Hand Court, shop signs and plague pits

Yesterday’s post involved Tokenhouse Yard, mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year; another street mentioned in that account was Hand Alley, near to Houndsditch. The alley, like Bunhill Row and Golden Square, stood on the site of one of the many communal pits for victims of the Great Plague in 1665.

In Defoe’s book he says: “The upper end of Hand Alley, in Bishopsgate Street, which was then a green field, and was taken in particularly for Bishopsgate parish, though many of the carts out of the city brought their dead thither also, particularly out of the parish of St All-hallows on the Wall.”

There is still a Hand Court in London, near Chancery Lane. As with many streets, the name could have come from a sign. In the days when the majority of people could not read, it was important for shopkeepers to have unequivocal signs (unlike taverns, where memorable and unusual signs were popular).

The hand 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”.

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.

There are not many body parts in London street names, but there are a couple, so more of that in a later post.

Tokenhouse Yard, the Royal Society, and the Great Plague

Tokenhouse Yard copyYesterday’s post made reference to Tokenhouse Yard and, as promised, here is some more on that City of London street. The derivation of the name is fairly straightforward: there once stood in the yard a house where tokens were issued.

Simple. But, yes, there is more to the story.

The tokens were issued by tradesmen in London and other cities to provide a means of offering currency in smaller amounts. For centuries there was no copper coinage in England: Elizabeth I was, apparently, particularly biased against copper coins. Although copper coins were issued at various times, it was not until 1672, in the reign of Charles II, that copper coins (halfpence and farthings) were declared legal tender and tokens were no longer permitted.

According to Charles II’s proclamation at the time copper coins were finally made legal, anyone who sought to counterfeit any of the new halfpence or farthings were to be considered “utterly inexcusable”. Their contempt of his law and government should cause them to be “chastised with exemplary severity”.

The yard was built by Sir William Petty, an English economist, scientist and philosopher who served under Oliver Cromwell and was able to survive through the reigns of Charles II and James II. He was a charter member of the Royal Society.

Defoe_Journal_of_the_Plague_YearTokenhouse Yard features in Daniel Defoe’s fictionalised account of the Great Plague of London, A Journal of the Plague Year. He writes: “Passing through Tokenhouse Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, ‘Oh! death, death, death!’ in a most inimitable tone, which struck me with horror, and a chilliness in my very blood.”

Although Defoe was only three when the plague broke out, but it is assumed that he based much of the work on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe. Defoe strove so hard to provide a believable account of the plague that his novel is argued to be more non-fiction than fiction and to be more detailed than Samuel Pepys’s contemporary, first-person account.

A quote not to be remembered for making…

The Great Fire; detail from a painting by an unknown artist

“A woman might piss it out…” is how Sir Thomas Bloodworth, the Lord Mayor of London in 1666, dismissed what would become known as the Great Fire of London, which destroyed three-quarters of the city.

On the 5th of September 1666 the fire that had begun in the early hours of the 2nd of September and raged through London finally halted at the intersection of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street.

EAS_3909Cock Lane probably takes its name from having been a breeding ground for cocks, cockfighting being very popular; quite a few of London’s streets have names that refer to the ‘sport’, such as Cockspur Street. Giltspur Street, on the other hand, refers to oneupmanship in the world of knights.

The Golden Boy of Pye Corner

But back to the Great Fire and where it halted; the spot is marked by the statue of a fat little boy (the Golden Boy of Pye Corner), which originally stood at the front of a tavern that was destroyed in the fire.

Religious fanatics pointed to the fact that the fire began in Pudding Lane and ended in Pie Corner (near Cock Lane) and said it was a symbolic punishment for the greedy people of London. It was deemed appropriate, therefore, to have a greedy-looking little fellow looking out over a substantially changed London.

Another little fellow who looks out over a very different London from the one he originally knew is the one in Panyer Alley.

Panyer Alley signPanyer Alley was named for a 15th century tavern called the Pannier, or bread basket, a relatively common trade sign. Other names for the tavern, also destroyed in the Great Fire, are given as the Panyer on the Hoop and the Panyer Boy.

Panyer Alley Boy
The Panyer Alley Boy

In the 19th century, excavations uncovered the Panyer Boy in Panyer Alley Steps, near St Paul’s Cathedral. This stone relief of a naked boy sitting on a pannier is dated August the 27 1688 and states: “When yet have sought the City round yet this is still the highest ground.” (Purists point out that Cornhill is actually higher.)

One theory is that the boy is a baker’s boy, with his panyer for deliveries, holding out a loaf of bread, but by far more appropriate for a tavern is that of the 19th century writer, F H Habben, who compiled a dictionary of London street names. He argues: “The lad is probably a kind of abstract juvenile Bacchus, holding a bunch of grapes, signifying the vinous liquor to be found within.”

