From Billingsgate to Pall Mall: women in London street names on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and, as promised, here are some more – and even more tenuous women’s links to London street names, starting with possibly the most tenuous: Janis Joplin and Kensington Gore.

Kensington Gore is the address of the Royal Albert Hall, where Janis Joplin once performed in concert. Texan-born Janis began singing blues and folk music at high school and later became one of the most successful and widely known female rock stars of her era. Her posthumously-released album Pearl (became the biggest-selling album of her career and featured her biggest hit single, a cover of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, originally sung by Kris Kristofferson. She died of a accidental heroin overdose at the age of 27, within days of Jimi Hendrix’s death at the same age. This led many people to attribute significance to the death of musicians at the age of 27.

(When I was a teenager I was often told I looked like Janis Joplin; I think it was the long hair, centre part, and glasses of that time. Those three features meant that occasionally I was also told I looked like John Lennon, which was less preferable to a self-conscious teenaged girl.)

But I digress.

Back to Kensingon Gore: the ‘gore’ part of the name is innocent of anything gruesome: it comes from the Old English word ‘gara’, which was a triangular piece of land left after irregularly shaped fields and been ploughed. This could be the triangle formed by Knightsbridge, Queen’s Gate and the Brompton Road. Aretired British pharmacist, John Tinegate, used to make fake blood for the stage and screen and it was trademarked Kensington Gore.

We move on to Allgood Street and Henrietta Wentworth. Henrietta was the 6th Baroness Wentworth and, though due to marry Richard Tufton, 5th Earl of Thanet, took up with the already-married Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth, the natural but illegitimate son of Charles II, sought to overthrow his uncle, King James II of England and James VI of Scotland, younger brother and heir of Charles II.

Monmouth’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful and he was executed at Tower Hill. Henrietta had used her jewels and wealth to help fund Monmouth and she died the year after Monmouth’s execution, supposedly from a broken heart. Her mother had an elaborate monument built to Henrietta’s memory in the church at Toddington, the Wentworth’s estate in Bedfordshire. However, a more personal and touching memorial existed in the form of her name, carved by Monmouth, on an oak tree in the Toddington estate. The tree became known locally as the Monmouth.

Allgood Street in East London was previously called Henrietta Street but was later renamed after a local antiquarian, HGC Allgood, who published a history of Bethnal Green in 1894. 

Birdcage Walk, which runs along St James’s Park, also involves a broken-hearted woman; in this case she adhered to the principle of ‘don’t get mad, get even’. The walk really once did involve birds, cages, and walking: it is the site of an aviary started by James I and enlarged by his grandson, Charles II (though some sources give Charles the credit for establishing it). Charles is also credited with creating the post of Hereditary Grand Falconer to look after his birds and until 1828 only members of the royal family and the Hereditary Grand Falconer were allowed to ride alongside the aviary in carriages – everyone else had to walk.

In 1848 Annette Meyers, an unemployed housemaid from Belgium, killed her lover, Henry Ducker of the Coldstream Guards, in Birdcage Walk. Ducker was an unpleasant character whose affection for his various girlfriends was in direct proportion to the amount of money with which they could provide him. He kept borrowing money from the out-of-work Annette on a never-fulfilled promise of marriage.

Desperately afraid she would lose Ducker to a rival who was lucratively employed in prostitution, Annette purchased a gun, shot Ducker, and surrendered to the authorities, denying nothing. Annette’s trial for wilful murder was of great interest to the public. Her love letters were read out in court, providing an indication of her infatuation and desperation, and there was some suggestion that Ducker may have infected her with a venereal disease. 

Annette was found guilty of wilful murder with a recommendation for mercy but she was sentenced to death and incarcerated in Newgate prison awaiting execution. Following petitions for her release, calls for mercy, and campaigns against capital punishment, her sentence was eventually commuted to imprisonment. After two years she was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania.

Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury was built in 1795 and named after Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, known as Caroline of Brunswick, who travelled that year to England to marry her first cousin, the future King George IV. Some sources say it was so named as a compliment to to the reigning royal house of Hanover, as Brunswick in Hanover was their second capital city. This is International Women’s Day, so I say it was named after her.

The union was not a happy one: of the wedding night consummation of their marriage, George wrote, “it required no small [effort] to conquer my aversion and overcome the disgust of her person”. She, on the other hand, said that he was so drunk that he “passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him”.

George was later to attempt to divorce Caroline and strip her of her title of Queen consort on the grounds of adultery; she was popular with the masses, however, and that effort failed. However, he did succeed in barring her from his coronation service at Westminster Abbey.

