We explore and share the weird and wonderful stories behind (mainly) London streets, their names, their history, and their famous (and infamous) residents, visitors, and buildings. Coincidences and tangents a speciality.
I missed a trick in the recent post on myth and legend; the unicorn, as well as being a mythical creature, features in the full royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom.
But first, as one who claims to like knowing the whole story, I omitted to say why the unicorn was particularly popular with chemists (and apothecaries) when it came to signage. A unicorn’s horn was supposed to be a method of detecting poison: either when dipped in poison or because they were believed to sweat in the presence of poison.
Back to the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, which features a unicorn and a lion. The unicorn stands for Scotland and the lion represents England; a combination dating back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland also became of James I of England.
This supposedly accounts for the animosity between the unicorn and the lion. There are various literary references to this animosity but perhaps the best known is the old nursery rhyme that in Lewis Carroll quotes in Through the Looking Glass:
The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown:
The Lion beat the Unicorn all round the town.
Some gave them white bread, some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town.
Another trick I missed was that the dragon – the national symbol of Wales – also features in London street names. Sort of: the red dragon symbolises Wales but I can’t find any red dragon streets in London.
There is a Green Dragon Court near Borough Market and that takes its name from a tavern sign: there was a Green Dragon tavern here as early as 1542. There was also a Green Dragon in Fleet Street where hangmen would go there on execution days to sell used ropes at sixpence an inch.
The clothes of those who were executed also became the property of the hangman – perk of the job – and in 1447, according to that wonderful source, The London Encyclopaedia, in 1447 five men had been hanged, cut down while still alive, stripped and marked out for quartering when their pardon arrived. The hangman refused to return their clothes and they had to walk home naked.
Just to recap, Phoenix Street is said to take its name from the Phoenix cockpit that is also commemorated in Cockpit Alley, the site on which the Drury Lane theatre was later built. Or perhaps it takes its name from a pub.
Mermaid Court in Southwark was once known as Mermaid Alley and also takes its name from a pub, which in turn could have taken its name either from the mythical creature or from the fact that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river, ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan. Or, bluntly, a prostitute.
There is also a Unicorn Passage in the Southwark area, now a pedestrian walkway. The children’s theatre took its name from the passage. Unicorns were also popular in signs for taverns and shops; the mystical powers of the unicorn made it particularly popular with chemists and goldsmiths.
Unicorns, or mentions of them, date back to around 400 BC. In some legends, they had the head and body of a horse, legs of a buck, and tail of a lion; the body was white, the head was red, the eyes were blue, and there was a horn that was white at the base, black in the middle, and red at the tip. Nowadays, unicorns are generally pictured as white horses with beautiful, flowing manes, and a single white or gold horn.
There is a Scylla Road near to Heathrow Airport, a strange name for a road leading to a major transport hub given that Scylla and Charybdis were the sea monsters of Homer and a danger to seamen. (There is also a Scylla Road in the Peckham area.) Scylla and Charybdis were later objectified as a rock shoal and a whirlpool.
Scylla was a beautiful nymph who caught the eye of Glaucus, a mortal who ate of a strange herb and was turned into a sea-god. The love Glaucus felt for Scylla was not requited so he turned to the enchantress Circe for help. However, Circe took a liking to Glaucus herself and turned Scylla into a revolting monster with twelve feet and six heads, each with three rows of teeth.
Scylla then dwelt on a rock and would grab sailors when a boat sailed too close to her; in trying to avoid her they ran the risk of being sucked into the nearby whirlpool of Charybdis.
Charybdis also suffered from the jealousies of the Greek gods: she was the daughter of Poseidon and aided him in his feud with his brother Zeus. Zeus in turn was angered by Charybdis having flooded large areas of land with water, so he turned her into a monster that would eternally swallow sea water, creating whirlpools.
One last post for February (and it may be a few days before I have the chance to write another post). Before we leave the legend of Bleeding Heart Yard, the writer of The Ingoldsby Legends deserves a mention all of his own. The collection was originally printed in 1837 as a regular series for the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany, which was edited by Charles Dickens. The legends were, supposedly, written by Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor, a haunted stately home in Kent.
