Little slices of London's history

From Change Alley to Lime Street: Tom Lehrer references in London’s street names

You are probably thinking that from Tom Lehrer to London street names is a bit of a leap even for me and you are no doubt right. But my blog, my rules. For those of you who tire of my tangents and diversions, feel free to skip the next paragraph or two. No, make that three.

I was recently overcome by an urge to listen to some Tom Lehrer songs so I downloaded the album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, which I remember from my childhood. (Alas, I do not possess the vinyl album that my parents owned and my older brother played and laughed at hilariously.) Lehrer’s song ‘Elements’ has featured in various TV shows and he did write some songs for Sesame Street about mathematics and grammar. In the main, however, his songs are not for the easily offended. The first of his songs I remember was ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’, which referred to the practice of controlling pigeons in Boston with strychnine-treated corn.

The Lloyd’s building. Photo courtesy of Lloyd’s of London

Lehrer covers topics from Christmas, sport, warfare and the military to sex, drugs, rock and roll, science, religion, politics, and murder. You could argue that just about any topic I choose is one that he will have written a song about. True, but for the purposes of this blog post, I am going to look at street names with a Lloyd’s of London connection.

In ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’, Lehrer sings:

We will all go together when we go
All suffused with an incandescent glow
No one will have the endurance
To collect on his insurance
Lloyd’s of London will be loaded when they go

Lloyd’s of London can be said to have first been mentioned in February 1688 when Edward Lloyd, proprietor of a coffee house in Tower Street, offered a reward for five stolen watches. However, information about shipping was the Lloyd’s specialist subject, and by the 1730s the name began to dominate the marine insurance industry. Within a few decades Lloyd’s coffee house became better known as a gambling den and a breakaway group of professional underwriters, who wished to remove themselves from this stigma, established a new Lloyd’s coffee house at 5 Pope’s Head Alley, London. (See – I do get to the point eventually.)

The alley 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. The first mention of the tavern itself was in 1464 when a trial of skill was put to the test to settle a wager based on the rivalry between English and foreign goldsmiths. The contending craftsmen had to engrave four puncheons (a kind of die) of steel with cat’s heads and naked figures in high relief and low relief; according to various reports, Oliver Davy, the Englishman, won, and White Johnson, the Alicant goldsmith, lost his wager of “a crown and a dinner to the Company”.

Pepys used to be a customer of the Pope’s Head tavern, often stopping there to enjoy a “very pretty dinner”, and then going on to buy cutlery in one of the many shops in the alley. In 1718 the tavern was the site of a deadly duel when James Quin, an actor, killed his fellow actor, William Bowen, who had started the altercation.
King John was supposed to have had a residence in the alley, which also housed, at various times, fruit sellers and booksellers. One of the booksellers, there in the reign of Elizabeth I, was John Wolfe, the first publisher of John Stow’s Survey of London.

Pope’s Head Alley leads off Cornhill; Lloyd’s had its home at the Royal Exchange here from 1744 until 1838 when the building was destroyed by fire. According to historian John Stow (who was born in Cornhill), the name comes from “a corn market, time out of mind there holden”. Given that Stow was writing in the 16th century, time out of mind for him was indeed a long time ago; the name can be traced as far back as 1100. While this derivation is accepted by many writers, others point to the Corenhill family, who were landowners in the time of Henry III.

In the 15th century Cornhill had the dubious distinction of being a fence’s paradise, and a drinker’s haven. There were many taverns, one of which was the Pope’s Head, where wine could be bought by the pint for a penny and bread came free with it.

The church of St Peter Upon Cornhill stands was, for a time, considered to be the oldest church in England and has the only chancel-screen known to have been designed by Christopher Wren. It also possesses 19th-century gargoyles, on the street side of the church, which are an architect’s revenge on an obstreperous rector. Building plans, which the rector said encroached on church land, were forced back to the drawing board. As a result, one of the three gargoyles, known as the Cornhill Devils, was given the face of the determined man of the cloth. Stow’s father and grandfather were both buried in the church.

Cornhill has many literary associations. Daniel Defoe had a hosiers shop there, and it was also where he was pilloried (literally) in 1703 for his unappreciated pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. Although Defoe had to stand in the Cornhill pillory three times, it appears that instead of the usual rotten vegetables or dead animals, he was pelted with flowers while his pamphlet was sold to bystanders.

The publishers Smith and Elder had an office there in the 19th century; many authors crossed their doorstep, including two sisters who had to appear in person to prove that they were Anne and Charlotte Bronte rather than Acton and Currer Bell. The poet Thomas Gray, who penned one of the most widely quoted poems in the English language: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, was born in Cornhill. One of the famous lines from this poem gave Thomas Hardy the title of one of his books: “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”.

