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.

Green Dragon Court: myths, Lewis Carroll, and hangmen’s perks in London’s street names

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.

From Mermaid Court to Unicorn Passage: more myth and legend in London street names

I thought we could return to the myths and legends themes for this post; I do seem to have jumped the gun with the previous post of Elizabethan symbols of pelicans, phoenixes and mermaids.

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.

Families, eh?