Little slices of London's history

London’s lost rivers: Hanging Sword Alley, Crane Court, and Wine Office Court

Never let it be said that I am easily distracted. I promised some London street names derived from pub names, and those you shall have.

First, a slight diversion: as ever, when I sat down to look at said names, a couple of other topics came to mind. First, Fleet Street: after discovering that Hen and Chicken Court, off Fleet Street, was the location of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop I thought the street, with all its little alleyways – and pubs – would be a good starting point. Later, while I was telling my friend Annie in the US about my blog, she said, “Why not look at the lost rivers of London, like the writer does in the Nicci French books?”

So we shall have the double act of Fleet Street and streets named for pubs.

Fleet Street takes its name from the Fleet River. As one 19th-century book about London street names says: “The Fleet River, from which, it is superfluous to say, the thoroughfare derives its name, found its way to the Thames through what is now the line of Farringdon and Bridge Streets.”

The word had nothing to do with speed – it comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet. The Fleet still flows, but underground – and it is used as a sewer. This continues a function started in the 14th century when butchers used the river for cleaning out animal entrails and others followed suit by dumping refuse into it.

“The Fleet River, although it was later known by the less imposing name of Fleet Ditch,” says Nicholas Barton, in his book The Lost Rivers of London, “was the largest and most important of London’s lost rivers.” It rises, Barton continues, on Hampstead Heath, with two heads: the western is near the Vale of Health (more of which another time); the eastern is in the grounds of Kenwood House.

Now, on to Hanging Sword Alley, which, says Edwin Beresford Chancellor in The Annals of Fleet Street, “apparently took its name from the sign of one of its houses, which is mentioned so early as 1574, as being in the possession of a Mr Blewit, which proves its antiquity if nothing else”. Another source says it was from a large Tudor house, which was known by the sign of the Hanging Sword and could have been a fencing school. The area, once part of the Whitefriars Monastery, and still commemorated by Whitefriars Street, was popular with fencing masters and the sign may have referred to this occupation.

The alley was also known at one time by the sinister name of Blood Bowl Alley, “which uneuphonious name it took from a notorious house known by this title, the cellar of which is reproduced by Hogarth in the ninth plate of his ‘Industry and Idleness’ series,” Chancellor adds. Hanging Sword Alley is also immortalized in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: Jerry Cruncher, messenger and odd-job man, had lodgings in the alley (“not in a savoury neighbourhood”.)

Crane Court was once known as Two Crane Court and, says one source, may have once belonged to a family with two cranes in its coat of arms. Another source says that it was named for a 14th-century brewhouse called the Crane and Hoops.

The court may deserve a post all to itself: one of its more famous residents was Nicholas Barbone (sometimes referred to as Barebone), he of Red Lion Square; for a time it was the home of the Royal Society; and the second circulating library ever started in London began in Crane Court.

Wine Office Court is kind of cheating: it didn’t take its name from a pub, but it is where you can find Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, no doubt London’s most famous pub (its website says the world’s most famous pub). The name presumably comes from the 16th-century office that issued licences for the sale of wine. The pub, and the wine office, were destroyed in Great Fire of 1666; the pub was rebuilt but not, it would seem, the wine office.

Oliver Goldsmith lived in Wine Office Court, where he wrote The Vicar of Wakefield; the court’s fame is eclipsed by that of the Cheshire Cheese, which probably also deserves a post all to itself. I have a booklet on ‘Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese of London City: The Literateurs’ Haunt for 300 Years’. I have no idea where I bought it, but the 10c price written inside in pencil is probably a clue. It is dated 1920 (the seventh edition) and the pages are still uncut, which makes it challenging to read as I haven’t the nerve to cut them myself.

2 responses to “London’s lost rivers: Hanging Sword Alley, Crane Court, and Wine Office Court”

  1. Perhaps because of my love of red wine, Wine Office Court would be a very suitable address for me, Elizabeth?
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. You are obviously a man after my own heart, 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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