In fact, Ingoldsby was the a pen name of an English clergyman named Richard Harris Barham, a cleric of the Church of England, a novelist, comic poet, and friend of Richard Bentley, publisher of Bentley’s Miscellany. Tappington Hall was the small estate bequeathed to Barham by his father. Barham was the rector of St Augustine’s, Watling Street, and of St Mary Magdalen, Knightrider Street (where he is buried). He was also a minor canon and elder cardinal of St Paul’s, and so resided, as did scribes and other minor canons of the cathedral, in Amen Court.
Amen Court takes its name, as do other streets in the St Paul’s area, from the fact that, before the Reformation, there was a regular procession of the clergy around the cathedral; this involved reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Paternoster Row, the Hail Mary in Ave Maria Lane, the Credo in Creed Lane, and the Amen in Amen Corner or Court. (The 60s group called Amen Corner took its name from The Amen Corner, a weekly disc spin at the Victoria Ballroom in Cardiff.)
Knightrider Street was part of the route for knights riding from the Tower Royal to jousting tournaments at Smithfield. Simple, eh? However, some wet-blanket scholars dispute the theory on the grounds that there is no recorded instance of the word ‘knightrider’. It could be, the argument goes, that the street was really called ‘Riderstrete’ – rider being a Middle English synonym for knight, and that ‘knight’ was added to the street name in general use.
Watling Street was once the most important street in Roman London, running from Richborough on the coast of Kent, through Canterbury and London, and on to Chester. It’s best if I leave the explanation to our friend Habben: “It pleased the Saxons to connect this with one of their own mythic personages, Waetla, an aptheosised Atheling, or noble and to name it Waetlinga Street, or the road of the Waetlings.” Or Atheling could have meant ‘noble’ and so it was the street of the nobles.
I keep promising to look at myth and legend in London street names; that’s still on the cards, but let’s start with The Ingoldsby Legends, a 19th-century collection of myths, legends, ghost stories and poetry written (and invented) for the purposes of satirizing topics of the time. One of these ‘legends’ was ‘The House Warming!! A legend of Bleeding Heart Yard’ and purports to explain the name of this little courtyard.
The story centres around the beautiful wife of Sir Christopher Hatton, who was a real person and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (though he never married). Alice Fanshawe had sold her soul to the devil in order to advance herself and her husband, with the result that the queen confiscated the place of the Bishop of Ely to give to the couple – hence the housewarming party.
While the festivities were going on, the devil, who had become lazy, realized that Alice’s account was long overdue, and he hastened to the party, where he bounds in and capers around, knocking over furniture and scattering the food and drink. He grasps Alice’s hand (which caused her arm to shrivel), and leads her in a frantic dance that ends with them performing a grand pirouette from which they never return.
The following morning, the house is in ruins, there is a hole the shape of a hoof in the roof (that sounds like something out of Dr Seuss), and there is no sign, then or ever, of poor Lady Hatton.
“But out in the court-yard – and just in that part
Where the pump stands – lay bleeding a LARGE HUMAN HEART!”
There were also traces of blood and brains on the pump, as though a head had been smashed against it. The pump was replaced, yet on some moonlit nights a ‘Lady in White’ could be seen pumping endlessly and fruitlessly.
“And hence many passengers now are debarr’d
From proceeding at nightfall through Bleeding Heart Yard!”
Apart from telling us how the yard got its name, Ingoldsby mentions various other streets, all of which deserve some mention as part of our legend theme.
Ely Place, once a seat of the Bishop of Ely, was indeed occupied by Sir Christopher Hatton, and was famous for its gardens, which produced a fine crop of strawberries. Shakespeare makes reference to this in Richard III, when Richard says, “My lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn,I saw good strawberries in your garden there.”
When guests are arriving at (and fleeing from) the Hattons’ housewarming party, the streets along which they travel are listed: the Strand, Chancery Lane, Shoe Lane, Cheapside, St Mary-le-Bow, Fewtar’s (corrupted to Fetter) Lane, Bishopsgate Street, Dowgate Hill, Budge Row, Snore Hille (which we have since whitewashed to Snow), Holborn Hill, Fleet Ditch, Harp Alley, and Gray’s Inn.
Let’s look at them all in order, starting with the Strand. This name is of Saxon origin, meaning ‘water’s edge” and is mentioned by name in the Saxon Chronicle; apparently it is recorded that this is where Earl Godwin and his son Harold drew up their land forces in the insurrection that they headed against Edward the Confessor in 1052.
