Pearl Street to Tongue Yard: gemstones and body parts in London streets

EAS_4093Pearl Street is another gemstone London street name that I overlooked in my list yesterday; blogmate Pete (he of beetleypete.com and the generous sponsorship) pointed that out to me. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any stories behind the name, but perhaps, like Ruby, it was a person’s name. By coincidence, yesterday was my brother’s pearl wedding anniversary, which is an interesting fact but gets me no closer to finding out why Pearl Street is so called – and is nothing to do with today’s theme of body parts.

Why body parts? Why not? I made a vague connection between feet and my training for the Wye Valley Mighty Hike (yes, you’ll be reading a lot about that in the next few months). That, of course, led to me wondering if there were feet in London street names.

It turns out there are, and there are (or were) some other body parts, from Hand and Head to Elbow and Knee. 

So, starting with feet, there is Footscray Road, which is an area as well as a street. Foots Cray in Bexley, named in the Domesday Book, takes its name from the river Cray and a local landowner called Godwine Fot. Fot, or foot, was likely to have been a nickname for someone with particularly large or oddly shaped feet.

No longer in existence, there was once a Fyefoot Lane. There was a time when lanes and streets had to fulfil certain minimum width requirements, and a lane had only to be wide enough for two men to roll a barrel along it – hence Five Foot, or Fyefoot, Lane.

Another lost name, though the street is still there, is Elbow Lane, now called, less interestingly, College Street. In the 16th century it was a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south. This bend gave rise to the name of Elbow Lane; the lane later became Great and Little Elbow Lanes and then, in 1839, was renamed College Street to commemorate the college established by Sir Richard Whittington.

For heads, there is Pope’s Head Alley off Cornhill, which takes its name from a 15th century tavern that was destroyed in the Great Fire and then rebuilt. There was a home with the Pope’s Head sign as early as 1318, and there is a record of a dwelling house called ‘Le Popeshead’ in 1415. In the 15th century Cornhill had the dubious distinction of being a fence’s paradise, and a drinker’s haven: there were many taverns where wine could be bought by the pint for a penny and bread came free with it. Such a tavern was the Pope’s Head.

One of the earliest mentions of the tavern occurs in the fourth year of Edward IV’s reign (1465). There was a wager between two goldsmiths, one English and from from Alicant, to the effect that “Englishmen were not so cunning in workmanship of goldsmithy as Alicant Strangers”. There was a test of the workmanship of the two men involved and the wager was declared in favour of the Englishman.

From head to hand. There was once a Hand Alley, near to Houndsditch, which stood on the site of one of the many communal pits for victims of the Great Plague in 1665; it is mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.

There still is a Hand Court near High Holborn; the court probably took its name from a sign. Signs with a hand and heart, or hand in hand, were common in the Fleet Street of the 18th century, as it was an area with many marriage brokers. The Hand in Hand sign was then adopted by many taverns and it is possible that the court took its name from one such tavern.

In the days when the majority of people could not read, it was important for shopkeepers to have unequivocal signs. The hand, therefore, was often used in conjunction with other items: a hand with a coffee pot was the sign of a coffee house; and hand in a glove meant a glover; and a hand and shears was the sign for a tailor. 

There were also occasions where the use of a hand on a sign had a special significance. According to the 19th century writer John Camden Hotten: “where the sign is painted with a woman’s hand in it, ‘tis a bawdy house”.

There is a Knee Hill but the origin of the name is, as yet, a mystery to me. However, there is a stone plaque that commemorates the fact that William Morris passed the spot regularly to and from Abbey Wood Station. 

A list of renamed London street names shows that there was once a Great Tongue Yard E1, renamed Tongue Alley, and a Little Tongue Yard, renamed Tongue Court, but I have yet to find any information on either old or new versions of these names or what happened to the streets themselves.

Don’t forget, if you want to sponsor me on my Wye Valley Mighty Hike in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support, and in memory of my cousin, this is my fundraising page: 

www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Elizabeth-Steynor

3 thoughts on “Pearl Street to Tongue Yard: gemstones and body parts in London streets

  1. I can offer Legge Street, SE13. The spelling is rather ancient though. 🙂
    Then there is the ‘village’ of Pratt’s Bottom, once in Kent, but now part of Bromley. That’s clutching at body-part straws though.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I like Legge Street. As ever, I am humbled by your vast knowledge of London streets. And your straws are far more polite than mine, Pete – I actually found myself musing over Ball Yard…🤭

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