Whatever he is, the poor boy is hard to find and now holds his panyer out to a busy London intersection; he was presented to the Corporation of London by the Worshipful Company of Vintners and re-erected upon his present site in 1964.

Panyer Boy view
The Panyer Alley Boy’s current view

Conspiracies, Romans, and a thirsty playwright

Cato Street plaque
Photo: Simon Harriyott

Yesterday, 23 February, marked the anniversary of the exposure in 1820 of the Cato Street Conspiracy, a plan to assassinate all the British cabinet Ministers and the Prime Minister. There is a plaque at 1a Cato Street to mark the spot where the conspirators were arrested.

The street was named for the Roman statesman, and there is also a Homer Street nearby. Following the scandal of the conspiracy, Cato Street was changed to Horace Street, in keeping with the Roman theme, but the original name was restored in 1937.

Drury Lane 1808
Interior of the Drury Lane theatre in 1808

On 24 February 1809, the Drury Lane theatre, owned by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, burned to the ground. Walter Thornbury, in Old and New London, writes:

“Sheridan, at the time of the conflagration, was at the House of Commons, which voted an immediate adjournment when the disastrous news arrived; though Sheridan himself protested against such an interruption of public business on account of his own or any other private interests. He went thither, however, in all haste, and whilst seeing his own property in flames, sat down with his friend Barry in a coffee-house opposite to a bottle of port, coolly remarking, in answer to some friendly expostulation, that it was ‘hard if a man could not drink a glass of wine by his own fire!’”

Sheridan as sherry
Caricature of Sheridan as a bottle of sherry being uncorked by William Pitt

The road now called Drury Lane was recorded in 1199 and was called both Aldwychestrate and Fortescu Lane before taking its current name from a 16th century Knight of the Garter, Sir William Drury. who built a house there. The house is where Queen Elizabeth’s one-time favourite, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, made the mistake of plotting against her – a mistake that led to his execution.

Back to Sheridan, whose supping of wine as his theatre burned is an indication of his fondness for alcohol: he was a regular patron of the Adam and Eve pub, which gave its name to a mews in Kensington. He would run up extensive bar bills, which his friend Lord Holland often to paid off. The Holland Estate has been the source of many London street names, more of which another time.

Medical women, apothecaries, and Pudding Lane

Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell

This day in London’s history: on 3 February 1821 Elizabeth Blackwell was born; she was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US, and she was the first woman on the UK Medical Register.

In 1874, Blackwell was involved with the London School of Medicine for Women, which opened in 1874. The primary goal was to prepare women for the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall. The Apothecaries Act of 1815 had granted the society the power to license and regulate medical practitioners throughout England and Wales.

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London was founded in 1617 by James I to prevent unqualified people from making medicine. His Royal Apothecary established the first Apothecaries Hall in Pudding Lane in 1633. (It was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt in Blackfriars Lane in 1786.)

Put aside any notion of cakes or desserts that the name Pudding Lane may bring to mind; the truth is far from appetising. The lane, once part of the meat centre of London, earlier had the name of Red Rose Lane, but it was on the route where the ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river. Historian and Londoner John Stow explains it most eloquently:

Pudding Lane“Red Rose lane, of such a sign there, now commonly called Pudding Lane, because the butchers of Eastcheap have their scalding house for hogs there, and their puddings, with other filth of beasts, are voided down that way to their dung boats on the Thames.”

Pudding Lane is most famous for being where the Great Fire of 1666 first broke out, causing the destruction of 13,000 houses and 14 streets – though, amazingly, only 11 deaths.

Technically, there is a tenuous dessert connection with the name: the fire started in the house of a man called Faynor (or Farryner), the king’s baker. The lane was narrow, with pitch-covered wooden houses and led to the riverside warehouses full of oil and combustible materials such as hay, coal, and timber.

Pudding Lane originalIn 2013, six students studying Game Art Design at DeMontfort University in Leicester took part in a new competition called ‘Off the Map’. They established Pudding Lane Productions, took part in the competition, and won with their 3D reproduction of 17th-century London including a view of Pudding Lane as depicted above.

Sieges, hounds, and regicide

This day in London history: on 3 January 1911, the Stepney area of London saw the siege of Sidney Street. The siege followed on from the previous December’s Houndsditch murders, in which two policemen were killed by a gang of burglars. The three-week period of strife led to the deaths of another policeman, a fireman, and two members of the politically-motivated gang.

Sidney Street
The Sidney Street siege with Churchill (highlighted)

Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary at the time, narrowly missed being shot, with a bullet passing through his top hat and missing him by inches. The siege was the inspiration for the final shootout in Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and in 1960 was dramatized in a movie called, appropriately, The Siege of Sidney Street.