Chancery Lane takes its name either from the fact that a building in the lane was used to store the Rolls of Chancery, the Chancellors’ official documents. The present name came into use during the reign of Elizabeth I and could also have been an abbreviation of Chancellors Lane. Another theory is that the name comes from ‘cancelli’ – lattice screen – which once divided the court of Chancery from the court of Common Pleas when they shared the Law Courts in Westminster.
There is an early reference to Shoe Lane as ‘Scholanda’ (Show-land) is taken to mean that the lane was once a place for the setting out and showing of water-borne merchandise to tax collectors and customers. Scholanda could also, however, have meant ‘land shaped like a shoe’; the lane itself is not shoe-shaped but it may have led to a piece of land that was. Alternatively, it could have taken its name from an ancient well – Showelle – at the north end of the lane.
Cheapside comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter. West Cheap, as it was known, to distinguish it from Eastcheap, was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as Bread, Milk, Honey, and Fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.
St Mary-le-Bow is the church in Bow Lane, destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Christopher Wren. Traditionally someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of the church’s bells. The name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches, which are shaped like bows, upon which it was built.
Fetter Lane we looked at not long ago, but at the risk of boring with repetition, here are some of the possible derivations of the name. The lane was once a spot where people in various stages of inebriation would congregate, passing on cheery greetings and advice to passersby. As Stow puts it, the lane was “so called of Fewters (or idle people) lying there, as in a way leading to gardens, but the same is now of latter years on both sides built through with many fair houses”.
There is also the theory that the name could have come from the ‘faitours’ – fortune tellers who were prevalent in medieval and Elizabeth times. The name may have come from the lance vests worn on cuirasses (also known as fetters) because of the armorers whose workshops were located there. One final theory is that the name derived from ‘felter’ – makers of felt also carried on their business in the lane.
Bishopsgate was one of the seven main London gates and the street is one of the longest in the City of London. The gate itself was named for Bishop Erkenwald, who became Bishop of London in 675.
Dowgate Hill (or Downgate) may have derived from the fact that the River Walbrook, once a main water supply for the City of London, flowed down the hill and through a gate into the Thames. The lovely Mr Habben, however, eschews this theory and states that, “it is an inscrutable corruption of, or deviation from, the original name, which it would now be difficult and inconclusive to conjecture, though Dock-Gate is tempting.” Sir Francis Drake lived in Dowgate Hill.
Budge Row, which no longer exists, was the centre of dealers of ‘budges’, or fine lambskin fur, used for the edging of scholastic gowns. Apparently the word ‘budget’ comes from a bag made from lambskin, which may have been used to hold revenue, and transferred its meaning to the contents.
Snow Hill we covered in a recent seasonal post, which you can read here but, as the legend says, it was once called Snore Hylle and could have come from a Scandinavian trader called Snorro, or from the Celtic word ‘suadh’, a brook.
Holborn Hill comes from ‘Hol-Burne, the part of the old River Fleet that flowed under what is now Holborn Viaduct – the ‘burne’, or river, in the hollow. Fleet Ditch, similarly, took its name from the River Fleet; fleet comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet.
Harp Alley takes its name from a 17th-century inn that once stood here. It is now a court off Farringdon Street.
Finally, Gray’s Inn, which takes its name from the town house of Lord Gray of Wilton, which was leased to lawyers in the 16th century. Inn once meant a large house and was used for the grand residences of the nobility.
I don’t know why this theme hasn’t occurred to me before, but let me set my stall out immediately and say I was delighted with the Welsh victory on Saturday. For those of my readers overseas who may not get the reference, Wales beat England in the six nations rugby tournament. Emotions run high when those two teams play each other. The other four nations are Scotland, Ireland, France, and Italy.
I wasn’t born in this country, there is Welsh ancestry on my maternal grandmother’s side, and I live close enough to the border that my nearest town is Wales rather than England, so I feel justified in supporting Wales. Not so much my husband, who is English, though he prefers to see a good game than pin his hopes on either team winning. Given the aforementioned proximity to the Wales-England border, there was great support for both sides in our local pub; in fact, I would say red shirts outnumbered white ones.
But I digress. Given the Welsh victory, let’s start with Petty Wales near Tower Hill. The name probably comes the fact that it was the settlement of a Welsh centre (from ‘petit’, French for ‘little’). There is also Petty France, not far from St James’s Park, named similarly for the settlement of French people in the area, but more fun is French Ordinary Court, an intriguing name with a simple explanation.