Number 79 Pall Mall bears a plaque on the site of the house occupied by Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne in the last 16 years of her life. Nell was (allegedly – Oxford and Hereford also lay claim to be her birthplace) born in one of Covent Garden’s sleazier streets, in a brothel run by her mother. She was orphaned after her father died in prison and her mother drowned in a drunken stupor.  Nell was one of King Charles II’s mistresses and, purportedly, his favourite, particularly as she did not try to dabble in politics, unlike some of his other mistresses. She was firm on one issue however – she was insistent that her child by Charles who, though the son of a king, was illegitimate and so had no rights under law, be given a title.

To ensure this, she dangled the child from a window and threatened to drop him until Charles finally gave in and said, “Nay, Nellie, pray spare the Earl of Burford.”

Pall Mall takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

Noel Street in Soho takes it name from Lady Elizabeth Noel who was married to Henry Bentinck, 1st Duke of Portland. Elizabeth’s father-in-law was Hans William Bentinck, Ist Earl of Portland and a friend of William III. The king gave a great deal of land in Soho to Bentinck and in the 1730s it was Lady Elizabeth who was responsible for developing much of the property. The nearby Marylebone area abounds with street names from the Bentinck family.

Just for the fun of it, let’s throw in Billingsgate, which is a market rather than a street. It was one of the water-gates of London that existed along with the seven main gates that were posterns in the London Wall fortification. Billingsgate is perhaps most closely associated with the fish market, and the cries of the vendors gave their name to an expression of vulgar language, as in swearing like a fishwife, particularly a Billingsgate fishwife. Billingsgate has its own special place in London’s history, as it was where the fire of London started.

Leading up to International Women’s Day with connections to London street names

March 8 is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would lead up to it with an edited rerun of my post from two years ago on that very topic. You can read the post here in full, but I am also providing below synopsis. (Warning: some of the links to London streets are tenuous even by my standards.)

We start with Phillis Wheatley, a former slave who became the first published African-American female poet. The Boston-based US publishers of the 18th century did not want to be associated with a book written by a slave so her work Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published by a company based in Aldgate.

Aldgate was one of the original gates of London and is the most easterly; it is first recorded in 1052 as Æst geat, or east gate, bu in 1108 is recorded as Alegate by 1108. All of which makes the most sense for the derivation of the name, but some of the other theories are that it is Old Gate (Aeld Gate), Ale Gate, from a tavern, or All Gate, meaning the gate was free to all.

Margaret Cavendish, born in 1623, was a poet, philosopher, essayist, and playwright who had her works published under her own name, unusual for women of the time. One of her brothers was an original member of the Royal Society and, after much argument and dissatisfaction, Margaret was eventually granted permission to attend a session of the Society, and she became the first woman to do. (The Royal Society was founded in 1660, but women were not permitted by statute to become fellows until 1945.)

The Society was once based in Crane Court, which takes its name from a 14th-century brewhouse called the Crane and Three Hoops. There is another theory that it was once called Two Crane Yard from a family coat of arms with two cranes. 

Frances (Fanny) Burney, later Madame D’Arblay, was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – writer and a woman of huge courage. She was a breast cancer survivor and wrote the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic. I recently wrote about her and her connection with Jane Austen, and you can read that post here.

There is a D’Arblay Street, named after her (but no Burney Street) and Fanny lived for a time in Half Moon Street, which was built in 1730 and takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner.

Another famous resident of Half Moon Street was Lola Montez, who was arrested for bigamy in a house in the street. Born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland, she later claimed to be Spanish, adopted the name Lola Montez, and became a dancer and adventuress who was as famous for her lovers as for her dancing. She was the inspiration for the song ‘Whatever Lola Wants’.

Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, was born around 1584 and lived and died in Fleet Street. She was described by the Newgate Calendar as “A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663”. She is considered to have been, at least in part, inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s book Moll Flanders. It is believed that John Milton wrote her epitaph, though her headstone was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

Fleet Street takes its name from the River Fleet, which was not necessarily fast, but took its name from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet. Although it still flows, the Fleet is now underground and is used as a sewer.

Phoebe Hessel, who gives her name both to Amazon Street and Hessel Street, is another woman who was famous for dressing as a man; in her case she disguised her gender to enlist as a man in the 5th Regiment of Foot, supposedly to be with her lover, Samuel Golding. She eventually moved to Brighton where she died in 1821, at the alleged age of 108 and was buried in the parish churchyard with honours.

Lady Elizabeth Hatton provides one of the many, theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard: she was the basis of the legend about a beautiful gypsy who made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. A more recent post on the Ingoldsby Legend of Bleeding Heart Yard story can be found here.

Another real woman to provide a theory behind a London street name (in this case, La Belle Sauvage Yard, which no longer exists) is Pocahontas, a Native American who was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and chose to remain with the English. She married tobacco planter John Rolfe with whom she had a son, was feted by London Society, and died at the age of 21 in Gravesend on the family’s way to Virginia.

Tomorrow I hope to publish a post about more women worthy of note, and streets with which they are, however tenuously, associated.