HoundsditchBut back to Houndsditch: the name would, it seems, be just what it sounds like: it runs along the site of a moat that bounded the City wall and, according to John Stow, it was where “much filth…especially dead dogs” was thrown. With street cleanliness being what it was centuries ago, it is likely that most ditches were so used. This one certainly was something of an unofficial municipal dump and in Stow’s time became almost completely choked up, causing a health hazard, pretty extreme back then.

Another theory about the name is that hounds (from Old English ‘hund’) were specifically hunting dogs, whereas dogs were just, well, dogs. The City Kennels, where hunting dogs were kept, were located here.

Edmund and Canute
Medieval impression of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut

Something else said to have been thrown into this ditch, in the 11th century, was the body of Edric, who was supposed  to have murdered Edmund Ironside. Edmund, son of Ethelred the Unready, was King of England for a brief period in 1016. His death left King Canute (Cnut), formerly joint monarch with Edmund, king of all England. When Edric then came to Canute, demanding as a reward for his deed the highest situation of London, Canute replied: “I like the treason but I detest the traitor.”

Under Canute’s orders, Edric was then dragged from the Castle Baynard by his heels and tormented to death flaming torches. He was beheaded, his scorched body was thrown into Houndsditch, and his head was placed, as requested, on the highest pinnacle of the castle.

Houndsditch is now also notable for being one of the boundaries of Heron Tower, the tallest building in the City of London.

Heron Tower

Barebones Parliament, lawyers, idlers, and fetters

This day in London history: on 12 December 1653, the unrest in Britain that followed the execution of Charles I for treason continued. This unrest was particularly evident in the English Parliament as the replacement to the Rump Parliament – the Barebones Parliament – came to an end.

The Houses of Parliament. Photo from the UK Parliament.

The Rump Parliament had not served the purpose that Oliver Cromwell had intended; the members were distrustful of the army and their main concern was to create legislation that would ensure the survival of the Parliament.

Cromwell lost patience after learning that Parliament was attempting to stay in session despite an agreement to dissolve. He attended a sitting of Parliament and lambasted the Rump Members. “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” he declared.

Barebone’s Parliament was then established: 144 Members of Parliament who not elected, but selected by Cromwell’s officers for their religious fervour. This group still didn’t satisfy Cromwell, and on 12 December 1653, while the more pious of the Members were at a prayer meeting, a group of army supporters, led by the general John Lambert, gathered together to vote to dissolve Barebone’s Parliament. A few days later, Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector of the realm.

Engraving of Praisegod Barebone

Barebone’s Parliament takes its name from a man who rejoiced in the name of Praisegod Barebone, the Parliamentary nominee for the City of London. He was a fierce anti-royalist, supporter of Cromwell, anabaptist, leather seller, politician, Freeman of the Leathersellers’ Company in 1623, and was minister for a baptist congregation.

Barebone’s fierce anti-royalist stance meant that pamphlets of strong opinion and language usually flew around from and in answer to him. He certainly incurred the disapproval of the local lads: Pepys, in his diary, makes more than one mention of the fact that “the boys had last night broke Barebone’s window”.

Barebone had two, possibly apocryphal, brothers, called Christ-came-into-the-world-to-save Barebone and If-Christ-had-not-died-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone (abbreviated to just Damned Barebone). Presumably if these brothers did exist, they were older than Praisegod, whose parents must by then have been exhausted by the naming of children.

EAS_3968In addition to all his interests and achievements, Barebone was also once a resident of Fetter Lane, the derivation of which name is up for grabs. Take your pick from just some of the options, which include faitor, fewter, felter, faitour, and even fetter are some of the options.

The Old French word ‘faitor’ meant a lawyer, and by the 14th century the reputation of that august profession had fallen so far into disrepute that the word was synonymous with idlers. Alternatively, it appears that the lane became a spot where people in various stages of inebriation would congregate, passing on cheery greetings and advice to passersby.

As the historian John 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”.

Or the name could have derived from ‘felter’ – makers of felt also carried on their business in the lane.

There is also the theory that the name could have come from the ‘faitours’ – fortune tellers who were prevalent in medieval and Elizabeth times.

As well as the idlers, the area did have workers in the form of the armorers whose workshops were located there. and the name may have come from the lance vests worn on cuirasses (also known as fetters).

In 1988 a statue of John Wilkes, a journalist and member of the notorious Hellfire Club, was erected at the location where Fetter Lane joins New Fetter Lane. In 2011 the Rolls Building, a new court of the High Court of Justice principally for commercial and property cases, was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II.