This small street was given its name because in the 17th century the Huguenots were allowed by the French Ambassador, who had his residence in Crutched Friars, to sell coffee and pastries. They also served fixed price meals; in those days such a meal was called an ‘ordinary’. French Ordinary Court is in good company for interesting names, being not far from Crutched Friars, Seething Lane, and Savage Gardens, among others. But they are all for another time.
And on to Great Scotland Yard, near Whitehall. The term ‘Scotland Yard’ conjures up images of policemen and detective novels and, indeed, London’s Metropolitan police force has long been known as Scotland Yard or just ‘the Yard’. However, the modern building called New Scotland Yard, which serves as headquarters for the police force, is nowhere near Great Scotland Yard.
This name comes from the fact that the Palace of Westminster, which no longer stands, once served as the main residence for the English monarchs – that is, until Henry VIII decided that Whitehall Palace (also gone) would suit him better. A parcel of land belonging to the palace, including a house given by King Edgar to Kenneth III of Scotland in the 10th century, was reserved for royal Scottish visitors and their retinues. Some of the names for spaces between the houses, which had begun to proliferate on this parcel of land known as Scotland were, unimaginatively, things like Great, Middle and Little Scotland Yard.
England’s Lane in Hampstead in named for one James England, who leased land there from Eton College. Or it could be a corruption of ‘ing-land’ from the Old English ‘ing’, a strip of meadowland.
There is an Ireland Yard, named for William Ireland, who owed a house there which he sold to William Shakespeare in 1612 (or 1613, depending on who you believe). The house was conveniently close to Playhouse Yard, named for the theatre opened in 1596 by James Burbage. Shakespeare owned a share in the theatre and wanted to be close by for the performances of his plays. By coincidence, there was another William Ireland (known as Samuel Ireland), born in 1775, who was famous – or infamous – as a forger of Shakespearean documents and plays.
I started with Wales, which I support because of my ancestry, so I will finish with Italy. (I feel obliged to support them in sporting matches because my mother’s parents were Italian.) This is a bit embarrassing, though, as I can’t find any Italy or Italian street names in London, so I shall go off on a complete tangent for this one.
Roman Bath Street, once located off Newgate Street between St Martin’s Le Grand and King Edward Street, was originally called Pentecost Lane. In 1679 a Turkish merchant built London’s first Turkish bath here, and the street’s name was changed to Bagnio (Italian for bath) Court. The bath was famous and, as historian John Strype describes it, “Near unto Butcher Hall Lane is the Bagnio, a neat contrived Building after the Turkish mode for that purpose; seated in a large handsome Yard, and at the upper end of Pincock Lane. Much resorted unto for Sweating, being found very good for aches, etc., and approved of by our Physicians.”
Bagnio Court later became Bagnio Street and then Bath Street. In 1885 for some reason it was named Roman Bath Street despite there being no Roman bath connections. In 1869 the houses on the east side were removed for new Post Office buildings and the court has since been engulfed by the BT Centre.
Further to yesterday’s post, I think that Legge Street, which I didn’t have on my original body parts list (Pete to the rescue again) must have taken its name from Thomas Legge, who in 1354 became the first Lord Mayor of London. This was his second term, the first having been when the title was still Mayor of London. (The City of London, that is, not Greater London.) In 1354 King Edward III granted the title of Lord Mayer to Legge, who was a member of the Skinners’ Company. As well as being the first Lord Mayor of London, he was the first Skinner to hold that post.
Speaking of skin, that brings us nicely back to body parts, so let’s have a look at the Skinner’s Company.
In the order of the twelve great livery companies, The Worshipful Company of Skinners, which obtained their first charter from King Edward III in 1327, alternates the position of six and seven with the Merchant Taylors. That gave rise to the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’.
Skin Market Place in Southwark was named for the skin trade. The market itself appears on maps in the late 1700s but is gone by the turn of the century, though the name continued.
There is also Skinners Lane, near Garlick Hill, once known as Maiden Lane and renamed because it was a central location for the fur trade.
