman Street, and a Garter Way. Now I have to fight the urge to dash off and research them.

(Incidentally, apologies to whoever provided me with this photo of the Brass Talley Alley street sign; I can’t for the life of me find a credit for it.)

Instead, let’s have a quick look at some other metal street names, some of which are logical and others which are anything but.

There was once a Silver Street, which no longer exists, but was, says Stow, named from the silversmiths who lived there. Legal evidence, surviving from May 1612, shows that Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit about a marriage dowry of £60. The evidence confirms his presence as a lodger at a house on Silver Street in the Jacobean period.

There is also a Silver Place in the West End, which may have been so named because it is not that far away from Golden Square.

Golden Square, on the other hand, is nothing to do with gold: the site upon which Golden Square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. Building work on the square was begun in the 1670s and, as it was designed for the gentry, a rather more refined name was needed.

Ironmonger Row, once largely inhabited by ironmongers, was built in the 18th century on land bequeathed to the Ironmongers Company in 1527 by Thomas Mitchell, ironmonger and citizen of London. There is also an Ironmonger Lane in EC2, which was known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century and was also the haunt of ironmongers. The Ironmongers Company had their original hall here until the 15th century, when they acquired buildings in Fenchurch Street and moved there, along with most of the ironmongers.

By way of contrast, there is Rust Square in Camberwell, which is nothing to do with metal, rusty or otherwise. It is, supposedly, named for George Rust, the Bishop of Dromore. Dromore is in Northern Ireland. Go figure.

It just occurred to me: I could include Leadenhall Street in this post. Leadenhall is basically as it sounds – from a grand mansion with a lead roof. The mansion, built by Sir Hugh de Neville, was eventually acquired by Dick Whittington, otherwise known as Sir Richard Whittington, Mayor of London, who then granted it to the City.

4 responses to “Metallic London streets from Brass Talley Alley to Silver Street”

  1. If you saw my comment on Rob’s blog, you will know that the dock tally system was well known to me in my youth. There is also the refurbished Dockers’ Shelter in Rotherhithe, where the day labourers used to wait in bad weather, hoping to get picked, or shelter from the weather between unloading ships. Surrey docks was mainly concerned with the import of timber, so work there was often arduous. There was no protective clothing, and Health and Safety was unknown during my childhood. Quite a few local men lost fingers, and all came home with cuts, splinters, and other injuries which were considered to be ‘part of the job’.

    That system was inherently corrupt of course, with friends and family members being chosen above others who were stronger, and might have worked harder. Some men got their tally, then did no work at all, their absence covered by the ‘Gangers’ who knew them. Some members of my family worked on the docks, though most of those had full-time jobs, working for specific shipping companies.
    One of my uncles worked for a banana importer, unloading ships full of bananas. He would always tell us kids horror stories about the huge Banana Spiders he came across every day in his job. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Fascinating, Pete, thanks. Yes, I had seen your comment – that’s another great blog. It sounds like a grim and thankless world. I was reading about the ‘police’ in the days of the Ratcliffe Highway murders and that system sounded strangely similar in terms of connections meaning you could earn money without actually doing anything. I am always impressed at the depth of your London knowledge. You should be writing a book about London, not me!

      1. It has been done so well already. Have you ever read this wonderful book? 🙂

      2. That is on my wish list, along with London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. Part of my feeling sorry for myself viewing recently was The Limehouse Golem, based on his novel.

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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