Another alley that leads off Cornhill is Change Alley; this name is an abbreviation of Exchange Alley, from the abovementioned Royal Exchange. The Exchange was founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham to act as a centre of commerce for the city, and officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I, who awarded the building its Royal title, in 1571. The building is now a retail and dining hub.

Towards the end of the 17th century, the Exchange was so crowded that many stockbrokers transacted their business in local coffee houses, Jonathan’s Coffee House in particular. Jonathan’s was meeting place for speculators during the disastrous ‘South Sea Bubble’ scheme, speculation that ruined the purses and lives of thousands of investors.

The bubble started with the South Sea Company, given exclusive trading rights first with South America and then the South Seas. The company originally planned to convert the National Debt to a lower rate of interest and then take it over completely. Money poured into the scheme, resulting in gross over-speculation and the eventual bursting of the bubble. It was not just the unwary investors who were ruined financially: Members of Parliament were shown to have taken bribes and the bubble was a national scandal.

The headquarters of the South Sea Company, South Sea House, was home to Lloyd’s after its premises in the Royal Exchange were destroyed by fire. The building was demolished towards the end of the 19th century.

In 1928, Lloyd’s moved into the first building it had ever owned, at 12 Leadenhall Street, which takes its name 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. The site, one of the oldest market sites is London, is still a market, and appeared as Diagon Alley in the first Harry Potter film.

A proclamation of 1345 declared that the ‘strangers’ (out-of-towners) had to have their poultry stalls at Leadenhall. This segregation was because the non-Londoners were wont to charge too much for their wares; the declaration was equally firm that residents of the city were not to join the outcasts in Leadenhall, but to “sell their poultry at the stalls [in Poultry] as of old”.

The street was also the location of a warehouse owned by Richard (or Nathaniel) Bentley. Bentley, once known as the ‘beau of Leadenhall Street’ as he was well-dressed and a frequent visitor at court, later became known as Dirty Dick. Bentley’s change in hygiene is said to have come about when the girl to whom he was betrothed died the day before their marriage.

Bentley went into a mental decline, closing off the room that had been prepared for his wedding breakfast and leaving it – and himself – to accumulate grime for the next 40 years or so. The outside of his building became as filthy as the inside, causing great annoyance to the neighbours, who frequently offered to pay for its cleaning. Bentley may have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens when he penned the character of Miss Haversham in Great Expectations.

A famous London pub – Dirty Dick’s, which stands just off Leadenhall Street – takes its name from the warehouse.

Lloyd’s is now housed in Lime Street in a building that took eight years to construct. Lime street was Limestrate in the 12th century, and one of the documents in which it appears also mentions ‘Ailnoth the Limeburner’. It is generally accepted that lime was burned and sold here. FH Habben, a London historian whose writing often has a slightly tetchy note, states that it was, “The locality of the lime-burners—an objectionable pursuit. It is probably, however, that the obnoxious article was only sold, not burned, here.”

There was, in Pepys’ time, a famous robbery and subsequent execution in Lime Street, where a wealthy merchant by the name of Francis Tryon lived. Colonel James Turner was a charming man whose lifestyle, unfortunately, did not keep pace with his earnings. He was aware of the merchant’s wealth and, along with an accomplice, he entered the merchant’s house one night, bound and gagged him (and presumably killed him but little mention is made of those details in the accounts of his crime) and made off with jewels and money to the tune of five thousand nine hundred and forty-six pounds four shillings and threepence. Although Turner’s guilt was proved conclusively, and he left written expressions of remorse, he was a charismatic man, and his actions were a mystery to those who knew him.

Pepys wrote in his diary on the day of Turner’s execution that he sent his wife to his aunt’s house, in the area of Lime Street, to save him a good place for viewing the execution. When the time came, says Pepys, “And there I got for a shilling to stand upon the wheel of a cart, in great pain, above an houre before the execution was done; he delaying the time by long discourses and prayers one after another, in hopes of a reprieve; but none came, and at last was flung off the ladder in his cloake. A comely-looked man he was, and kept his countenance to the end: I was sorry to see him.”

According to Pepys, there were upwards of 14,000 people watching the execution.

5 responses to “From Change Alley to Lime Street: Tom Lehrer references in London’s street names”

  1. Fabulous history as always, and you took me back to listening to (probably the same ones) Tom Lehrer records that my dad used to enjoy when I was young.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Pete. Have a good weekend. All the best, Elizabeth.

    2. I forgot to say talk about making a girl feel old, Pete! 😉 The records your dad used to enjoy… 😂

      1. I am sure I am much older than you, Elizabeth. 🙂

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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