Skinner Street is Clerkenwell was part of eight acres of land that were bequeathed to the Worshipful Company of Skinners in 1630 by John Meredith. It was not, however, until two hundred years later that the street was built by James Whiskin, who gave it the name. Whiskin, a plumber by trade, became a prominent figure in local affairs and a substantial businessman. He was a vestryman from 1815, a JP from 1835, and became Deputy Lieutenant for Tower Hamlets in 1846.
No-one has commented on the fact that I omitted Bleeding Heart Yard from my list of body parts; I didn’t forget it (and I should have mentioned it) but it always seems to deserve a post all of its own. That was not only the street that started my quest for information on street names, but it has also piqued the curiosity of many others.
The name is probably from a sign, but (in short) a better story is that a beautiful woman sold her soul to the devil; when the time came for him to collect he carried her off from a party and the her bleeding heart was later discovered by horrified partygoers.
All of which reminds me that someone once suggested myth and legend in London street names and I don’t think I ever followed up on that, so watch this space.
Pearl Street is another gemstone London street name that I overlooked in my list yesterday; blogmate Pete (he of beetleypete.com and the generous sponsorship) pointed that out to me. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any stories behind the name, but perhaps, like Ruby, it was a person’s name. By coincidence, yesterday was my brother’s pearl wedding anniversary, which is an interesting fact but gets me no closer to finding out why Pearl Street is so called – and is nothing to do with today’s theme of body parts.
Why body parts? Why not? I made a vague connection between feet and my training for the Wye Valley Mighty Hike (yes, you’ll be reading a lot about that in the next few months). That, of course, led to me wondering if there were feet in London street names.
It turns out there are, and there are (or were) some other body parts, from Hand and Head to Elbow and Knee.
So, starting with feet, there is Footscray Road, which is an area as well as a street. Foots Cray in Bexley, named in the Domesday Book, takes its name from the river Cray and a local landowner called Godwine Fot. Fot, or foot, was likely to have been a nickname for someone with particularly large or oddly shaped feet.
No longer in existence, there was once a Fyefoot Lane. There was a time when lanes and streets had to fulfil certain minimum width requirements, and a lane had only to be wide enough for two men to roll a barrel along it – hence Five Foot, or Fyefoot, Lane.
Another lost name, though the street is still there, is Elbow Lane, now called, less interestingly, College Street. In the 16th century it was a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south. This bend gave rise to the name of Elbow Lane; the lane later became Great and Little Elbow Lanes and then, in 1839, was renamed College Street to commemorate the college established by Sir Richard Whittington.
For heads, there is Pope’s Head Alley off Cornhill, which 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. In the 15th century Cornhill had the dubious distinction of being a fence’s paradise, and a drinker’s haven: there were many taverns where wine could be bought by the pint for a penny and bread came free with it. Such a tavern was the Pope’s Head.
One of the earliest mentions of the tavern occurs in the fourth year of Edward IV’s reign (1465). There was a wager between two goldsmiths, one English and from from Alicant, to the effect that “Englishmen were not so cunning in workmanship of goldsmithy as Alicant Strangers”. There was a test of the workmanship of the two men involved and the wager was declared in favour of the Englishman.
From head to hand. There was once a Hand Alley, near to Houndsditch, which stood on the site of one of the many communal pits for victims of the Great Plague in 1665; it is mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.
There still is a Hand Court near High Holborn; the court probably took its name from a sign. Signs with a hand and heart, or hand in hand, were common in the Fleet Street of the 18th century, as it was an area with many marriage brokers. The Hand in Hand sign was then adopted by many taverns and it is possible that the court took its name from one such tavern.
In the days when the majority of people could not read, it was important for shopkeepers to have unequivocal signs. The hand, therefore, was often used in conjunction with other items: a hand with a coffee pot was the sign of a coffee house; and hand in a glove meant a glover; and a hand and shears was the sign for a tailor.
There were also occasions where the use of a hand on a sign had a special significance. According to the 19th century writer John Camden Hotten: “where the sign is painted with a woman’s hand in it, ‘tis a bawdy house”.
There is a Knee Hill but the origin of the name is, as yet, a mystery to me. However, there is a stone plaque that commemorates the fact that William Morris passed the spot regularly to and from Abbey Wood Station.
A list of renamed London street names shows that there was once a Great Tongue Yard E1, renamed Tongue Alley, and a Little Tongue Yard, renamed Tongue Court, but I have yet to find any information on either old or new versions of these names or what happened to the streets themselves.
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