Little slices of London's history

Murder and fast food: Brick Lane and Leather Lane

Last night (ok, two nights ago; I got distracted last night) I was watching one of those TV programmes that people always say they only happened to watch because your flatmate/spouse/relative/friend was watching it. Or, in my case, because I was too lazy to find something else to watch while I was making dinner and waiting for ‘Masterchef’. In the interests of full disclosure, the programme was ‘Secrets of the Fast Food Giants’, and focused on burgers, curries, and sushi.

It wasn’t a bad hour’s viewing, as it transpired; though I probably won’t watch any more episodes. One distinct upside was that it mentioned both Leather Lane and Brick Lane, so I got to regale my husband with titbits of information such as I am about to share with those of you who have held out this far to see what my viewing habits have to do with London street names.

Brick Lane was once pretty much just that: in the 15th century, the earth in the Whitechapel area was suitable for brick and tile making and the area became a centre for that industry. What was Whitechapel Lane in 1409 had become Brick Lane by 1485 (some sources say 1550). The area became the centre for a number of industries, including brewing, and was the destination for many immigrants. By the 19th century it had largely become a poverty-ridden slum.

In the 19th century, Brick Lane had at least two association with Jack the Ripper. The Ripper’s first canonical victim, Mary Ann Nichols, visited the Frying Pan public house in Brick Lane a few hours before her death.

The lane was also the site of another vicious attack in 1888: Emma Smith was set upon, raped and beaten and, though she was able to make her way back to her lodging house, she later died of her injuries. According to the Jack the Ripper Tour website, “Although it is highly unlikely that Emma Smith was a victim of Jack the Ripper, her death is significant in that, following her murder, the police opened a file which they called the ‘Whitechapel Murder’ file and, by the end of that year it would have become the Whitechapel Murders file and would contain the names of the five acknowledged victims of Jack the Ripper.”

Leather Lane; illustration from Walter Thornbury’s Old and New London, Vol II

Leather Lane, similarly, was so called because it once housed leather sellers. Possibly. (And if you really want to stretch it, as I so often do, you could argue a connection here with Jack the Ripper: another nickname for the killer was ‘Leather Apron’.)

But I digress. As is so often the case with London street names, the naming of this lane may far from obvious. As early as 1233 the name appeared as ‘Le Vrunelane’; later forms of the name were Loverone Lane, Lither Lane, and Liver Lane.

There are a number of theories as to how the lane got its original name. One is that it is from the Old French ‘leveroun’, a greyhound. The greyhound (a heraldic reference of the Dukes of Newcastle) was a common tavern sign. Another theory is that it derives from ‘Leofrun’, which was an Old English girl’s name, and yet another is that it was the name of a local merchant whose last name was some form of ‘Leofrun’. 

Or it could be that, at the time the lane was formed and named, there was a landowner of Flemish extraction in the area. The Flemish ‘Vroon’ means a manor and so ‘le Vrunelane’ was a lane that led to the nearby manor of Portpool.

The lane now houses a market (it appeared in the TV programme, featuring Yorkshire pudding burritos), which, according to the Friends of Leather Lane Market, was born of one of Charles II’s bad debts. Charles II, upon his return from exile, owed £500 on a gambling debt; instead of repayment, the man to whom he owed the money asked for a charter to set up a market and one penny on each customer.

Leather Lane is also a hop, skip, and a jump from Hatton Garden, the centre of London’s jewellery quarter, and was commemorated in a song about a sewage worker:

Hatton Garden is the spot, down below

Where we likes to go a lot, down below,

Since a bloke from Leather Lane,

Dropped a diamond down the drain,

We’ll be going there again, down below.

The song was written by lyricist Sydney Carter; the version I found online was by someone called Ian Wallace but hubby came in while I was playing it and said, “Isn’t that a Flanders and Swann song?” I checked and, yes, they performed a version of that song.

2 responses to “Murder and fast food: Brick Lane and Leather Lane”

  1. When I worked for the Police, one of the patrol cars would always go to Brick Lane in the latter part of a 12-hour night shift. They would take our orders for salt beef bagels from the 24-hour Bagel Shop. (Which is stil going) I used to have two salt beef bagels, normally eaten around 3am. Not the best diet, but a real boost when you are tired. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Salt beef bagels – that sounds wonderful at any time! Thanks, Pete. All the best, 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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