Little slices of London's history

Fox and Knot: murder and pub signs in London street names

My last couple of posts have involved street names that derive from signs (Bleeding Heart Yard, Red Lion Square, Hen and Chicken Court…) and I thought it was time to revisit the role of signs in street names.

But first, an addendum to Hen and Chicken(s) Court: I have seen many sources online that point to the notion that the building on Fleet Street, next to the court, was the putative location of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. (How have I missed that one? None of my reference books mention it; you would expect the Murder Guide to London, London’s Secret History, or The Black Plaque Guide to London at least to hint at it. Oh well. Now I know.)

For the legend of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, let’s turn to Wikipedia, which says:

“Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the villain of the penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls (1846–1847). The original tale became a feature of 19th-century melodrama and London legend. A barber from Fleet Street, Todd murders his customers with a straight razor and gives their corpses to Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime, who bakes their flesh into meat pies. The tale has been retold many times since in various media.”

(I can vouch for that: the stage musical of Sweeney Todd was one of the first performances I attended when I came to the UK. Many years later I convinced a squeamish friend that the film version wouldn’t be that gory. She may have forgiven me by now, but I haven’t risked asking.)

Where we were? Oh, yes. Many London street names evolved over time, depending on where they were, who owned the land, what trade was carried out there… a number of factors came into play. Inn (and other business) signs provide some of the most intriguing street names.

Let’s start, for no particular reason than that it suddenly popped into my head (foxes are forefront in my mind at the moment since our dog rolled in fox poo a few days ago; he and I are both recovering from the trauma of an extreme bath), with Fox and Knot Street near Smithfield Market. It’s not that far from Bleeding Heart Yard; in fact, I could probably do a whole series of posts on street names in that area.

But I digress. Again.

My Dictionary of City of London Street Names tells me that a tavern by this name stood at the western end of Charterhouse Street in Chick Lane, “which was a street once notorious for pickpockets and part of one of the City’s worst slum areas”. The tavern and the yard in which it stood were demolished to make way for Smithfield Market, but the name lives on in this street.

Aha, you ask, but why would a tavern be called Fox and Knot? For that, I turned to my Dictionary of Pub Names, which tells me that a landlord of the tavern was called Fox. Furthermore, his wife made headdresses that incorporated the fashionable ‘topknot’ of the time. Therefore, Fox and Knot.

The fashionable topknot of the time was the ‘fontange’, a high headdress popular in France and England. It involved an elaborate structure of wires and ribbons.

Before we all start to regret my wondering about the landlord’s wife’s occupation, let me just add that the style, apparently, was named for the Duchesse de Fontange, a mistress of King Louis XIV of France. She purportedly lost her cap while out hunting with Louis and proceeded to tie her hair up in a style that was then copied by the ladies of the court.

Another theory for the name is that there was no Fox and Knot tavern at all; rather, that the nearby Fox and Anchor tavern (in Charterhouse Street) once had a sign depicting a fox tangled in a knot of anchor rope.

One more theory: the tavern was originally a furrier’s shop that would have traded in fox furs. This was then conflated with the topknot headdress.

There is an Adam and Eve Mews in Kensington; there was a pub of that name there for many years. One source points to the medieval mystery and morality plays that were enacted in inn yards on holy days and often began with the story of Adam and Eve. Many inns then adopted a signboard with “their distinctive costume”. (Is that a euphemism for birthday suit?)

Another source (the pub name dictionary) says that Adam and Eve were “ironically adopted as the arms of the Fruiterers’ Company”. Why that would lead to a pub sign it doesn’t say, and the Fruiterers’ website doesn’t say anything about their arms being ironic.

There is also an Adam and Eve Court off Oxford Street; the court once housed the pawnbroker’s shop (no longer standing) where, in 1910, Hawley Harvey Crippen pawned his wife’s jewels – one of the acts that would eventually lead to his capture.

One response to “Fox and Knot: murder and pub signs in London street names”

  1. Always fascinating, Elizabeth. Despite knowing the places mentioned, I have little to add on this occasion. There was a Blood Alley in West India Docks, but the name had nothing to do with murder. Here is an explanation.
    ‘Blood Alley’ was the nickname given to the roadway between the transit sheds and sugar warehouses because handling the sacks of sticky West Indian sugar badly chafed and cracked the dockers’ skin’.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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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