Juniper Street to Cinnamon Street: movies and murder in London’s spicy street names

In my most recent post, apart from gushing with the excitement of having been featured on the Cabbie Blog website, I mused about a blog featuring fruit and veg street names. I’ve had a look at my working list of categories, which includes ‘flora’ and ‘culinary’; too broad, I decided, so I am going to break them down, starting with Herbs and Spices.

The spiciest of our spice streets, because of its association with a series of gruesome 19th century murders, is Cinnamon Street in Wapping. First let’s look a little further east, towards Poplar and West Ham, where we can find quite a few spice streets, including Caraway Close, Clove Street, Coriander Avenue, Fennel Close, Nutmeg Close, and Oregano Drive. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I know nothing about the derivation of these names; it is likely that they are relatively modern names chosen to fit the theme.

Juniper Street before being redeveloped

If we start heading west, we come to Juniper Street, famous for being one of film locations for ‘To Sir, With Love’. According to the excellent website www.theundergroundmap.com, the street was known as Juniper Row until 1894; it was laid out in the 1820s over an area of rope walks called Sun Tavern Fields. These rope walks, which give their names to many a street in London and elsewhere, were described in 1795’s The Environs of London: “The only land not occupied by buildings consists of a few acres …in which are several rope-walks, 400 yards in length, where cables are made from six to 23 inches in girth”.

Juniper Street was redeveloped in the 1970s – only the stump at the King David Lane end still exists.

All of which bring us nicely back to Wapping’s Cinnamon Street; King David Lane leads on to The Highway, formerly known as Ratcliffe Highway and the scene of the aforementioned gruesome murders. It was in Cinnamon Street, at the Pear Tree Inn, that a man called John Williams was staying when a blood-stained knife was discovered among his belongings. Suspicion fell upon him in relation to the murders, the first of which took place about half a mile from Cinnamon Street.

Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon

These murders, which pre-dated the activities of Jack the Ripper, caused the area an equal amount of terror and confusion, starting on 7 December 1811 at a draper’s shop. The draper, Timothy Marr, sent his maid Margaret Jewell out to buy some oysters and then to pay an outstanding bill at a nearby bakery. Upon her return Jewell was unable to get back into the shop and eventually summoned help. The house was finally broken into and revealed the bodies of the draper and his apprentice James Gowan downstairs, and Marr’s wife Celia and their baby, also called Timothy, upstairs. The victims had been savagely battered and the baby’s throat had been cut. A maul, or shipwright’s hammer, discovered at the scene, had evidently been used as one weapon, though the weapon used to cut the baby’s throat was never discovered.

Less than two weeks later another family was found savagely murdered. Publican, John Williamson, his wife, Elizabeth and their barmaid, Bridget Harrington, were found murdered at the King’s Arms tavern in New Gravel Lane. All three had also been brutally battered and their throats had been cut in what appeared to be a direct copy of the first attacks.

There was a public outcry, rewards were offered by the government, and over 40 people were arrested for the crimes before the finger of suspicion pointed at Williams. Whether or not he was guilty was never proved as he hanged himself before the hearing.

The writer Thomas De Quincey, perhaps best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, was fascinated by the murders and they feature in his essays ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. Quincey speaks of Williams as undoubtedly the killer but there are more modern theories that Williams was innocent. The crime writer PD James and the historian TA Critchley wrote The Maul and the Pear Tree; a book that one critic described as “a thorough account and re-thinking of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, committed in London’s East End in December, 1811”.

(Incidentally, the name of Cinnamon Street first appears at the end of the 17th century and probably comes from the fact that the spice was sold there.)

Continuing west, there is Basil Street in Knightsbridge, about which perhaps the most interesting (and easiest to discover) fact is that Harrods runs along part of this not very long street. It intersects Hans Road, which takes its name – as do Sloane Street and Square – from Sir Hans Sloane, of whom more another time. Of Basil Street’s name, the only source I have that even mentions it says only, “Origin unknown.” There you have it.

I see that there are quite a few more spice names on my list so, rather than overstay my welcome, I’ll leave it there and return to this theme in the next post.